46 Things I Learned Making Mister Rogers & Me
I only knew three things about Mister Rogers before meeting him: He was the host of one of my favorite childhood shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, he was from Pittsburgh, and he seemed like a really nice guy.
Mister Rogers summered in a modest, gray, shake-shingled house on the edge of Nantucket. My mother rented a tiny cottage next door. So Mister Rogers really was my neighbor.
I was a young MTV News producer and sometime singer/songwriter. We met on the weekend of my 30th birthday in September 2001. He gingerly asked about my parents' divorce (taking a cue, apparently, from a song I'd just played him on my acoustic guitar about my childhood fear of flying), then my job at MTV. He mentioned his friend, mystic, author and poet Bo Lozoff, and his book, Deep & Simple.
"I feel so strongly," he said, "that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex."
The phrase stuck with me. And when I told him so the following summer, he replied, "Spread the message, Benjamin."
Ten years later, my brother and I premiered our documentary, Mister Rogers & Me, at the Nantucket Film Festival. The film explores Mister Rogers’ luminous legacy through remembrances from Tim Russert, Susan Stamberg, Linda Ellerbee, Marc Brown, and many more. On March 20, 2012, PBS released it on DVD.
In celebration of Mister Rogers' 85th birthday today, I can confirm and expand on those three things (he was an inordinately nice guy in person, too), plus these 46 things I learned about this great man and his essential pioneering work.
1. He was named after his grandfather, Fred McFeely, who often said, "You've made this a special day by just being yourself. There's no one else in the world quite like you."
2. Little Freddy Rogers was a lonely, chubby, and shy child who was sometimes homebound because of childhood asthma common to industrialized towns like Latrobe.
3. According to The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers author Amy Hollingsworth, little Freddy Rogers was bullied walking home from school. “We’re going to get you Fat Freddy,” the other boys taunted.
“I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” he said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” As he grew up, he decided to always look past the surface of people to the “essential invisible” within them.
4. A framed quotation from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince hung in Mister Rogers WQED office his entire career. It read, “L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux." (“What is essential is invisible to the eye.”)
5. He was an only child until he was 11, when his parents adopted his sister, Elaine.
6. He was a vegetarian who told people, "I don't want to eat anything that has a mother."
7. He weighed 143 pounds most his adult life, and relished the weight for its numerical equivalent I (1) Love (4) You (3).
8. Mister Rogers attended Dartmouth for one year, then transferred to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where he met his future wife Sarah Joanne Bird, and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a BA in Music Composition.
9. He landed his first television job on NBC’s Kate Smith Hour in 1951. He worked on numerous shows there, including NBC Opera Hour and Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade.
10. The Rogers' famed Crooked House on Nantucket (which is, indeed, akimbo, and requires ducking and leaning to traverse) was a wedding gift from his parents.
11. The Rogers have two sons, James (born 1959) and John (born 1961). They can be seen romping in the dunes just beyond The Crooked House in the black & white outtakes of the PBS documentary, America’s Favorite Neighbor.
12. Mister Rogers swam every day (including in Madaket Bay, where he met my mother in the months prior to our meeting).
13. In 1954, he and cohost Josie Carey premiered The Children’s Corner on the Eastern Education Network, introducing Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday.
14. The hour-long program that would become Mister Rogers' Neighborhood began as a 15-minute Canadian Broadcast series called, simply, Misterogers.
15. "I got into television because I saw people throwing pies in each other's faces," he said. "And that's such demeaning behavior. And if there's anything that bothers me, it's one person demeaning another."
16. His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set.
17. He worked towards his theology degree while working at WQED, graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and was ordained a minister in the Presbyterian Church in 1963.
18. Mr. McFeely, who joined the Neighborhood via Pittsburgh Playhouse, also acts as Fred Rogers Company Director of Publicity.
19. Jazz pianist Johnny Costa, who was the Neighborhood's Musical Director from 1968 til his death in 1996, performed every song live in the studio during tapings.
20. Actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.
21. In a now-famous clip from 1969, Rogers appeared before United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications chair John Pastore to advocate for increased support of public broadcasting in the face of then-President Nixon's 50 percent reduction. After six minutes of thoughtful testimony advocating for the value of commercial-free television for children, the typically gruff senator replied, "I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you earned the $20 million."
22. “If we take time," he said, "we can often go much deeper as far as a spiritual life is concerned than we can if there's constant distraction. Often television gives such constant distraction—noise and fast-paced things—which doesn't allow us to take time to explore the deeper levels of who we are, and who we can become."
