Rogers, Fred, 1928-2003.
Fred Rogers was the host of the popular long-running public television children's show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. The show debuted in Pittsburgh in 1967 and was picked up by PBS the next year, becoming a staple of public TV stations around the United States. Rogers' mild manner, cardigan sweaters and soft speaking voice made him both widely beloved and widely parodied. Rogers ended production of the show in 2001, but reruns of the show continued to be aired on many PBS stations. He died in 2003 after a short battle with stomach cancer.
Fred Rogers, Host of 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,' Dies at 74
By DANIEL LEWIS
New York Times, Feb. 28, 2003
Fred Rogers, the thoughtful television neighbor whose songs, stories and heart-to-heart talks taught generations of children how to get along in the world, died yesterday at his home in Pittsburgh. He was 74.
The cause was stomach cancer, said David Newell, a family spokesman who also portrayed Mr. McFeely, of the Speedy Delivery Messenger Service, one of the regulars on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
Mr. Rogers entered the realm of children's television with a local show in Pittsburgh in 1954. But it was the daily half-hour "Neighborhood" show, which began nationally on public television in 1968 with homemade puppets and a cardboard castle, that caught on as a haven from the hyperactivity of most children's television. Let morphing monsters rampage elsewhere, or educational programs jump up and down for attention; "Mister Rogers" stayed the same year after year, a low-key affair without animation or special effects. Fred Rogers was its producer, host and chief puppeteer. He wrote the scripts and songs. Above all he supplied wisdom; and such was the need for it that he became the longest-running attraction on public television and an enduring influence on America's everyday life.
For all its reassuring familiarity, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was a revolutionary idea at the outset and it remained a thing apart through all its decades on television. Others would also entertain the young or give them a leg up on their studies. But it was Fred Rogers, the composer, Protestant minister and student of behavior who ventured to deal head-on with the emotional life of children.
"The world is not always a kind place," he said. "That's something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it's something they really need our help to understand." He believed that even the worst fears had to be "manageable and mentionable," one way or another, and because of this he did not shy away from topics like war, death, poverty and disability.
In one classic episode he sat down at the kitchen table, looked straight into the camera and calmly began talking about divorce: "Did you ever know any grown-ups who got married and then later they got a divorce?" he asked. And then, after pausing to let that sink in: "Well, it is something people can talk about, and it's something important. I know a little boy and a little girl whose mother and father got divorced, and those children cried and cried. And you know why? Well, one reason was that they thought it was all their fault. But, of course, it wasn't their fault."
When the Smithsonian Institution put one of Mr. Rogers's zippered sweaters on exhibit in 1984, no one who had grown up with American television would have needed an explanation. He had about two dozen of those cardigans. Many had been knitted by his mother. He wore one every day as part of the comforting ritual that opened the show: Mr. Rogers would come home to his living room — a set at WQED-TV in Pittsburgh — and change from a sports coat and loafers into sweater and sneakers as he sang the words of his theme, "It's a beaut-i-ful day in this neighborhood . . . won't you be my neighbor?"
This would be followed by a talk about something that Mr. Rogers wanted people to consider — maybe the obligations of friendship, or the pleasures of music, or how to handle jealousy. Then would come a trip into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where an odd little repertory company of human actors and hand puppets like King Friday XIII and Daniel Striped Tiger might dramatize the day's theme with a skit or occasionally stage an opera.
The show had guests, too, often musicians like Wynton Marsalis or Yo-Yo Ma, and field trips. Mr. Rogers would venture out to show what adults did for a living and the objects made in factories, passing along useful information along the way. Visiting a restaurant for a cheese, lettuce and tomato sandwich, he would stop to demonstrate the right way to set a table. And the sign that said restroom? It just meant bathroom, and most restaurants had them, "if you have to go."
