Hello neighbors! It’s a beautiful day to take a look at what was really happening behind the scenes on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Was Fred Rogers really as wonderful as he appeared on television? So in the words of Mister Rogers himself, “Come along with me,” and let’s take a stroll through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
It’s no coincidence that Fred Rogers taught kids about kindness and gentility on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — his own childhood was actually quite fraught. According to a real-life neighbor of Rogers’, he was on the receiving end of some seriously hurtful bullying by his peers.
Rogers was shy and overweight when he was young, and in the eyes of some mean-spirited kids, perfect fodder for bullying. Rogers explained, “I used to cry to myself when I was alone. And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” But it was this experience with bullying that led him to seek out the “essential invisible” within everyone.
Upon seeing a brand new television set in his parents’ home in 1951, Rogers was struck by his life’s purpose. However, that put a slight hitch in his original plans and the direction he’d always thought his life would take. Prior to graduating from college, Rogers had every intention of continuing on to enter seminary.
Having already gotten his start in public television, while working on The Children’s Corner for Pittsburgh’s WQED, Rogers found the time to finally attend the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Rogers emerged a fully ordained Presbyterian minister in 1963. Rogers took every lesson he learned in seminary, and applied them every day on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
It seems that everyone who’s met Mister Rogers has walked away with the same impression, that he was a lovely man who cared genuinely and earnestly for others. And apparently he was equally as beloved by animals as he was by humans, especially by Koko the gorilla.
Koko, a Stanford University educated gorilla, was apparently an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher. Rogers went to visit Koko, who not only gave him a big hug, but after watching Rogers take off his shoes at the start of every episode (the why of that we’ll reveal soon!) continued to take off her TV idol’s shoes herself. Too cute!
When Fred Rogers saw that television sitting in his parents’ living room, he was awed by the medium’s ability to reach such a large audience. But what really got him into television wasn’t what you’d expect. Actually, Rogers reaction was that he “hated it so.”
Rogers saw what was broadcast and believed that the programming wasn’t up to par. It was then that he became inspired to use that same medium to spread love and life lessons for the next generation. In his acceptance speech to the TV Hall of Fame, Rogers explained, “Those of us in television are chosen to be servants,” and he was serving the youth.
Mister Rogers ran his life on a pretty tight schedule, and it started each morning at 5 am. After praying, studying, returning phone calls, swimming, and weighing himself (more on this later), Rogers sat down to answer his fan mail. Every. Last. Letter.
According to a long-time assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Rogers received 50 – 100 fan letters a day on average, and he answered each one individually. No form letters. The children who wrote were often seeking advice on serious matters, and according to the assistant, “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred.”
The door to Mister Rogers’ house opens, the music begins, and as he sings to his viewers to please be his neighbor on this beautiful day, Fred Rogers takes off his blue jacket, hangs it in the closet, and puts on a cardigan sweater. But not just any cardigan sweater.
Mister Rogers’ sweaters were all hand-knit by his mother. And he wore a hand-knit, homemade zippered cardigan every time, for 865 episodes. Rogers recognized how iconic the cardigans had become over the course of 31 seasons, and donated a red cardigan to the Smithsonian Museum — he said his studio didn’t capture the color quite right.
Mister Rogers has of course been parodied or poked fun at over the years. Famously Johnny Carson staged a few um, adult, sketches in the style of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but Fred Rogers said he didn’t mind, since as Carson explained, it was all done out of affection. But one time, Burger King took it too far.
Burger King began airing a commercial with a character named “Mr. Rodney” modeled after Mister Rogers. The real Rogers disliked the fast food pitch his likeness was being used for, and called a press conference. After explaining that he didn’t do commercial endorsements, Burger King publicly apologize and pulled the commercials.
Are you familiar with the “Betamax Case”? And what does it relate to Mister Rogers? Well, in a landmark case brought to the Supreme Court, the VCR was at the center of a big lawsuit. Production companies were concerned that the ability to record television programs from home would constitute as copyright infringement.
So, Mister Rogers went to Washington D.C. and spoke in favor of the VCR. Rogers thought it would help families to tape programs, such as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and watch them all together at the end of the day. The Supreme Court ruled in favor, and cited his words as largely helping sway their decision.
