Today is the birthday (1928) of Fred McFeely Rogers, known generally as Mr. Rogers, U.S. television personality, puppeteer, educator, Presbyterian minister, composer, songwriter, author, and activist. Rogers was most famous for creating, hosting, and composing the theme music for the educational preschool television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968–2001), which featured his gentle, soft-spoken personality and directness to his audiences. I came across his show around 1980 when I was visiting my sister whose 4 year old son loved it. It never really did much for me because I’m not interested in pre-school education, and at the time I was not a father. But over the years I’ve come to admire the saintliness of the man. He’s a rare breed, much needed in these troubled times.
Rogers was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, 40 miles (65 km) southeast of Pittsburgh, to James and Nancy Rogers; he had one sister, Elaine. Early in life he spent much of his free time with his maternal grandfather, Fred McFeely, who had an interest in music. He would often sing along as his mother would play the piano and he himself began playing at five. Rogers graduated from Latrobe High School (1946). He studied at Dartmouth College (1946–48), then transferred to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where he earned a B.A. in Music Composition in 1951. Rogers was also a trained general aviation pilot.
At Rollins, he met Sara Joanne Byrd, an Oakland, Florida native; they married on June 9, 1952. They had two sons, James (b. 1959) and John (b. 1961). In 1963, Rogers graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was ordained a minister in the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
Fred Rogers had a life-changing moment when he first saw television in his parents’ home. He entered seminary after college; but, after his first experience as a viewer, he wanted to explore the potential of the medium. In an interview with CNN in his later years, Rogers stated, “I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.” He applied for a job at NBC in New York City in 1951 and was hired because of his music degree. Rogers spent three years working on the production staffs for such music-centered programming 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 NBC.
In 1954, he began working at WQED, a Pittsburgh public television station, as a puppeteer on a local children’s show 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 as he moved about behind the set. He was also the voices of King Friday XIII and Queen Sara Saturday (named after his wife), rulers of the neighborhood, as well as X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, Daniel Striped Tiger, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, and Larry Horse.
During his off hours, 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, he was specifically charged to continue his work with Children’s Television. He had also done work at the University of Pittsburgh’s program in Child Development and Child Care.
In 1963, Rogers moved to Toronto, where he was contracted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to develop his debut in front of the camera, the 15-minute children’s program Misterogers, which though popular with children ran just three seasons. Many of his famous set pieces—Trolley, Eiffel Tower, the ‘tree’, and ‘castle’—were created by CBC designers. While in Canada, Rogers brought 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, and similar in many ways to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Mr. Dressup also used some of the songs that would be featured on Rogers’ later program. The two of them co-starred on Butternut Square on CBC TV between October 19, 1964 and February 10, 1967.
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 did include educational stations in Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York City.
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 it now develops and produces an array of children’s programming and educational materials.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood began airing in 1968 and ran for 895 episodes; the last set of new episodes was taped in December 2000 and began airing in August 2001. At its peak, in 1985, 8% of U.S households tuned into the show. Each episode began the same way: Mister Rogers is seen coming home, singing his theme song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, and changing into sneakers and a zippered cardigan sweater (he stated in an interview for Emmy TV that all of his sweaters were knitted by his mother).
In a typical episode, Rogers might have an earnest conversation with his television audience, interact with live guests, take a field trip to such places as a bakery or a music store, or watch a short film. Typical video subjects included demonstrations of how inanimate objects work, such as bulldozers, or how they are manufactured, such as crayons. Each episode included a trip to Rogers’ “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” featuring a trolley with 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 allowed further development of themes discussed in Mister Rogers’ “real” neighborhood. Typically, each week’s episodes explored a major theme, such as going to school for the first time.
Visually, the presentation of the show was very simple, and it did not feature the animation or fast pace of other children’s shows, which Rogers thought of as “bombardment”. Rogers also believed in not acting out a different persona on camera compared to how he acted off camera, stating that “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.” Rogers composed almost all of the music on the program. He wanted to teach children to love themselves and others, and he addressed common childhood fears with comforting songs and skits. For example, one of his famous songs explains how a child cannot be pulled down the bathtub drain because he or she will not fit. He even once took a trip to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh to show children that a hospital is not a place to fear. During the Gulf War (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.
Rogers was diagnosed with stomach cancer in December 2002, not long after his retirement. He underwent surgery on January 6, 2003, which was unsuccessful. Rogers died on the morning of February 27, 2003, at his home with his wife by his side, less than a month before he would have turned 75. His death was such a significant event in Pittsburgh that the entire front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published the next day devoted its coverage to him. The Reverend William P. Barker presided over a public memorial in Pittsburgh. More than 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. 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.” Rogers is interred at Unity Cemetery in Latrobe.
Here’s my recipe for chocolate coconut balls that I used to make, with my mother’s help, as a small boy. We usually took them to church (Presbyterian) suppers, and I was very proud of being able to make them by myself.
Chocolate Coconut Balls
1 packet (250g) milk arrowroot biscuits
⅓ cup (40g) cocoa powder
½ cup (45g) desiccated coconut (plus a little extra for rolling the balls in)
1 tin (395g) condensed milk
Break the biscuits into pieces and then crush them with a rolling pin until you have fine crumbs.
Mix the biscuit crumbs with the cocoa and coconut, then add the condensed milk and mix to form a doughy mass.
Roll the dough into balls. Sprinkle some coconut on a plate and roll the balls in it until they are fully covered.
Refrigerate until ready to serve.