Monday, September 10, 2012

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: The Chainey Umphrey Episode

Thou shall not revisit childhood classics.

I thought I had learned this lesson in college when I made Kraft macaroni and cheese for the first time since I was 12. As a freshman, I was looking for ways to avoid the university's noxious cafeteria food, so I turned to a staple of my childhood, which I recalled liking.

My, oh my! Had things changed! Either I had terrible taste in food as a kid, or I really suck at making macaroni and cheese. After doing the painstaking tasks of boiling water, cooking pasta, melting butter, and mixing in milk and cheese dust, I was rewarded with a bowl full of noodles covered in neon orange slime dotted with little pellets of  yellowy-orangey chalk.

Never again, I thought to myself. Never again will I make macaroni and cheese. Never again will I watch Jem or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Thundercats or Zoobilee Zoo. Never again will I try to wear Batman underwear. Never again will I willingly ruin my childhood.

Oops! Many years later, I, like Britney Spears, did it again. This weekend I was eager to take my mind off work, so I decided to take a stroll down memory lane, which led me right into Mister Rogers' Neighborhood of Disappointment. It turns out that the happy-go-lucky old man with cool cardigans and sneakers was actually a creeper. Just read his opening lyrics:

It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

It's a neighborly day in this beautywood,
A neighborly day for a beauty,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

I'm okay with the first strophe, but the second raises eyebrows. I don't know about you, but if an old man ever called me a "beauty" and then said, "Would you be mine?" I would think twice before striking up a conversation with him. Maybe I'm just being cynical, but look at his face!

After singing to us, Mr. Rogers reveals that he has a broken toy gymnast. He then proceeds to show little kids how to fix said toy by playing with nails, tacks, and pliers. He even shows them how they can store their tacks so that they don't lose sharp metal objects.

Not once does he mention that these objects are dangerous. So, kindergarteners, sure, go ahead and play with tacks. I'm sure you won't hurt yourself.

Mr. Rogers fixes the toy by sticking the right size tack in the hole. (It sounds dirtier when I say it.) And then he shows us how his little toy works. I live for Mr. Rogers's face. Pure joy!

Surprise surprise! He knows a young man who can do "gymnastics stunts" just like his toy. His name is Chainey Umprhey, but as Mr. Rogers reminds us:

"He's not a toy." Shut up. "He's a real person." No way. "And he practices his gymnastics in our neighborhood gym." ORLY? Liar, liar, pants on fire!

As a child, did you realize that Mr. Rogers was a dirty little fibber? The television series was filmed in Pittsburgh, and Chainey Umphrey grew up in Alburquerque. The two cities are over 1,500 miles apart. Pray tell, Mr. Rogers, how are the two cities in the same neighborhood?

Despite the distance, Mr. Rogers shows up outside of Chainey's gym and waltzes in wearing his tennis shoes. Anyone who has been to a gym knows that this is a HUGE no-no, but Mr. Rogers, being Mr. Rogers, can do whatever he wants.

And so can the gymnasts. A 12 year-old boy can spot another 12 year-old boy, and not to mention, he can look ever-so fashionable doing it. Yay for tube socks!

It's a good thing there are so many coaches around. You know, in case someone gets hurt.

What a terrible television debut.

Anyway, I am happy to see pommel horse get some coverage on American television, and Mr. Rogers is about as educated as the rest of the American public about the pommel horse. According to him, Chainey Umphrey does "flips" around the horse, and the future Dr. Umphrey is all like, "I don't know what to say to that. Is he for real?"

Chainey goes on to tell Mr. Rogers about the wonders of resin, or as the gymnasts say, "chalk." It helps them not to slip off the event. Mr. Rogers, always the skeptic, wants to see if that's true, so he asks Chainey to do a few skills for him. Chainey agrees, but first, he needs more chalk.

Maybe I went to a poor gym, but I feel like every coach has the "How much chalk is too much chalk?" talk with the kids. Since this gym is ostensibly run by kids, Chainey probably never had the talk. He just decides how much he needs, and clearly, he needs a lot. For pommel horse, mind you.

With his hands caked with chalk, Chainey begins his pommel horse routine. I'll fight the urge to lambaste a 15 year-old for his poor form on pommel horse. To Chainey's credit, he is performing with an 80s microphone pack on his back. (He didn't have that excuse when he was older, competing on the international stage, though.)

From pommel horse, the dynamic duo head to the parallel bars, where Chainey refers to 8" mats as "space mats." And Mr. Rogers shows us how to get down with our bad selves.

I think that I have seen this move before in rap videos, reggaeton videos, and hip hop clubs. All Fred needs is a girl.

Now that you have the image of Fred Rogers grinding on a girl burned in your mind, we can move on.

Once again, we find Mr. Rogers doing whatever the heck he wants. Not only is he wearing "street" shoes while traipsing over mats; he decides to crouch on Chainey's landing mat.

I wonder if there is an outtake reel somewhere in the PBS archives. I'm keen to know whether Chainey missed a handstand at some point and took out Fred. He came close a few times.

I'm also keen to know whether this photograph of Fred was Photoshopped.

I'm also keen to know what happened to this background gymnast with such lovely cast handstands.

