Fred Rogers: Hall of Fame Tribute
When Fred Rogers departs this earth, which for the sake of humanity should not be for many years to come, he will not return in another life. Buddhists would tell you that Rogers has finished evolving; he has exited through the revolving door of reincarnation. He is heading straight for Nirvana.
Or, if you subscribe to Rogers’ Presbyterian construct, his soul will be promptly dispatched to the Pearly Gates, where St. Peter will enter into the log book nothing more than “Mister Rogers.”
“There are only a couple of people I’ve met in my life who I put in this category,” said Beth Sullivan, creator-executive producer of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and a close friend of Rogers. “I’m not a religious person, but Fred is a holy man, a holy person. He really is. Truly a Mother Teresa type of person. He does what he does because it comes from very deep inside, and he does it with every fiber of his being.”
Can you say halo?
A long time ago, an aspiring young composer named Fred Rogers came home from college, with a degree in music composition from Rollins University in Florida fresh in hand. Entering the family house in the sweet hamlet of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Fred spied a box in the corner of the living room. The box had a window in it.
“What’s that?” said Fred, who was soon to depart for the next step in his education, the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where he hoped to be ordained as a minister.
His parents answered that the box was a television set. They pushed a button on it, and the window opened, revealing a lot of amuck adults throwing pies at each other. Fred’s eyes widened. He was aghast. Surely this invention could be used more constructively.
“He told me,” said Beth Sullivan, ‘“I knew what potential power this television had, and I saw then what my life’s work would be.’”
To the shock of Mom and Dad, Fred abandoned (temporarily) the call of the ministry and headed straight for New York, where, armed with that music degree, he was hired by a fledgling TV network called the National Broadcasting Company. What on earth was the young man up to? Well, the young man wasn’t exactly sure, as he became floor director for the NBC Opera Theater, Voice of Firestone, Lucky Strike Hit Parade, and The Kate Smith Hour. The year was 1951.
“This was a great day in television history,” said Rogers, “when General Sarnoff just gave Samuel Chotzinoff, who was head of the music department, free reign to put on television whatever he thought was best, musically. He got Toscanini to come to this country, commissioned Leonard Bernstein to write, and that was the division I was in. I floor managed all the operas.”
Not for long. Although newly married to Joanne Byrd, a concert pianist and fellow Rollins grad, and in line to become a director, Rogers abruptly abandoned NBC in 1953 — just as abruptly as he’d gone there — to take a job at a new kind of animal called a public television station in Pittsburgh. If television was still experimental at the time, then WQED-TV was crackpot. Rogers’ NBC colleagues told him, “You’re out of your mind! That place isn’t even on the air yet!” Still …
“I don’t know, I have to believe that I was somehow inspired by my Creator to make such a big decision,” said Rogers, reached at the Pittsburgh offices of his non-profit production company, Family Communications Inc. “Because Joanne and I were enjoying New York. I liked the people I was working with. We had dinner with Kirk Browning just last week in New York, and he was the director of NBC Opera Theater and Voice of Firestone. If he’s not in the Hall of Fame, he should be! … We hadn’t been to New York for a whole week in a long time. I said to Joanne, aren’t we grateful to have done what we did? To have lived in New York for the last 30 or 40 years, maybe I would have been a very different person!”
As WQED debuted on April Fools’ Day, 1953, Rogers was charged with devising programs. His first was The Children’s Corner. Hosted by his friend Josie Carey, this was an hour-long visit with personages including Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday XIII — hand puppets created and brought to life by Fred himself. The Corner found a place in Rogers’ still-developing, quixotic plan, and it thrived for seven years. During the same time, Fred resumed his efforts to become a minister, attending the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in his off-hours. Part of that training included studying at the Arsenal Family and Children Center, founded by Benjamin Spock and Margaret McFarland.
Rogers was becoming a sort of three-faceted part of one thing: a children’s TV program creator, a minister-in-training specializing in family matters and child development, and a musician. The one thing that would use all three parts had not yet been revealed to him — but was strongly hinted at when he was ordained in 1962, and charged to continue his work with kids and families not in church, but through TV! Get inside that box, his seminary teachers told him, and put some goodness in the window.
The following year, Fred went to Toronto and put some goodness on the Canadian Broadcasting Company, in the form of a children’s program bearing the title that revealed the one thing that would meld all three diverse facets: Mister Rogers. By 1964, he was back in Pittsburgh, the program was a half-hour long, and the title had blossomed into ...
