After Lady Elaine awarded everybody first place in an arts contest in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and the trolley rang its bell and rolled around the corner, Fred Rogers looked at the camera and said in that voice of unconditional love that can sound more sincere than one's own parents': "I like being your television neighbor. It's such a good feeling to know you're alive."
Then Mister Rogers hung up his cardigan and said goodbye to the Neighborhood for the last time yesterday in one of the most striking final episodes of a beloved television series in recent years.
What was unusual was the lack of that "M*A*S*H"-"Cheers"-"Seinfeld" kind of stuff viewers have come to expect -- no summing up of main characters such as Mr. McFeely, Neighbor Aber, King Friday XIII, Lady Elaine Fairchilde and Cornflake S. Pecially. No network publicity campaign. No hugs and tears and farewells forever.
In fact, there was no acknowledgement at all that this was the last new installment in the pathbreaking children's show, at 33 the longest-running program on public television.
Everything was exactly as it always has been, and always will be. "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" passed seamlessly into the ever-everland of reruns. Except for a Labor Day break, it will continue to air weekdays at 11:30 a.m. on WETA, among such fare as "Sesame Street," "Barney & Friends" and "Arthur."
So it wasn't a sad day in the Neighborhood.
Rogers has tackled some tough subjects over the years -- divorce, death, the first day of school -- but he wasn't about to undermine the Neighborhood with petty distinctions between fresh and canned content. The gift of the Neighborhood to a child is stability, tranquillity, ritual -- and adventure only in controlled doses.
Officials at his nonprofit Pittsburgh-based company, Family Communications, which produces the show, also emphasized continuity through reruns and ongoing ventures, including Mister Rogers Web sites (www.misterrogers.org and a big presence at www.pbs.org), educational books and child development videos.
"It's been quite a run, and we're not over yet," David Newell, a company spokesman who has played Mr. McFeely the deliveryman since Day One, said in an interview yesterday. "We'll have another 33 years."
Rogers was traveling and not available for comment, Newell said. On Aug. 22, USA Today quoted Rogers: "Have you ever been in a situation where you know it was just the right time to make a change? . . . I feel sorry for people who feel that they have to continue in one certain field because they're expected to."
At 73, Rogers is still vigorous, swimming a mile a day, Newell said. But lately he has created only about two or three weeks of new television programming each year anyway, filling the rest of his time slots from a library of about 300 shows made since 1979. Earlier shows are not deemed up to modern production standards, said Associate Producer Hedda Sharapan.
So this is a milestone that's not a milestone. Kids probably won't even notice -- a new audience grows in and out of the show every couple of years.
But former kids used the occasion as an excuse to remember what a refuge and a horizon the Neighborhood was for them. And parents took the time to say thanks for all the lessons they have learned about raising children from this preternaturally benign ordained Presbyterian minister with a talent for puppetry and piano playing.
Only Mister Rogers would have thought of using the passing of a goldfish to help children explore feelings about death, or have a character dressed in evening clothes sing, "We're coming back, we're coming back," to explain that parents really will return when they leave a babysitter in charge.
Peggy Charren, the founder of Action for Children's Television, was in the kitchen when she first encountered "Mister Rogers." Her younger daughter Claudia, then 4, was watching television in 1968, and Mom heard this man on the air singing about how everybody looks different and how that's okay. Yesterday, Charren remembered having thought: "For Pete's sake, they've got a singing psychiatrist on public television."
About a year later, Claudia turned on the show and exclaimed to the screen: "Mister Rogers, Mister Rogers, I started school today."
"She was smart enough to know he's probably the only character on television who's interested in the fact she started school," said Charren, who, in addition to all she says she learned about parenting from Rogers, also has a professional advocate's opinion about him.
"He's one of the few people on TV for children who talks slowly and softly," she said. "It's such a contrast to the fast-paced popular culture of kids."
At Capital Kids child-care center in the District yesterday, Director Sharon Charyn recalled watching "Mister Rogers" when she was growing up. But the 65 children at the center prefer "Sesame Street" and "Barney," she said. "I think children today would still be able to appreciate him, but they just don't know as much about him."
Perhaps Rogers's commitment to the same leisurely pace and low-tech production has kept him from connecting with kids lately. The average rating for the program this season is about .7 percent of television households, or 680,000 homes, down from a peak of 2.1 percent -- 1.8 million homes -- in the mid-1980s, according to PBS. He's on 304 stations.
But officials point out that audience share for television shows on all networks has declined over the same period. "He's still a favorite among our preschool audience," said Dara Goldberg, a spokeswoman for PBS.
Rogers's colleagues are unapologetic about the refusal to bend with the times -- something they say isn't in their boss's character anyway.
"What we started from was not how children are watching television, what grabs their attention," said Sharapan. "We started from the other side -- what helps children grow and learn."
During the making of the last episode, which was taped Dec. 1, Rogers did not want a spectacle. Outsiders were kept away; the media weren't invited, just the extended Mister Rogers family. In tribute, the whole crew, men and women, wore cardigans.
"When Fred sang, 'I'm proud of you,' that's when I burst into tears," Sharapan said.
The last delivery by Mr. McFeely -- Rogers's middle name is McFeely -- was a videotape of artists at work, which Mister Rogers showed as part of the day's art theme. Then McFeely shook Rogers's hand, the first handshake between the two characters in 33 years. It was the only clue that this was the end of something, Newell explained yesterday.
Adjusting his suit coat, and preparing to exit through the flimsy brown door of the strange make-believe house without a bedroom, Mister Rogers turned to the camera and waved.
"Be back next time," he said. "Bye-bye."