Thursday, February 12, 2009


Fred Rogers

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Born Fred McFeely Rogers
March 20, 1928
Latrobe, Pennsylvania, USA
Died February 27, 2003 (aged 74)
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

Fred McFeely Rogers (March 20, 1928 – February 27, 2003) was an American educator, minister, songwriter, and television host. Rogers was the host of the television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, in production from 1968 to 2001. Rogers was also an ordained Presbyterian minister.

Rogers was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a town located 40 miles (65 km) southeast of Pittsburgh. He was born to James and Nancy Rogers; he spent many years as an only child. Early in his life he spent much of his free time with his maternal grandfather, Fred McFeely, and had an interest in puppetry and music. He would often sing along as his mother would play the piano. He was red-green colorblind.[1]

His parents also acted as foster parents to an African American teenager named George, whose mother had died. Rogers eventually came to consider George his older brother. George later became an instructor for the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II and also taught Rogers to fly.[2]
Following secondary school, Rogers studied at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, between 1946 and 1948 before transferring to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. He received a BA in music composition there in 1951.

At Rollins, Rogers met his wife and Oakland native Sara Joanne Byrd whom he married on June 9, 1952.[3] They had two children, James (born in 1959) and John (born in 1961), and three grandsons, the third (Ian McFeely Rogers) born 12 days after Rogers' death.[4] In 1962, Rogers graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was ordained a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He was a vegetarian who swam every morning, and neither smoked nor drank.[5]

Television career

Early work in television

Rogers had a life-changing moment when he first saw television in his parents' home. He entered seminary after college, but was diverted into television after his first experience as a viewer; he wanted to explore the potential of the medium. "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."[6]

He thus applied for a job at NBC in New York and was accepted because of his music degree. Rogers moved to New York in 1951 and spent three years working in the production staff for music-centered programming such as NBC Opera Theater. He also worked on Gabby Hayes' show for children. Ultimately, Rogers decided that commercial television's reliance on advertisement and merchandising undermined its ability to educate or enrich young audiences, so he quit working at NBC.

In 1954, he began working at WQED, a Pittsburgh public television station, as a puppeteer on a local children's series, The Children's Corner. For the next seven years, he worked with host Josie Carey in unscripted live TV, developing many of the puppets, characters and music used in his later work, such as King Friday XIII, and Curious X the Owl.

Rogers began wearing his famous sneakers when he found them to be quieter than his work shoes when he moved about behind the set. He was also the voices behind King Friday XIII and Queen Sara Saturday (named after his wife), rulers of the neighborhood, as well as X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, Daniel the Striped Tiger, Lady Elaine Fairchild, and Donkey Hodie. The show won a Sylvania Award[7] for best children's show, and was briefly broadcast nationally on NBC.

For eight years during this period, he would leave the WQED studios during his lunch breaks to study theology at the nearby Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Rogers, however, was not interested in preaching, and after his ordination as a Presbyterian minister in 1962, he was specifically charged to continue his work with children's television. Rogers is among a string of entertainers (including Jackie Mason, Hugh Beaumont, Clifton Davis and Ralph Waite) who have a formal theological background. He had also done work at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Child Development.

In 1963, Rogers moved to Toronto, where he was contracted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to develop a 15-minute children's television program: Misterogers (sic),[8] which would be his debut in front of the camera. The show was a hit with children, but only lasted for three seasons on the network. Many of his famous set pieces, such as Trolley, Eiffel Tower, the 'tree', and 'castle' were all created by designers at the CBC. While on production in Canada, Rogers brought with him his friend and understudy, Ernie Coombs, who would go on to create "Mr. Dressup", a very successful and long running children's show in Canada which, in many ways, was similar to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Mr. Dressup had also used some of the songs that would later go on Rogers' later program.

In 1966, Rogers acquired the rights to his program from the CBC, and moved the show to WQED in Pittsburgh, where he had worked on The Children's Corner. He developed the new show for the Eastern Educational Network. Stations that carried the program were limited, but included educational stations in Boston, Washington, DC and New York City.

After returning to Pittsburgh, Rogers attended and participated in activities at the Sixth Presbyterian church in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Distribution of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood began on February 19, 1968. The following year, the show moved to PBS (Public Broadcasting Service). In 1971, Rogers formed Family Communications, Inc. (FCI), and the company established offices in the WQED building in Pittsburgh. Initially, the company served solely as the production arm of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, but now develops and produces an array of children's programming and educational materials.

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood began airing in 1968; the last set of new episodes were taped in December 2000, and began airing in August 2001. The show had the distinction of being the longest running program on PBS; it ran for 998 episodes.[9]

Each episode begins the same way, with Mister Rogers walking until he is coming home and singing his theme song, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" and changing into sneakers and a zippered cardigan sweater. [10]

In an episode, Rogers might have an earnest conversation with his television audience, interact with live guests, take a field trip to a nearby place such as a bakery or music store, or watch a short film.

