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It's A Beautiful 50th Birthday For 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'

Feb 19, 2018
Originally published on February 21, 2018 11:12 am

Fifty years ago Monday, when Fred Rogers showed up on national public television as the host of what then was a brand new children's show called Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, TV was a lot different. PBS wasn't even a network then — not by that name, anyway — and aside from CBS, NBC and ABC, there were only a few independent local channels to watch, if that.

But 50 years ago, young kids were pretty much the same. I interviewed Fred Rogers a few times over the years, and one time I asked him about the secret of his success — why his slow, deliberate manner of relating to children, and why seeming to look at them and talk to them directly through the TV lens, connected so strongly with young viewers. This is what he told me:

Every one of us longs to be in touch with honesty. ... I think we're really attracted to people who will share some of their real self with us.

Rogers shared his real self with us from that very first day of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, on Feb. 19, 1968, when he went national on public TV, removed his jacket and dress shoes, slipped on a sweater and sneakers and talked gently about tying shoelaces.

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was all about encouragement and support. It loved to educate kids a little, inspire them a lot and, when necessary, calm them down a bit about what may be unspoken fears.

That first week of Mister Rogers was about change — even in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, where a puppet ruler named King Friday XIII was upset that his subjects were moving their homes around his kingdom. In this week-long story, King Friday becomes so upset that he orders a big wall to be built around the castle to keep everyone out. But eventually, the ruler decides he had nothing to fear and takes down the wall.

That was a reassuring story then, and Fred Rogers had hundreds of others. He could calm little kids by telling them they were too big to slip down the bathtub drain, but he also tackled more serious subjects.

In the summer of 1968, he took to prime time and had one of his most beloved hand puppet characters, Daniel Striped Tiger, asking for a definition of the word "assassination." Robert F. Kennedy had just been shot and killed — and Rogers thought even very little children would pick up on how upset the grown-ups around them were, and deserved to be talked to and reassured a little.

And at a time when, once again, politicians are talking about defunding public television, it should be noted that Rogers went to Washington to testify before Congress in 1969 about why public TV was so important to young viewers — and to beg for $20 million in public funding.

Rogers appeared before gruff committee chair Sen. John Pastore. He described his show, sang a song and recited some poetry — and when he finished, the senator told him he'd earned the $20 million.

Fifty years later, the work and legacy of Fred Rogers has not been forgotten. The Fred Rogers Center, where I currently serve on the advisory board, aims to seek out and support new approaches to education and entertainment in the Rogers spirit.

The TV company that bears his name continues to produce programs, including the animated Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood. You can still get boxed DVD sets of some of the Mister Rogers shows and specials, which ran on PBS until 2001, two years before his death.

And in this golden anniversary year of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, there are many other plans afoot. Monday in his hometown, Latrobe, Pa., St. Vincent College is scheduled to host a screening of the very first Neighborhood episode. The PBS KIDS network plans to pair other vintage episodes of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood with their cartoon Daniel Tiger equivalents. PBS will also present a retrospective special salute in March, and a new documentary, Morgan Neville's Won't You Be My Neighbor?, is scheduled to be released in theaters nationwide in June.

There's a new biography due in September, the U.S. Postal Service is issuing a Fred Rogers stamp and it's just been announced that there's a movie in the works, with Tom Hanks set to play Rogers. That's kind of perfect: One of the most-loved children's hosts in TV history played by one of the most-loved actors in movie history.

It's a lot of fuss, especially for a man who didn't like to draw attention to himself. But Rogers deserves it. And today, our children's children still deserve — and need — Fred Rogers.

Click the audio link above to hear Terry Gross' 1984 interview with Rogers.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. So many Americans grew up watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," or they have children or grandchildren who did. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first national broadcast of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on public television. He taped his last episode in 2001 and died a couple of years later at age 74. We're going to pay tribute to Fred Rogers today and listen back to an interview I recorded with him in 1984. That's a long time ago.

