Six Degrees of Pittsburgh

"Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood"-- Once Upon A Time

Wednesday, 21 September 2011 09:20 PM Written by

I spent last Friday in the magical company of Joanne Rogers and a group of people from the Fred Rogers Company who worked with her husband as he made a program which would change the lives of millions.   The gathering was in front of 300, mostly students, at the University of Pittsburgh, and as much as I thought I knew the story, it had even more resonance sitting just a couple of blocks where Fred Rogers as one of the early organizers of WQED started his first children's program with actress turned WQED secretary turned children's show host, Josie Carey.   

Joanne shared how Fred had this idea at Rollins, where they met in college, that he could use this new medium of television to make a difference.   She talked about how after they got married, he moved to New York where he worked as a floor manager on many TV programs, including a Western program starring Gabby Hayes.  He asked Gabby how he spoke to millions of children each program.  And Gabby said, "Fred, I don't.  I just picture on buckaroo" out there.  

But still, when Fred came back with Joanne to his hometown because he heard they were starting the first community supported public television show and got a job behind the scenes.   When they asked who wanted to do a children's show, only Fred and Josie volunteered.  They night before they started, Dorothy Daniels gave Fred a puppet which he put on his hand and became Daniel the Striped Tiger.

There was a sheet that they hung across as a set, and they cut a whole in it so Daniel could poke his head out and announce the time.  But earlier on, the films that Fred and Josie were suppose to show as part of the show kept breaking.  And so Fred and Josie would do "fill."   The show was one hour, live, every day of the week, for $75 bucks a week.  And "The Children's Corner" ran for years.

Then, a man from Canada, offered Fred his own show up there-- which is where "Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood" began.  But Joanne and Fred didn't want to raise their children as Canadians, so they moved back to Pittsburgh in the mid-1960s where the show which would run four decades began.

There was so much to tell, and that is when Hedda Sharapan told the students how she signed up as an intern back then, and never left.  And how David Newell, who had played Bimbo the Clown at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, was asked to come on as a production assistant and do props, and oh yes, Fred said, I would like to play a character who would make deliveries which Fred named after his grandfather, Mr. McFeely.  (David was a young man, but played the character until he really was the age McFeely seemed.)

Elizabeth Seamans who played "Mrs. McFeely" said how she moved to Pittsburgh from Boston with the hope of getting a job with Fred.  There was no job, but she kept at it, and eventually got to write scripts for the show, where she worked closely with Pitt's Dr. Margaret McFarland-- whom many spoke of with reverential tones as being key to the program in terms of child development.  Margaret would tell Fred and Elizabeth exactly how young chidren would feel about certain things-- like food and pets-- and leave it to Fred to use his own creativity for ideas for the show.

Hedda handled the mail that would come in, and told the story of the boy who asked his

 

Joanne-- never happen again.. 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Making of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"

Friday, 16 September 2011 01:51 AM Written by
I know I have written a lot about Fred Rogers here, but today (Friday Sept. 16th) you can hear from those who knew him and his work like no others.   At 3:30 p.m. there will be a very special "Making of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" event at the William Pitt Union Ballroom at the University of Pittsburgh.  This event is free and open to the public.   (See www.steeltown.org for details) 
Below is some thoughts about Fred and those who will be part of this event: 
Once there was a young man who saw television when he was in college, and dreamt that he could use that new medium to help change the world for the better.  Fred Rogers would go on to work behind the scenes as a floor manager in NBC during the golden age of television, but then returned to Pittsburgh near his hometown of Latrobe with his wife Joanne to become part of WQED, the nation's first community supported television station.   There Fred and then station secretary Josie Carey volunteered to do children's show, and station manager Dorothy Daniels handed Fred a puppet which would change his life and that of generations of children.  Fred did the voice of Daniel the Striped Tiger and other puppets for years on "The Children's Corner" before he would be offered his own show which began in Canada, and then evolved into the show Fred would bring back to Pittsburgh that would become "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
It was soon after that an intern Hedda Sharapan would join the team which would produce the show along with David Newell who not only played "Mr. McFeely", but also worked behind the scenes doing props and eventually becoming the show's director of public relations.   There were many "behind the scenes" figures who played key roles in the show-- from the great jazz musician Johnny Costas who gave life to Fred's compositions (and not to mention Handyman Joe Negri who was a great musician in his own right; to a great supporting cast including many talented Chuck Haber, Maggie Stewart, and others; to producers like Margy Whitmer and Adrienne Wehr who kept the production going; to consultants like Elizabeth Seamans who helped with the scripts and who also played "Mrs. McFeely" to Dr. Margaret McFarland, the Pitt professor of Child Development who Fred met with each week to talk about children and the show.
From these humble beginnings would come one of the longest running and most influential television shows in history which would change the lives of generations of children.  
Ultimately, when he was inducted into the television Hall of Fame, Fred would talk about how those who created television having their greatest challenge of "making good attractive."   Fred and his colleagues spent their lives producing over 850 television episodes which strived to do just that.   Today at the University of Pittsburgh some of these stories will be shared with the hope they will inspire a new generation to build on this powerful legacy which literally began on the Pitt campus.
For more information on this event, please visit www.steeltown.org 

