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CNN Live At Daybreak

Mr. Rogers Neighborhood To Air Last Show

Aired August 31, 2001 - 07:42   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, it's hard to believe but Fred Rogers is leaving the neighborhood. Actually, "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" is not going off the air. Today marks the last new episode of the popular children's programming that has been around for 30 some odd years.

CNN's Jeff Greenfield looks at why the same show you watched as a kid your kids watch now.


JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers to you and me, has been walking through the same door for more than 30 years.

FRED ROGERS: It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighborhood, would you be mine? Could you be mine?

GREENFIELD: Walking into his living room and ours, inviting our children to his neighborhood and to his land of make believe.

ROGERS: Could you be mine?

The whole idea is to look at the television cameras and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who might feel that he or she needs it.

GREENFIELD: There's a comforting sameness to Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood.

ROGERS: Do you ever change your shoes when you come home from someplace?

GREENFIELD: The shoes, the sweaters, we'll tell you about those sweaters.

ROGERS: It's you I like.

GREENFIELD: The voice.

ROGERS: It's not the things you wear.

GREENFIELD: The characters, all at a slow, easy to absorb pace aimed at young children.

ROGERS: We're here to have a half hour together. Let's just relax and talk about things that might be important to you and are important to me.

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER: Stand by for rehearsal, please.


GREENFIELD: If it all seems a bit old-fashioned in this era of fast pace cartoons, quick edits and product tie-ins, that's because Mr. Rogers has some old-fashioned notions about television, and notions you don't hear much these days.

ROGERS: I believe that those of us who are the producers and purveyors of television, I believe that we are the servants of this nation.

GREENFIELD: Fred Rogers didn't plan on a career in television. He was a music major at Rollins College. He wanted to be a composer. But there was something about television, then in its earliest years, something that interested and annoyed him at the same time.

ROGERS: I got into television because I hated it so.

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER: "The Children's Corner."

GREENFIELD: He began by writing and producing a program called "The Children's Corner." Then after a short stint on Canadian television, "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" was born. That was back in 1968, making it PBS' longest running show.

ROGERS: What a fine boy he is.

GREENFIELD: Making him a star to the under six set and their parents. It was a golden opportunity to cash in, an opportunity he never took.

ROGERS: I never had much of a desire for a fancy lifestyle and I never needed a lot of fancy things.

Because I like you as you are.

GREENFIELD: Little has changed in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood over the years, except maybe the color of his hair. There is still a live band.

ROGERS: And he laughed when he left.

GREENFIELD: Fred Rogers still watches every frame of the show. And some of the characters, like Mr. McFeely, are originals. So are some of the sweaters, which were all Christmas gifts knitted by his late mother.

ROGERS: My mother made a sweater a month for as many years as I knew her. And every Christmas she would give this extended family of ours a sweater. And she would always say after we opened the box and put on the sweater, she would say, "What kind do you all want next year?" She'd say, "I know what kind you want, Freddie. You want the one with the zipper up the front."

GREENFIELD: But if life inside the neighborhood is something of a time capsule, life outside the neighborhood has changed dramatically. But for Fred Rogers it always comes back to children, to what they need.

ROGERS: We all long to be lovable and capable of loving and whatever we can do through the neighborhood or anything else to reflect that and to encourage people to be in touch with that, then I think that's our ministry.


LIN: Oh. And a special guest now. Joining us from Pittsburgh, where the show was taped, is David Newell, the actor who plays Mr. McFeely. Good morning.

DAVID NEWELL, "MR. MCFEELY": Good morning and speedy delivery.

LIN: Well, speedy delivery to you, too. You know, this is a complete conflict of interest for me to do this interview because you guys were my babysitters when I was growing up.

NEWELL: Well, I'm glad to hear that. And we'll be around, though, for years to come, so don't worry.

LIN: Exactly. We're going to be talking a little bit about that. But I want to take you back in time, back to 1967 when the show first started.


LIN: And you are one of the originals. And not only were you to be one of the stars, but you were the prop guy, too?

NEWELL: I was the prop guy, too. I started in 1967 to do props, help Fred behind the set and he said then I want you to play the character of Mr. McFeely, the speedy delivery man. So I wore several hats and still do on the program.

LIN: And you wrote a lot of your own lines and you even came up with the name?

NEWELL: Yes. Well, yes and no. Fred's middle name is Fred McFeely Rogers and right before we started to tape, somebody decided they should change the name, for whatever reason, and Fred felt well, OK, let's use the name McFeely, because that's his middle name. And so together we compromised and I'm Mr. McFeely. But it's in honor of Fred's grandfather.

LIN: Oh. And you guys were really flying by the seat of your pants then and you didn't even think the show was going to last. NEWELL: No, I thought I had a job for one year. We did 130 programs in '67-'68 and I thought well, I'll move back to L.A., where I was living, and here I am 33 years later still delivering in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood.

LIN: Well, what is your favorite memory? I mean you have so many to pick from.

NEWELL: Oh, boy. It's hard. But, you know, my favorite comes right out right at this moment. It's Margaret Hamilton.

LIN: The Wicked Witch?

NEWELL: The Wicked With from the West, remember, in "The Wizard of Oz?"

LIN: Yes. Who could forget?

NEWELL: People were telling us how much it scared them as kids and even as adults. So we wrote a letter to her and asked her to be on the program to interpret what she does as a living. She's an actress. And she came on with a facsimile of the costume she used on the, in the movie, and explained that she's not mean and she doesn't mean to scare kids and here's my costume. It's like Halloween.

And it was wonderful and she was a wonderful woman. And she became a friend and every Sunday night for that, for many years she would call us and said call me Maggie. And she would check in and was a friend of the family. That was my most fondest memory.

LIN: You know, and the thing is, that's a great example of how you taught simple lessons in simple ways.


LIN: But over the years, your subject matter became a lot more complicated and you guys started taking on some pretty complex issues like divorce.

NEWELL: Yes. You know, years ago, 25 years ago Fred Rogers had said, you know, he didn't, he wouldn't know how to do that subject. But just recently, well, recently would be within the last eight years, I guess, we did a whole week on divorce for children, just so young children could understand it. It was the most requested subject we've ever had. People would write and say could you help our family and our children understand what's going on in our extended family.

So we were glad we took that on. But, you know, not everything is heavy like that. Fred has written about 13 operas over the years, musical stories. So we combined the -- we don't forget the fun. We do the fun and we do the serious, we do a potpourri of what children may expect as they're growing up.

LIN: Oh, well, we still have more episodes to come. I know you've got 900 some odd episodes.

NEWELL: That's right.

LIN: Many kids haven't even seen them. But very quick, the producers are rushing me to wrap, but...


LIN: You've got to give us the dirt. Mr. Rogers, is there anything wrong with this guy? Does he swear? Does he drink? Does he do anything?

NEWELL: No. Well, you know, but when he's made, he'll go over to the piano. He's a musician. You can tell Fred is mad when he goes over to the piano and he'll sit down and start banging on the piano. His angry feelings come out through his fingers and that's a positive way to do it.

LIN: David Newell, you're just too good to be true. Thank you so much for all the years of memories.

NEWELL: Thank you.

LIN: And we'll look forward to the episodes we haven't seen, David Newell.


LIN: Absolutely. We sure know that.