But first, our TV critic David Bianculli has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR")

FRED ROGERS: (Singing) It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine? Could you be mine?

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Fifty years ago today, when Fred Rogers showed up on public television as the host of what then was a brand-new children's show called "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," TV was a lot different. PBS wasn't even a network then - not by that name, anyway. And aside from CBS, NBC and ABC, there were only a few independent local channels to watch, if that.

But 50 years ago, young kids were pretty much the same. I interviewed Fred Rogers a few times over the years, and one time, I asked him about the secret of his success - why his slow, deliberate manner of relating to children and seeming to look at them and talk to them directly through the TV lens connected so strongly with young viewers. This is what he told me. Every one of us longs to be in touch with honesty, he explained. I think we're really attracted to people who will share some of their real self with us.

Fred Rogers shared his real self with us from that very first day of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on February 19, 1968, when he went national on public TV, removed his jacket and dress shoes, slipped on a sweater and sneakers and talked gently about anything he wanted. The first thing he wanted to talk about on that first show, as he tied the laces of his tennis shoes, was tying the laces of his tennis shoes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

ROGERS: How are you doing with your tying? Took me a long time to learn how to make that and that into a bow. But I kept practicing and practicing and practicing and finally learned quickly.

BIANCULLI: "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was all about encouragement and support. It loved to educate kids a little, inspire them a lot and, when necessary, calm them down a bit about what may be unspoken fears. That first week of "Mister Rogers" was about change, even in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where a puppet ruler named King Friday XIII was upset that his subjects were moving their homes around his kingdom. King Friday became so upset in this week-long story that he ordered a big wall to be built around the castle to keep everyone out. But eventually, in this make-believe story from 50 years ago, the ruler decided he had nothing to fear and took down the wall.

That was a reassuring story then, and Fred Rogers had hundreds of them. He could calm little kids by telling them they were too big to slip down the bathtub drain. But he could also take to prime time, as he did in the summer of 1968, to have one of his most beloved hand puppet characters, Daniel Striped Tiger, asking for a definition of the word assassination. Robert F. Kennedy had just been shot and killed, and Fred Rogers thought even very little children would pick up on how upset the grown-ups around them were and deserved to be talked to and reassured a little.

And at a time when, once again, politicians are talking about defunding public television, it should be noted that in 1969, Fred Rogers went to Washington to testify before Congress about why public TV was so important to young viewers and to beg for $20 million in public funding. Before the gruff committee chair, Senator John Pastore, Rogers described his show, sang a song, recited some poetry, and when Fred Rogers finished, the senator told him he'd earned the $20 million.

Fifty years later, the work and legacy of Fred Rogers has not been forgotten. The Fred Rogers Center, where I currently serve on the advisory board, continues to seek and support new approaches to education and entertainment in the Fred Rogers spirit. The TV company in his name continues to produce programs, including the animated "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood." You can still get box DVD sets of some of the Fred Rogers shows and specials, which ran on PBS until 2001, two years before his death.

And in this golden anniversary year of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," there are many other plans afoot. Today, in his hometown of Latrobe, Pa., Saint Vincent College is scheduled to host a screening of the very first "Neighborhood" episode, 50 years exactly after it premiered. Next week, on the PBS KIDS network, other vintage episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" will be paired with their cartoon "Daniel Tiger" equivalents. PBS will present a retrospective special salute in March. In June, a new film documentary, Morgan Neville's "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is scheduled to be released in theaters nationwide. There's a major new book biography due in September, and the U.S. post office is issuing a Fred Rogers stamp.

And it's just been announced that there's a movie in the works with Fred Rogers set to be played by Tom Hanks. That's kind of perfect - one of the most loved children's hosts in TV history played by one of the most loved actors in movie history. It's a lot of fuss, especially for a man who didn't like to draw attention to himself. But Fred Rogers deserves it. And today, our children's children still deserve and need Fred Rogers.

GROSS: David Bianculli is the founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and is the author of "The Platinum Age Of Television."

