Mr. McFeely makes a special delivery to Juneau

Posted: Thursday, July 03, 2003

Since the first episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" aired on Pittsburgh's KQED-TV in 1967, Mr. McFeely, "the speedy delivery man," has provided a quick counter-rhythm to Rogers' deliberate, thoughtful pace.

"Fred (Rogers) just thought it was contrapuntal," said David Newell, who's played McFeely from the beginning. "The program is going at a certain pace, and then McFeely rushes in and it's almost like music."

Though Rogers died from stomach cancer Feb. 27, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" is still playing on PBS stations. It's the longest-running children's television program on PBS, and the public broadcast network has committed to showing it for years to come. The show airs in Juneau at noon weekdays on KTOO.

As McFeely, Newell will visit Juneau on Thursday and Friday, July 3 and 4. He's the director of public relations for Family Communications, a company Rogers founded in 1971 to help educators and professionals.

Newell will appear at child-care centers around Juneau on Thursday, July 3. And he will perform with the Purple Panda, a character from the show, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. that evening at the Marine Park Plaza Grand Opening and Community Celebration.

Fun facts about Mr. McFeely

The speedy delivery man from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"

How he made it: David Newell was a prop guy in 1967, working behind the scenes at "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," when Fred Rogers asked him to play the role of Mr. McFeely.

"He hired me to be McFeely in the interview that we had," Newell said. "He said, 'I want you to be in charge of all the props. I'll write the scripts and give you a list of what I need. And we'll have a meeting each week.' Also during taping, I would help him behind the scenes and help him manipulate the puppets."

How he got his name: McFeely was Fred Rogers' middle name. It was also the last name of Rogers' grandfather, Fred Brooks McFeely.

"(Fred's) grandfather meant so much to him, and taught Fred so much, that he was always indebted to him," Newell said.

A little background: Newell is a native of Pittsburgh. He received a certificate in theater arts from The Pittsburgh Playhouse and a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Pittsburgh.

Don't make this mistake: The real Mr. McFeely should not be confused with the band Mr. McFeely, a 4yearold group from Fairbanks.

Newell will appear at the KTOO studio at 10 a.m. Friday, July 4, for KTOO's Children's Birthday Party, part of the station's 25th anniversary. Children are invited and the station will serve punch, cookies, ice cream and a special KTOO birthday cake. Newell will also take part in Juneau's Fourth of July Parade.

He plans to bring four of the puppets from the show's Neighborhood of Make-Believe - Daniel Striped Tiger, X The Owl, Donkey Hodie and King Friday XIII. At appearances, he sings a few Mr. Rogers songs and poses for pictures with kids.

Newell has visited Alaska twice. He was at the grand opening of Anchorage's main library almost 15 years ago. He came to Juneau, Sitka and Bethel during a cross-Alaska promotional trip about six years ago.

"We're trying to use television in a positive way to educate and teach kids to love to learn and be ready to learn," Newell said. "If they're interested in something when they go to school, learning comes a little easier."

Rogers' goal for his show was to present everyday concerns of children and also to help children confront their fears. He talked about topics such as divorce, discrimination and sibling rivalry when they were still considered taboo on children's television. Rogers created more than 1,500 episodes.

"When Fred started out to create this body of work, he wanted to gather a library of tapes that could go on for years," Newell said. "After his death, that's exactly what happened."

"He was really a forerunner, and consequently it's given us a package of programs," he said. "I call it Electronic Dr. Seuss in a way."

When he was writing the show, Rogers met with a child psychologist every Tuesday. They would discuss what was happening in the world, and they would explore ways to bring the real world into the show.

"Twenty years ago, when 'The Incredible Hulk' was on television, my daughter was terrified of it," Newell said. "So we went to Universal Studios, and (Hulk actor) Bill Bixby let us show the Hulk getting into makeup and just demystified it."

"Fred felt it was very important to separate fantasy and reality in the neighborhood," Newell said. "It's OK to pretend, but here we are back in our television house. He called every program a visit."

The Neighborhood of Make-Believe was a way to encourage imagination, as well as to segue into topics. Purple Panda was introduced on Mr. Rogers almost 20 years ago to discuss disabilities. Panda lives on Planet Purple, a magical land where everything is purple, all boys are named Paul and all girls are named Pauline.

"The Purple Planet was a whimsical planet, but it fed off the concept of wouldn't it be boring if everything were the same," McFeely said. "We did those programs hoping that children would appreciate their disabled friends, and children who were disabled would maybe see that they were unique."

Even the character of McFeely was a teaching tool. McFeely and Rogers often would discuss grandparents, the elderly, building things and working too fast.

"There were a few times when he wanted to slow McFeely down," Newell said. "He said come sit here with me and do some sitting-still exercises. Then Fred sang, 'I Like To Take My Time.' He would say, 'Now Mr. McFeely, I can't do things right when you rush me.' "

Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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