Most American children remember seeing Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood at some point during their childhood, and anyone who remembers seeing the show remembers Mister Rogers’ friend, Mr. McFeely. Mr. McFeely, played by David Newell, delivered mail with the cheerful line, “Speedy Delivery!”
In tribute to Mr. McFeely’s role on the show and his continued appearances as the character, Carnegie Mellon graduates Paul Germain (Heinz ’06), Friedrich Myers (CFA ’03), and Bryan Senti (CFA ’05, Heinz ’06), along with co-producer Stuart Friedel, have created a documentary of Newell’s life. The documentary explores both Newell’s life and his experience as the character Mr. McFeely.
As Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which aired new episodes from 1967 to 2001, is approaching its 40th anniversary, Newell continues to make public appearances at least once a week dressed as Mr. McFeely. His dedication to carrying on Fred Rogers’ legacy takes him on trips across the country to visit children and make public appearances.
Germain, the documentary’s director and co-producer, had been searching for a subject for a documentary, and when Germain saw Newell at an appearance at the Pittsburgh Mills Mall, he knew he’d found his subject.
“I wondered what motivated him to be so passionate for 40 years,” said Germain. “I talked to him for a while and he directed me to Family Communications, Inc. (FCI), [the company that produces Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood]. I thought people could benefit from seeing the way he lives his life.”
In the documentary, Newell’s life is shown both at home and in character, allowing viewers to explore a natural curiosity about the real life of a well known television character. Besides his everyday life, the film explores his relationship with Fred Rogers and aspects of his childhood.
“It gets into who he is as a person, where he’s been, where he’s going,” said Germain. “This is a film that takes a slice of a person’s life and uses that as a context to talk about something much larger.”
The movie serves as a sort of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood retrospective in addition to a portrait of David Newell as Mr. McFeely. Germain received permission from FCI to use clips, music, and still pictures from the show, which ran new episodes for 35 years, in his documentary. These assets will allow the documentary to explore the history of the show while new footage will show a more behind-the-scenes look at Newell’s life.
“It’s interesting to see how the childhood character operates now and still assumes the role of Mr. McFeely, and how this has affected his family,” said Senti, who composed the film’s score.
The music in the film is a mix of original music and traditional music from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In shots where Newell is with Fred Rogers, the original music from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is used. For the other parts of the movie, however, Senti composed music that he said would “act as an opposition” to that music. He used the blues style because it is what he called “people’s music,” which seemed more appropriate in situations involving Newell and other people.
Myers, the sound designer for the film, worked with Senti to create the score for Speedy Delivery. According to Myers, Senti bounced ideas off of him and they worked together to create the final product. Myers did the final sound design, adding in sounds that were more lush where he could, creating a professional final product.
While some people see Pittsburgh as a temporary home, Rogers and Newell worked in Pittsburgh for over 30 years filming Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In order to stay true to their Pittsburgh spirit, Speedy Delivery was shot in Pittsburgh, maintaining the strong ties to the city that are associated with the show.
“We’ve mimicked Mister Rogers’ beginning, but with real streets and real houses,” Germain said. “We want people to know that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is Pittsburgh.”
In addition to having Pittsburgh connections because of the subject matter, the film has a strong Carnegie Mellon influence. Besides Germain, Senti, and Myers, there were a large number of Carnegie Mellon alumni involved in the making of the film. Several members of the cast of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, including Joe Negri (Handyman Negri), Maggie Stewart (Mayor), Audrey Roth (Miss Paulificate), and Francois Clemmons (Officer), are graduates, and the university awarded Fred Rogers an honorary degree in 1976. Graduates have also worked on the art and production end of the show; Kathy Borland served as art director, Hedda Sharapan as Director of Public Relations, and Bonnie McCarter Vaky and Matt Marcus were members of the art and production crew. The Johnny Costa Trio (Johnny Costa, Carl McVicker, and Bobby Rawsthorne), who recorded the well-known tunes found in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, were also Carnegie Mellon graduates.
“Paul Germain was somebody I met at Carnegie Mellon,” Senti said, “and the subject matter is Pittsburgh-sensitive and related to those five years [I spent there].” This reason, he said, influenced his decision to join Germain’s project even more than his sense of loyalty to the show.
For Myers, the reasons for becoming involved were related to his friendship with Senti. Senti had introduced Myers and Germain, and from there the two discussed ideas for the movie.
“By the end of the evening, we just [decided] to do it. It was the alumni connection and friend-of-a-friend connection,” he said, that made him decide to become involved.
The strong connection Carnegie Mellon has with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is made even stronger with Speedy Delivery. The film was partially funded by Carnegie Mellon’s Office of the Provost.
Vice Provost of Education Indira Nair made the decision to fund Germain’s vision for a documentary.
“Paul Germain’s proposal to make a documentary about Mister Rogers’ seemed a worthwhile project to preserve something about a very important and unique story about one of the most important early childhood educators ever,” she wrote in an e-mail. “[And at] the time, I had a grant for broad educational projects.”
Through the help of Carnegie Mellon and other generous means, Speedy Delivery was able to obtain $4500 for production, a very small amount for a documentary. Despite the relatively low budget, Germain and the rest of the crew to developped the documentary to such a point that they were all satisfied with the final product, a process that took three and a half years to complete.
“I think it’s going to be close to the heart to people in Pittsburgh since it’s a local story,” Senti said.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was known for educating its viewers, whether through glimpses at a crayon factory or through skits performed by the puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Despite the emotional and practical knowledge gained by children from watching shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, other shows have been replacing it in television slots across the country.
Part of Newell’s purpose in continuing to make appearances in the character of Mr. McFeely is to find a home for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on television today. The series has thousands of episodes in its long history, and with the use of modern technology (such as the Internet and On Demand), it might find a permanent home.
“[Newell] spent 35 years serving the public working in children’s television and giving kids an educational tool so they can learn,” Myers said.
Everyone involved with Speedy Delivery believes that continuing in the tradition of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is a worthwhile effort, and the show is beneficial to children even now.
“If you look at modern children’s television, it isn’t congruent with the high standards that were set by Mister Rogers,” Germain said. “You could call [*Mister Rogers’*] old school, but it’s so valid and authentic; it’s a way of using television as a positive medium.
“So much of what’s on television today does not respect [children] in the manner that Mister Rogers did,” he continued. “It makes the assumption that children deserve to be entertained, not educated and respected, and so much of what I love about David Newell’s story is that [he] represents something I wish there was more of in the world.”
Newell’s story shows that there are still people in the world who are genuine. He takes the time to speak to each person individually at his appearances, and he “lives for the happiness of other people,” according to Germain. While Newell believes he is just spreading Rogers’ legacy, Germain believes differently.
“One of the things we’re trying to get across [is that Newell] is leaving behind a legacy of his own by doing what he does,” he said.
While a final release date has not been set, Speedy Delivery has been entered into several film festivals.
“There are so many documentaries about what’s wrong in the world,” said Germain. “I wanted to make a documentary about what’s right in the world.”