Among his dozens of awards for excellence and public service, he won four daytime Emmys as a writer or performer between 1979 and 1999, as well as the lifetime achievement award of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1997. Last year President George W. Bush gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
No visit to the Neighborhood was complete without the counsel and comfort to be found in his easy-to-follow songs, which covered everything from the beauty of nature to the common childhood fear of being sucked down the bathtub drain with the water. He wrote about 200 songs and repeated many of them so regularly that his viewers, most of them between 2 1/2 and 5 1/2 years old, knew them by heart.
"What Do You Do," about controlling anger, began this way:
What do you do with the mad that you feel
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong
And nothing you do seems very right?
What do you do? Do you punch a bag?
Do you pound some clay or some dough?
Do you round up friends for a game of tag?
Or see how fast you can go?
It's great to be able to stop
When you've planned a thing that's wrong.
Long ago, in the days before grown-ups learned how say to "mission statement," Mr. Rogers wrote down the things he wanted to encourage in his audience. Self-esteem, self-control, imagination, creativity, curiosity, appreciation of diversity, cooperation, tolerance for waiting, and persistence.
It was no coincidence that his list reflected the child-rearing principles gaining wide acceptance at the time; he worked closely with people like Margaret McFarland, a leading child psychologist, who was until her death in 1988 the principal adviser for "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
Like any good storyteller, he believed in the power of make-believe to reveal truth, and he trusted children to sort out the obvious inconsistencies according to their own imaginations, as when the puppet X the Owl's cousin, for example, turned out to be the human Lady Aberlin in a bird suit.
His flights of fantasy probably reached their apex in his extended comic operas; "trippy productions," as the television critic Joyce Millman called them, that were "a cross between the innocently disjointed imaginings of a preschooler and some avant-garde opus by John Adams." At least one of these works, "Spoon Mountain," was adapted for the stage. It was presented at the Vineyard Theater in New York in 1984.
Those who knew Mr. Rogers best, including his wife, said he was exactly the same man on-camera and off. That man had a much more complex personality than the mild, deliberate, somewhat stooped fellow in the zippered sweater might let on. One got glimpses of this in film clips of him behind the scenes, especially when working his hand puppets: here he wore a black shirt to blend into the background, became lithe and intense, and changed his voice and attitude like lightning as he switched back and forth between characters.
He was Henrietta Pussycat, who spoke mostly in meow-meows; the frequently clueless X the Owl; Queen Sara; the pompous and pedantic King Friday XIII; Lady Elaine Fairchilde, heavily rouged and evidently battle-tested in the theater of life; and others.
He inhabited his characters so artfully that Josie Carey, the host of an earlier children's series in which Mr. Rogers did not appear on camera, said that she would find herself confiding in his puppets and completely forgetting he was behind them.
He had known everything about puppets for a long time, since his solitary childhood in the 1930's. The story of how he and they came to appear together on television is a good one.
Fred McFeely Rogers was born in Latrobe, Pa., on March 20, 1928, the son of Nancy Rogers and James H. Rogers, a brick manufacturer. An only child until his parents adopted a baby girl when he was 11, and sometimes on the chubby side, he spent many hours inventing adventures for his puppets and finding emotional release in playing the piano. He could, he said, "laugh or cry or be very angry through the ends of my fingers."
He graduated from Latrobe High School, attended Dartmouth College for a year, and then transferred to Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., graduating magna cum laude in 1951 with a music composition degree. From there he intended to study at a seminary. But his timetable changed in his senior year when he visited his parents at home and saw something new to him. It was television.
Something "horrible" was on, he remembered — people throwing pies at one another. Still, he understood at once that television was something important for better or worse, and he decided on the spot to be part of it. "You've never even seen television!" was his parents' reaction. But right after graduating from Rollins he got work at the NBC studios in New York, first as a gofer and eventually as a floor director for shows like "The Kate Smith Evening Hour" and "Your Hit Parade."
In 1953 he was invited to help with programming at WQED in Pittsburgh, which was just starting up as this country's first community-supported public television station. The next year he began producing and writing "The Children's Corner," the show with Ms. Carey, and he simply brought some puppets from home and put them on the air. In its seven-year run, the show won a Sylvania Award for the best locally produced children's program in the country, and NBC picked up and telecast 30 segments of it in 1955-56.
