Saturday, September 1, 2001
After Lady Elaine awarded everybody first place in an arts contest in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and the Trolley rang its bell and rolled around the corner, Fred Rogers looked at the camera and said in that voice of unconditional love that could sound more sincere than one's own parents: "I like being your television neighbor. It's such a good feeling to know you're alive."
Then Mister Rogers hung up his cardigan and said goodbye to the Neighborhood for the last time Friday in one of the most striking final episodes of a beloved television series in recent years.
What was unusual was there was none of that "MASH"-"Cheers"-"Seinfeld" kind of stuff viewers have come to expect ï¿½ no summing up of main characters such as Mr. McFeely, Neighbor Aber, King Friday XIII, Lady Elaine Fairchilde and Cornflake S. Pecially. No network publicity campaign. No hugs and tears and farewells forever.
In fact, there was no acknowledgment at all that this was the last new installment in the pathbreaking children's show, the 33-year-old longest-running program on public television.
Everything was exactly as it always was, and always will be. "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" passed seamlessly into the ever-everland of reruns.
So it wasn't a sad day in the Neighborhood.
Rogers has tackled some tough subjects over the years ï¿½ divorce, death, the first day of school ï¿½ but he wasn't about to undermine the Neighborhood with petty distinctions between fresh and canned content. The gift of the Neighborhood to a child is stability, tranquility, ritual, and adventure only in controlled doses.
Officials at his nonprofit company, Pittsburgh-based Family Communications, which produces the show, also emphasized continuity through reruns and ongoing ventures, including Mister Rogers Web sites (www.misterrogers.org and a big presence at www.pbs.org), educational books and child development videos.
"It's been quite a run, and we're not over yet," David Newell, a company spokesman who has played Mr. McFeely the deliveryman since Day One, said in an interview Friday. "We'll have another 33 years."
Rogers was traveling and not available for comment, Newell said. On Aug. 22, USA Today quoted Rogers saying: "Have you ever been in a situation where you know it was just the right time to make a change? ... I feel sorry for people who feel that they have to continue in one certain field because they're expected to."
Not a milestone
At 73, Rogers is still vigorous, swimming a mile a day, Newell said. But lately he has created only about two or three weeks of new television programming each year anyway, filling the rest of his time slots from a library of about 300 shows made since 1979. Earlier shows are not deemed up to modern production standards, said Hedda Sharapan, associate producer.
So this is a milestone that's not a milestone. Kids probably won't even notice ï¿½ a new audience grows in and out of the show every couple of years.
But former kids used the occasion as an excuse to remember what a refuge and a horizon the Neighborhood was for them. And parents took the time to say thanks for all the lessons they have learned about raising children from this preternaturally benign ordained Presbyterian minister with a talent for puppetry and piano.
Only Mister Rogers would have thought of using the passing of a goldfish to help children explore feelings about death, or have a character dressed in evening clothes sing, "We're coming back, we're coming back," to explain that parents really will return after leaving a baby sitter in charge.
Learning about parenting
Peggy Charren, the founder of Action for Children's Television, was in the kitchen when she first encountered "Mister Rogers." Her younger daughter Claudia, then 4, was watching television in 1968, and Mom heard this man on the air singing about how everybody looks different and how that's OK. Friday, Charren remembered having thought: "For Pete's sake, they've got a singing psychiatrist on public television."
About a year later, Claudia turned on "Mister Rogers" and exclaimed to the screen: "Mister Rogers, Mister Rogers, I started school today."
"She was smart enough to know he's probably the only character on television who's interested in the fact she started school," said Charren, who, in addition to all she says she learned about parenting from Rogers, also has a professional advocate's opinion about him.
"He's one of the few people on TV for children who talks slowly and softly," she said. "It's such a contrast to the fast-paced popular culture of kids."