David Newell (Mr. McFeely) - Mr. Roger's Neighborhood
As the red trolley passes through a cozy living room surrounded by warmth and solitude, a man of simplicity and security shares affection to viewers nationwide. His trademark cardigans hang in a loose rainbow decorating a gray closet as Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood tosses his navy blue shoe from one hand to another. A knock on the door signals a smile as Fred greets his favorite neighbor, Mr. McFeely (played by David Newell). Holding one finger up with his usual grin, Mr. McFeely always brings a "Special Delivery," usually educational tapes and adventures, to share with Mister Rogers' children nationwide. The trolley dings its way into the Neighborhood, a place of fantasy and freedom where characters like Purple Panda and Daniel Striped Tiger call home.
I had the opportunity to talk to Actor and Director of Public Relations David Newell about his friendship with Fred and current work with Fred's non-profit production company, Family Communications, Inc. Reminiscing about Fred and his days as Mr. McFeely left Newell outspoken and eager to share his Neighborhood with you.
The tribute was incredibly touching for many reasons. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Fred Rogers?
David Newell: A lot of people think that Fred Rogers had a nice little kiddy show, but there was more depth than that. And as you can tell by watching it he had a lot of depth and the program, the Neighborhood, does, too. I don't think people realize his background and I think it (the tribute) gives a lot of insight into who he was. I think it gives you a lot of education. Fred studied for years learning about children and he thought that it was one of the most important things you could do when you're programming for children. What makes them tick? Did you come across that at all when you were watching it?
Oh absolutely. When I watched the show as a kid it was kind of like watching therapy
He just had this very soft spoken voice and was very relaxing to watch.
DN: People asked his wife continually, 'What's he like at home and was he a different person?' And she always said, 'What you see is what you get.' And that was Fred. He wasn't a performer; he didn't have another persona when he left the studio. It was Fred. He wasn't a singer either, he wasn't Andy Williams by any means and he knew all of that. It was what he was saying to children and how he communicated with them. I think, this is my interpretation anyhow, of how sincere he was. I think kids got that on some level. I don't know how they articulated it. I think he respected who they were and how he respected his audience. I think that came through and they keyed into it.
So getting into you, how long were you on the show?
DN: I have been here 36 years. I started on the very fist program and I came to work for Fred's company right off the bat. I started in 1967 and my background was in theater and English literature. I was working on the floor crew where the program was produced and went to Europe for the summer of '67. It was after college, but I was working on the floor crew and kind of volunteering. To make a long story short, I got a telegram from a friend saying, 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is going to go national and I put your name in to talk to Fred Rogers because I think you'd be very good working on the program.' The job then was two-fold. I was always Mr. McFeely, but I was in charge of production. I did 130 shows so I had to coordinate all of that. It was behind the scenes duty and in front of the camera Fred told me that he had this part he wanted me to do and it was a delivery man. Fred said, 'We'll call him Mr. McCurdy.' That was his name. 'You'll come in and bring a prop and it will expand the Neighborhood' and so on. Just as we started taping the first day late in '67 and when it came on air in '68 we got a call from Sears Roebuck Foundation, who started the program. They said they loved the program except for one thing: Don't call the delivery man Mr. McCurdy. And Fred was doing that because he wrote his own scripts and he was doing it to pay honor to Mr. McCurdy who gave us the money to do this program. And he was saying thank you and they said that it was a little self-serving. It's better not to do that. So Fred said, 'Well OK. We have to get you a name.' So he said Mr. McFeely because that's Fred middle name. That's how the name came about. I'm in charge of all the public relations for the program and behind the scenes and involved in public events that relate to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood so in essence, I'm still Mr. McFeely. And for what kids know I'm still Mr. McFeely, too. I haven't given up the role.
Seeing as how Mr. McFeely was named after Fred's grandfather, how did it feel to be such a huge part of Fred's personal and professional life?
DN: That's a good question and no one's ever asked that before. If you knew Fred you'd feel really proud to be a part of his personal and professional life because he was such a wonderful man. He was not your typical television personality because you never encountered another persona. When his kids were growing up they would call me Uncle David. He would bring you into his family in a way. His company called Family Communications…and we were a professional family there. And I was very good friends with Fred and my wife and his wife would get together every so often and we would socialize. It made me very proud to feel a part of his personal life and I think vice versa. We enjoy each other's company and we worked together. All the years we worked together it was very much a partnership. Not only with me, but with everyone else he had on his staff. He had a very good way with people; he really enjoyed people and really focused on them. If you were in his office and you were interviewing him today he would be asking you questions. He really wanted to find out about the person he was talking to. He loved people. So, I hope you can see that I was very proud to be a part of his professional and personal family.
