Getting to Know Mister Rogers

Did you know today would have been Mr. Rogers’ 84th birthday? While most entertainment icons we talk about on Neatorama only appeal to people of a certain age, the amazing thing is that most of our readers grew up while Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was being aired regularly. In honor of a great man who contributed so much to the world of children’s television, let’s celebrate with a look at the life and work of Fred McFeely Rogers.

He Had A Love/Hate Relationship With Television

When Mr. Rogers first saw television, the power of the media’s potential immediately blew him away. At the same time though, he loathed the commercially available content, particularly the shows aimed at children. In fact, he once admitted in an interview, "I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there was some way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."

Eventually, this passion even caused him to leave his first position at a children’s show, as he was sickened by the fact that NBC had to rely on advertisers and merchandising to support the shows children watched for educational purposes.

Music and Religion Really Got Him Going

Before he decided to work in television, Rogers was fascinated by another form of entertainment –music. He even started playing the piano at age five after watching his mother do it during their sing alongs. When he attended college, he immediately went into music and he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Music Composition in 1951.

After college, Fred immediately applied to work for NBC, who hired him thanks to his music degree. At first, he was put in the music department of a variety of shows, but eventually, he got to work on a children’s show. After leaving over his ethical issue with the show’s use of advertising, he soon was hired as a puppeteer at WQED, a Pittsburgh public television network.

The whole eight years Fred worked at WQED, he would spend his lunch breaks at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary studying theology and child development. Eventually, he became an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, although he never actually wanted to be a preacher and was specifically instructed to continue his work with children’s television. While he never actually worked in the church, Mr. Rogers was extremely devout and never once had a cigarette or cocktail.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood Took Almost 15 Years to Prepare

After he left NBC, practically everything Rogers did helped him get ready for the show that made him a household name. And I don’t just mean he learned more about working on children’s shows and how to use puppets, I mean he developed the puppets, characters and music numbers that would eventually work their way into his own show. On The Children’s Corner, the program he started on at WQED, Fred started wearing his famous sneakers because he noticed they enabled him to be quieter while moving around on set. He also started working on the voices of King Friday XIII, Queen Sara Saturday, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, Daniel Striped Tiger and other characters from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

In 1963, he was contacted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and asked to develop a 15-minute kid’s program called Misterrogers. While Rogers had never stepped out in front of the camera before, it was Fred Rainsbury, Head of Children’s Programming at CBC who urged him to be the host of the new show. Rainsbury knew Mr. Rogers was great with kids after seeing him interact with children and wanted to bring that realism to the show itself.

While Misterrogers was a hit with viewers, it only lasted three seasons, but Rogers wouldn’t let that be the end. Instead, he acquired the rights to the show, including the set pieces like the Trolley, the Eiffel Tower and other aspects that would become classics in a few years’ time. He brought all these aspects of the show back with him to WQED and started working on Misterogers’ Neighborhood. The 100 episodes of this early version of the show featured many of the puppet segments from his CBC show, along with new reality-based segments for the opening and closing material.

Unfortunately, the show had a limited reach as it was only carried by a few stations. As a result, it lost its funding within a year. The show had struck a chord with audiences though and after an outpouring of public support, the Sears Roebuck Foundation stepped in and offered the show the support it needed to go national through the National Education Network (now PBS).

Image Via '09 Spyder [Flickr]

Lots of Planning Made for Lots of Success

The first national broadcast of the show appeared in 1968 and by 1970, the name was officially changed to the classic Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Although it holds the title for being the third longest running show on PBS, it didn’t actually run continuously; there was actually a three year break in filming between 1976 and 1979 and after the change, the show changed dramatically. Between the show’s 1968 introduction and 2001 finale, there were a total of 895 episodes filmed.

One of the most unique aspects of the show was that while there were real segments and make-believe skits, the two never really intermingled like they did on other shows, like Sesame Street. The program was also much slower than other children’s shows, which was because Fred felt the fast pace of most of the shows bombarded children with so much action they could not really follow the story.

Additionally, after the series’ hiatus in the late seventies, the show started dealing with a new theme every week. While many of the themes were basic childhood worries like going to school for the first time or trying to make new friends, the show also dealt with some big issues that most children’s show shied away from. For example, Mr. Rogers dealt with the loss of one of his pet goldfish on one episode; he also discussed more controversial issues like divorce, even war.

After 1995, there were enough of the episodes from the post-hiatus period that the earlier episodes were no longer shown on television as they were considered outdated. While production of new episodes ceased in 2001, PBS continued to show reruns until 2008, although a number of stations have chosen to continue airing the show.

Unfortunately, that was also largely the end of the show altogether as very few episodes have ever been released on DVD. Amazon Instant Video has 100 episodes available for streaming, but that’s only about 1/9th of the whole series. In fact, if you really want to watch all of the show’s episodes, you’d better take a trip to Pittsburgh to visit the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Archives in the University of Pittsburgh where all but three episodes are available –those three are presumed lost for good.