Join the conversation:

The Making of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"

Friday, 16 September 2011 01:51 AM Written by
I know I have written a lot about Fred Rogers here, but today (Friday Sept. 16th) you can hear from those who knew him and his work like no others.   At 3:30 p.m. there will be a very special "Making of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" event at the William Pitt Union Ballroom at the University of Pittsburgh.  This event is free and open to the public.   (See www.steeltown.org for details) 
Below is some thoughts about Fred and those who will be part of this event: 
Once there was a young man who saw television when he was in college, and dreamt that he could use that new medium to help change the world for the better.  Fred Rogers would go on to work behind the scenes as a floor manager in NBC during the golden age of television, but then returned to Pittsburgh near his hometown of Latrobe with his wife Joanne to become part of WQED, the nation's first community supported television station.   There Fred and then station secretary Josie Carey volunteered to do children's show, and station manager Dorothy Daniels handed Fred a puppet which would change his life and that of generations of children.  Fred did the voice of Daniel the Striped Tiger and other puppets for years on "The Children's Corner" before he would be offered his own show which began in Canada, and then evolved into the show Fred would bring back to Pittsburgh that would become "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
It was soon after that an intern Hedda Sharapan would join the team which would produce the show along with David Newell who not only played "Mr. McFeely", but also worked behind the scenes doing props and eventually becoming the show's director of public relations.   There were many "behind the scenes" figures who played key roles in the show-- from the great jazz musician Johnny Costas who gave life to Fred's compositions (and not to mention Handyman Joe Negri who was a great musician in his own right; to a great supporting cast including many talented Chuck Haber, Maggie Stewart, and others; to producers like Margy Whitmer and Adrienne Wehr who kept the production going; to consultants like Elizabeth Seamans who helped with the scripts and who also played "Mrs. McFeely" to Dr. Margaret McFarland, the Pitt professor of Child Development who Fred met with each week to talk about children and the show.
From these humble beginnings would come one of the longest running and most influential television shows in history which would change the lives of generations of children.  
Ultimately, when he was inducted into the television Hall of Fame, Fred would talk about how those who created television having their greatest challenge of "making good attractive."   Fred and his colleagues spent their lives producing over 850 television episodes which strived to do just that.   Today at the University of Pittsburgh some of these stories will be shared with the hope they will inspire a new generation to build on this powerful legacy which literally began on the Pitt campus.
For more information on this event, please visit www.steeltown.org 

Join the conversation:

Thoughts on 9/11, Fred Rogers, Hope and Pittsburgh

Tuesday, 13 September 2011 05:52 AM Written by

Watching the anniversary coverage on 9/11 real time as it played on MSNBC with Matt Lauer and Katie Couric took me back to that mourning time in a way few things have.  It is odd because ten years ago I was at an English department meeting at the University of Pittsburgh occurred, having just moved to Pittsburgh from Los Angeles for what my wife Natalie and I believed would be a one year sabbatical.   I had never been to a department meeting of any sorts before, having spent the past two decades as a screenwriter and TV writer/producer, and, had not lived in Pittsburgh since I left for college in 1978.

