The date was March 29, 1989. The most famous comedienne in the history of show business was about to make her final TV appearance.
The great Lucille Ball was appearing at the annual Academy Awards ceremony, along with the world's most popular comedian, Bob Hope (an old friend of Lucille Ball). Hope had talked Lucy into making the joint appearance after many phone calls and much begging. Finally, Lucy had conceded, but she hated the very idea of it.
Lucy hated putting on the wig she had chosen to wear. "She complained the netting gave her 'a goddamn headache.'"
"Goddamn Hope," Lucy complained, "No one cares what the hell he looks like, but everybody cares what I look like--God, I'm so tired of myself."
Lucy did her final TV appearance with Hope, which went smoothly enough, and then she had to go back to "real life."
Her Sunken Spirits
Lucy had been a bit down. She had never completely recovered from the death of her former husband, Desi Arnaz, her co-star on the legendary I Love Lucy. Her most intimate friends saw the obvious about Lucy's love for Desi; although she was in a comfortable marriage to Gary Morton, she had always carried a torch for Desi. (Desi always sent Lucy flowers on her birthday and their anniversary, and the two kept in close touch by phone throughout the years.)
Additionally, the dismal failure of her recent TV series, Life with Lucy, weighed heavily on her mind.
Lucy occupied her days watching TV, playing Scrabble and Backgammon, and having the occasional drinks of bourbon ("slushies," as she called them).
One Last Caper
Interestingly, Lucy had one last "caper" in her life.
One night in April of 1989, there was a loud party going on next door. Lucy and her friend, Lee Tannen, found some milk crates in an alley. They used the milk crates to prop themselves up and, like two children, spied on the goings-on at the party. The two stood like two little kids, "peeping through the trellis and palm fronds." According to Tannen, he felt like Ethel Mertz in an I Love Lucy episode, standing there spying with Lucy.
"Lucy was fascinated by the goings-on, commenting on everything, and eyeing everybody who, ironically, would have given their eye teeth to meet the crazy redhead on the other side of the wall."
A few days later, on April 17, 1989, Lucy started experiencing shooting pains in her chest. Her husband called her doctor and tried to talk Lucy into going to the hospital. Lucy refused to go until Gary called Lucy's daughter, who finally convinced her, but Lucy only agreed to go if she could get nicely dressed and put on her make-up. Upon arriving, Lucy was given 7 hours of open-heart surgery at the hospital. Her operation was a success and, after a few days, she returned home.
But sadly, after Lucy arrived home she was told she couldn't live in her own bedroom; she would have to live in the guest room downstairs. Since Lucy's house had no elevators, the doctors wanted to make sure Lucy did not do any stair climbing. This apparently broke Lucy's heart. She did not want to live in a makeshift bedroom and she did not want to be treated like an invalid.
The next morning, Lucy's surgically repaired aorta ruptured again, and she went into full cardiac arrest. She was rushed back to the hospital, but this time the doctors couldn't save her.
The great "Lucy" had passed away.
"She really disintegrated so quickly," said Tannen. "Her tombstone should have read 'From Desi's death on Dec. 2, 1986, to her own death on April 26, 1989' because that was the life of her death. On her death certificate it says 'ruptured aorta,' but I believe Lucy died because she didn't want to live anymore."
Fred Rogers—who was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania on March 20, 1928—remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. In celebration of what would have been his 90th birthday, here are 15 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.” (Bonus fact: he's getting the Funko treatment!)
1. HE WAS BULLIED AS A CHILD.
According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Nantucket—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and often taunted by his classmates when he walked home from school. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” It was this experience that led Rogers to want to look below the surface of everyone he met to what he called the “essential invisible” within them.
2. HE WAS AN ORDAINED MINISTER.
Rogers was an ordained minister and, as such, a man of tremendous faith who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a six-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:
“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
3. HE RESPONDED TO ALL HIS FAN MAIL.
Responding to fan mail was part of Rogers’s very regimented daily routine, which began at 5 a.m. with a prayer and included time for studying, writing, making phone calls, swimming, weighing himself, and responding to every fan who had taken the time to reach out to him.
“He respected the kids who wrote [those letters],” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."
According to Arnet, the fan mail he received wasn’t just a bunch of young kids gushing to their idol. Kids would tell Rogers about a pet or family member who died, or other issues with which they were grappling. “No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," Arnet said, noting that he received between 50 and 100 letters per day.