Did you know that Mister Rogers was actually an Ivy League dropout? Now, before anyone gets any ideas about dropping out of college, Rogers dropped out of Dartmouth, but he then transferred to Rollins College to get a degree in music. That’s right! Fred Rogers graduated at the top of his class, playing the piano perfectly.
Rogers wrote all of the original songs and music that was featured on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, an additional 200 or more songs that didn’t make it onto the show, and even a couple of kids’ operas. And when Rogers got anxious, he’d soothe himself by playing his show’s theme song on piano.
Lots of celebrities got their starts in unexpected places, for example, Harrison Ford was a carpenter when he was cast in his first major film role. Before making it big in Hollywood, actor Michael Keaton was working in a neighborhood we all know well – Mister Rogers’.
Keaton was working at the PBS station out in Pittsburgh, WQED, where Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was taped. Keaton pitched in on the crew, and despite only being paid $2 per hour, he remembers his time with Rogers fondly. “He was one of the nicest, authentically good people you’ve ever met…kind of a sneaky, sly great sense of humor.”
In any possible way you define the word hero, Fred Rogers fits the bill. And perhaps never more so than when he went down to Washington D.C. and saved public television. See, in 1969 the government (foolishly) proposed cutting public television funds, but Mister Rogers wasn’t about to let that happen.
Rogers testified in front of the Senate Committee and explained that public television can be a place of hope and can mindfully shape the next generation. His words were so moving that not only was funding not cut, but it jumped up from $9 million to $22 million. Not all heroes wear a cape, some wear cardigans.
Often described as a sort of surrogate parental figure to entire generations of impressionable young children who grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, it’s easy to forget that Rogers was an actual father of two sons, Jim and John. And their relationship with their famous father wasn’t always idyllic.
Rogers’ older son, Jim, went through a rough patch after going off to college. It was nothing too dramatic, just a son seeking space to find himself. His son had said, “It was a little tough, having the second Christ as my dad,” but at the end of the day, father and sons, and eventually grandsons, all got along great.
Given how vibrant and colorful the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was, it might surprise you to learn that Rogers was actually colorblind. Rogers had a red-green colorblindness, which meant he couldn’t distinguish between the two tones. But the Rogers family was figuratively color blind too.
Rogers grew up during segregation and open racism in America, and yet, his parents took in black foster children, or foster children of any background for that matter. Skin color couldn’t have mattered less to the Rogers family. Years later, Rogers would delicately yet maturely tackle racism on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, helping spread love and tolerance to a fresh generation.
As the opening song comes to a close on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Rogers perches on a bench, takes off a dress shoe, tosses it into his other hand, and puts on a blue boating shoe, before doing the same with the other foot. It’s a part of the opening sequence no one can forget, but there’s more to the shoe switch than you’d think.
Rogers switched into the canvas sneakers not necessarily out of comfort. Rogers found the sneakers to be much quieter when walking around set and so he switched out of dress shoes for the sake of the crew who were with him behind the scenes.
Michael Keaton isn’t the only famous face to have gotten his start working in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, famed horror movie make George Romero got his start with Fred Rogers too. Romero said, “Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film.” Rogers even showed his support for Romero by watching his first big film, Dawn of the Dead.
Romero shot short segments during his time working for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, including the episode “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” Romero has joked that of all the horror movies he’s helmed, filming Fred Rogers get a tonsillectomy was his scariest.
It seems pretty impossible to imagine that anyone could look at Fred Rogers and his life’s work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and have anything negative to say about the man. But, one university professor has bravely spoken out as perhaps the only person to dislike Mister Rogers.
Louisiana State University professor Don Chance said he didn’t much enjoy Mister Rogers or his program. Chance believed that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helped create a “culture of excessive doting,” leading to a lazier generation. Since Chance is a professor within the business and finance department, we’ll let his critique of Fred Rogers, a man who extensively studied child psychology, slide.
As we’ve now learned, Rogers wasn’t a man who did anything accidentally. So, that traffic light in his living room on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that’s always set to yellow as the theme song starts up isn’t just yellow by chance. Like everything in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, there’s a lesson to be learned from that yellow light.
Despite what a driver who’s running late may say, a yellow traffic light means slow down, and that’s exactly the signal Rogers wanted to send. The yellow light intended to be a reminder for children and parents to slow down a little, and remember to have patience. But that wasn’t the only time Mister Rogers taught us all about the importance of patience.
