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#BornThisDay: Television’s Mister Rogers

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Photograph PBS via YouTube

 

March 20, 1928Frederick McFeely Rogers:

”What if you were offered an hour of live television every day? Can you imagine what it’s like to try to fill that up with something of value? I wanted to give the best I could.”

A few weeks ago, the soon to be defunded PBS aired a primetime special, hosted by actor Michael Keaton, who had been a stagehand on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood before becoming an actor. The show celebrates the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and featured Sara Silverman, Yo-Yo Ma, Tom Hanks, Whoopi Goldberg, Judd Apatow, and John Lithgow.

Although Fred Rogers was a member of SAG/AFTRA (the actors’ unions), he wasn’t an actor; he was a child development specialist who gave children the confidence to talk about their feelings, express themselves through art, and imagine make-believe worlds.

Offscreen, he was very much like his television persona: a reassuring adult who was not only happy to sit and talk, but one who managed to live out his entire life without the slightest whisper of scandal. He wrote the scripts, the music, and dialog, for Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, the longest-running program on PBS.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the show’s theme song was a genuine invitation to the viewer. When Mister Rogers arrived onstage in a suit and tie, then changed into both a colorful sweater and loafers, it mirrored what a kid would see as parents leave for work in the morning and come home at night.

The props were mostly simple household objects used to spark a child’s interest in creating something from nothing, and they spoke to viewers from low-income families. He would feed the fish and talk to them, showing kids a sense of how to care and responsibility for others. In each episode he sat down with a red trolley on an electric track which took everyone to the ”Neighborhood of Make-Believe”, populated with puppets operated and voiced by Rogers, along with a cast of zany human characters.

Mister Rogers would feed a reel of 8mm film into ”Picture Picture”, named for the the central viewing rectangle centered inside two gold picture frames. He showed hypnotic, highly enjoyable documentary segments where kids discovered how everyday things such as pretzels, pencil erasers, or plush toys are assembled by scary machines inside factories, packaged and shipped to neighborhood stores.

Rogers earned a degree in Music from Rollins College. He had planned to go into a seminary, but he saw something new at his parents’ house called a ”television”. Rogers thought television was rather dreadful, insipid and poorly executed. He gave up on the seminary idea, and instead went to NBC, where he worked his way up the ladder. He maintained the sets and stages for The Lucky Strike Hit Parade, The Kate Smith Hour, and NBC Opera Theatre. He learned that television could be a very intimate medium, and he had a notion that he could deliver messages to millions of viewers by simply pretending there was only one lonely child out there watching the screen.

In July of 1952, Rogers and his new bride moved to Pittsburgh, where he helped  start the USA’s first community-sponsored television station, WQED. There was only a staff of six people trying to get ”educational television” on the air. He created the station’s first original program, The Children’s Corner.

It was a charming program which featured improvised discussions between actor Josie Carey and Rogers’ puppet characters. Rogers worked behind the scenes, giving each puppet a unique voice and personality. The show was live, and Rogers had to run quickly and quietly behind the scenes, back and forth between puppet stages. Before each broadcast he’d take off his shoes and change into sneakers, a habit that became his trademark.  The program was popular with local kids and adults.

In the late 1960s, the U.S. Senate was considering cutting half of an important $20 million grant for public broadcasting. Not yet famous with most adults, Rogers was invited to speak and submit a paper at the hearing. He told the Senate how his program was different from cartoons and violent shows offered by the networks. The notoriously impatient Senator John O. Pastore of RI, the first Italian-American elected to the Senate, was chair.

Pastore: All right Rogers, you got the floor.

Rogers: Senator, this is a philosophical statement and would take about ten minutes to read, so I’ll not do that. One of the first things that a child learns in a healthy family is trust, and I trust what you’ve said, that you’ll read this. It’s very important to me, I care deeply about children, my first…

Pastore: Will it make you happy if you read it?

Rogers: I’d just like to talk about it, if it’s all right…

Pastore: Fine.

Rogers: This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘you’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.’ I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service.

Pastore: I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy. This is the first time I’ve had goose bumps in days.

Rogers: Well I’m grateful. Not only for your goose bumps, but for your interest in our kind of communication.

Fred spoke for six minutes, taking the time to recite lyrics from one of his songs. Pastore was visibly touched. Roger’s production company received the twenty million dollars.

Pastore died in 1994. The next year, his position on the communication committee was taken by LGBTQ hater Rick Santorum.

The National Educational Television, the precursor to PBS, started broadcasting Roger’s programs nationwide in black and white in February 1968. Eventually the show was broadcast in color, and the sets and furniture were updated, but only bit-by-bit so the kids wouldn’t get confused.

Fred Rogers Archives via YouTube

Rogers chose Johnny Costa, a great Jazz pianist, to be his musical director. Costa had a sophisticated musical style. Costa’s trio performed all the songs and music live in the studio, as each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was videotaped. Costa wasn’t sure how to write Jazz for kids, but Rogers allowed him to do whatever he wanted. Songs performed by Mister Rogers took on tough topics, such as the fear of going down the bathtub drain or a celebrating everyone’s body as being just fine the way it is.

In March 1998, more than 300 PBS stations aired an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood featuring Koko, the sign-language using gorilla. It was followed by a week-long series addressed the fear young people often experience when confronted with new situations or people who look different from themselves. I tuned in all week because I had a thing for Koko, it was my first exposure to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I was enchanted, and I learned a few valuable lessons.

With Koko via YouTube

Through the years, subjects on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood grew increasingly complex. Topics like adoption and divorce were introduced, as well as death. In one program, Mister Rogers shows viewers one of his fishes who has passed away.

The last episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired Friday, August 31, 2001. Rogers went to the next neighborhood shortly after being diagnosed with cancer in 2003. He was buried in a private ceremony. He had told very few people he was sick.

PBS via YouTube

He was the recipient of two Peabody Awards; four Emmy Awards, plus their Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1999, Rogers was inducted into the Television Hall Of Fame. He received more than 40 honorary degrees from colleges and universities. In 2002, George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal Of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. During the ceremony, Bush kept referring to the program as ”Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood”.

Special visitors to the Neighborhood over the years included: Tony Bennett, Big Bird, Yo-Yo Ma, The Boys Choir of Harlem, Julia Child, pianist Van Cliburn, Arthur Mitchell and Dance Theatre of Harlem, Rita Moreno, football player Lynn Swann, Tommy Tune, and Russian children’s television host Tatiana Vedeneeva.

Bette Midler’s Kiss My Brass tour featured a tender musical tribute to Rogers, joining him in a ”virtual duet” of I Like To Be Told.

One of Roger’s red cardigan sweaters is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian staff reports that the sweater is the third most-requested item by visitors.

After his death, the asteroid 26858 Misterrogers was named after him by the International Astronomical Union. The Rogers Family Communications, produced a planetarium show for young kids, The Sky Above Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which still plays at planetariums across the USA.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a new documentary by Morgan Nevilles about Rogers, was a hit at Sundance. It opens in theatres in June.

Tom Hanks has signed play Rogers in the upcoming biopic You Are My Friend. The film will focus on Roger’s unlikely friendship with award-winning journalist Tom Junod, who got to know the television personality while writing a 1998 profile for Esquire Magazine.

 


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