Here's the interview I recorded with Fred Rogers back in 1984, when FRESH AIR was a local program in Philadelphia. At the time, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" had been broadcast nationally for 16 years, but Rogers had already been working in children's television for 30 years. I asked him what he was like as a child.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROGERS: I was an only child. I had to make up a lot of my friends myself, and I think that was the beginning of the whole Neighborhood of Make-Believe. I had a very rich fantasy life.

GROSS: What were the friends that you would imagine?

ROGERS: I didn't imagine them. I had puppets, and so I would play with the puppets. And I can't remember their exact forms, but I knew that they were important to me. I think that all of the puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe are facets of who I am.

GROSS: Was there somebody in your life who was the kind of figure for you like you've become to so many children who would, you know, like, reassure you and, you know, want to discuss things with you? Of course, you can't actually step out of the TV and discuss it with all the kids, but you offer that to them. Was there someone like that for you?

ROGERS: I guess the closest person was my grandfather, Mr. McFeely. And, of course, we've named the speedy delivery man for him. We called him Ding Dong because he taught us that childhood rhyme - ding dong dell, pussy in the well. And everybody called him Ding Dong.

He was the kind of person who would really support your strivings for autonomy. And while my parents and my grandmother were naturally very concerned about my health and hazards around, he was the kind of person who, when I would walk on one of his stone walls, for instance, he would - and they would say, better get down - Ding Dong would say, ah, let the kid walk on the wall. He's got to learn to do things for himself. And that's so helpful to know that there are limits, but there are people who would help you to stretch beyond some of those limits.

GROSS: What were the things that really scared you when you were a child?

ROGERS: I think the most scary thing was being alone and thinking that maybe nobody would come to get me. And I think that school - beginning school was tough for me. That's probably why I've done so much work for children in this area. I think also I was frightened of the doctor, and that's probably why I've made all those videotapes about helping children know about what hospitalization is like before they go; probably why I wrote that song "I Like To Be Told" because I did. I liked to be told about things before I had to go do them.

GROSS: Did you like scary movies or books?

ROGERS: I can't remember.

GROSS: Did you go to the movies a lot?

ROGERS: I would go to the movies. It's hard for me to remember. I remember a couple movies that - I liked Shirley Temple, and I liked those kinds of stories that she - you know, she would always come out OK at the end. And I met Shirley Temple Black not too long ago, and I just sat beside her in awe. And I said - it was interesting because the first thing I said to her was, you were one of my favorite people. She said, were? That was the first thing she said. And that really put me back. I expected her to say something about, you know, I'm really glad that I could have been part of your childhood. But all she said was were - you - I was one of your favorite people? Isn't that interesting?

GROSS: Yeah, it is. Did she diminish in your esteem after saying that?

ROGERS: A little bit, but I think that so many people you put on pedestals when you see them from afar. And it's probably just not fair to expect them to be as wonderful as you thought they would be when you met them.

GROSS: What about when you were a teenager? Was that an uncomfortable experience? Or were you - did you feel like you fit in with everybody in high school, which is I think a pretty traumatic time for a lot of people when they're growing up.

ROGERS: It sure is. I think that teenage years are probably uncomfortable for everybody. It's just that some seem to be able to carry it off with more elan than others. But it was tough for me at the beginning. And then I made a couple friends who found out that the core of me was OK. And one of them was the president - or the head of the football team. He later became my best friend in high school. But it was after the beginning of that friendship that I was more accepted in school. Then I became the editor of the yearbook and finally the president of the student council by the end of high school. But I was a very shy person going into high school.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1984 interview with Fred Rogers. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEDDY WILSON'S "MOONGLOW")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're paying tribute to Fred Rogers. Today is the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" as a national program on public TV. Let's get back to my 1984 interview with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: What did you think you were going to be when you got out of school and started a professional career?