But I digress. After Fred saw his life flash before his eyes, he decided that it was time to talk to Chainey about safety. Fred asks Chainey about his progression in the sport. Has he always been able to do these hard skills? Chainey tells Mr. Rogers that he started with forward rolls and "roll around the mat kind of things." Personally, I'm hoping that these "roll around the mat kind of things" appear in the 2013-2016 Code of Points.

I'd die if I saw a gymnast do a log roll into the corner.

Then, Fred asks Chainey about the need to have a "teacher" around, and Chainey confirms that it is very important to have a "coach" around. This statement, of course, is so ironic because adult coaches don't exist in this gym. It's very Make It or Break It. By that, I mean that the gym fosters a very–shall we say–safe and democratic environment. As far as I can tell, it's a gym for gymnasts, run by gymnasts.

Who needs Al Fong's gloves when you can spot with grips on?

Until this point, I was taking this show pretty seriously. I mean, how often did little kids see male gymnasts on TV in the 80s? And to start the show on the pommel horse? That takes some cojones.

But then things took a turn for the worse. Mr. Rogers asks Chainey a question that makes me go to that yelling place. He asks, "Do you ever do anything to music?"


And do you know what Chainey says? HE SAYS YES!

On behalf of every male gymnast who has been asked about his floor music, I am pissed. For the record, the men do not prance around to music, nor do they twirl ribbons.

But they do wear short shorts. Why? Well, as Chainey said, "It shows off more of my body."

Well, well, well. We have a little Magic Mike in the making, don't we?

Speaking of Mikes/mics, Chainey is no longer wearing his, so he has no excuse for his bad form.

Chainey opens his routine with a tucked double back, and afterwards, he turns and does a prone fall into his right split. This takes me back to a simpler time. A time when men had time to do things besides tumble. Seeing this reminds me how much I miss scales and splits in floor routines. Let's take a moment to mourn the loss of scales in floor routines.

Anyway, as I was saying, I miss splits. Funny thing, Chainey misses them, as well. Just in a different way.

I said I wouldn't lambaste a 15 year-old, but he deserved a cheap shot after lying to the world about his floor music.

Mr. Rogers, a judge of international elites, says to Chainey, "You're so graceful. You remind me of a dancer." And Chainey is all like, "I have 2 sisters who are dancers, so I must have learned something from them." Meanwhile, in the background, a girl is performing a scale with her foot sickled inwards.

Oh, irony of ironies!

From there, the dynamic duo heads to the high bar where they meet up with Chuck Aber and his elephant puppet. Chuck would like to make his elephant do flips just like Chainey, but he suspects that his puppet will need gears and batteries.

Trying to keep the conversation going, Fred makes a brilliant observation, one that is on par with many a television commentator: "You don't use batteries, do you, Chainey? You use yourself."

The three of them know that the joke bombed, and they can't make eye contact. Chainey doesn't know how to respond to that, so he hops up on the high bar, performing skills like a bent-legged straddle Jaeger and a full-twisting double pike flyaway. 

Unfortunately, as soon as Dr. Umphrey lands, the awkward conversation commences. Fred asks Chainey about his 2-year-old brother and whether Chainey would let the little guy do what he just did. The future doctor says, "I would never let him do anything I do up here on the bar."

To which I say, "No crap."

The two carry on about the need for safety in gymnastics before Fred exits the gym and invites us back to his place (Creepy!), where he drones on and on about the dangers of gymnastics. In other words, don't try a double back on your parents' bed or a Jaeger on the monkey bars at school. We get the picture. Now go back to playing with your toy, Fred.

Here ends the gymnastics part of the episode, but I would be remiss if I ended my post here. I mean, c'mon, I didn't even talk about the most disturbing part of this episode (or of any episode for that matter). We must talk about Lady Elaine.

As a child, I was terrified of this woman, and Facebook tells me that I am not alone. I mean, why is her nose so red? Does she have bad Rosacea? Is that what happens when you blow your nose too often? Or maybe when you drink too much? Or has she been snorting a little too much chalk? Or maybe there was a botched rhinoplasty? Or some botched bloodletting sessions?

We will never know, but what I do know is this: I'm never watching Mister Roger's Neighborhood ever again. (Unless there's another men's gymnastics episode that I'm forgetting.)


For those who come here to read about technique or current gymnasts, those posts are coming. I'm in the midst of working on a series of posts that actually require legitimate research, and that's slowing me down a bit. Sorry!


  1. Erm... The coaches at the gym I went to as a youngster definitely wore tennis shoes on the floor, they had a cheerleading/tumbling class where all of the students wore tennis shoes on the floor. And it's not like the gym was bad or anything... The team has won severel accolades, including a level nine national championship (ok, that was back in the nineties, but it was still the same staff) and over 100 individual state champions... There's no elite program, but I live in Texas, we already have more than enough of those.

  2. Did you know Chainey Umphrey was on Mr. Roger's a second time? It was in 1995 and the theme was "fast and slow." It's been a few years since I've seen it, but it definitely happened. I never knew he was on it in the 80s as well.

  3. I need to see this episode.

  4. Albuquerque. ALBUQUERQUE.
    Besides that, loved the post.

  5. Actually, alburquerque is the original spelling. The "r'' was dropped for ease of pronunciation by gringos. That's why locals refer to it as "burque". The more you know.