Typical video subject matter includes demonstrations of how inanimate objects, such as bulldozers and crayons, work or are manufactured.

Each episode includes a trip to Rogers' "Neighborhood of Make-Believe", which features a trolley that has its own chiming theme song, a castle, and the kingdom's citizens, including King Friday XIII. The subjects discussed in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe often allow further development of thematic elements discussed in Mister Rogers' "real" neighborhood.

Mister Rogers often fed his fish during episodes. They were originally named Fennel and Frieda.
Typically, each week's episodes explore a major theme, such as going to school for the first time. Originally, most episodes ended with a song entitled "Tomorrow", while Friday episodes looked forward to the week ahead with an adapted version of "It's Such a Good Feeling." In later seasons, all episodes ended with "Feeling."

Visually, the presentation of the show was very simple; it did not feature the animation or fast pace of other children's shows. Rogers composed all the music for his series. He was concerned with teaching children to love themselves and others. He also tried to address common childhood fears with comforting songs and skits. For example, one of his famous songs explains how you can't be pulled down the bathtub drain—because you won't fit. He even once took a trip to the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh to show children that a hospital is not a place of which to be afraid. During the Gulf War in 1990-91, he assured his audience that all children in the neighborhood would be well cared for, and asked parents to promise to take care of their own children. The message was aired again by PBS during the media storm that preceded the military action against Iraq in 2003.

In February 1990, Rogers' car was stolen while he was taking care of his grandson. The thief apparently realized who the car belonged to after seeing papers and props Rogers had left in the car. The car was returned to Rogers, who found it sitting in front of his home about a day later. The only thing missing from the car was Rogers' director's chair. Rogers' car at the time was an Oldsmobile sedan.[11]

Other television work

In 1994, Rogers created another one-time special for PBS called Fred Rogers' Heroes which consisted of documentary portraits of four real-life people whose work helped make their communities better. Rogers, uncharacteristically dressed in a suit and tie, hosted in wraparound segments which did not use the "Neighborhood" set.

For a time Rogers produced specials for parents as a precursor to the subject of the week on the Neighborhood called "Mister Rogers Talks To Parents About (whatever the topic was)". Rogers didn't host those specials though as other people like Joan Lunden, who hosted the Conflict special, and other news announcers played MC duties in front of a gallery of parents while Rogers answered questions from them. These specials were made to prep the parents for any questions the children might ask after watching the episodes on that topic of the week.

The only time Rogers appeared on television as someone other than himself was when he played a preacher on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman in 1996 for one episode only. [9]

In 1981, then up-and-coming comedian Eddie Murphy, then a cast member of Saturday Night Live, parodied Rogers' image in "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood", a sketch in which he played a small-time hoodlum who lived in a rundown tenement apartment, that served as a setting for a children's show.

In the mid-1980s, the Burger King fast-food chain lampooned Rogers' image with an actor called "Mr. Rodney", imitating Rogers' television character. Rogers found the character's pitching fast food as confusing to children, and called a press conference in which he stated that he did not endorse the company's use of his character or likeness (Rogers did no commercial endorsements of any kind throughout his career, though he acted as a pitchman for several non-profit organizations dedicated to learning over the years). The chain publicly apologized for the faux pas, and pulled the ads.

Emmys for programming

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood won four Emmy awards, and Rogers received one for lifetime achievement.

During the 1997 Daytime Emmys, the Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Rogers. The following is an excerpt from Esquire Magazine's coverage of the gala, written by Tom Junod:

Mister Rogers went onstage to accept the award — and there, in front of all the soap opera stars and talk show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, "All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence." And then he lifted his wrist, looked at the audience, looked at his watch, and said, 'I'll watch the time." There was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn't kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch, but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked. And so they did. One second, two seconds, seven seconds — and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier. And Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said softly "May God be with you," to all his vanquished children.[12]


Mister Rogers and PBS funding

In 1969, Rogers appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications. His goal was to support funding for PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in response to significant proposed cuts. In about six minutes of testimony, Rogers spoke of the need for social and emotional education that public television provided. He passionately argued that alternative television programming like his Neighborhood helped encourage children to become happy and productive citizens, sometimes opposing less positive messages in media and in popular culture. He even recited the lyrics to one of his songs.

The chairman of the subcommittee, John O. Pastore, was not previously familiar with Rogers' work, and was sometimes described as gruff and impatient. However, he reported that the testimony had given him goosebumps, and declared, "I think it's wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million." The subsequent congressional appropriation, for 1971, increased PBS funding from $9 million to $22 million.[13]

Mister Rogers and the VCR

During the controversy surrounding the introduction of the household VCR, Rogers was involved in supporting the manufacturers of VCRs in court. His 1979 testimony in the case Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc. noted that he did not object to home recording of his television programs, for instance, by families in order to watch together at a later time. This testimony contrasted with the views of others in the television industry who objected to home recording or believed that devices to facilitate it should be taxed or regulated.