Image Via Universal Pops [Flickr]

He Was Open to Parodies, But Not Commercials

If you’re been a big fan of SNL, then you might remember Eddie Murphy’s parody of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, entitled “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.” If you’ve ever wondered how the real Mr. Rogers felt about it, as it turns out, he thought the sketch was funny and affectionate. Of course, part of the reason he supported the SNL parodies was that kids weren’t up watching television when they premiered.

When Burger King, on the other hand, had a commercial featuring a “Mr. Rodney,” their take on the show, Rogers was furious. He was worried that children might get confused and really believe that he was encouraging them to eat at Burger King. This particularly bothered him since he was so against advertising to children. After Rogers called a press conference denouncing the ad and clarifying that he did not endorse the commercial, the chain publicly apologized and pulled the ads.

Image Via elston [Flickr]

Saying Goodbye

Only a year after retirement, Fred was diagnosed with stomach cancer. While he did undergo surgery, it was unsuccessful and he passed away on February 27, 2003 at the age of 74. The day the news broke, the Pittsburg Post-Gazette dedicated the entire front page to remembering the great children’s show host and PBS added a page on their website to help parents explain the loss to their kids. At his memorial, more than 2,700 people showed up. PBS created a special dedicated to Mr. Rogers that aired on New Year’s Day 2004.

To celebrate what would have been his 80th birthday in 2008, Mr. Rogers’ production company sponsored a number of events in his honor, including "Won't You Wear a Sweater Day," where fans were asked to wear their favorite sweaters in celebration.

Oh the Awards You Will Earn

Mr. Rogers might just be one of the most celebrated hosts of a children’s TV show ever. He received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Peabody Award, forty honorary degrees from a variety of educational institutions, five Emmy awards and the PNC Commonwealth Award in Mass Communications. He was also formally recognized for his work by the U.S. Congress through two different resolutions created on two different occasions, and both resolutions were passed unanimously. TV Guide ranked him #35 in their list of the 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time and he was also inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.

As if all that weren’t enough, a number of buildings have been named after him, the Smithsonian Institution has one of his sweaters on display in their collection and even an asteroid, 26858 Misterrogers, has been named in his honor.

Image Via bsoist [Flickr]

Contrary to What You May Have Heard

You might have noticed that in the article above, there is never any mention of the Vietnam War. That’s because Mr. Rogers never fought in the war. Even so, there have been rumors spreading for years that he was a sniper in the war and that he always wore long-sleeved shirts and sweaters to cover up his military tattoos. No matter what you have heard, this is all fictional and if Rogers did actually go off to war, we probably never would have got to see his show as it was being actively developed throughout the height of the conflict.

A Few More Fun Facts:

  • Mr. Rogers was actually red-green color blind, meaning he never really saw the true color of his famous red cardigan.

  • Michael Keaton started his career on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, where he worked as a puppeteer in 1975.

  • The only time Rogers appeared on television as someone other than himself was when he played a preacher on an episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

  • Aside from writing the majority of his shows and almost all the songs used on the program, Fred also authored over 35 books.

  • The Idlewild and Soak Zone amusement park in Latrobe Pennsylvania has an attraction called "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood of Make-Believe" featuring a life-sized Trolley designed by Rogers himself.

  • Neighborhood of Make-Believe characters Mr. McFeely and Queen Sara Saturday were named after his maternal grandfather and wife, respectively.

I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t even imagine being a child without Mr. Rogers. Were you guys fans? And if so, do you know any fun trivia or have some good stories I might have left out?

Source: Wikipedia #1, #2, Rollins and Snopes

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Thanks for posting this. I live in Pittsburgh, and while I was never lucky enough to meet him, David Newell still does appearances as Mr. McFeely sometimes, and I've had the chance to meet him and to tour the neighborhood of Make-Believe.
In addition to the Post-Gazette featuring him, Pittsburgh Magazine did an entire issue on him when he died. Even the advertisers put in things about him, with tiny little logos at the bottom. It was really touching, and I still have it somewhere.
Also, if you're interested in people who used to be on the show, "Handyman" Negri is actually a professional jazz guitarist.
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My husband grew up in Pittsburgh and sold Charlie Chips door to door in the summer. One of his customers was Mr. Rogers. Dave described him as being just like the guy on TV, kind and generous. He even invited my husband to bring his swim suit next time and enjoy the pool!
Fred Rogers was a true hero to millions of children (and their parents)!
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When I was little my mother cleaned a lady's house every week. I always begged to along so I could sit in the kitchen and watch Mister Rogers' Neighborhood while my mother cleaned. To this day, phrases that Mr. Rogers said will randomly pop into my head and I love slower paced books, movies, and tv shows. Mr. Rogers always made me feel happy and safe and when I heard, (and still hear), and that familiar intro tune I immediately relax!
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I used to work at a public TV station and met Fred Rogers numerous times at national conventions. He was just as nice in person as he appeared on TV, kind and soft-spoken and courteous. He swam every day and wore one of those rather odd-looking silicone caps. I heard from many parents that he played a big role in their children's development and understanding of the world. What a great man!
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