By Anne Shulock '08
The last new episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood aired in 2001, and its namesake star has since died. So it might seem that the feel-good educational show, which debuted in 1968, is well into its twilight years. But Stuart Friedel ’08 is helping to keep the Neighborhood alive as the producer of a new documentary,
Speedy Delivery explores the legacy of the show (which still runs in syndication) through David Newell, known to viewers as Mr. McFeely, the show’s ever-chipper postal worker. Newell continues to travel the country making in-character appearances at malls, parks, museums and schools.
It was during one of those mall events that the film’s eventual director, Paul Germain, met Newell. A Friedel family friend, Germain at the time was attending graduate school in Pittsburgh, the home of
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Intrigued by Newell’s almost 40 years of dedication to the show, he got the idea for a documentary.
So for about seven weeks in the summer of 2006, Germain and Friedel followed Newell to appearances, spent time at home with him and his family, and interviewed others involved in the show. The final documentary runs about 70 minutes.
“The reaction he gets is unbelievable,” says Friedel of how kids—and plenty of adults, many of whom grew up with the show—flock to Newell. Dressed as Mr. McFeely in a blonde wig and mustache and a custom-made mailman uniform, Newell brings the show to life for fans. He takes pictures with the children, signs autographs and always treats them to a “Speedy delivery!”—his catchphrase from the show—accompanied by his trademark gesture of perkily pointing his index finger skyward.
After decades of performing as Mr. McFeely, the line between Newell and the TV mailman “is very blurred,” says Friedel. But “that’s what’s so beautiful about the show—you see everybody’s face, you see everybody as they are. I have this image of random puppet character ‘A’ with their head off smoking a cigarette during their break, and
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood isn’t like that.”
Friedel, a media studies major, wants to pursue a career in children’s media. Making the documentary gave him both practical, resume-boosting filmmaking experience and the opportunity to learn from his subjects. The project was made possible by a Pomona College Stonehill Media Studies Grant and the Carnegie Mellon Office of the Provost, whose contributions totaled just under $5,000.
Friedel’s job as producer included operating the camera, conducting interviews, handling release forms, getting permission to film in certain locations and—dressing up as a Purple Panda?
Purple Panda from Planet Purple, another character from the show, sometimes accompanies Newell to events. When, at the opening of a carousel, the person who was supposed to play Purple Panda didn’t show up, Friedel stepped in. “When you’re putting on a head, it’s very difficult to keep your glasses on,” he says. “And once it gets sweaty and foggy in there you can’t see out of your glasses anyway. So I was completely blind the whole day.” Add to that the humid heat of a Pittsburgh summer: “You can see me ringing out my shirt in the documentary.”
After the hard, hot work of the shoot, Germain spent about a year making a cut of
Speedy Delivery. Friedel was then invited to the Sundance Independent Producers’ Conference in Utah last summer, where he learned about packaging and distributing the film. Friedel was the only student among attendees mostly in their 30s and 40s, some of whom had been nominated for Oscars, but he didn’t let that faze him: “Producing, even if you’ve produced 20 movies before, is always a struggle, and we’re all in that same boat together.”
One struggle is finding an audience. Speedy Delivery premiered at Regent Square Theater in Pittsburgh in April and showed at Pomona during Alumni Weekend in early May. Friedel and Germain have also entered the film in various festivals and hope that it will air on PBS—Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s longtime home.
While the future of Speedy Delivery is uncertain, Friedel’s looks bright: He is attending USC in the fall for his M.F.A. in producing, with the goal of making shows for Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel. And Newell’s rooting for him. “Children’s media needs thoughtful and responsible people,” says Newell, who is also the P.R. director for Family Communications, Inc., the nonprofit organization that produced Fred Rogers’ show. “There’s a lot of junk out there for children, and I hope he can help improve it.”
But amid the junk, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood provides Friedel with a moment of calm. He now TiVos every episode. Says Friedel:
“The show hopefully will have a long life in syndication and in people’s
memories, and I think David [Newell] rightfully feels like he is a large
part of making sure that happens.”