ROGERS: I thought I was going to be a diplomat and was thinking about going to a school for diplomacy. And then I changed my mind. And this was during college. I wanted to be a minister and was all set to go to seminary after college. But I saw this thing called television, and I saw people throwing pies in each other's faces and all kinds of demeaning behavior. I would really like to try my hand at that and see what I could do. And so instead of going to the seminary after graduation, I got a job at NBC in New York and went there for two years before joining educational television.

GROSS: What you worked on - the "Hit Parade" and "The Kate Smith Hour," I think.

ROGERS: "The Voice Of Firestone" and all of those programs.

GROSS: It surprises me think that you left for a fledgling station - a brand-new station in educational television, which was also new. It sounds like it was very risky to do that. Why did you make that switch?

ROGERS: I don't know. It was - Pittsburgh was closer to where I grew up. Maybe I wanted to - I had just gotten married in New York, and maybe I had wanted to go back. I'm not sure that's so. I think that it had to do with wanting to work with children because every day that I had off at NBC I would go and visit a day care center or an orphanage or a hospital that cared for children. And I cannot tell you why. I'm sure it had very deep roots. But when I got to Pittsburgh, and I - and there were only three or four of us working at QED then. We weren't even on the air. This was in November of '53, and we didn't go on the air until April of '54, 30 years ago.

One of the secretaries and I did a children's program together because nobody else wanted to do a children's program. But we were doing all of these other things as well. Each of us had a salary of $75 a week. And out of our own pockets, we bought all of the props for the program. And we called the program "The Children's Corner," and it was on an hour every day. And I expected that I would play the organ for the hostess to sing. She would introduce all of the films, which I as the producer would get from all over the country. They had to be free because we didn't have any budget.

Well, I didn't realize it, but those films were very brittle at times. And, of course, everything was live. And we'd be on the air. And here would be a film showing, and it would break. We'd have to fill with something. And so the night before we went on the air, Mrs. Dorothy Daniel, who was the general manager of the station, gave me a little tiger puppet. So I called him Daniel for her. And when the first film broke, I just poked the puppet through. And this was just a very fanciful set with drawings on it. And I just poked him through and, it happened to be a clock where I poked him through. And he just said, it's 5:02, and Columbus discovered American in 1492. And that was the first thing that I ever said through puppetry on the air.

GROSS: Wow.

ROGERS: But I just wanted you to know that necessity there was the mother of that invention because it hadn't been planned. And so much that is spontaneous is what can be truly inspired. And I feel that all - all that I've done that's been really helpful and good has been inspired.

GROSS: You went back to the seminary after doing children's programming for a while, right?

ROGERS: Well, I started with the station. And after we got that children's program going, it was - it got to be so busy for us that the secretary and I both gave up all of our other duties to do "The Children's Corner." As it got moving, the second year, I decided I would go to the seminary. So I went on my lunch hour and took courses just one at a time, never expecting that I would graduate - took me eight years. And I finally graduated and was ordained a minister in the Presbyterian Church.

GROSS: Obviously, you're very religious, but I don't think you - it's not a denominational program. And I'm sure that's intentional on your part.

ROGERS: It's far from denominational and far from overtly religious. The last thing in the world that I would want to do would be something that's exclusive. I would hate to think that a child would feel excluded from the "Neighborhood" by something that I said and did.

GROSS: How did being a father changed the way you did the program? Because you started the program before you had children.

ROGERS: Started "The Children's Corner" - yes - before I had children but our children were 3 and 1 when we started the "Neighborhood." And of course, that started in Canada. After I graduated from the seminary, I thought that I was going to do a program for the Presbyterian Church. And I was all set to do it on graduation. And the day before graduation, I found out that the money was not forthcoming to make the program.