4. ANIMALS LOVED HIM AS MUCH AS PEOPLE DID.
It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understands 2000 English words and can also converse in American Sign Language, was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher, too. When Rogers visited her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.
5. HE WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED MUSICIAN.
Though Rogers began his education in the Ivy League, at Dartmouth, he transferred to Rollins College following his freshman year in order to pursue a degree in music (he graduated Magna cum laude). In addition to being a talented piano player, he was also a wonderful songwriter and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.
6. HIS INTEREST IN TELEVISION WAS BORN OUT OF A DISDAIN FOR THE MEDIUM.
Rogers’s decision to enter into the television world wasn’t out of a passion for the medium—far from it. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers toldPittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."
7. KIDS WHO WATCHED MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD RETAINED MORE THAN THOSE WHO WATCHED SESAME STREET.
A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.
8. ROGERS’S MOM KNIT ALL OF HIS SWEATERS.
If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he explained.
9. HE WAS COLORBLIND.
Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:
Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.
He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.
Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?
"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.
10. HE WORE SNEAKERS AS A PRODUCTION CONSIDERATION.
According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about production, not comfort. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.
11. MICHAEL KEATON GOT HIS START ON THE SHOW.
Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.
12. ROGERS GAVE GEORGE ROMERO HIS FIRST PAYING GIG, TOO.
It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.
“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”
13. ROGERS HELPED SAVE PUBLIC TELEVISION.
In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.
14. HE ALSO SAVED THE VCR.
Years later, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement (which was the argument of some in this contentious debate). Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.
15. ONE OF HIS SWEATERS WAS DONATED TO THE SMITHSONIAN.
William Penn Adair Rogers ranks among the finest performers, comedians, and social commentators in American history. So today, let’s all find an excuse to recite some of his best remarks.
1. ON HUMOR
“Everything is funny, as long as it’s happening to somebody else.”
2. ON LEARNING
“Why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as well as prohibition did, in five years we will have the smartest people on earth.”
3. ON POLITICS
"I was born on November 4, which is election day ... my birthday has made more men and sent more back to honest work than any other days in the year."
4. ON SPELLING
“When I first started out to write and misspelled a few words, people said I was plain ignorant. But when I got all the words wrong, they declared I was a humorist.”
5. ON SHAME
“Live in such a way that you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.”
6. ON VETERINARIANS
“Best doctor in the world is a veterinarian. He can’t ask his patients what’s the matter. He’s just got to know.”
7. ON BEING HUMAN
“It’s great to be great, but it’s greater to be human.”
8. ON EINSTEIN
"This Einstein has proven a great comfort to us that always knew we didn’t know much. He has shown us that the fellows that we thought was smart is just as dumb as we are."
9. ON RIGHTING WRONGS
“There is nothing as easy as denouncing ... It don’t take much to see that something is wrong but it does take some eyesight to see what will put it right again.”
10. ON FANATICS
“A fanatic is always the fellow that is on the opposite side.”
11. ON AGE
"Eventually you reach a point when you stop lying about your age and start bragging about it."
12. ON COMEDIANS VERSUS POLITICIANS
"Everything is changing in America. People are taking the comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke."
13. ON THE STATE OF THE WORLD
“This would be a great world to dance in if we didn’t have to pay the fiddler.”
14. ON LAUGHTER
“[Get] a few laughs and do the best you can… Live your life so that whenever you lose, you’re ahead.”
15. ON QUESTION MARKS
"I was born on election day but never was able to get elected to anything. I am going to jump out some day and be indefinite enough about everything that they will call me a politician, then run on a platform of question marks, and be elected unanimously."
16. ON TAXES
"Finding things to tax is becoming quite a problem. You see when taxes first started (who started 'em anyhow?), Noah must have taken into the ark two taxes, one male and one female, and did they multiply bountifully! Next to guinea pigs, taxes must have been the most prolific of animals."
17. ON UNIVERSAL IGNORANCE
"Everybody is ignorant only on different subjects."
18. ON DESIRE
"We don’t know what we want, but we’re ready to bite somebody to get it."
BONUS: ONE THING WILL ROGERS DIDN'T SAY
“I never met a man I didn’t like.”
Ironically, for somebody who came up with so much Grade A material, most people associate Rogers with a long-lived misquote. In actuality, the full, unaltered line was: “I joked about every prominent man in my lifetime, but I never met one I didn’t like.” A few years before his death in 1935, Rogers proposed it as an epitaph for his tombstone. However, the shortened version does appear chiseled upon his final resting place in Claremore, Oklahoma.