The following article is from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Tunes Into TV.
One thing that nearly all Americans born after 1965 have in common is that they grew up watching Mister Rogers. He was one of the true pioneers of children’s television.
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
In 1951 a college senior named Fred McFeely Rogers finished school in Florida and went home to stay with his parents in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He wasn't exactly sure what he wanted to do with his life. For a while he wanted to be a diplomat; then he decided to become a Presbyterian minister. He’d already made plans to enroll in seminary after college, but as soon as he arrived home, he changed his mind again.
Why? Because while he was away at school, his parents had bought their first TV set. Television was still very new in the early 1950s, and not many people had them yet. When Rogers got home he watched it for the first time. He was fascinated by the new medium but also disturbed by some of the things he saw. One thing in particular offended him very deeply. It was “horrible,” as he put it, so horrible that it altered the course of his life.
What was it that bothered him so much? “I saw people throwing pies in each other’s face,” Rogers remembered. “Such demeaning behavior.”
You (and Uncle John) may like it when clowns throw pies and slap each other in the face, but Fred Rogers was appalled. He thought TV could have a lot more to offer than pie fights and other silliness, if only someone would try. “I thought, ‘I’d really like to try my hand at that, and see what I could do,’” Rogers recalled. So he moved to New York and got a job at NBC, working first as an associate producer and later as a director.
Then in 1953, he learned about a new experimental TV station being created in Pittsburgh. Called WQED, it was the country’s first community-sponsored “public television” station. WQED wasn’t even on the air yet, and there was no guarantee that an educational TV station that depended on donations from viewers to pay for programming would ever succeed. No matter- Rogers quit his secure job at NBC, moved to Pittsburgh with his wife, Joanne, and joined the station.
“I thought, ‘What a wonderful institution to nourish people,’” Rogers recalled. “My friends thought I was nuts.”
When Rogers arrived at WQED in 1953, the station had just four employees and only two of them, Rogers and a secretary named Josie Carey, were interested in children’s programming. The two created their own hour-long show called The Children’s Corner and paid for all of the staging, props, and scenery (mostly pictures painted on paper backdrops), out of their own meager $75-a-week salaries.
Because The Children’s Corner had to be done on the cheap, Rogers and Carey decided that much of the show would have to revolve around showing educational films that they obtained for free. Rogers was in charge of hustling up the free films and playing the organ off camera during the broadcast; Carey would host the show, sing, and introduce the films.
That was how The Children’s Corner was supposed to work, but the plan fell apart about two minutes into their very first broadcast. The problem wasn’t that Rogers couldn’t scrounge up any free films, but the films that he did manage to get were so old and brittle that they were prone to breaking when played. Sure enough, on the first day of the show, on WQED’s first day on the air, the first film broke.
Remember, this was before the invention of videotape, when television shows were broadcast live -so when the film broke, the entire show came to a screeching halt. On the air. In the broadcast industry this is known as “dead air” -the TV cameras are still on, and the folks at home are still watching, but there’s nothing happening onscreen. Nothing at all.
At that moment, Rogers happened to be standing behind a paper backdrop that had been painted to look like a clock. He quickly looked around and spotted “Daniel,” a striped tiger puppet that the station’s general manager, Dorothy Daniel, had given him the night before as a party favor at the station’s launch party.
“When the first film broke, I just poked the puppet through the paper,” Rogers remembered years later, “and it happened to be a clock where I poked him through. And he just said, ‘It’s 5:02 and Columbus discovered America in 1492.’ And that was the first thing I ever said on the air. Necessity was the mother of that invention, because it hadn’t been planned.”
The puppet worked and the old films didn’t, so The Children’s Corner became an educational puppet show. Daniel Striped Tiger, who lives in a clock, remained a fixture on Rogers’ shows for the rest of his broadcast career. Numerous other characters, including King Friday XIII, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, and X the Owl all made their debut on The Children’s Corner.
