Fred Rogers

For three decades, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" has been an oasis of peace and calm, familiarity and safety in a kid-unfriendly world.

Published August 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

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."

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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