Meanwhile, Mr. Rogers had not given up his other big goal. Studying part-time, he earned a divinity degree from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1962. The Presbyterian Church ordained him and charged him with a special mission: in effect, to keep on doing what he was doing on television.
He first showed his own face as Mister Rogers in 1963 on a show called "Misterogers" when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation asked him to start a show with himself as the on-camera host. The CBC-designed sets and other details became part of the permanent look of Rogers productions. But as for Canada, Mr. Rogers and his wife, Joanne, a pianist he had met while at Rollins, soon decided they should be raising their two young sons back in western Pennsylvania.
He is survived by his wife, their sons and two grandchildren.
Mr. Rogers returned to WQED where, in 1966, "Misterogers' Neighborhood" had its premiere in its fully developed form. It was distributed regionally in the East, and then, in 1968, what became PBS stations began showing it across the country.
In their own way, the shows and Mr. Rogers's production company, Family Communications, constituted one of the country's more stable little industries. Underwriting by the Sears, Roebuck Foundation provided long-term financial security. Technicians, collaborators and cast members like Mr. McFeely, the deliveryman, enjoyed virtual lifetime employment. (Did anyone not know that McFeely was Mr. Rogers's middle name, which came from his maternal grandfather?)
The unlikelihood of such an institution, along with Mr. Rogers's mannerisms — that gleaming straight-ahead stare, for instance, which could be a little unnerving if you really thought about it — made parody inevitable. Perhaps the most famous sendup was on "Saturday Night Live," with Eddie Murphy as a black "Mr. Robinson" who lamented: "I hope I get to move into your neighborhood some day. The problem is that when I move in, y'all move away." When Mr. Murphy later met Mr. Rogers, it was reported, he did what most everyone else did. He gave him a hug.
Mr. Rogers was a vegetarian and a dedicated lap swimmer. He did not smoke or drink. He never carried more than about 150 pounds on his six-foot frame, and his good health permitted him to continue taping shows.
But two years ago he decided to leave the daily grind. "I really respect opera singers who stop when they feel that they're doing their best work," he said at the time, expressing relief. The last episode was taped in December 2000 and was shown in August 2001, though roughly 300 of the 1,700 shows that Mr. Rogers made will continue to be shown. (In the New York area the show is on Channel 13, WNET, at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays; on Channel 50, WNJN, at 2 p.m. weekdays; and on Channel 49, CPTV, at 1 p.m. weekdays.)
He took a few years off from production in the late 1970's, and later, toward the end of his long career, he cut back to taping 12 or 15 episodes a year. Although his show ran daily throughout those years, what his latter-day viewers saw was a mix of new material and reruns, the differences between them softened by a bit of black dye in Mr. Rogers's gray hair. As a spokesman for Mr. Rogers said, it didn't matter so much that the shows were repeated: the audience was always new.
Mr. Rogers kept a busy schedule outside the Neighborhood. He was the chairman of a White House forum on child development and the mass media in 1968, and from then on was frequently consulted as an expert or witness on such issues. He produced several specials for live television and videotape. Many of his regular show's themes and songs were worked into audiotapes. There were more than a dozen books, with titles like "You Are Special" and "How Families Grow.'
He was also one of the country's most sought-after commencement speakers, and if college seniors were not always bowled over by his pronouncements, they often cried tears of joy just to see him, an old friend of their childhood.
When he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999, he began his formal acceptance speech by saying, "Fame is a four-letter word." And now that he had gotten the attention of a house full of the industry's most powerful and glamorous names, he asked them to think about their responsibilities as people "chosen to help meet the deeper needs of those who watch and listen, day and night." He instructed them to be silent for 10 seconds and think about someone who had had a good influence on them.
Yesterday, Mr. Rogers's Web site, www.misterrogers.org, provided a link to help parents discuss his death with their children.