The Supreme Court considered the testimony of Rogers in its decision that held that the Betamax video recorder did not infringe copyright. The Court stated that his views were a notable piece of evidence "that many [television] producers are willing to allow private time-shifting to continue" and even quoted his testimony in a footnote:

Some public stations, as well as commercial stations, program the "Neighborhood" at hours when some children cannot use it ... I have always felt that with the advent of all of this new technology that allows people to tape the "Neighborhood" off-the-air, and I'm speaking for the "Neighborhood" because that's what I produce, that they then become much more active in the programming of their family's television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been "You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions." Maybe I'm going on too long, but I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important.[14]

The Home Recording Rights Coalition later stated that Rogers was "one of the most prominent witnesses on this issue."

Rogers had been a supporter of VCR use since its very early days. In his final week of episodes of the original run in 1976, Rogers used a U-Matic VCR to show scenes from past episodes, as a way to prepare viewers for repeats that would begin the following week.

Death and memorial

Rogers died from stomach cancer on February 27, 2003[15], not long after his retirement and less than a month before he would have turned 75. His death was so big in Pittsburgh that the edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published the next day covered the entire front page on Rogers' death. The Reverend William P. Barker presided over a public memorial in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Over 2,700 people attended the memorial at Heinz Hall, including former "Good Morning America" host David Hartman, Teresa Heinz Kerry, philanthropist Elsie Hillman, PBS President Pat Mitchell, Arthur creator Marc Brown, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar author-illustrator Eric Carle.[16] Rogers is interred at Unity Cemetery in Latrobe.[17]

Speakers remembered Rogers' love of children, devotion to his religion, enthusiasm for music, and quirks. Teresa Heinz Kerry said of Rogers, "He never condescended, just invited us into his conversation. He spoke to us as the people we were, not as the people others wished we were." His remains are entombed at Latrobe's Unity Cemetery in a mausoleum.

On New Years Day of 2004, Michael Keaton hosted the PBS TV special "Mr. Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor". It was released on DVD September 28 that year.

Here is a link to a recent Tank Riot podcast on Mr. Rogers


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for that wonderful piece.
We need more of that on TV today.
We all need to be reminded that we can entertain as well as educate - and education is easier to learn and a heck of a lot more fun when we entertain.
Down from my soapbox now.:o)
Robin Estes

Anonymous said...

all I can say after watching that speech I already started tearing up,and my brother and sister and I grew up on that show in the mid seventies and all I have to say is never take family for granted love your family no matter what,im 36 now and the rest of my sibling are in there mid 30s,when we are kissed by our parents now we hate it but deep down inside we love it tell your mom or dad that you love them and I am blessed that my parents excepted me for what I love doing clowning at first they weren't thrilled but when they see me make someone smile it completely changes there outlook Rob....

GothamTomato said...

Years ago, I went for a job interview and the HR director who interviewed me had a framed picture of Mr. Rogers standing on his desk. I cracked up and, 'I love Mr. Rogers!' & we got into a conversation about him.

Much later, after I got the job and had been working there a while, I found out that one of the ways that HR director determined who he was going to hire (for any job) was how a prospect responded to seeing the picture of Mr. Rogers on the desk. His theory was that everything he needed to know about the suitability of any prospective employee, he could learn from their reaction to Mr. Rogers.


Adam said...

I also started welling up as I watched that speech.

Mr. Rogers was a square, but he completely rules, and he was so earnest.

He was also a jazz monster. We did a parody of Won't You Be My Neighbor, and a piano friend of mine was figuring it out by ear, and later remarked that it had 5 time changes, and a number of signature changes, and was in a very bizarre key with lots of flats and sharps.

Mark Lavender said...

Thanks, Pat.

Anonymous said...

Mr Rogers Neighborhood was an all too short respit from the ills of the world. a place where kids could see that while someone like Itzak Perlman had great trouble walking, he could play the violin just about better than anybody else in the world. Respect, decency, love, honor, friendship...
what an incomparible example of everything that is or should be in a human being. I'm 66: my son and I used to watch Mr Rogers regularly. He's 40 now and in Fla.
Up here give me the chance I'll still tune in for "...such a good feeling to know you're alive..."
Nowadays shows like Sat night Live trash blind people for a laugh.

God Bless you Mr Rogers; there's still hope.

And you know I don't recall ever seeing a real clown go for a laugh at someone else's expense/detriment.

Thanks Pat for a whole lot.