One Friday in September of 2010, Crystal and I went to The Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. The trip began with an email to me, forwarded from Crystal, the subject line reading: "Because Andy Likes Puppets...."
It's true: I do like puppets. In fact, I adore them. My mascot for another blog I used to keep was a puppet. A chimpanzee. His name is Jean Louis, and I've had him since childhood, but he hasn't always been Jean Louis. He used to be George. He became Jean Louis in graduate school at Ole Miss, when my sense of irony and existential angst was sharpest. Now, I tend to think of him as JL. Something else you may not know: JL enjoyed a brief run in pictures in the early part of this decade, most them directed by and co-starring me (no, you'll never see them; no one will, save those who knew me then, and with any luck they'll keep their secrets). In my favorite of these, JL was a homicidal phantom tormenting a lonely guy struggling to sell his novel (those first few years after earning the MFA were hard, creatively).
Of course, none of this has anything to do with Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which was the reason for our trip to the Center for Puppetry Arts that Friday. In the email Crystal sent me, the Center was advertising a 7 p.m. event: "Mr. McFeely Remembers: A Tribute to Fred Rogers." Tickets were ten dollars. In my mind, this constituted what one sometimes refers to as "a once-in-a-lifetime-event," the opportunity to hear the Speedy Deliveryman from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood talk about what it was like to work with a man widely recognized as the greatest television "communicator" in the history of the medium. Also, it was a chance to see part of my childhood -- part of all of our childhoods -- in person. Nothing short of momentous, of course.
We arrived at the center early to wander through the museum, which is essentially a shrine to Jim Henson's Muppets and the art of puppetry throughout the ages. The parking lot was empty, save a white Toyota pickup driven by a round little man who pulled in shortly after we did. We sat in the car for a moment, wondering if we were in the right place, so deserted was the lot. The man in the pickup sat there, too. Crystal joked it might be Mr. McFeely. After all, wouldn't a speedy deliveryman be early? We got out, went in, and, once told that the theater would open in about an hour, were admitted to the museum.
We were standing just inside the entrance, reading something on the wall about the history of puppetry, when the man from the Toyota walked in behind us. I heard the girl at the desk greet him, saying, "We're so glad you're here!"
"Hello," the man said, and the sound of his voice was like the opening of a door to a place deep inside me. He might as well have said: "Speedy delivery!"
The white Toyota. It was him. I froze. I let him pass, and then I whispered to Crystal: "That was him!"
How to explain what I meant. It wasn't awe or admiration for David Newell, the actor, who had walked by. I've never understood celebrity worship, especially minor celebrities of the TV or local radio station variety. What I felt pass me in the corridor there in a museum dedicated to the wonder of puppetry was not him the guy who played Mr. McFeely, but him the friendly and benevolent ghost of childhood past.
We wandered on through the exhibits of Fraggles and Muppets, each new corner surprising and delighting with original puppets from Labyrinth, Sesame Street, and The Muppet Show (the frayed stitching of Rowlf the Dog, Ernie in his glass case, somehow lonely without Bert).
The auditorium upstairs opened and began to fill. We took our seats. We waited. The air in the room charged. Two women several rows back had puppets out, little green homemade monsters that seemed every bit as lively and happy to be here as we. 7:00 came. Then 7:05. Crystal and I made nervous jokes: Mr. McFeely was backstage, snorting mounds of cocaine, a bottle of bourbon being pried from his hand. Around six or seven after, the Center spokesperson took the stage and introduced David Newell, who mysteriously had not yet appeared. And then, of course, one of the doors to the auditorium opened down front and we all heard, "Speedy delivery!" and in darted Mr. McFeely in cap and uniform. It was cute, sure, but it also warmly undercut any last drops of irony that might have been hanging in the little black raincloud of adulthood above us.
What followed was a two-hour presentation in which it became apparent that Fred Rogers was, in fact, a saint of television. I was alternately delighted and moved, especially by the puppets, on which Newell chose to focus a great deal of his presentation, appropriately enough given the venue. Rogers did most of his own puppetry, as well as the voices, turns out. In the Q&A that followed, people asked oddly geeky questions about particular episodes, some of which I thought missed the point of everything we'd seen. Even Newell seemed a little surprised by the precision of one or two questions regarding a purple dancing bear or some such thing, but he was gracious and generous with his time and love.
I was oddly touched by the couple sitting in front of us. Probably our age, the man had obviously grown up -- like we all had -- with Mister Rogers, but he had perhaps grown sideways with him, as well. Newell showed excerpts from the show, and the guy in front of us would elbow his girl before a clip or an outtake like a kid gearing up for his favorite scene in a movie. Daniel Tiger sings about being a mistake: here it comes, here it comes!
It reminded me of how, one aimless year between college and graduate school, when I had lived at home with my parents and taken night classes at a school fifty miles away following my first break-up with a girl, I had spent the days having lunch with Mister Rogers on PBS. I had found him again at a time in my life when I needed a certain kind of comfort, the affirmation that someone somewhere liked me just the way I was.
JL sits quietly on my shelf in my office now. Has sat quietly for almost seven years. Every now and then, when I'm blue about life, creativity, writing, art, I think he may come out and make one last impromptu appearance. Like Sir Didymus and his friends, I guess, he's there when I need him. It's comforting: how the ghosts of childhood are ever with us. Sometimes we meet them in the flesh. Sometimes we animate them ourselves. Either way, what wondrous friends they are.
A version of this post originally appeared via The Banana Tree of Jean Louis in 2010.