"Children have always known Mister Rogers as their `television friend,' and that relationship doesn't change with his death," the site says.
"Remember," it added, "that Fred Rogers has always helped children know that feelings are natural and normal, and that happy times and sad times are part of everyone's life."
'Mister Rogers' dies at age 74
Always gentle, always courteous, always a role model
Thursday, February 27, 2003 Posted: 2:00 PM EST (1900 GMT)
• Timeline: Life of a good neighbor
• Obituary: 'Mr. Rogers' dies at 74
• Fred and me: An appreciation
• Fred Rogers quotes
• Mr. Rogers' farewell TV show
• 'Mr. Speedy Delivery' talks about his neighborhood
• Video: Lifelong children's advocate
• TIME.com: I was Mr. Rogers' neighbor
• 'Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood'
PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Fred Rogers, better known as television's "Mister Rogers," a cultural icon and kindly neighbor to generations of American children, died Thursday at the age of 74.
Rogers died at his home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after a brief battle with stomach cancer, according to a spokeswoman for his production company.
David Newell, a Rogers family spokesman, told The Associated Press that Rogers was exactly as he appeared on TV.
"He was so genuinely, genuinely kind, a wonderful person," said Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on the show. "His mission was to work with families and children for television. ... That was his passion, his mission, and he did it from Day One."
Rogers began developing his ideas for children's programming in the 1950s. He is best known for "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," which began in its early form in 1963 as a show on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Rogers took the idea to the United States and in 1967, the first "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" aired on Pittsburgh's WQED. A year later, PBS picked it up.
The last original "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" aired in 2001, making it PBS's longest-running program ever.
Rogers emphasized his advocacy for children in a 1993 speech, when he was honored for 25 years on the air nationally.
"We have to remember to whom the airwaves belong, and we must put as great an emphasis on the nurturing of the human personality as we can," he said.
More than entertainment
Fred McFeely Rogers was born in 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, 40 miles east of Pittsburgh. He studied music composition in college -- which helped him write songs for his show later -- and, in the 1950s, he worked as a puppeteer for "The Children's Corner," a show he and Josie Carey launched on WQED. Many of the characters who later appeared on "Neighborhood" were created on that show.
In 1963, he was ordained a Presbyterian minister with a charge to continue his work with children and families through television.
"I thought there was some way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen," Fred Rogers once said.
From the beginning, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was deliberately simple and straightforward, marked by Rogers' purposeful actions and soothing voice. Every show he would enter his home, take off his jacket and shoes, and put on a sweater and comfortable footwear while offering a welcome for his viewers.
The slow-paced show offered an alternate universe to most of today's quick-edit cartoon children's programming. On the eve of his final show, Rogers told CNN's Jeff Greenfield he looked at the program as more than entertainment; it was a chance to reach young people and give them a foundation for a good life.
"I believe that those of us who are the producers and purveyors of television -- or video games or newspapers or any mass media -- I believe that we are the servants of this nation," Rogers said.
That's why he got into television in the first place.
"I got into television because I hated it so," he said. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."
Through the years, Rogers featured artists ranging from cellist Yo-Yo Ma to bodybuilder-actor Lou Ferrigno. He dealt with the death of pets and divorce, while teaching children to love themselves and others. During the Persian Gulf War, he made a series of public service announcements telling parents how to talk to their children about war.
"Children aren't responsible for wars," he said. "The least and best we adults can do is to let our children know that we'll take good care of them no matter what."
His recurring characters included Mr. McFeely and Lady Elaine Fairchilde, as well as puppets King Friday the Thirteenth, Daniel Striped Tiger and Curious X the Owl.
'I always thought I was a neighbor'
Rogers received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush in 2002.
"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" won dozens of awards, including four Emmys. A cardigan sweater belonging to Rogers hangs in the Smithsonian. In 2002, President George W. Bush presented Rogers with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, recognizing his contribution to the well-being of children and a career in public television that demonstrated the importance of kindness, compassion and learning.
