Thursday, March 8, 2018

It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

INGRID THOFT

An article in the "New York Times" on Monday caught my eye, 'Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood at 50.'  It's hard to believe that it's been fifty years since Fred Rogers first donned his cardigan and changed his shoes on PBS.  Airing for more than three decades, the show became the gold standard of television programming for children.  The NYT's article quotes show producer Margy Whitmer who said the key values of the show were civility, kindness, empathy, and that it's okay to make mistakes—qualities and a lesson that are just as relevant today, fifty years later.

I have fond memories of watching Mr. Rogers, but I don't remember the "lessons" he taught, which was part of the brilliance of the show.  He never seemed preachy or condescending.  Instead, his matter-of-fact manner enabled him to speak on a whole range of topics, many of which were considered sensitive at the time.  Divorce, secrets, mad feelings, and day care were just some of the issues that Mr. Rogers broached while changing his shoes or chatting with King Friday or Lady Elaine.  His calm approach made it okay to talk about difficult things.

I found myself going down a Mr. Rogers YouTube rabbit hole and revisited some of the more memorable episodes of the show.  His guest list read as a "who's who" of Hollywood, pop culture, music, and science.  In fact, it wasn't unusual for guests to approach the show and pitch a segment in which they hoped to be included.  Mr. Rogers and his talented staff had a knack for pairing guests with lessons they were uniquely qualified to impart to the viewing audience.  Some examples include:


Margaret Hamilton aka The Wicked Witch of the West
Viewers first meet Hamilton as she waited for him on his porch, looking like a harmless old lady from the neighborhood.  Once inside, she and Mr. Rogers discussed her role as the witch and the fact that many kids found her quite scary.  With Mr. Rogers' help, Hamilton donned her witch costume over her clothes, thereby demonstrating that she was just playing make-believe.  Viewers were reassured and also encouraged to explore the possibilities of make-believe.
LeVar Burton
The actor from "Roots," "Star Trek: Next Generation," and "Reading Rainbow" stopped by to talk about why he loved his job as an actor.  His favorite parts were using his imagination, being in touch with his feelings, and reading—scripts and books.  Burton went on to read a book about fathers, which featured fathers of a variety of races and ethnicities.  Mr. Rogers was ahead of the curve when it came to showing how people were different and yet similar at the same time.


Bill Bixby aka David Banner aka The Incredible Hulk
Bixby gave Mr. Rogers and Mr. McFeely a tour of the studio where his show was filmed and talked about his world of make-believe.  In a discussion that must have made parents chuckle, Bixby talked about sometimes feeling angry and strategies for managing anger while not hurting others or oneself.  Turning green and ripping his clothes apart were not part of his approved coping mechanism.

Mr. Rogers was known not only for his decency and kindness, but also for his sense of humor.  He made the rounds of late night talk shows and was always a good sport.  Universally liked, he seemed to be the epitome of the Golden Rule.  His respectful treatment of others made it impossible to dislike him.


A final confession:  Although I grew up loving the show, I had no love for Daniel the Cat, who lived in the make-believe neighborhood.  Mr. Rogers' patience and goodwill were never more apparent than when he was interacting with that annoying cat!


Do you have memories of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" as either a viewer or a parent?  Any favorite guests?


Mary/Liz, you won the Mike Lawson giveaway!  Email me at ingrid@ingridthoft.com with your mailing address.


58 comments:

  1. It does seem a bit difficult to believe that it has been fifty years . . . Mister Rogers Neighborhood was always a particular favorite to watch with the children.
    Favorite episodes? The ones with Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden . . . .

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    1. I watched a clip of them, Joan. Mr. Rogers' curiosity was boundless!

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  2. I can't rightly remember any particular episodes or celebrity guests but I did watch the show. My mother told me years ago that when I was at my youngest, I used to watch the segments with the Land of Make Believe but leave the room when the regular live action segments were on.

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    1. Decisive even at a young age, Jay!

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    2. Ingrid,

      Yes. I'm not all that wishy-washy.

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  3. I lived in Western Pennsylvania for a while, where Mr. Rogers is so beloved. There was a park called Idlewild with a Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood Trolley. Some of my favorite photos of my sons (age 3) are from that trip. Such happiness. My favorite episode was the tour of the graham cracker factory.

    I have a LeVar Burton story. My sons LOVED Reading Rainbow and idolized LeVar. I saw that LeVar was going to be a guest on Celebrity Jeopardy, so I made a big to-do--popcorn and treats--and got us all ready to watch. Just as it began, I had a horrible thought--what if LeVar tanked on the show? My sons would be crushed. Well, he was brilliant, blew away the competition (Anderson Cooper and someone I don't remember). My boys jumped up and down every time he answered a question correctly. I was so relieved! What a great role model for kids.