When the department head Dave Bartholomae announced that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center—all I could think of was that I had once heard that some relative of Screech-- Dustin Diamond, the actor from “Saved By the Bell”—had crashed a small plane into the Empire State Building.   Having not seen the images, I was making nervous jokes as I walked out of the meeting down the stairs of the Cathedral of Learning, the tallest education building in the country.   I noticed that others were walking with us—almost the whole building.  And then I got a call from Natalie, telling me in no certain terms that she was on her way—picking me up with our small daughter in the backseat.  I could tell from Natalie's tone that something bad had happened in the way that we had experienced Earthquakes in LA.  She said that a plane had gone down in Pittsburgh and it only made sense that the Cathedral, the tallest building in Oakland, might be a target.

We had not realized then, back for only a couple of weeks, that Pittsburgh these days would be an unlikely target, compared to NY, D.C. or even L.A.  That the Pittsburgh I had come back to was one that was largely off the map in terms of the national stage—even as a terror target.

But, ten years later, I am struck at how this city of three rivers seems to find itself, even in hard times, at the center of things.   Ten years later, Shanksville, which is identified with the heroic efforts of the passengers and crew of Flight 93, is often described as the Pittsburgh area.  It is one of the few hopeful  things one can feel in reliving that day of 9/11, in watching the MSNBC anniversary program-- as we watch hoping, like when watching a movie, that somehow the outcome will be different, that those who were forced to jump out the flaming towers-- that that part was not true, but something we imagined-- that the second  plane won’t hit-- that the people in Tower 2 won’t have been told to stay in the building as the building is secure, that the Towers won’t collapse. That this was all just like a movie, but it wasn't a movie.  It wasn't a dream you can wake up from and everything is okay. 

And one wonders about one's own life and the country, and these past ten years, and whether we have spent them right, given the tragedy that occurred.  

My wife and I were already in somewhat mid-life crisis mode by moving here from L.A., even for a year—a move which my L.A. friend Jenji called “brave.”   A couple years later our mid-life crisis was officially sanctioned in that we ended up as a guest on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on a show called “What Should I Do With My Life?” for of all things, leaving Hollywood and moving to Pittsburgh.  Shortly after that appearance, Pittsburgh lost its favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers, and then other bad things happened here, including the city being the first major American city of the new Millinium being declared “financially distressed.”   We questioned often then, did we do the right thing in coming here?  Will Pittsburgh--as city which people talk about like it were a person-- be okay?

But, as one wonders about 9/11 and what if, as I look back, I cannot help wonder if there is a destiny, a reason, a guiding force in the universe.   And not just for one person’s life, but for a city, a country, a planet.

The journey to Pittsburgh led us not only to Oprah, but to a feature documentary, “My Tale of Two Cities”, which tells the tale of the unlikely Pittsburgh comeback story.   In the movie, we use the metaphor of Fred Rogers and Mr. McFeely, the delivery man in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” who used to show Fred films of things we make.  Many of those factories they visited are closed-- the things they made are no longer are made here.   Though told in a personal way, the film is really about a once great city that built America with its steel, conquered polio, and invented everything from aluminum to the Big Mac, which is now being challenged to reinvent itself.

Much to our own amazement, we have watched, and been part of with many of Fred Rogers’ real life neighbors, an amazing Pittsburgh comeback story—as companies like Google have come to Pittsburgh and expanded; as Steelers have won unlikely Super Bowls not once, but twice; and as “the new” Pittsburgh which has been the setting for a world G-20 summit, how the city that struggled to retain young people, is now hosting the World’s Youth Summit.  Even Hollywood’s largest franchise, Batman, has decided that Pittsburgh is cool and has filmed here.  In these tough times, Pittsburgh is doing all right. 

So, is life random or is there a destiny involved? 

Some do not know this, but Fred Rogers came back to Pittsburgh (he actually grew up in Latrobe) during the 1950s after working at NBC in New York to both study to be a minister and with the deep held belief that this new technology called television could be used for “good” in the world.   He was a behind the scenes floor manager in New York, working on early pioneering television shows where if he stayed he probably could have done quite well.  Instead, he came back to Pittsburgh to study theology and would end up being part of the world’s first community supported public television station, WQED.    Fred went from being a behind the scenes puppeteer on a show called “Children’s Corner” to a man who influenced millions of children’s and adults.  It would be hard to argue that Fred’s journey was anything but destiny.

