How Fred Rogers Changed Children’s Television

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Though ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ was comprised of simple sets and low-tech production values, the show was a radical departure from regular children’s programming.

A seeming throwback to a kinder, more gentle time, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood exists in the mind of generations of Americans as a charming, safe moment of television five days a week, where it was possible, in fact encouraged, to be their true self, even when journeying to the land of make believe.

“I went into television because I hated it so,” Fred Rogers once explained of his decision to join the burgeoning medium in an interview with CNN. “I thought there was some way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen.”

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Watch, listen and learn they did. Preschoolers and their parents or guardians became switched on to the gently spoken Rogers when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted in 1966, and generations continued to do so for the next four decades.

So influential was the gentleman in the cardigan and sneakers that 2018 saw him celebrated with an hour-long special marking what would have been the program’s 50th anniversary, the issue of a commemorative postage stamp bearing his visage, a big screen documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (June 8), and the news that Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks will slip into said cardigan and sneakers in an upcoming biopic about Rogers titled You Are My Friend.

Mister Rogers

Born Fred McFeely Rogers on March 20, 1928, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Rogers interest in music began at a young age and he learned to play piano. That interest would eventually lead him to graduate magna cum laude from Rollins College in Florida in 1951 with a degree in music composition, and to writing and performing many of the songs featured on his show, including the famous opening tune ending with the iconic line, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

It was at Rollins where Rogers met his wife, Sara Joanne Byrd, and the two would remain together throughout the rest of his life. A father to sons James (b. 1959) and John (b. 1961) he graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1963 and was ordained a minister in the United Presbyterian Church.

Though religion would remain a compass throughout his life, it was television that allowed him a conduit and platform for his life’s work. Amazed by the device he first witnessed in his parent’s living room during a visit home while in his senior year of college, Rogers set out to be a part of the rapidly expanding and developing industry of mass communication. According to Rogers, “The space between the television set and that person who is watching is very holy ground.”

Before becoming ensconsed in that hallowed space, Rogers’ first job in television was at NBC in New York City in 1951. The network’s reliance on advertising and sponsorship was not a comfortable fit for Rogers, who saw both the good and bad potential of the new medium. After NBC he headed to WQED, a public television station in Pittsburgh, in 1953.

It was during his early years in the industry that Rogers’ famous sneakers became his choice of footwear, due to their ability to allow him to walk silently on the set during live television broadcasts. Rogers worked for the next seven years at WQED as a puppeteer on the local children’s show The Children’s Corner. It was unscripted TV and Rogers would develop many of the characters he would expand on in his later career in his Neighborhood, including King Friday XIII, Queen Sara Saturday, X the Owl, and Daniel Striped Tiger.

Mister Rogers holds Henrietta Pussycat (left) and 'X' the Owl

Fred Rogers with Henrietta Pussycat and X the Owl.

A stint at the Canadian Broadcast Corporation followed in the mid-sixties where he made his debut in front of the camera on the 15-minute children’s program Misterogers, which would incorporate many of his famous sets including Trolley, the Kings Castle and Eiffel Tower. Acquiring the rights to the program in 1966, Rogers moved the show back to Pittsburgh’s WQED for the Eastern Educational Network. Two years later Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood began airing on PBS stations across the country.

Though it comprised simple sets and low-tech production values, the show was a radical departure from regular children’s programming with its emphasis on inclusiveness, kindness, understanding, and education aimed at those in the pre-school age group.

It was also revolutionary. The first week of episodes alluded to the Vietnam War, while subsequent themes discussed and helped viewers understand subjects such as divorce, death and racism.

The character Officer Clemmons was one of the first regular roles for African Americans on children’s television. In a subtle but pointed scene in one episode, Mister Rogers and Officer Clemmons wash their feet together in a shared pool. At the time there was much furor over the desegregation of swimming pools. “They didn’t want black people to come and swim in their swimming pools,” said François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons, about the scene. “My being on the program was a statement for Fred.”

“The world is not a kind place,” Rogers said of his show. “That’s something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it’s something they really need our help to understand.”

So important was it to Rogers that children’s television be supported, he appeared before Congress about the value of funding PBS and he served as chairman of a White House forum on child development and the mass media. “Those of us in broadcasting have a special calling to give whatever we feel is the most nourishing that we can for our audience,” Rogers said. “We are servants to those who watch and listen.”

On television, Rogers worked to ensure viewers knew and comprehended the line between reality and fantasy through trips to the show’s “Neighborhood of Make-Believe.” His enduring faith also played a large part in what happened on air. Though not overtly Christian, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood stayed true to the basic values of his religion.

A national success and with touchstones recognizable to the masses – the entrance through the door, the cardigan, the sneakers – it was soon fodder for parody, with Eddie Murphy starring in the sketch, Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood, on Saturday Night Live. Though gritty and risqué, Rogers found the parody appealing. It was also broadcast late at night when his regular viewers were not in front of the television.

Fred Rogers with Bill Clinton

Fred Rogers with President Bill Clinton in 1993 at the Kennedy Center.

A prolific writer, Rogers penned more than thirty books in his lifetime, was awarded four daytime Emmys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, and was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999.

Other dubious honors have been allocated to Rogers in the internet age, including that he had secretly been a Navy SEAL, that he wore his cardigan to cover sleeve tattoos, and that he was gay. All are false. “People have an idea of what they want him to be, so they create a legend,” Clemmons says of such rumors in the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? “Fred was nurturing, loving, gentle and very much heterosexual.”

Into its fourth decade on television, the final episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired in August 2001, though Rogers legacy continues with the Fred Rogers Company and the spinoff animated series, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, airing on PBS Kids since 2012.

Diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2002, Rogers underwent surgery. He ultimately succumbed to the disease on February 27, 2003 when he passed away, age 74, with his wife Joanne by his side.

“His decision to level with kids in a very sensitive way was his greatest accomplishment,” Won’t You Be My Neighbor? director Morgan Neville said to People of Rogers. “Spending time with him is like revisiting part of yourself.”

For Rogers, his greatest accomplishment was perhaps in simply doing what he believed was most important for children – helping them to understand the changing world around them, and to give them a safe neighborhood where they can be their true self.

“Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people,” Rogers said.

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