Pittsburgh is often called a city of neighborhoods. Two of the most famous, perhaps, are Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Fred Rogers was born on March 20, 87 years ago. Some of his show’s largest and best-known sets are thrilling visitors to the Heinz History Center — as Mister Rogers’ legacy goes on.
It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
The smiles are immediate when people walk into the Heinz History Center’s fourth floor special collections space. The first thing you see in the darkened room is a giant, colorful tree, a tree familiar to many because it’s where X the Owl lived in the Neighborhood of Make Believe. That tree and King Friday XIII’s castle are part of the largest collection of sets from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood ever put on permanent, public display.
“The actual door that Fred came through every day where he greeted his audience and he sat down on that bench and he put on his trademark sneakers, the closet’s there too where he hung up his coat and jacket and put on the sweaters that his mother knitted for him,” said Andy Masich, CEO of the Heinz History Center.
The doors and bench are solid wood, but the other sets were not built to last decades.
“I mean this is paper mache,” said Masich. “You can see the wrinkles and the newsprint, and you can see the paint is a little bit faded, things are a little bit chipped and dinged, but this is the genuine article. This is where the Mister Rogers magic actually happened.”
The sets have been restored, though not to a “like new” quality. In fact, there’s a bit of damage on X the Owl’s tree, put there by David Newell, who is best known as the man who made Speedy Deliveries to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and the neighborhood of Make Believe — Mr. McFeeley.
“I delivered my delivery and I said, ‘See you around the neighborhood,’ I got on my bike, went around the tree that way, came around and crashed right into that branch," Newell said. "The irony to all this was Mr. McFeeley is a delivery man on a bike, but I never learned how to ride a bike … it was a two-wheeler and after that Fred said, ‘Well maybe we’ll get you a three-wheeler,’” said Newell.
Newell still makes public appearances as Mr. McFeely. Standing in front of the sets, Newell said he has many memories of the show and has enjoyed hearing and seeing reactions to the display.
“Some people have tears in their eyes because the program meant so much to them, and the stories that I hear when I go to different cities – what it meant to them growing up – it really struck a chord in a way that no other children’s program has,” Newell said.
More than Sets
In addition to the sets, puppets are on display along with numerous props.
“X the Owl’s printing press is there, you know he was a big fan of Benjamin Franklin and wanted his own printing press, Henrietta Pussycat’s sets and furniture are here too as well as little odds and ends from many of the characters,” said Masich.
Some of the more popular puppets such as Daniel Striped Tiger and Lady Elaine Fairchilde are in other locations. But Masich said there are plans to continue to add to the exhibit, so that might change.
“We have Grandpere Tiger here, he’s warming a spot I hope for Daniel someday – I hope will be on exhibit here,” Masich said.
The Legacy Goes On
Mister Rogers’ legacy continues, said Newell, as some his characters and their children are now enjoying a bit of the spotlight thanks to the Fred Rogers’ Company-produced cartoon Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
“The Daniel on that program is the son of the Daniel on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” said Newell. “It’s second generation. And Daniel Tiger on that show is an adult now, and X the Owl has a son who is O the Owl and so forth.”
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is on nationwide and in about 35 countries, and while Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is not on the daily schedule of PBS stations anymore, it’s available online.
“So the legacy of Fred Rogers that started here in 1954 in WQED with the Children’s Corner is now around the world,” said Newell. “The neighborhood has really expanded.”