How does this tie to 9/11’s anniversary and all of our destinies?   

When Fred was inducted into the television hall of fame, he said to the audience of television producers that “our greatest challenge was to do (programs) that would make good attractive.”  And he had spent his live dedicated to that mission. 

Among the things which Fred Rogers helped pioneer through television was helping children deal with traumas—whether they small like getting a haircut or a goldfish dying—or large like the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the Gulf War.  

Over and over, I have heard commentators this past weekend saying that 9/11 took our innocence, made us as a country less naïve.  In that way, we were all children who experienced trauma.  And our job, as Fred perhaps would see it, is to heal.

Now that my wife and I are back in Pittsburgh much to our own surprise for ten years, we continue to wonder if it is destiny that we are back here, or just some randomness of the universe.  But I now work in an office across from the Fred Rogers Company, and every day, I think about what Fred said, and hope that we are doing something which might build on his legacy, and “make good attractive.”   For it seems, after all the words are done, that this is perhaps the best response to the horrible events of 9/11-- to do what we each can to remind the world that is possible, even in the face of great tragedy.  

I guess it should also be noted that Pittsburgh is a place which shines best when everyone works together-- whether it be the Steelers, Dr. Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh who pulled together with the city and the country to conquer polio, or Fred Rogers and his neighbors who began public television.  And that this also was the spirit of America right after the 9/11 attacks.  

Most people who watched "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" had no idea it was set here.  Fred's wife, Joanne Rogers, once told me that Fred would come back from trips observing how many wonderful "neighbors" there were-- and keenly observing that "we are more the same than we are different."   In trying to move forward even ten years after 9/11, it might be good to remember that the whole world really is "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."  

SPECIAL NOTE:  On Friday, September 16, 2011, at 3:30 p.m. at the William Pitt Union Ballroom at the University of Pittsburgh, there will be a program on "The Making of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" featuring producers and actors who worked with Fred Rogers to create this influential and iconic television program.  This event is Free and Open to the Public, but seating is limited so please RSVP to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  See www.steeltown.org for more information.  

 

 

 

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Fridays: Fashion, Film, and Fred Rogers

Friday, 09 September 2011 05:44 AM Written by

 Tonight, Friday September 9th, the 8th annual Pittsburgh Fashion Story celebrates Film and Fashion at the Jay Verno Studios which s benefits the Allegheny Children’s Initiative.    Models will be wearing outfits from local designers inspired by various Pittsburgh-related films including "Flashdance", "Batman", and even "Night of the Living Dead."  You can rest assured you will not be worst dressed as that I am the honorary chair.  Come help prove the recent GQ article that Pittsburgh is the 3rd Worst Dressed City, wrong. This event is almost sold out, so if you are planning to attend, buy tickets at

http://www.citizencare.org/pfqf/events/events.asp

 And next Friday, September 16th, the Steeltown Entertainment Project and Pitt In Hollywood present a truly special afternoon about “The Making of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” where those producers and actors behind the show will talk about the process of how this legendary program was made.   

Children and adults around know the iconic sweater and sneakers of Fred Rogers and his program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, but on Friday September 16th at 3:30 p.m. at the William Pitt Union at the University of Pittsburgh, the audience will get a rare “behind the scenes” look at how this influential television show that changed the lives of millions was made.   Producers and actors from “The Neighborhood,” including Pitt alum and actor David Newell (aka “Mr. McFeely”), Pitt alum and Associate Producer Hedda Sharapan who both worked with Fred from the earliest days of the show, will be joined by Fred Rogers Company President Bill Isler, producer Margy Whitmer, and actor and writer Elizabeth Seamans (aka “Mrs. McFeely) for this very special program.   They will be sharing their own stories of how the 895 episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” were produced along with less known details about how the show came as well as less well known details such as how Fred had lunch each week with Pitt Child Development Professor Margaret McFarland to help inform the program and be true to the emotional lives of children.

This event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited so guests are asked to RSVP to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .     It is co-sponsored by the Steeltown Entertainment Project and Pitt In Hollywood in association with the University of Pittsburgh’s Film Studies and Children’s Literature programs.  For more information, go to www.steeltown.org.   

 

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