Mister Rogers, Jack Denny & Me

November 20th, 2007

Ask anyone. I’m not a huge fan of The Grateful Dead.

At the moment, though — traveling seventy miles-per-hour on the Pennsylvania Turnpike some 37 miles west of Harrisburg — “Truckin’” is kinda’ doin’ it for me.

Earlier, I remarked to my brother — who is a huge Deadhead, so huge that the only CDs he brought on this trip are The Dead — that, while Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir can clearly sing, there’s something grating about their voices. And I’m not about to retract that.

But cruising through the Allegheny Mountains in the dark after a long weekend of standing in the cold looking through a camera’s viewfinder, eating sporadically and sleeping even more so, Jerry and Bob’s well-worn, time-tested harmonies seem just about right.

Sometimes the lights all shinin’ on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it’s occurred to me
What a long strange trip it’s been

I remain surprised and amazed at the journey that Mister Rogers (inadvertently) began by (inadvertently, presumably) initiating this “Mister Rogers & Me” project.

This morning found Chris and I wandering the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh with its Marketing Director, Bill Schlageter.

The Museum has been home to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” exhibit since 1998. Developed in partnership with FCI, it replicates the show’s set — it’s all there: King Friday’s castle, X the Owl’s tree — but in a hands-on way. Kids can be on or behind the camera, drive trolley, put on their own puppet show, or play Mister Rogers’ piano.

Picture Picture’s there too. We watched a video on the making of the exhibit narrated by David Newell. There was Mister Rogers wearing an overcoat and glasses, standing next to Bill Isler and smiling.

Mister Rogers’ spirit was everywhere. And smiling.

Still — and I’ve felt this way numerous times throughout the making of this film — his absence was palpable too.

Puppets from The Land of Make Believe stood in glass cases in the hallway next to the exhibit. And while it was exciting and even moving to see the real Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday, it made me sad to see them staring back at me all glassy-eyed, lifeless and dusty.

I miss Mister Rogers, and often wish he was here to help Chris and me. I think he would have let us shoot him in Nantucket as I’d originally wished. You may recall that I’d been scribbling “Write Mister Rogers” on my daily To Do list for weeks prior to his death. If I’d only been half as confident or assertive then, we may have captured some of the magic I experienced first hand that September afternoon in 2001.

That’s not how it unfolded, though. Or, I believe, how it was intended to unfold.

Instead, Chris and I — and David Newell, Bill Isler, Amy Hollingsworth and all of the people he inspired in some small way — are left to carry the message.

Heck, I shouldn’t even put us amongst that list. We’re not building a library or a museum, but, in some small way, we’re trying to do our part on behalf of his legacy.

I’m still unsure of how it will manifest for us. I felt a tingle of excitement standing outside of WQED yesterday, but I also felt to outside of it all.

Likewise this afternoon as Chris and I drove past the Fred Rogers Center for Childhood Learning at St. Vincent’s College just outside of his hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The building is still under construction, but I didn’t want to blow our chances of being invited back to interview archivist Brother David Kelly because of an unauthorized shoot.

Still, we soldier on as, I believe, Mister Rogers would have us do.

We drove on to Latrobe, nestled there in the golden-brown Alleghenies, and searched in vein for a scenic overlook from which to shoot the valley. The city was sleepy and gray, and felt almost out of time. Main Street was an empty collection of storefronts, though it wasn’t impossible to imagine its great granite buildings in their mid-fifties glory.

We finally arrived on the hospital’s parking garage whose five stories towered over the old Rolling Rock Brewery. We climbed the ramps and looked out over it all. The nearby gas station and strip mall made it difficult to visualize a bucolic childhood, but a distant train passing over an arch stone trestle helped.

I stood there next to Chris shivering in the waning afternoon and wondered what the heck we were doing three hundred miles away from our wives, jobs, and homes.

It felt like Latrobe was a bust. We got a few scenics, but the Chamber of Commerce didn’t even know where to send us.

As we headed out of town, Chris said, “Why don’t you take a left and see if there’s a view up there.”

We drove around a hillside neighborhood for a few blocks, but were under whelmed. As we turned down the hill to leave town, though, Chris spotted St. Vincent’s on the top of the hill across the valley. I parked, and he set up the tripod in the middle of the street.

As we stood there shooting, a teenage wearing jeans and a black Transformers t-shirt walked up the hill and through the shot, all the while staring at us quizzically.

“Whassup, dude?” I said.

“Hey,” he responded. “Nice camera.”

The kid’s name, it ends up, is Jack Denny.

We talked a while. I asked him why there was no sign of Mister Rogers in Latrobe (“Because this town kinda sucks.”). And he asked me about our film.

“Who’s is it?” he asked.

“Ours,” I answered.

“Where’s it for?” He followed.

“Theatres,” I said.

Jack, it ends up, is an aspiring filmmaker.

“What I really want to do is direct.”

We stood there quietly overlooking Latrobe as the sun broke through a tiny hole in the slate gray clouds and shone on Saint Vincent’s twin steeples.

We shook hands, then turned to go.

“There are a thousand stories in this town, Jack,” I said. “And you’ve got a camera and a computer. Go tell ‘em.”

As we wound our way through the mountains towards home, I thought about the quote on the top of this blog:

“There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”

Suddenly, eight DV tapes of footage or not, even the 350 miles of dark, snowy highway ahead of us seemed well worth the trip.

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  • An MTV producer's life is transformed when he meets the recently retired host of 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,' Fred Rogers. Friendship with the PBS icon sets the young producer on a hero's quest to find depth and simplicity amidst a shallow and complex world through conversations with Susan Stamberg (NPR), Tim Russert ('Meet The Press'), Marc Brown ('Arthur') and more.
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