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor … Would you be mine? Could you be mine? … It’s a neighborly day in this beautywood, a neighborly day for a beauty ... ”
Mister Rogers began singing his self-penned theme song nationally in 1968, and in the past 32 years the program has been broadcast on more than 300 stations into roughly 8 million homes a week — a total of more than 700 episodes. But the measure of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood isn’t found in statistics. It’s found in things like the graduating class of Boston University in 1982, where Fred was the guest speaker. He recited the lyrics to one of his Neighborhood song staples, “It’s You I Like”:
“It’s you I like/It’s not the things you wear/It’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like/The way you are right now/The way deep down inside you/Not the things that hide you — not your diplomas, they’re just beside you/But it’s you that I like, every part of you.”
As he spoke, the crowd, which had undoubtedly invited him somewhat for the campiness of it all, fell silent, and many of the graduates wept.
The worth of the Neighborhood is also found in the time WGBH invited viewers to an open house, expecting about 500 guests, and 10,000 showed up. It is found in the people who constantly stop to tell Mister Rogers how much he meant to them — from the Russian woman scientist and inventor of artificial blood who declared, “You helped me to learn English!” to Beth Sullivan herself, who first took refuge in the Neighborhood as an adult, during a prolonged illness.
“In my late 20s, I was in bed for a couple of months,” she remembered. “As I was trying to watch TV, flipping around, I saw this man and heard this voice, and I just stopped. And it became the highlight of my day. I was filling a deep need for a father figure. My dad’s a wonderful guy, but he didn’t have the greatest parenting skills, because his parents were awful. Fred is everyone’s father, and a good father. And I just soaked it up.”
The worth of the Neighborhood is even found in Eddie Murphy’s hilarious ghetto-ized send-up, Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood, on Saturday Night Live (which Fred reportedly enjoyed.) And it’s certainly in the surprised faces of people on the street, including the young toughs in New York who recently spotted Fred getting out of a taxi, and declared, with undisguised awe, “Mister f—ing Rogers!” as writer Tom Junod reported in his November, 1998 Esquire cover story on Fred, “Can You Say Hero?” Junod’s own reaction to meeting the 70-year-old man with the tennis shoes and zip-up sweaters (all, including the one hanging in the Smithsonian, knitted for him long ago by his mother) also suggests the Neighborhood power:
“I think the greatest misconception involving Fred is that he’s mild to the point of weakness,” Junod said, from his home in Georgia, “when, in fact, he’s mild to the point of great strength. He has one of the most powerful and commanding presences I’ve ever been around. His effect on people is astonishing. His effect on me was astonishing. The Esquire story meant a lot to me, but I was not in a place I wanted to be, writing-wise. I wasn’t feeling the connection to my work I’m used to. Fred helped me restore that. He did not deliberately do anything. He does not proselytize for any position, but there is no question in my mind but that Fred knew I was in a place I didn’t want to be — and he used his time with me to get me back. He’s a canny guy, that Fred. Watch out for him.”
Most of all, the essence of the Neighborhood is in the little kids who discover a reassuring, rational haven amid the quick-cut mayhem of commercials, morphing robot-lizards, lurid music videos and that manic raspberry-colored (he’s not purple!) dinosaur. What exactly do they all get out of it? Calm, certainly — but without a doubt, they pick up on Rogers’ avowed chief aims: instilling self-esteem, engendering respect for others, fostering curiosity, patience, and providing inspiration.
“I meet so many people now, particularly on the street, and in airplanes,” said Rogers, with that familiar, so-deliberate cadence. “I have wonderful neighbors! Of all ages now. I’m starting to work on a third generation. Invariably, they will talk about what it meant to them to be introduced to certain things. We know people who, because of Yo-Yo Ma’s visit to the Neighborhood, are studying cello! One little four-year-old insisted on getting a cello, and he’s now in high school and still studying. To be able to offer a whole smorgasbord of ways of saying who you are and how you feel, that was part of our mission. Because there are ways of saying those things that don’t hurt you or anybody else. And that’s one of the paramount messages of the Neighborhood. If the whole world could learn all these comfortable ways of saying who you are and how you feel that don’t hurt anybody, I think we’d be in a lot better shape.”
Just how does Mister Rogers do it? Well, he does have help. Daniel Striped Tiger is still there in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, along with King Friday XIII, Queen Sara Saturday, Cornflake S. Pecially, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, and Lady Elaine Fairchilde (feisty, but actually insecure.) There’s dependable Mr. McFeely, the Speedy Delivery man (named for Fred’s beloved grandfather and played by David Newell), and an historic array of guests ranging from astronaut Al Worden to Tony Bennett, the Boys Choir of Harlem, Marcel Marceau — even Rogers’ longtime compadre-in-calm, Bob “Captain Kangaroo” Keeshan. For 25 years until his death in 1996, there was also music director John Costa, whose gentle chords let the children know they were entering a place that was unthreatening — even when its host touched on things like divorce, war, competition, or death. How does Mister Rogers do it? Perhaps it’s enough to say that somehow, some way, this man has never forgotten how to talk to that sentient, thinking, feeling, intelligent, confused creature that is a child.
