“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” fixture Mr. McFeely was not especially speedy with his delivery Friday night at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Midtown.
But the audience gathered for veteran “Neighborhood” actor David Newell‘s guest lecture, “Mr. McFeely Remembers: A Tribute to Fred Rogers” clearly would have stayed all night to hear his fascinating yarns.
And yes, Newell was dressed in his iconic Speedy Delivery uniform as he remembered his gentle TV boss who died in 2003 at age 74.
Newell kicked off his two-hour talk with a special treat for Center for Puppetry Arts patrons: rare 1968 black and white “Rogers'” footage of center founder Vincent Anthony appearing on the show with Fred Rogers demonstrating a bear marionette shortly before Anthony’s move to Atlanta.
Recalled Newell of getting the call in 1967 to work on the show: “That’s great. I’ll have a job for a year. And here we are 43 years later.”
Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, chose the then-fledgling pulpit of public television and the under-served children who were tuning in as his calling.
“He never called it a ‘show,'” Newell reflected. “He always referred to it as a televison ‘visit.'”
Rogers’ trademark sweaters were hand-knitted by his mother Nancy. And those sneakers? They were originally used in the early days of the multi-tasking Rogers’ live televsion career as a way for the accomplished organist to get to the instrument while on air.
Working in the non-profit realm of public television meant that Newell also doubled up on jobs. Off-camera, he handled media and public relations duties for the show.
The gig led to some interesting phone calls.
For example, in the 1980s, then-“Saturday Night Live” executive producer Dick Ebersol would routinely call Newell each Monday morning to gently inquire if Fred Rogers would agree to a cameo on “SNL” cast member Eddie Murphy‘s wildly popular (and wildly wrong) “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood” parody sketches.
Explained Newell: “Fred was barely familiar with ‘Saturday Night Live’ and he had never seen Eddie Murphy’s sketches. He went to bed at 10 o’clock. But I certainly had!”
Rogers and Newell opted to take a meeting with Ebersol and Murphy in New York but ultimately turned down the “SNL” guest stint and went to visit another major “Neighborhood” fan instead: “Sunset Boulevard” actress Gloria Swanson.
Newell informed the audience of plans for a new “Daniel’s Neighborhood” PBS series, starring Rogers’ timid tiger puppet creation Daniel.
An iPhone app for toddlers, “Mister Rogers Make a Journal for Preschoolers,” featuring Daniel and designed to help kids discuss their feelings, has already won a Parents’ Choice Gold Award.