From 1968 to 2000, Fred McFeely Rogers invited viewers to spend some quality time in his little yellow television house. Soft-spoken, but with strength of purpose and complete sincerity, Mister Rogers offered a simple but powerful message: “I like you just the way you are.” And, in retrospect, we liked him just the way he was. Today, we look back at this iconic and educational children’s show that left many of us with such fond memories.
Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister who regarded the TV show as his mission field. He brought to this task a keen understanding of developmental psychology, a love of puppets, and a bachelor’s degree in musical composition. Each visit with Mister Rogers began with his theme song, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” sung joyfully while he hung up his jacket, put on a zippered sweater and changed from dress shoes to a pair of sneakers.
An episode might include a visit to Chef Brocket’s Bakery or Handyman Negri’s Fix-it Shop. Often, the energetic postman Mister McFeely brought a package with a cry of “Speedy Delivery.” This might be a film to watch on “Picture-Picture,” a film viewer in a picture frame. (These films were often factory footage of how common items are made.) Furthermore, every visit included a trip to the “Neighborhood of Make Believe,” reached by following a whistling toy trolley through a tunnel. This colorful place was ruled over by the benevolent King Friday the Thirteenth and Queen Sara Saturday. Human characters, such as Betty “Lady” Aberlin, interacted with the puppet likes of X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, and Lady Elaine Fairchild, proprietor of the Museum-Go-Round.
In between these segments, Mister Rogers gave gentle talks about important things that might concern a child, always ending with a pertinent song. The subject could be self esteem (“You are Special”), anger (“What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel?”), growing up (“Everything Grows Together”), or childhood fears (“You Can Never Go Down The Drain”). Even sensitive subjects like divorce or the death of a pet were given careful attention. Of course, each show ended with the same profound words; “You always make each day a special day, by just your being you.”
Fred Rogers’ songs, in combination with the arrangements of music director John Costa, also gave the show an unmistakable stamp, sweetness with a touch of jazzy sophistication. Rogers even composed short, and often surreal, operas to be performed by the denizens of the Neighborhood of Make Believe. These fanciful episodes are particularly prized by legions of fans, who fondly remember them well into adulthood.
This simple formula was followed faithfully for thirty-two years. New episodes were taped every year and cycled in with existing episodes until Rogers’ retirement in 2000. Sadly, Fred Rogers passed away in 2003, but the shows he left behind still runs in some areas, an audio-visual oasis of calm and reassurance.
By all accounts, the real Fred Rogers was very much the same person seen on the show, warm hearted, sincere and modest. In 1969, he appeared before a United States Senate sub-committee to vouch for the funding of Public Television. The chairman, Senator John Pastore, was notoriously gruff and impatient, yet Mister Rogers, in only a few minutes time, got past his defenses, prompting him to report Rogers had given him “goosebumps,” and helping secure 20 million dollars in funding for Public TV. This same disarming manner also caused the usually cynical Joan Rivers to melt when Rogers joined her on The Tonight Show. That’s just the type of guy that Fred was, and we loved him for it. Need more proof? Here is a touching clip of his 1997 acceptance speech for a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Daytime Emmys:
If you have your own treasured memories of venturing into the Land of Make-Believe each day alongside the guidance of Mr. Rogers, we welcome your recollections in our comments section. Tell us your favorite characters and skits, tell us how the show influenced your own childhood development, and tell us why Mr. Rogers was special to you, as we tip our hats in reverence to this unforgettable face (and show) from our collective childhood, here at Retroland.