As we’ll all remember, Rogers had a fish tank in his TV home, and for one episode, he invited a marine biologist to come and place a microphone in the tank to show that the otherwise silent fish make noise when they eat. Except, the fish weren’t hungry.
While the marine biologist spoke to the fish to encourage them to eat, Rogers stood silently, waiting for the fish to eat on their own time. The crew thought he might want to re-tape the segment since it took the fish so long to start eating, but Rogers believed it was an excellent moment to emphasize the importance of patience.
Sure lots of people talk the talk, but how many of them really walk the walk? Haven’t we all been guilty of using the expression, “Do as I say not as I do” a time or two? Well, not Fred Rogers. Every message Rogers sent to the children and parents who watched his show, he followed in his personal life too.
That meant that Rogers didn’t drink alcohol, didn’t smoke, was a vegetarian, and of course, Mister Rogers never cursed. The only word Rogers would ever use to express exasperation or exhaustion was “mercy.” And not much could elicit a “mercy” for Mister Rogers.
Once upon a time, when Rogers was en route to a dinner party at a PBS executive’s house, he was brought over via limo. After learning that the driver was to wait in the car while the party commenced, Rogers insisted that he join them for dinner. But that’s not all.
On the return Rogers sat up front, and in conversation discovered they were about to pass by the driver’s house. Rogers asked if they could stop by the house to meet his family. According to the driver, everyone was enraptured over Rogers’ arrival, and he proceeded to playing jazz piano and talk with them late into the night.
The profound effect Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood has had on generations of children is almost immeasurable. But if one was to try, then this story of a New York City subway car ride could stand as all the evidence anyone would need.
As anyone who’s taken NYC public transit knows, everyone is miserable on the subway. One day, a subway car packed with kids and adults of all ages realized they were riding along with Fred Rogers (he was on his way to a meeting). The entire subway car began to sing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” Rogers had done the impossible, and united a bunch of New Yorkers.
Debuting on public television within a year of each other, it can be hard not to try and equate Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with the equally beloved children’s show Sesame Street. And, in the spirit of those two programs and the morals they espoused on their shows, we’re not saying there’s a competition between the two shows, but if there was…
A study conducted by the Yale University psychology department found that children who watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood versus Sesame Street retained more of the storylines and lessons from Misters Rogers’ Neighborhood. Additionally, Neighborhood kids showed a greater capacity for patience when waiting for promised treats or adult attention.
In his early days working off-camera on The Children’s Corner, Fred Rogers created many of the puppets who populated Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Lovingly made and named, many of our favorite “neighbors” such as Daniel Striped Tiger, were named after real people in Rogers’ life.
Daniel Striped Tiger was named after Dorothy Daniel, who gave a younger Fred his first puppet. Queen Sarah Saturday was fittingly named after Rogers’ wife Sarah, and Lady Elaine Fairchild was named for his adopted sister Elaine. Everything Fred Rogers did and every detail on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had meaning. And speaking of which, it’s time to revisit the importance of Rogers’ daily weigh in…
As part of his carefully maintained morning schedule, Fred Rogers weighed himself. And every morning the number on the scale read “143.” Every. Single. Morning. Aside from how regimented a person would have to be to maintain their weight so consistently, there’s a little adding meaning to the number 1-4-3.
According to Rogers, the number 143 would come to contain a special message for him. “It takes one letter to say ‘I’ and four letters to say ‘love’ and three letters to say ‘you.’ One hundred and forty-three. ‘I love you’,” he explained, adding, “Isn’t that wonderful?” And indeed it is, as wonderful as the man himself.
Mister Rogers is getting the biopic treatment! Hollywood has placed his portrayal in good hands with multiple award winner Tom Hanks. Titled A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the film stars Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, and will be based on the friendship between Rogers and journalist Tom Junod.
Based on Junod’s account of their acquaintance, the reporter was tasked with writing a profile on Rogers, but what he ended up with was a lifelong friendship. Junod was struggling in his personal and professional life, and as he would eventually write in his profile, “He finds me, because that’s what Mister Rogers does—he looks, and then he finds.”
Sources: Esquire, LA Times, Mental Floss