The Children’s Corner stayed on the air for seven years; then in 1963 Rogers accepted an offer form the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to host a 15-minute show called Misterogers, the first show in which he actually appeared on camera. (That year he also became an ordained Presbyterian minister.)
By 1965, Misterogers was airing in Canada and in the eastern United States, but it had the same problems that The Children’s Corner had -not enough money. Misterogers ran out of funds and was slated for cancellation… until parents found out; when they learned that the show was going off the air, they raised such a stink that the Sears Roebuck Foundation and National Educational Television (now known as the Public Broadcasting Service, or PBS), kicked in $150,000 apiece to keep the show on the air.
Lengthened to a full half hour and renamed Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the show was first broadcast nationwide on February 19, 1968.
Very early in his broadcasting career, Rogers drew up a list of things he wanted to encourage in the children who watched his show. Some of the items on the list: self-esteem, self-control, imagination, creativity, curiosity, appreciation of diversity, cooperation, tolerance for waiting, and persistence. How Rogers encouraged these things in his young viewers was heavily influenced by his own childhood experiences.
* His grandfather. Many of the most memorable things Rogers said to children were inspired by things his own grandfather, Fred Brooks McFeely, said to him. “I think it was when I was leaving one time to go home after our time together that my grandfather said to me, ‘You know, you made this day a really special day. Just by being yourself. There’s only one person in the world like you. And I happen to like you just the way you are,’” Rogers remembered. “That just went right into my heart. And it never budged.” (Rogers named Mr. McFeely, the show’s Speedy Delivery messenger character after his grandfather.)
* The neighborhood of make-believe. Fred Rogers was a sickly kid who came down with just about every childhood disease imaginable from chicken pox to scarlet fever. He spent a lot of time in bed, quarantined on doctors’ orders. To amuse himself, he played with puppets and invented imaginary worlds for them to live in. “I’m sure that was the beginning of a much later neighborhood of make-believe,” Rogers said.
* Explanations. Like most children, when Rogers was very little, he was frightened by unfamiliar things -being along, starting school, visiting a doctor’s office, etc. “I liked to be told about things before I had to do them,” he remembered, so explaining new and unfamiliar things became a central part of the show. (On one episode he even brought on actress Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, to explain that she was just pretending and the kids didn’t need to be afraid.)
* Sweaters. Rogers got most of his sweaters from his mother, who knitted him a new one every year for Christmas. He wore them all on his show.
* Sneakers. Those date back to his days on The Children’s Corner- “I had to run across the studio floor to get from the puppet set to the organ,” Rogers explained. “I didn’t want to make a lot of noise by running around in ordinary shoes.”
Rogers taped nearly 900 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood over its more than 30 years on the air. They’re still broadcast by more than 300 public television stations around the United States as well as in Canada, the Philippines, Guam, and other countries around the world. Videotapes of the show are used to teach English to non-native speakers (singer Ricky Martin credits Mr. Rogers with teaching him to speak English).
Rogers retired from producing new episodes of the show in December 2000, and the last new episode aired in August 2001. He came out of retirement briefly in 2002 to record public service announcements advising parents on how to help children deal with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. He made his last public appearance in January 1, 2003, when he served as the Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade and tossed the coin for the Rose Bowl Game. Mr. Rogers passed away from stomach cancer two months later.
THOUGHTS FROM MR. ROGERS
* “The world is not always a kind place. That’s something children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it’s something they really need our help to understand.”
* “Anything we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job. Those of us who have this particular vision must continue against all odds.”
* “People don’t come up to me and talk about the weather. I’ve even had a child come up to me and not say hello, but instead say right out, ‘Mr. Rogers, my grandmother’s in the hospital.'”
* “So many people have grown up with the Neighborhood, I’m just their dad coming along. You know, it’s really fun to go through life with this face.”
Through his adult life, Fred Rogers made sure he always weighed 143 pounds. Why? As he told a reporter, “It means ‘I love you.’ It takes one letter to say ‘I,’ four to say ‘love,’ and three to say ‘you.’”
The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Tunes Into TV. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.
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