Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Mystery of Mr. McFeely & His Cigarettes

In the early days of the Neighborhood Archive, it was brought to my attention that one of the few catalogues of Neighborhood episodes that existed at that time -- the University of Pittsburgh's PittCat -- included a curious description for Episode 0037.

According to this description, at one point in the episode Mister Rogers "talks about how he is sometimes angered by Mr. McFeely's smoking."

Wait. What?!

Unfortunately, at that time there was no easy way to verify this information one way or the other. But it was detailed in this official academic catalogue, so it had to be true! Right? I mean, this episode was filmed in the late 1960s -- a time when smoking was much more socially acceptable than it is today.

Maybe Mr. McFeely was a indeed a smoker.

Not long after that, I had the opportunity for one of my first conversations directly with the staff of the Fred Rogers Company (now Fred Rogers Productions) -- some of whom would have been working on the Neighborhood program at that time.

But no one remembered anything. The response I got was one of curiosity but uncertainty. Sort of a "I don't think so. But maybe... I don't know."

It wasn't long after that when, with the help of the Fred Rogers Company, I began filling in gaps in the episode details found on the Neighborhood Archive site.

You'd better believe one of the first episodes I asked to see was Episode 0037! As I viewed the episode for the first time, I can't say I was surprised to find that there was no mention anywhere in the episode of Mr. McFeely (or anyone else) smoking.

With this new information -- or lack thereof -- the mystery continued as urban legends began to develop. The most common theory that surfaced was that a scene with Mr. McFeely smoking was originally in the episode but was replaced with new footage when the harmful effects of smoking started to be taken more seriously.

Pitched once again to those at the Fred Rogers Company, this theory could not be confirmed. In fact, at this time I learned that the University of Pittsburgh had been contacted about this content and expressed that the information in their system could not be changed. So even if the legend of the smoking Speedy Deliveryman was ultimately debunked, editing this information would require a significant amount of effort.

That's where the story stalled for many years -- with so many questions left unanswered.

Was Mr. McFeely ever a smoker? Was this originally part of a Neighborhood episode or not? Was this footage replaced? If so, is the original footage still in existence anywhere?

Fast forward to the late summer of 2019 -- over fifty years after Episode 0037 originally aired. It was at this time that an unexpected contact through Instagram opened the door to this mystery being solved once and for all!

We'll call the person who contacted me "J" so as to prevent a visit from the NIA (Neighborhood Intelligence Agency). J is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and, in the summer of 1994, he was one of the people responsible for writing the episode descriptions for the University Library System's online catalogue (called PittCat at the time). At that time, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was still in production as he and a co-worker began with documenting current episodes and working their way back to those from 1968.

According to J, the summaries in PittCat were transcribed from forms originally written by Fred Rogers himself. Each form listed a brief description of the episode as well as any characters and contributors for the episode. The episode entries were created using a networked CRT monitor and took roughly 15-20 minutes to prepare and type each one.

What I found most interesting about this process was J's confirmation that any errors -- deliberate or accidental -- could not be corrected after the entry was submitted due to the fact that the information was then transmitted to the Library of Congress. When an item (regardless of the medium) was added to the Pitt collection, the first step of documentation was to see if a Library of Congress record already existed for that specific title. In the case of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, of course, there was no Library of Congress record; hence, the need for J and his co-worker to create the entries. Once completed, the records were submitted to the OCLC (Online Catalogue of the Library of Congress). Pitt is considered a Federal Depository Library so the law requires this information to be shared with the Library of Congress. Once submitted, entries cannot be changed without official Library of Congress approval.

So back to Mr. McFeely and his alleged smoking habit.

As the process of entering information for each Neighborhood episode neared completion, J was growing tired of the tedium and found himself taking more frequent cigarette breaks. One morning, he was called into the office of his supervisor and reprimanded for his excessive time away from his responsibilities. In a passive-aggressive response to this confrontation, J wrote a line in the description for Episode 0037 about Mr. McFeely smoking.

The rest, friends and neighbors, is history.


1 comment:

Evelyn Kaehler said...

Great story! As a retired library cataloger, I can vouch for the accuracy of the description of the online cataloging process in the the 1990s. Those were the days! ;-) But OCLC has never been the "Online Catalogue of the Library of Congress." It was first called the Ohio College Library Center when it was founded in 1967, then the name was changed to Online Computer Library Center in 1981 as it expanded.