"Welcome, friends, to this special place. . . ." Those are Mister Rogers' dulcet tones, but this isn't his usual TV locale. Can it be? Fred Rogers is on the 'net? Yep. The "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" Web site launched Tuesday and it's as quietly reassuring and gently fun as you would expect from the soft-spoken PBS icon.
It's also designed as much for parents and other caregivers as for children, providing at every mouse click suggestions for offline activities, parenting tips and observations about child development.
Rogers himself is heard--all the favorite songs are here--and he is seen. Besides video clips, there are many photos from his childhood and beyond; a "Remember When" timeline of his life includes grainy film clips from his early TV show, "The Children's Corner," where he was a behind-the-scenes puppeteer. In the clip, he's cracking up his on-screen partner, Josie Carey.
In Mister Rogers' house, visitors can peek into his sweater-filled closet or take a video tour with Picture Picture to see how people make such things as toy wagons; they can arrange still photos from the tours to identify what happens in what order.
Click on the traffic light and there's a clapping game; in the kitchen, click on the table and build your own neighborhood by dragging and placing items; click on the sink and find a water-play activity.
Each time children enter the house, there's a surprise package on the table to open with a click, too, leading to a craft activity.
In the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, Lady Elaine's "How Do You Feel?" exhibit lets children explore emotions by creating different faces, and each character, from King Friday to X the Owl, has a coloring page. Electronic postcards of favorite characters from the show can be sent to pals, too, or visitors can e-mail Mr. Rogers or read letters sent by other kids.
Throughout, Rogers includes short texts to let caregivers know how the activities fit into a child's level of development and offers ways they can be expanded or built upon.
"Thoughts for All Ages" is a place to go for nurturing words about parenting, communicating and growing. It includes moving excerpts from some of the many college graduation speeches Rogers has given over the years.
For best access to the site, Internet Explorer 5 or Netscape 4.5, Shockwave plug-in and RealPlayer are recommended.
* "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" Web site, http://www.pbs.org/rogers.
Way Out West: If you overlook some overt preachiness about the evils of corporate greed and the blessings of good nutrition, there's fun to be had at "Charlie's Place," a 100-year-old restaurant out West, run by a widow named Kat and inhabited by the benign ghost of an old-time sheriff, Charles P. Longwood.
In Santa Monica Playhouse's Family Theatre musical, subtitled "The Amazing American Melodrama," Kat locks horns with villainous Leonard Q. Biggerfeller (John Waroff), who's after her homey health-food restaurant so he can tear it down and put up a shopping mall. Besides, he says, chili without grease just isn't chili.
Waroff, who looks more teddy bearish than wicked, gives the audience ample opportunity and plenty of encouragement to boo and hiss as he confides his dastardly plans to prevent Kat (Cydne Moore) from coming up with the mortgage payment.
If she can't, she and her spunky kid Andy (youth actor Juliet Berman) will have to pack up and move on. She doesn't know what Biggerfeller knows: that an old document, hidden somewhere in the restaurant, would foil his plans. Nor do Kat's feisty friends, waitresses Dinah (Robin Morale), Louise (Leah Mondry) and Tina (Irene Tassiopolus). (Some roles are played by other actors in some performances.)
Then Kat refurbishes an old, historic Sheriff Charles P. Longwood mannequin to serve as the restaurant's good-luck mascot. The legendary lawman (James Cooper), whose philosophy was "Never use a six-shooter when some straight-shootin' talk'll do," soon appears as a friendly spirit and lends a hand.
References, spoken and sung, to life-spoiling big corporations and junk food junkies are thuddingly unsubtle in the otherwise well-crafted show. Most of the polished musical numbers are highly enjoyable, especially the waitresses' rowdy good-ol'-girl choruses about strong women and Kat's wistful ballad about leaving the past behind. Last weekend's cast delivered the goods with tuneful confidence.
Chris DeCarlo and Evelyn Rudie (a.k.a. the actors Cooper and Moore) co-directed and together wrote the tale from a short story by Rudie's father, Emery Bernauer; Rudie did the mostly clever lyrics and hummable music.
Christopher Beyries' Southwestern-colored restaurant set design is nicely accented and uncluttered. Ashley Hayes did the serviceable costumes.
* "Charlie's Place," Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica, Saturdays and Sundays, 12:30 and 3 p.m. Ends June 27. $8. (310) 394-9779, Ext. 2.