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    1. I love that he is so versatile. "Roots" and "Star Trek" and "Reading Rainbow" and "Jeopardy"? He's a Renaissance man! I love the story about your sons, Ramona!

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    2. LeVar is great! I used to record Reading Rainbow for my son to watch.

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    3. Can I admit I had a huge crush on LeVar? Of course, I was a Trekkie, too.

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  4. Mr. Rogers was a beloved television person in our house. In fact, he was the first one, even before the Sesame Street gang. We watched the PBS special and had such warm memories. His spirit lives on in the current animated versions of Daniel Tiger stories, much loved by the grandgirls.

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    1. Are there other spin-offs from the original series, Triss? I didn't realize there were animated versions.

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    2. Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood ( PBS and streaming services) is the only one I know. It's made by the Fred Rogers Company and has the same gentle lessons and many of the same characters. Even the trolley! Updated yet familiar . Details here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Tiger%27s_Neighborhood. Same spell on my grandkids Mr. Rogers had on my kids.

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  5. Mr. Rogers was a mainstay of the television watched while growing up in our family. Loved the Neighborhood of Make Believe and the trolley. I can still sing a lot of the songs!

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    1. Apparently there were operas performed in the Land of the Make-Believe. I don't remember these, but when you look at the list of songs performed over the years, it's staggering.

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  6. Oh, Daniel tiger! I loved him! Watching those shows again sure takes me back!

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    1. We'll just have to agree to disagree on this one, Judi!

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  7. Loved Mister Rogers' Neighborhood when I was a kid. Among my favorites was when Mr. Rogers learned Sign Language? I remember the theme of kindness. I love the quote "It's you I like". I remember the trolley.

    Diana

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    1. "It's You I Like" was one of his themes, Diana. Such a great message, fifty years on!

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    2. Ingrid, yes! That is a great theme!

      Today is International Women's Day and I wanted to wish everyone Happy International Women's Day!
      Diana

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    3. Happy International Women's Day to you, Diana!

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  8. My mother-in-law once said she didn't know how one could raise children without cookies.

    I don't know how anyone raises children without Mr. Rogers. And I'm glad I did not have to find out with my last two.

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  9. Hmmmmm. I missed out on Mr. Rogers. Somehow, I was too old, I think, and so it was all pretty baffling to me when I sampled. Wonder what would happen if I looked back at clips now…

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    1. Me too. I was a fan of the Captain.

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    2. Captain Kangaroo? I watched him, too.

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    3. Yes, I watched Captain Kangaroo as well.

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  10. Oh gosh, tv when I was that age was Bozo the Clown and Howdy Doody. Romper Room and Kukla Fran and Ollie were probably the closest we had to Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. I thank Peggy Charren who founded Action for CHildren's Television for making things oh so much better by the time my kids got to be TV viewers. I could watch Sesame Street with them and can imitate Count von Count. My daughter identified with Bert and her best friend with Ernie. They watched Mr. Rogers but I found it too slow and saccharine. The routines he followed (the sweater, the shoes...) I think are the kinds of things kids find calming. Rituals really. Still, the way he absolutely connected with little kids, heart to heart, eyeball to eyeball, was fantastic.

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    1. Hallie, your comment about your daughter and Ernie reminded me of my own middle daughter. She was besotted with him. Wonder why Ernie, and not Bert?

      We went to Sesame Street on Ice when she was three or four, and when B&E came out onto the ice she went all rock groupie on us, standing up and yelling, "BERNIE!!!"

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    2. Of course I meant to type ERNIE.

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    3. I remember all of those, Hallie. I remember liking the lemonade song on KF&O. I think they in particular had much of the same kindness that we see in Mr. Rogers. As I recall, our guys found Mr. Rogers unexciting.

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    4. Hallie, Jean and I loved Howdy Doody when we were little . . . partly, I suppose, because he was a twin, too . . . .

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    5. My granddaughter is now besotted with Elmo. So funny which character kids identify with. We've had a lot of discussions in the family lately about the fact that my son-in-law never watched Sesame Street. He's getting to start from scratch now:-)

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    6. I remember Romper Room. Didn't she have the handheld mirror through which she could see people?

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    7. I watched Bozo in reruns I think. I also remember Romper Room. I might've seen Howdy Doody in repeats too. I've heard of KF&O but I never actually watched it.

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    8. All I remember about Romper Room is that you wanted to be do-bee not a don't-bee.
      I don't remember the mirror, Ingrid - it sounds cool.

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    9. Ingrid and Hallie, I think that the magic mirror was not from Romper Room, but from either Miss Francis (she was the only one on the set and all the audience were her pupils) pre-romper room or Sheri Lewis. By the time Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow arrived, I was way too old for kid’s TV. Learned of these shows through the children of friends.

