Special 'Delivery': Documentary follows Mr. McFeely as he carries the message of Fred Rogers
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When Paul Germain says "Speedy Delivery" was done on favors, he's not kidding. That's the only way you can make a 75-minute documentary (and a fine one, at that) on $4,000, with most of that money going to equipment and two tanks of gas.
"Speedy Delivery," premiering tomorrow at 8 p.m. at the Regent Square Theater in Edgewood, looks at David Newell, the Pittsburgher who has played Mr. McFeely from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" for the past 40 years.
It's a well-deserved valentine to Newell, who has become the public face of the "Neighborhood" since Fred McFeely Rogers died in 2003. The movie also doubles as a salute to the children's TV host, the show and the people who continue its mission of supporting children and families.
In a blue delivery man's uniform that hasn't changed much, thanks to tailor Nino Petrocelli Sr., Newell regularly glues on a mustache, slips on a wig, tugs on his boots and carries puppets, autograph cards and a seemingly endless supply of energy and goodwill to appearances far and wide. He makes sure Purple Panda hasn't wilted under his hot costume and that a little boy named Lorenzo gets a memento with his name properly spelled.
As a woman says in the film, "It's nice to have a connection back to Mister Rogers, since he's no longer with us. At least we still have Mr. McFeely." The woman is sitting on a porch swing on a replica of the "Neighborhood" set that is part of a traveling museum exhibit that happened to be in Baltimore.
Whether it's a pregnant woman whose eyes well up when she sees the Daniel Tiger puppet or a preschooler in a Superman T-shirt who may not realize the evergreen nature of the show, museum patrons and millions of others know and love the "Neighborhood."
It was during one of Newell's many public appearances that the seed was planted for what would become "Speedy Delivery," also the name of Mr. McFeely's messenger service and his signature phrase.
In fall 2005, Germain was waiting for his girlfriend during the opening of Pittsburgh Mills Mall when he spotted a familiar face.
"I looked at him and, being a fan of pop culture and children's television, I recognized him but I had so many questions. I went up to him and I said, 'Are you the real Mr. McFeely?' And he said, 'Yes, I am. I'm him, I've been playing him for 37 years.' "
And Germain thought, "Thirty-seven years? That's unbelievable. ... Why was he still playing this role? A lot of actors like to not be typecast as playing the same kind of character, and here's a guy who's embraced a character for almost four decades."
A friendship sprouted as Newell began asking Germain questions about his class work and interests, the filmmaker recalled in a phone interview from Studio City, Calif. "I was so taken aback by how genuine and authentic he was."
Germain later took Newell up on an offer to visit Family Communications Inc. That's the nonprofit organization founded by Rogers in 1971 as the production company for the TV show and based at WQED.
"I thought, in making a documentary about him, people could benefit from seeing the way that David has chosen to live his life. Playing this character and interacting with people in a very positive way on a very regular basis."
As a child in Florida, the 26-year-old Germain tilted more toward "Sesame Street" than "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," but he watched both.
"I certainly remember the feeling that I would get when I watched it as a child; that's something that's stuck with me forever and that feeling is the same feeling I get when I watch it today ... a familiar, comfortable, safe feeling."
A graduate of Lafayette College and Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz School, Germain spent two weeks watching episodes of the show -- especially the final one with a noteworthy handshake between Rogers and Newell -- and trailing his subject in the summer of 2006.
"He gave us his calendar and he said, 'Here's what I'm doing this summer,' and we tagged along to almost everything. Really getting to see what he was like in Pittsburgh, out of Pittsburgh, on stage, off stage, in costume, out of costume, and I picked what I thought were the moments and the events that really showed the things that I appreciated about David."
Seeing Newell and his fans on the replica of the set in Baltimore was key.
"It's as if walking into a building and seeing something from your childhood that's very tangible and you can go up to that person, you can speak with him. And it's a very pure, fulfilling experience for people who grew up with the 'Neighborhood' to meet David, especially because he's like everything you'd expect and more."
Newell's wife, Nan, and two of their three children are interviewed, as are Fred's widow, Joanne Rogers, colleagues from FCI and many others. Newell, seen in his cluttered office and at home, talks about his childhood, how he got the role, the joy of collaborating with Rogers and where Newell ends and McFeely begins.
"Speedy Delivery" is the first full-length feature for Germain, who made a documentary short called "Superfan" about a sports fan from Easton, Northampton County, where he went to college.
He and co-producer Stuart Friedel shot 40-plus hours of footage and gained permission to mix it with actual clips and music from the show. Friedrich Myers, another CMU grad, handled the audio mix, and CMU grad Bryan Senti composed and performed the score.
In the end, Germain says, "Speedy Delivery" turned into a tribute to Newell, a character study and a nostalgic retrospective. "He's not just a man talking to a kid; he is a role model and a father figure and a celebrity to an audience that doesn't yet understand the concept of celebrity," the filmmaker suggests.
"He understands that his role as Mr. McFeely brings a lot of responsibility and David says -- and this is a very important quote -- that attitudes are caught, not taught." That was a favorite phrase of Rogers, and it still echoes in the FCI offices today.
Germain would love to see "Speedy Delivery" (see www.speedydeliverymovie.com) land in some film festivals, find a distributor and, ideally, end up on public television. He knows that a sentimental salute might be a tough sell to festivals hungry for critical, political or war-themed documentaries.
"It's a little bit harder to sell a film that's a documentary about what's right with the world instead of a film that's about what's wrong with the world," he said. "I hope it will find a home."
"Speedy Delivery" will be shown at 8 p.m. tomorrow at Regent Square Theater, 1035 S. Braddock Ave. Tickets are $7, $5 for card-holding members of WQED and the Children's Museum. You can buy tickets at door or by calling 412-681-5449 or visiting Pittsburgh Filmmakers, 477 Melwood Ave. Discussion will follow the movie.
First Published April 9, 2008 12:00 am