“I heard about a little boy,” said Mister Rogers, “who asked his parents if he could have some time alone with the new baby. And his parents thought they’d better be careful, what with sibling rivalry and all that. So they didn’t allow it. Finally, he was so insistent, they said ‘All right.’ He went in, and the parents stayed in the door. And all he did was go up to the baby and say, ‘What was it like? I’m starting to forget.’”
The late psychologist and child development specialist Margaret McFarland, who became a mentor and guiding influence for Rogers until her death in 1988, once remarked of him: “He is able to empathize in a unique way. He is one of the rare individuals who hasn’t shed his own childhood experiences.”
Put in Fred’s place, many people might have tried. Mr. Rogers was once a chubby, sickly, only child raised by loving, but overprotective parents. Beset by allergies, the boy was not allowed to play outside by himself, and spent one entire summer, day and night, inside an air-conditioned room at home in a misguided attempt to cure his hay fever. In that room, in a way, the Neighborhood was born; Fred entertained himself with homemade puppets and let his frustrations out through the piano, which he played incessantly. Along came the Mister Rogers in his life — his grandfather, Mr. Fred McFeely. As the legend goes, young Fred one day tried to climb up on a stone wall, only to be stopped by his mother. Grandpa — or “Ding-Dong,” as Fred called him for his habit of singing the old rhyme, “Ding-Dong Bell” — intervened, blurting, “Let the boy climb the wall!” The boy did.
Mr. McFeely visited Fred’s private neighborhood many times over the years, always departing with such messages as: “You made this day a really special day, just by being yourself. There’s only one person in the world like you, Freddie, and I happen to like you just the way you are.” Sound familiar? In a way, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood has been one life-long thank you from the once- pudgy, allergy-ridden child to his granddad.
Mister Rogers — whose middle name is McFeely, by the way — stepped out of the sweater-and-tennies persona exactly once, when he appeared in a guest role on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. How was the famously quiet father of two and grandfather of two who cherishes his private time for spending with his wife, reading, or meditating, enticed to (gulp) Hollywood?
“I had this hare-brained idea,” said Sullivan, who discovered that they were mutual fans of each other’s shows after she met Joanne Rogers at an awards ceremony. “We had a kind of deal-with-the-devil script in which a preacher borrows money from the bartender to fix up his church. I thought, ‘Who can play this person, a Presbyterian minister?’ and then I went, Boingggggg! And he accepted. I don’t let anybody rewrite, but I said, ‘Fred can rewrite anything he wants.’ And he did everything perfectly. He rewrote the lines to make them more beautiful.”
The temperature was approaching 100 on the outdoor Quinn set, and Rogers was in a wool suit, yet ... “He was a complete trouper. Any time anyone brought a child up to him — and everyone brought their kids, God knows — he would stop, kneel down, and have a very private conversation with them. A few minutes or more with each kid. And effortlessly. It was interesting to watch the adults being reduced to jelly in the knees. Everyone on the set is used to seeing stars, but I never saw a bunch of sophisticated Hollywood crew-type people behave so bashfully and tenderly toward somebody.”
Rogers’ ingenuousness is contagious. You get the idea that bikers would be nice to the guy. He takes such sincere interest in absolutely everyone he meets that he invariably evokes effusive responses. His is the type of presence that must be experienced to be understood: call it ministerial, but not preachy. To wit: no one alive, certainly, understands the destructive power of television better than Rogers, yet he doesn’t overtly attack the medium. He doesn’t attack anything. As he says, “I do believe that we must do whatever we can do to help children appreciate, to be an advocate rather than an accuser. You know, the Hebrew word for accuser is sa-tan. And I really think that Satan is thrilled with all the accusations that go on in the world. The opposite is finding what’s best about people. And being an advocate for what’s best in life.”
Rogers continues taping new Neighborhoods every year (always with no more than two edits per minute — downright subversive!), although a few less than in the old days. While he maintains his daily habit of a twenty-minute morning swim (“It keeps my heart goin’”), he does need a few more “ress-yourselfs,” as his grandmother used to say, than before. Still, he is the author of five books, the latest being You Are Special (Viking), a collection of “words of wisdom” punctuated by the words to his songs. One of which goes like this: “I’m taking care of you, Taking good care of you, For once I was very little too, Now I take care of you.”
“I think,” said Mister Rogers, “that it’s our task to remind people in as creative a way as possible that there are some universal verities that sustain us.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Fred Rogers's induction in 1999.
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