The day after graduation, I had a call from Dr. Fredrick Rainsberry in Toronto who was then head of children's programming for the CBC. He said, Fred, I would like you to do a program for our network. I said you can't imagine what a voice from heaven you are to me right now because I really didn't know what I was going to do. I could have accepted a parish ministry job. But I felt that this was a ministry in itself. So I did a daily program. I thought I was going to do puppets and music as I had always done for those eight previous years. But Fred said to me, I have seen you talk with children. And I'd like you to translate that to the television screen. There are always a few people in this life who think that you can do more than you think you can do. And he was one of them. He trusted me so much that I began to think, well, maybe I can. And so we did.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1984 interview with Fred Rogers. The first national broadcast of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on public TV was 50 years ago today. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. And we'll hear from Doug Jones, who plays the sea creature in the Oscar-nominated film "The Shape Of Water." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY COSTA'S "BLUSETTE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with more of my 1984 interview with Fred Rogers. Today is the 50th anniversary of the first time "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was broadcast as a national program on public TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: One of the things that you always do on your show is, you know, when you come in, you change into a cardigan and put on your sneakers. How did you develop that? It's become such a trademark of your program.

ROGERS: I think that it just came so naturally by my wanting to be comfortable myself that it's turned out that children seem to find that routine comfortable. I know many people have written to tell us that their children love to put on a sweater and sneakers when they hear the music of the "Neighborhood" coming and sit down.

Our program is one in which children seem to be able to be attentive to it for long periods of time. I've heard of very young children watching for a long time. In fact, some of our research shows some very interesting things. And that is that the younger the child, the more interested they are in the program when my face is on the screen. The older the child - they're more interested when there is the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and the different puppets.

But it leads me to believe that the younger children might consider the television screen as another mother's face. I think of the mother's face at feeding the infant as the map of the world. And if this is true, think how important what appears on the television screen is. You've seen people watching television, and drinking a soft drink, and eating popcorn and filling their mouths like a feeding experience. I'm sure you've seen that. I've seen it a lot. And I just wonder if that could be an analogy.

GROSS: Something that you really do is talk about what kids are scared of instead of just doing the clown bit - you know, having a clown who's going to entertain them. Why do you focus on that? Because, like, a lot of your songs and sometimes on the show, too, it's about what's making kids nervous. It's not an attempt to just, like, entertain them and make them laugh, you know?

ROGERS: I'd like them to know that there are things inside them that are OK to talk about. And they might feel anxious about them, and I feel that somebody needs to tell them that it's alright to talk about what they're scared of, what makes them angry, what makes them sad, what makes them happy. They should know that there is a full array of emotions in life, and all of them are fine. It's what we do with them that matters.

And I like to think that the neighborhood is a kind of smorgasbord of ways to deal with how we feel. For me, it was always music and puppets. That's the way I dealt with how I felt. For others, it might be dance or welding or building with blocks or - I could go on for a half an hour about all of the ways that we offer kids - we show them so many ways of healthy sublimation that I like to think that that is a major part of what we do.

GROSS: Can I just ask you one more thing before we go? You know how a lot of adults always say, God, I wish I was a child again? Do you ever wish you were 5 or 10 or 12?

ROGERS: Yes. But I'd like to be that with what I know now. And I think that I'd like that because there're good many significant people in my life that I have lost through death, and I'd like to be able to talk with them again and tell them some things that I wasn't able to tell them then. In fact, I'd like to be able to tell them, you are special.

GROSS: Fred Rogers recorded in 1984 - today is the 50th anniversary of the first time "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was broadcast as a national program on public television. Fred Rogers died in February of 2003 at the age of 74. Here he is singing the song he'd end each show with. Johnny Costa is at the piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S SUCH A GOOD FEELING")

ROGERS: (Singing) It's such a good feeling to know you're alive. It's such a happy feeling, you're growing inside and when you wake up, ready to say, I think I'll make a snappy new day. It's such a good feeling, a very good feeling, the feeling you know you're alive. It's such a good feeling to know you're in tune. It's such a happy feeling to find you're in bloom. And when you wake up ready to say, I think I'll make a snappy new day, it's such a good feeling, a very good feeling, the feeling you know that we're friends.

GROSS: After we take a short break, we'll hear from Doug Jones, who plays the sea creature in "The Shape Of Water," which is nominated for 13 Oscars, including best picture. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "SPY MEETING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.