23. His efforts for children were informed for decades by working with Dr. Margaret McFarland, director of the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center in Pittsburgh, who helped provide depth and rigor to his thinking about children and education.
24. His mother made his trademark cardigans. “She knitted a sweater a month for as many years as I knew her. And every Christmas she would give this extended family of ours a sweater. She would say, 'What kind do you all want next year? I know what kind you want, Freddy. You want the one with the zipper up the front.'”
25. The ritual of changing from dress shoes to sneakers and sport coat to cardigan while singing “It’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood” was intended to establish consistent, comforting routine with his young audience.
26. He donated one of his sweaters to the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. The museum calls it a "Treasure of American History."
27. His 1979 testimony in the case Sony v. Universal Studios—in stark contrast to the views of television executives who objected to home recording—was cited by the Supreme Court in its decision that held that the Betamax video recorder did not infringe copyright.
28. Mister Rogers surprised his most-famous impersonator, Eddie Murphy, backstage at Saturday Night Live in 1981. Here's a clip of Murphy's Mister Rogers-inspired sketch, "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood":
29. NBC Meet The Press host Tim Russert and his journalist wife, Maureen Orth, were the Rogers’ actual Nantucket neighbors. Upon the families’ first meeting, Mister Rogers took immediately to young Luke Russert, teaching him to tell time with a paper plate and fastener.
30. Mister Rogers loved to photograph the people he met. He took thousands. (Somewhere, there are a few of me.)
31. NPR Correspondent Susan Stamberg often called on Mister Rogers to explain “hideous and horrible” tragedies like the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.
32. Fred asked Susan to host his 1981 special, Mister Rogers Talks To Parents About Divorce. When Susan got cold feet, Daniel Striped Tiger called to convince her that her fears were valid, but that she could do it.
33. “One of the toughest things for children is for their parents not to get along,” he said of divorce. “It feels like it’s ripping a piece of cloth apart.” During the special, Mister Rogers addressed children’s fear of flying unaccompanied between parents.
34. Journalist Linda Ellerbee modeled her 1991 Nick News premiere on Mister Rogers’ values. “I wanted to incorporate the things I learned from Mister Rogers,” she said. The first being “Respect your audience.” The second was “Assume they’re just as bright as you are, they’re just younger, and shorter.”
35. Blue’s Clues creator Angela Santomero modeled the show after the Neighborhood. “We used to speak a lot about the pausing and pacing, and how deliberately slow it was. This came from Fred: When you talk to camera, and you pace it adequately, you’re going to talk back to him. That’s what I did. I talked to him. I believed he liked me just the way that I was.”
36. Arthur creator Marc Brown illustrated Mister Rogers into the episode “Arthur Meets Mister Rogers,” which aired September 27th, 1997. “He had the special ability to look within every person he came in contact with and sense what things were inside you, and talk about difficult things. And when he talked to you, he was there 100 percent. He was a great teacher. That was his gift to me.”
37. He was featured in a May 2001 segment of This American Life called “Mr. Rothbart’s Neighborhood,” in which he counseled correspondent Davy Rothbart—who met Mister Rogers on Nantucket as a child—on how to be a good neighbor. In settling a noise dispute between neighbors, he says, “I have a feeling you're getting to know [your neighbor]. And once you do know her, then either your music isn't going to bother her so much or you're going to care so much about her that you'll probably turn it down a couple notches anyway.”
38. The last original Mister Rogers' Neighborhood episode aired on PBS on Friday, August 31, 2001, just five days prior to our first meeting (and one week prior to September 11th).
39. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.
40. The asteroid 26858 Misterrogers was named by the International Astronomical Union on May 2, 2003, by Henry Buhl Jr., Director of the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh.
41. His death from stomach cancer was sudden, and unexpected. He was diagnosed in December 2002, underwent surgery in January 2003, and passed away on the morning of February 27 at his home with Joanne by his side.
42. But Mister Rogers prepared children for his death. The day he died, his website posted a link to help children understand. ''Remember," it read, "that feelings are natural and normal, and that happy times and sad times are part of everyone's life."
43. The Fred Rogers Statue created by Robert Berks (whose bust of JFK Mister Rogers admired) opened to the public on Pittsburgh's North Shore in November 2009.
44. St. Vincent College’s Fred Rogers Center opened in 2008. The center’s mission is to “advance the fields of early learning and children’s media by acting as a catalyst for communication, collaboration, and creative change.”
45. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, an animated children's television series produced by The Fred Rogers Company and Santomero’s Out of the Blue Enterprises, debuted on PBS in September 2012.
46. Mister Rogers inspires to this day. There are currently two Hollywood screenplays and one biography in the works.