Through it all, he maintained his down-to-earth, easygoing nature.
"I have really never considered myself a TV star," he said in a 1995 interview. "I always thought I was a neighbor who just came in for a visit."
It was that honesty that came through in his show. "I do think that young children can spot a phony a mile away," he said.
Rogers also had a sense of humor about himself. He credited his mom for the fashion statement that says, more than anything else, "Won't you be my neighbor?"
"My mother made a sweater a month for as many years as I knew her," Rogers said. "And every Christmas she would give this extended family of ours a sweater.
"She would say, 'What kind do you all want next year?' " said Rogers. "She said, 'I know what kind you want, Freddy. You want the one with the zipper up the front.' "
Then there was the endless parodies, most notably by comedian Eddie Murphy, who played his own version of Mister Rogers on "Saturday Night Live."
Rogers knew for a fact that Murphy meant no harm with his humor. In fact, they met once.
"He just put his arms around me and said, 'The real Mister Rogers,' " he said.
Colleagues in shock
Rogers made his last public appearance on January 1, 2003, when he served as a Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade, and tossed the coin for the Rose Bowl Game.
She would say, 'I know what kind you want, Freddy. You want the one with the zipper up the front.'
-- Fred Rogers on his mother, who made his sweaters
Marisa Lynch, who has worked for Family Communications Inc. for nearly 20 years, said she was in shock at his death.
"We just learned about his illness in January," she said. "Luckily, he didn't suffer."
Staff members rushed into work around 2:20 a.m. after hearing that Rogers had passed away, Lynch said.
"We're very loyal and dedicated," she said of the employees.
Rogers' nonprofit production company, Family Communications Inc., released a statement after his death. "We are grateful for the many people, young and old, who have cared about his work over the years and who continue to appreciate 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' on PBS. We hope that you'll join us in celebrating his life by reflecting on his messages and taking them into your everyday lives."
Rogers once said he hoped kids who watch "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" will take the show and its lessons with them as they grow into adults.
"We all long to be lovable and capable of loving," he said. "And whatever we can do through the Neighborhood or anything else to reflect that and to encourage people to be in touch with that, then I think that's our ministry."
Fred Rogers is survived by his wife Joanne Rogers, their two sons and two grandsons, according to his Web site.
Fred Rogers Was the Same On and Off Air
By FRAZIER MOORE
The Associated Press
Thursday, February 27, 2003; 5:31 PM
Born too soon to be a childhood fan of gentle Mister Rogers, I became an adult fan by meeting him.
What I found might not surprise his audience of millions. But any lingering skeptics might as well wake up to the truth: Fred Rogers was the same man in person as on television.
He was waiting at the elevator in the AP building a decade ago when we had our chance first encounter. I introduced myself, then blurted out that my wife and I were expecting a child. He burst into a grin.
"Ahhh," he said, "another chance to grow."
Here was a blessing and an "atta boy" and great good sense, all in one. Hearing it, I was never the same.
With his death Thursday at 74 from stomach cancer, Rogers now is rightly being remembered for his impact on children's television.
Those who grew up in the 1950s, as I did, watching the vaudevillian antics of cop- and sailor-clad kids' show hosts, can certainly appreciate the quantum leap Rogers represented.
Sure, Captain Kangaroo, whose CBS kids show premiered in 1955, was a kindly gent. But that master of the Treasure House was a fictional character no one ever confused with Bob Keeshan, who created and played him.
By contrast, Rogers simply brought his own warm, gentle manner to the TV neighborhood.
When he began the 34-year run of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" in 1966, it apparently never occurred to Rogers that what he had to offer wouldn't translate to TV, that nearly everything about his presence clashed with the prevailing style of kids' fare. (Even low-key Captain Kangaroo was plump and avuncular, suggesting Santa Claus, not boyish and gangly like Rogers.)
But that was the beauty of Fred Rogers: He never meant to be a leading man, at least in the show-biz sense of the term. Just as he was, he went on TV to tell kids: Love yourself for who you are.