Yes, I can definitely see that. In the tribute they talk about Mr. McFeely's nickname, 'Ding Dong.' Where did that nickname come from?
DN: Fred's grandfather was very close to Fred and would teach him a lot of songs. And bought him his first organ and taught him this nursery rhyme called "Ding Dong Bell." That's where it comes from. I hope this DVD will do well because he had such a soft spot in his heart for everyone. It will really bring back a lot of memories for people.
In March 2001 you appeared on the front of Pittsburgh magazine with Fred holding one finger up. Can you explain why you posed that way?
DN: Yes, absolutely. Over the years, it was an inside joke with the two of us, we would go around to public television stations, back when you were growing up in the 70s or 80s. We'd go into a meeting and they would invite the public to meet Mister Rogers. It got so unyielding that they had to put a limit to how many shows we could do. So they would bring in so many people at a time and they would be ticketed. We would do these over the years and sometimes we'd end up doing 25 shows in a day, 15 minute visits with 200 kids at a time. Then, I would be there and some other cast members, but Fred would be the main attraction. To make a long story short, we'd get to the 20th show and we'd have five more to go and I'd hold up my hand: five more to go. And then finally we'd get to the 25th show and I'd put up one finger: one more to go. It was exhausting and Fred would be giving his all each time and it was very tough but he wanted to be fresh each time. He'd make each show. He didn't throw away any of his shows. He would do them full barrel. One more time became a greeting between us. Over the years we did it. He'd come into my office in the morning sometimes and hold one finger just to say good morning. It became a symbol for, 'Good morning, how are you?' It was our greeting. So now I do it. And McFeely would sometimes hold up one finger and say, 'Speedy delivery!' And so all of that worked into that picture you're saying. It means a lot because it's not just holding our fingers up; it really means a lot to both of us that sometimes people don't get.
I used to watch Mister Rogers religiously and one of the first things I think of is your phrase, "Speedy Delivery." Did you ever get tired of that phrase?
DN: Do I ever get tired of it? No I never do. I just think its part of me now. Whenever we were taping the show the crew would call me Speedy or Mac. I'd get Mac a lot from McFeely. I still get Speedy from people who work on the program or who used to watch it everyday. It would be my nickname. I see as an affectionate greeting.
You're the director of public relations for Family Communications, Inc., Fred's non-profit production company. Do you have any upcoming projects that children and adults can look forward to?
DN: We have of course, the DVD being released. I do a lot of visits to stations around the country so sections of the country can come to events. We also have a touring version of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood which is not performance. It's a children's museum exhibit and it opens in Louisville, Ky. in a couple of weeks and it just closed in Minneapolis. It plays for three months in children's museum. And what it is is a reconstruction of the set, and the living room, and the sofa, and the fish tank. You can come in and try on sweaters and sneakers; you can see yourself on TV, play in the castle, and put on the crown and so forth. It's very much encouraging play which is part of Fred's philosophy. It's city-by-city so it's not in one country all day. While that's happening, the children's museum in Pittsburgh is being remodeled and installing it permanently as a tribute to Fred. That will open November 6. Then we're going to start another children's museum exhibit based on the deliveries that I made. You know how people make different things, those factory visits. We made 200 of those visits so we're going to base the next exhibit on those different tapes about how people make things. We're still working on it so I don't know how it's going to take shape yet, but it's going to be based on the Neighborhood and more focused on those films. We have a book coming out next year in July and we're bringing out DVDs of the program. There are about 17, 18 programs that have been cleared. We've got the first wave coming out sometime in the spring along with another book his wife's writing the introduction on. There's another book out called "The World According to Mister Rogers." It was on the New York Times best seller list for about 13 weeks and it came out about six months after his death. It was focused on speeches he made and phrases he said, all making a point about children, living or families so that's out and doing well.
DN: We're working on different aspects of the Neighborhood and taking Fred's philosophy and moving on. So, we're in the midst of a lot of different projects. We hope to someday do another broadcast program. We want to keep Fred's legacy going so we're doing our best. Meanwhile, PBS is showing the show daily around the country. I think a lot of people see the program and don't realize all of the theory and education that Fred has and what he's saying on the program. And I think he explains a lot of that on the DVD.
I'm sure audiences young and old will appreciate Fred's legacy because I know that I certainly did. Thanks for talking with me today.
DN: Yes! Speedy delivery!
- Danielle Henbest
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