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  11. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of Mr. Rogers. Such a kind and gentle soul. Also, Captain Kangaroo was Sesame Street. And now "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood..." is going to be stuck in my head all day.

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    1. Sorry, Jenn. Pass it along to the Hooligans; that will make it worth it!

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    2. Ha, me, too, Jenn. We can sing it together!

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  12. Oh very cool - thanks for the book!

    Anyway, since I now living in Pittsburgh, Mr. Rogers is a BIG part of society. There's Idlewild, which Ramona mentions, a big statue on the North Shore near the river (although people agree it's a little scary looking), and so much more. I used to take my kids to one of the local malls where there was a Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood play area; they loved it.

    Mary/Liz

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  13. I'm afraid Mr Rogers was well after my time. I don't know if my son watched his show or not. I do remember seeing puppets on his show, but not much else. I'm a fan of Captain Kangaroo and his bunch. My husband adored Howdy Doody; me not so much. I did see some Sesame Street and the Electric Company as they came along, before a child graced our presence. Once we had the child Reading Rainbow was major in our household. We had some pretty good children's shows here in Houston in my early years: Kittirik, Cadet Don, Looney Town. And I guess Romper Room was franchised nationally. Even as a youngster I found RR to be too young for me. From all I've heard and read about Fred Rogers he was evidently one of a kind and very much missed.

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    1. I loved Electric Company. Morgan Freeman was Easy Reader, Letterman, etc. Good stuff!

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    2. I did not like Howdy Doody at all. I thought he was creepy.

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    3. The best thing about The Electric Company was the Spider-Man stories.

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  14. I loved that show as a kid. My brother is 7 years younger than me, so I got to watch it with him, too. And it took me forever to realize that it was scripted at all. I was sure so much of everything was just made up on the spot. Even whoever happened to stop by.

    I can't tell you any of the guest stars, but I certainly remember the video about making crayons and the Bubbleland Opera.

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    1. I have no memory of the Bubbleland Opera. Off to look it up!

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  15. Mr. Rogers is a saint in our household - when my kids were little, we watched him in black and white, and only at certain times of the day (olden days) -- but we had his records and a Daniel Striped Tiger puppet, and my oldest could sing every word of every song. He was there "when a baby came" to our house and when we talked about "every body's special."

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  16. My sister-in-law, Julia McFeely Lent, is a several times removed cousin of Mr. Rogers! His grandfather (the original Mr. McFeely) is (if I remember correctly) Julia's great-great grandfather. Julia is also a native Pennsylvanian from many generations back and also has the most gentle, unruffled way about her (unless she's watching football.) I suspect it's a family trait, which means we need a LOT more McFeelys in this world!

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  17. I just missed out on Mr. Rogers, but he was there for my daughter in the 80s--so gentle and kind and calming. Now I think we need a Mr. Rogers for grown-ups!

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  18. Mr. Rogers was one of those rarest of people whose strength and power came from calm. He didn't have to shout at people to get them to listen. He operated from a core of knowing and doing what was right, what was good, and his only goal was to help others feel good about themselves. All of his shows were powerful because of their messages of love for oneself and others. But, one of his most impressive appearances was the one before the Senate when funding was being threatened for public television. With his quiet, confident message about what his show did, he was able to convince Senate Subcommittee on Communications to continue funding. "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood" is a permanent part of my mind's used phrases. We could sure use Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood today.

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    1. That was definitely one of his most important and impressive appearances, Kathy!

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  19. And I remember about learning to make pretzels!

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  20. It was all so simple and gentle and amateurish..puppets you or I could have made so totally non scary to kids. I used to love watching it with my kids. King Friday, Sarah Saturday and Prince Tuesday and who was the owl who lived in the tree?

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    1. I think you're referring to "X the Owl," Rhys. He had blue feathers and lived in the oak tree.

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  21. When I was an adolescent, there was a group of us who adored Sesame Street. It was on in the afternoon after school. Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was on directly after that. I think I thought his tone was too saccharine. However, later as a young adult (my twenties) he hosted an adult interview show. He had the same gentle affect with adults that he had when talking to children. I only remember his interview with Willie Stargell, but I became a fan for life. (As an aside, the son of a good friend of mine instructed us to watch the PBS show because he is related by marriage to JoAnn Young the producer/writer.)

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  22. "Look for the Helpers"......sage advice he received from his Mother and lovingly passed on to all the children who tuned in. He was reassuring to me as an adult too! What a special man.

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  23. I was in college when the program first went on the air. But over the years I occasionally watched it when visiting families with young children. As an adult, I found it to be a peaceful, gentle program, and the kids in the room loved him.

    DebRo

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