And he wanted them to know one other thing: We're in this together.
"There's something inside each one of us, I think, that isn't all brave and strong," Rogers told me, "and I think that part looks for some kind of confirmation about the rest of who we are."
Those words are from a 1996 interview, with which, it seemed, he had summed up his life's neighborly mission.
But the next moment, he cautioned, "Now, I haven't said that too well. In fact, I've never said it before."
No apology. He was just reminding his listener not to take his words as gospel. For Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, life was a conversation, not a sermon.
"It would have been sad for me," he said, "to spend my life just trying to superimpose stuff on people rather than trying to encourage them to look within themselves for what's of value."
Our get-together lasted an hour or so, during which Rogers never wavered from his glowing, unhurried manner. Even a deadline-juggling, caffeine-jangled Manhattanite had no choice: Slow down, listen up, connect with the other guy.
Rogers spoke of a recently deceased writer friend who "just touches something in people that they long to hear," though he might as well have been referring to himself.
He asked a lot of questions. "I'd MUCH rather hear you talk about your life," he said mid-interview, "although I know that's not why we're here."
He noted with delight the people he was meeting on his New York trip, and the people who recognized and greeted him.
"So many people have grown up with the 'Neighborhood,' I'm just their dad coming along," he said. "You know, it's really fun to go through this life with this face."
But for Rogers, his own face wasn't the point. At the start of the interview, he had produced a small camera and, much to my surprise, asked to snap my picture.
He explained he did that often as he moved through the world. Why not? Any dad wants family photos.
Now his family will miss him.
For three decades,
"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" has been
an oasis of peace and calm, familiarity
and safety in a kid-unfriendly world.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Joyce Millman
August 10, 1999 | For the past 30 years, it has been a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Fred Rogers steps up onto the porch, opens the door and beams a wide, welcoming smile, as if we light up his life. He changes from his suit jacket to his zippered cardigan sweater, from his leather slip-ons to his navy blue canvas boat shoes, and sings, "Would you be mine, could you be mine, won't you be my neighbor?"
Outside Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, there has been Vietnam and Watergate, Chernobyl and Challenger, Ethiopian famine and ethnic cleansing, Oklahoma City and Littleton, Polly Klaas and JonBenet Ramsey. But inside, there is peace and calm, familiarity and safety. Troubling feelings and fears are gently explored. Reassurance is given. "The whole idea," Fred Rogers recently told Jeff Greenfield in a CNN interview, "is to look at the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who might feel that he or she needs it."
Love. Is it that simple? Mister Rogers thinks so. Yet many children go wanting. So Rogers has dedicated his life -- not just his career -- to making children's programming with love. Consistent, patient, respectful and pleasingly repetitive, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" is the longest-running show on PBS, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Rogers has resisted merchandising, razzle-dazzle, fads (though he did break dance once on the show) and technological flash (it took until 1999 for Rogers to agree to put up a "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" Web site), reasoning that children's basic needs don't change with the decades. The children of 1999, he told CNN, are "deep down, the same" as the children of 1969 (and, you can surmise, the children of 1909 and 2009): "We all long to be lovable, and capable of loving."
Fred McFeely Rogers (now you know where Mr. McFeely, the Neighborhood's Speedy Delivery man, got his name) was born on March 20, 1928, in Latrobe, Pa. He has lived in the state of his birth for most of his 71 years -- in fact, he received a "Pennsylvania Founder's Award" in June 1999 for his "lifelong contribution to the Commonwealth in the spirit of Pennsylvania's founder, William Penn." A pianist since age 9, Rogers majored in music composition at Rollins College in Florida. But after graduation, he became curious about the new medium of television and went to New York City to investigate. He worked for a couple of years as a floor manager for the NBC shows "Your Hit Parade" and "The Kate Smith Hour," but his heart wasn't in it. "I got into television because I hated it so," Rogers told CNN. "And I thought there's some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen."
