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Benjamin Wagner

46 Things I Learned Making Mister Rogers & Me

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Benjamin Wagner

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.

Years later, 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).


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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.


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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."

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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.”

See Also: 20 Gentle Quotations from Mister Rogers

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.

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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 at least two Hollywood screenplays and one biography in the works.

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Pop Culture
5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past
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At its best, Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.

1. MAN IN HARRY POTTER T-SHIRT STABS ANOTHER MAN IN THE FACE—WITH A PEN

In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.

2. MEMORABILIA THIEVES INVADE NEW YORK

Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’ Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."

3. CATWOMAN SAVES THE DAY

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Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”

4. MAN POSES AS FUGITIVE-SEEKING INVESTIGATOR TO GET INTO VIP ROOM

The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of this year and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In June, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

5. MAN WALKS 645 MILES TO COMIC-CON, DRESSED AS A STORMTROOPER, TO HONOR HIS LATE WIFE

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In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.

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Words
10 Pieces of Lying Lingo from Across the United States
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Maligner. Fabricator. Fibber. Con artist. There are all sorts of ways you can say "liar," but in case you're running out, we’ve worked with the editors at the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) to come up with 10 more pieces of lying lingo to add to your storytelling stash.

1. HASSAYAMPA

This term for a liar originally referred to a gold-rusher in Arizona, according to DARE. It can also be used to describe an old-timer, especially one who likes to exaggerate. The word hassayampa (also hassayamper) comes from the Hassayampa River, which is located in the Grand Canyon State. According to the Dictionary of American Folklore, “There was a popular legend that anyone who drank of the Hassayampa River in Arizona would never again tell the truth.”

2. JACOB

“You’re a Jacob!” you might say to a deceiver in eastern Alabama or western Georgia. This word—meaning a liar, a lie, and to lie—might be based on the Bible story of twin brothers Jacob and Esau. Esau, the elder and firstborn, stood to inherit his parents' estate by law. At the behest of his mother, Jacob deceived their father, blinded in old age, into thinking he was Esau and persuaded him to bestow him Esau’s blessing.

3. LIZA

Liza or Liza Jane can mean a lie or a liar. Hence, to lizar means to lie. Like Jacob, Liza is an eastern Alabama and western Georgia term. However, where it comes from isn’t clear. But if we had to guess, we’d say it’s echoic of lies.

4. STORY

“What a story you are,” you might say to a prevaricator in Virginia, eastern Alabama, or western Georgia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), story, meaning a liar, is mainly used in the phrase, “You story!” Story as a verb meaning “to give a false or malicious account, lie, tattle,” is an English dialect word, according to DARE, and is chiefly used in the South and South Midland states. “You storied to me about getting a drink,” you might tell someone who stood you up.

5. LOAD

To load or load up means to trick, mislead, or “deceive by yarns or windies,” according to cowboy lingo in northwest Texas. The term, which can also be a noun meaning a lie or liar, might also be heard in northwest Arkansas and the Ozarks.

6. YARN

To spin a yarn, or to tell a long tale, began as nautical slang, according to the OED, and comes from the idea of telling stories while doing seated work such as yarn-twisting. (The word yarn comes from the Old English gearn, meaning "spun fiber, spun wool.") By extension, a yarn is a sometimes marvelous or incredible story or tale, and to yarn means to tell a story or chat. In some parts of the U.S., such as Arkansas, Indiana, Maryland, and Tennessee, to yarn means to lie or tell a falsehood. “Don’t yarn to me!” you might say. Street yarn refers to gossip in New York, Kentucky, and parts of New England.

7. WINDY

Telling a windy in the West? You’re telling an “extravagantly exaggerated or boastful story,” a tall tale, or a lie, says DARE. Wind has meant “vain imagination or conceit” since the 15th century, says OED.

8. LIE

In addition to being a falsehood or tall tale, a lie in the South and South Midland states can refer to the liar himself.

9. STRETCH THE BLANKET

You’ve probably heard of stretching the truth. How about stretching the blanket? This phrase meaning to lie or exaggerate is especially used in the South Midland states. To split the blanket, by the way, is a term in the South, South Midland, and West meaning to get divorced, while being born on the wrong side of the blanket means being born out of wedlock, at least in Indiana and Ohio.

10. WHACK

In the South and South Midland, whack refers to a lie or the act of lying. It might come from the British English colloquial term whacker, meaning anything abnormally large, especially a “thumping lie” or “whopper,” according to the OED. In case you were wondering, wack, as in “crack is wack,” is probably a back-formation from wacky meaning crazy or odd, also according to the OED. Wacky comes from whack, a blow or hit, maybe from the idea of being hit in the head too many times.

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