Sunday, June 7, 2009

Why we moved to Pittsburgh- the real-life Mister Rogers Neighborhood.

When people ask why we love living in Pittsburgh-- and as you will see- it is not a simple adoration, but as often a love/hate thing-- the reason is simple: The people. I'm told that Josie Carey, the woman who hosted the show where Fred Rogers first appeared called "The Children's Corner" used to end all her shows by saying "This is Pittsburgh. We live here and we like it."

Where we live in Pittsburgh--- in the city's East End-- is the real-life "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Fred lived there most of his last 40 years while making his show and a lot of the neighbors you see on the show actually are from around the corner.

You won't believe this story, but I'll tell it anyway. (Or maybe it's me who can't believe it.) Before we left L.A., we went to Campbell's pediatrician, Dr. Aviva Biederman, and she recommended that if we were leaving, we should get one book which she felt was good at helping children cope with a move. It was probably out of print she said, but she recommended "The Mister Rogers' Moving Book." I don't know how familair she was with Fred Rogers-- she came from another country so did not grow up with him-- and almost certainly did not know that Fred was from Pittsburgh. Frankly, I hadn't thought about it much myself-- except that his son Jamie went to my high school-- though he was a year older which seemed way older back then. I think i remember being over at Jamie's house once in the kitchen-- a house on Beechwood Boulevard. And I think I may have seen Fred at a restaurant called "Stoufer's" once. But that was the extent of it.

So I order the "Mister Roger' Moving Book" off of Ebay. The well-worn book arrives. It has a stamp "Discard" in it from the library it belonged to in Iowa or somewhere. We read the book to Campbell which has pictures of another family moving and talking about how moving can affect us emotionally. The book seems as theurapeutic for me as it does for Campbell.

Cut to, as we say, in my old Hollywood life, us meeting Campbell's new pre-school teacher at Rodef Shalom temple-- the temple I grew up with. But Ms. Mimsie seems vaguely familiar-- yet I did not know her. Still, as she speaks, this sweet, kind woman, we can't help feel we know her. It is not till weeks later when we realize that Mimsie is the woman on the cover of the Mister Rogers' moving book and that in fact, the pictures in the book are of her and her husband (now divorced) and their young son Andy-- who in fact is that boy going to college who we met. Mimsie modestly explains that the book was done when they were moving into their new house which she still lives in.

As if that is not enough, it turns out that Dave Bartholomae, the head of the English department. He was on the show coaching soccer. I actually get to see the episode and there is Fred Rogers in his sweater talking on the phone (i didn't remember he had a phone in his place) saying how our neighbor Dave Bartholomae is going to teach us about soccer. And soon Fred is out on a field listening to Dave explain the basic rules of soccer.

And we soon learn that the pediatrician everyone recommends-- well, she was on the show. As will be so many who we meet on this journey.

But the metaphor of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" will also have another poignant application. For my favorite part of the show was always when Mr. McFeely, the delivery man, would bring Mister Rogers tapes of how they made things: crayons, combs, furniture, bicycles, you name it. All of those were filmed locally around the Pittsburgh area too. But unlike many of the real life neighbors, most of those factories are gone now.

And that's why the driving question of Pittsburgh becomes what is now the driving question of America-- which by the way is just a collection of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." What can we make now, asks David Newell, the man who played McFeely for 40 years. "Cause the steel industry is not going to come back like it once was. We'd all like it to, but it's just not going to. So what industry can we replace that with?" he asks in "My Tale of Two Cities."

It is that question which has gotten me in such trouble. Because, perhaps it is a Don Quixote dream, but now that Fred Roger's studio at the world's first public television remains empty, I wonder why can't we replace it with the business I learned in L.A.-- entertainment-- which by the wya, is one of the few things that can't be totally outsources as wherever they shoot movie and TV shows, they remain American stories.

It may seem like a crazy idea, but the entertainment industry is a bigger industry in this country than the automobile industry and the steel industry combined. And Pittsburgh is the home of the first movie theater, the first commercial radio station (KDKA), the first public TV station (WQED) and little would I realize, a huge list of successful folks both in front of and behind the camera. (See the Pittsburgh list at www.steeltown.org or www.pittinhollywood.org)

In November 2002, upon realizing all this, I wrote an op-ed piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette which started a chain of events which I am still reeling from. It was called "Pittsburgh's Next Industrial Revolution: Entertainment"-- titled by John Alison-- in which I argued that Pittsburgh's greatest export is no longer steel, but talent-- talent which makes not millions, but billions of dollars each year for others. That set into motion this idea of trying to get Pittsburgh entertainment expatriates to try to come back and help the city.

Here's "Pittsburgh's Next Industrial Revolution: Entertainment"

http://www.post-gazette.com/forum/comm/20021124edkurl24p1.asp

So after that, we had this "Pittsburgh Entertainment Summit: the Steeltown Entertainment Project held at WQED in October 2003 where folks like Rob Marshall (director, CHICAGO), Bernie Goldman (producer, "300"), Eric Gold (manager Jim Carrey), Terri Minsky (creator, LIZZIE MAGUIRE), Peter Ackerman (writer, ICE AGE), Jamie Widdoes, (director, TWO AND A HALF MEN) and others gathered to talk about helping the city. See www.steeltown.org for some stuff and pics about that.

I guess that is the dream-- not to necessarily have everyone live in Pittsburgh, but to have Pittsburgh be a place where talented people come with the best of their projects t0 do programming which what Fred Rogers used to say would "make good attractive."

Maybe it is kind of crazy. But the real life "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" neighborhood has to make something. And the truth is there has been some progress.

One of the things that made me want to start to write this blog was something that happened on Friday. I went to a hearing on the film tax credit and could hardly get into the room which was packed with people testifying as to how they have been working as part of the over 500 million dollars of related income which the next film tax credit has brought to the state has touched their lives. More on that in the next blog.

Ironically, I have to go get ready to take Campbell to the Fred Rogers' Memorial Scholarship Awards here in Los Angeles. Our real-life neighbor out here, SpongeBob (Tom Kenny who does the voice) has graciously agreed to host the proceedings. Turns out he and his wife Jill are big fans of the "Neighborhood" with a TIVO full of episodes which they show their kids.

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