Rogers married his college sweetheart, Sara Joanne Byrd (now you know where Queen Sara from the Neighborhood of Make Believe got her name), moved back to Pittsburgh and began experimenting with "educational television." In 1954, at Pittsburgh's WQED, the nation's first public television station, Rogers developed "The Children's Corner," a prototype for "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" that was the birthplace for several of the Neighborhood's puppets. In 1963, Rogers created a 15-minute version of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" for Canadian television, then returned to Pittsburgh where, the following year, WQED launched the series as a half-hour show. In 1969, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" began airing on PBS stations across the United States.
During the run of "The Children's Corner," Rogers began taking courses in child development; he also began attending the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In 1962, he became an ordained minister. Rogers' interest in nurturing both psyche and soul made "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" a children's programming original. His dove-ish gentleness and concern for allaying children's fears of war and nuclear annihilation (he did a landmark series of shows from the Soviet Union in 1987) made him a hero of progressive parenting. With his nondenominational approach to children's curiosity about God, death and spirituality, Rogers was a quiet advocate of "faith" and "values" long before they became political buzzwords. And his use of puppets to mirror children's feelings about, for instance, sibling rivalry or separation anxiety ushered in a new era of emotional frankness in children's programming. When his pet goldfish died, Mister Rogers didn't just get new ones; he told his viewers -- his "television neighbors" -- what happened, and used the occasion to talk about loss and sadness.
"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was carefully structured between fantasy and reality, play and seriousness, with the transitions signaled by the shoe-changing ritual and the summoning of the dinging Neighborhood Trolley to take us from Mister Rogers' living room, through a tunnel and into the Neighborhood of Make Believe. Music was also an intrinsic part of the show. Rogers has written more than 200 songs in his career, and he imparts many of his messages through simple lyrics that speak plainly to a child's concerns. Indeed, children's television advocate Peggy Charren has been quoted as saying that the first time she saw "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," she said to herself, "Oh, a singing psychologist for children!"
Rogers' song "Fancy on the Outside" ("Some are fancy on the outside/Some are fancy on the inside") deals with children's sexual interest and gender awareness. Timid Daniel the Tiger's song "Sometimes I wonder if I'm a mistake ... I'm not like anyone else I know" says it's OK for kids to be themselves. When Prince Tuesday sings to Queen Sara that he's going to marry her, she gently responds, "You're going to marry somebody like me." And Rogers' epic "What Do You Do?" offers a list of anger management tools for all ages: "What do you do with the mad that you feel when you feel so mad you could bite? ... Do you punch a bag?/Do you pound some clay or some dough?/Do you round up friends for a game of tag?/Or see how far you can go?/It's great to be able to stop when you've planned a thing that's wrong ..." Occasionally, the puppets and humans in the Neighborhood of Make Believe would take a whole week to prepare and mount an opera (written by Rogers), and these trippy productions about windstorms in Bubbleland and Wicked Knife and Fork Man's tormenting of the happy Spoon people were a cross between the innocently disjointed imaginings of a preschooler and some avant-garde opus by John Adams. (Please, oh please, Rhino Records -- put out a boxed set of Rogers' operas!)
Such surrealism, plus Rogers' ingenuous nerdiness, made "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" a natural target for hip parody, most notably Eddie Murphy's ghetto mirror-image "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood" on "Saturday Night Live." Rogers took the ribbing in stride for much of his career, never changing his approach, his demeanor or his sweaters. (A creature of habit, Rogers swims -- nude, thank you -- every morning, is a vegetarian, has never smoked or drank and has been married to the same woman for 47 years.) The one time in memory that Rogers' Zenlike serenity publicly snapped came in December 1998, when he filed a lawsuit in federal court in Pittsburgh over a Texas novelty store chain's sale of T-shirts displaying Rogers' photo with a superimposed handgun and the slogan, "Welcome to my 'hood." Rogers didn't just want the stores to halt sales -- he demanded that the shirts be destroyed.
Because "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" is such a quaint oasis of hope for families in confusing times, and because Mister Rogers is, well, Mister Rogers, he's often called upon to make sense of senseless events. In a 1998 Esquire cover profile, Rogers talked about how disturbed he was by the Paducah, Ky., high school prayer-circle shootings. Recalling news stories in which classmates of the shooter quoted his boasts about planning "something really big," Rogers told Esquire, "Oh, wouldn't the world be a different place if he had said, 'I'm going to do something really little tomorrow'?" And, of course, he was asked in that recent CNN interview for his advice about how parents' could explain the Columbine High School massacre to their children. Said Rogers, "Those children need to know that the adults in their lives will do everything they can do to keep them safe. It doesn't mean we're always going to be successful, but it does mean we're going to try."
But, increasingly, it seems that even a child advocate as devoted as Rogers is no match for the child-unfriendly mess America has made of itself, a mess of guns and political self-interest and inadequate parenting. We can't expect one man, even if he is Mister Rogers, to clean it all up. Yet, he tries. As "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" rolls on (he still makes a few new episodes every year, mixing them in with old ones), and as time takes its toll on the cast (woodworker Bob Trow and chef Don Brockett have both passed on), there seems to be a new urgency to Rogers' mission. It's the adults, perhaps even more than the children, whom Rogers is trying to reach these days.
"Children see television much the same way they see a refrigerator or a stove -- it's something that parents provide," he told Christian Century magazine in 1994. "In a young child's mind, parents probably condone what's on the television, just like they choose what's in the refrigerator or on the stove. That's why we who make television for children must be especially careful." But on CNN recently, Rogers used stronger words to make the same point: "I plead with everyone who is producing and purveying these atrocities to please remember the children."
Accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1998 Emmys, Rogers looked out over the star-studded audience and said, "All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are? Ten seconds of silence. I'll watch the time." He makes the same request at every speaking engagement now, from college commencements (he has more than 32 honorary degrees) to TV interviews to White House conferences. And grown-ups, from the president of the United States to network entertainment chiefs, close their eyes and oblige Mister Rogers with a moment of silence. It's the least they can do -- after all, it doesn't cost them any votes or profits.
So many of us have entrusted Mister Rogers with our preschoolers' hearts and minds. But did we expect him to do all the work? As our children outgrow "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," have we ourselves outgrown the unambiguous lessons of the show -- to love a child every day, to nurture self-esteem, to be there?
Lately, a traveling "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" exhibit, developed by the Pittsburgh Children's Museum and Rogers' Family Communications company, has been making the rounds of children's museums. It features a life-size replica of the "Mister Rogers" set, from the front porch swing to the kitchen table to the trolley to the fish tank to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, as well as a few pieces of memorabilia -- one of Mister Rogers' sweaters (famously knitted by his mother, Carolyn), a pair of well-worn brown Florsheim leather slip-ons (size 10 1/2), a pair of navy blue canvas boat shoes. The Sunday I visited the exhibit with my family, kids were delightedly playing with King Friday XIII and Queen Sara puppets in the castle, and flipping the switch to make the trolley go back and forth, and knocking on the door of Daniel's clock. But the parents were playing, too. They were taking turns at the piano; they were sitting on the porch swing rocking babies; they were making the puppets talk, doing art projects with preschoolers at the kitchen table, watching "how things are made" films on Picture Picture, helping their kids arrange the tiny furniture inside X the Owl's treehouse.
Watching the parents play (oh, OK, and pretending I was Lady Aberlin in the Neighborhood of Make Believe), I realized the purpose of this belated, uncharacteristic road show. This is Rogers' way of helping us remember the children we once were, to remember what we needed and wanted from our parents, what made us happy and secure: love, attention, consistency. It wasn't very much, and it was everything. I pushed a button on a jukebox and out came a lullaby, Fred Rogers' slow, unfussy voice filling the make-believe living room with warmth and light. "I'm taking care of you/Taking good care of you/For, once, I was very little, too/Now I take care of you."
salon.com | August 10, 1999