If he didn't already have a theme song, Fred Rogers might want to consider "Time Is On My Side."
Never mind that Rogers and the Rolling Stones don't usually appear in the same frame of one's mind-cam. All the more reason to consider the possibility.There. Upon further reflection, the idea makes sense. In a world where people think they scarcely have time to breathe, the song fits Rogers like a comfy old hand puppet.
Rogers, who will be 70 on March 20, isn't like the rest of us. He has oodles of time. Time to listen. To care. To give. As it happens, the theme of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" this week is "Giving and Receiving," in honor of the show's 30 years on PBS.
It was Feb. 19, 1968, when the slow-talking, 39-year-old composer/-minister went national with a half-hour program that had enjoyed regional success, in different forms, for more than a decade.
Rogers' idea was to help children grow up by constantly reaffirming their sense of self-worth. A simple concept, but anyone who's ever needed a pat on the back knows it's a concept not universally embraced.
When he was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1962, Rogers' pastoral charge was to continue working with children and families through the media. Since 1953, he had been developing programs for WQED-TV in Pittsburgh. One was "The Children's Corner," an hourlong series featuring a human host (Josie Carey) and a host of puppets. Some of the puppets created during the seven-year run of "The Children's Corner" are still around today on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Daniel Striped Tiger, for example, and King Friday XIII, too.
In 1963, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. wooed Rogers to Toronto, where he put together a 15-minute children's series called "Misterogers" and appeared as a host for the first time. He returned to Pittsburgh a year later, incorporated the 15-minute segments into a half-hour format and distributed them for a couple of years to stations in the Northeast.
In 1968, the show was made available to affiliates of the Public Broadcasting Service, and Mister Rogers became a national figure. In his Pennsylvania-bred, Jimmy Stewart way, though, Rogers is hardly the celebrity type, even if he does have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
"I wasn't raised on television," he recently told a group of TV critics, "and I don't know how in the world I ever got to be a part of it."
Rogers' first love was music. He studied composition at Rollins College in Florida (where he met his wife, Joanne Byrd, a pianist). After graduation in 1951, he got a job with NBC as an assistant producer on "The Voice of Firestone," a long-running radio program that had begun simulcasting in 1949 on this new thing called television. He later worked as a floor director on other shows before WQED came calling.
"Calling" is certainly the proper term. Rogers wasn't a clergyman yet, but his work with WQED in the 1950s was clearly the beginning of a ministry.
"I came along at a time when people could accept the kind of thing that I was ready to give for children," he said. "I translated my own feelings and understanding of childhood to what this new medium was."
But Fred McFeely Rogers knew better than to turn his show into a pulpit, which is something that Kathy Quattrone, executive vice president of programming services at PBS, appreciates.
" `Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' has personified a place where caring and consideration for others instills good feelings in all of us," Quattrone said. "Fred Rogers and his trademark cardigan have come to represent the gentle spirit, the warm and nurturing nature that we want in all of our own neighborhoods."
B.J. Bullert, an assistant professor of communications at American University in Washington, D.C., is another fan. Bullert is an expert on public television and she has watched it inch closer to its commercial cousin year by year.
"For me, `Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' is a kind of oasis," she said. "I think of him as the Walter Cronkite of children's programming. He's somebody that children turn to and have come to trust."
Bullert especially likes Rogers' slow, deliberate way of speaking, which is one of the things she remembers most clearly from her childhood. Kids today are buffeted about in a "rapid-fire landscape of programming," Bullert said, which may be entertaining but not particularly meaningful. It doesn't induce sustained concentration, she said, nor does it create visual space that allows viewers to contemplate what they're seeing.
"When I watch children watching `Mister Rogers,' they seem very calm," Bullert said. "It's an opportunity for them to sit back and observe."
Rogers himself finds the contemporary style of quick cuts and jarring images a little scary.
"Since the days of `Laugh-In,' " he said, "the cutting has become quicker and quicker, and that leads, I think existentially, to a fragmentation within the self of the person who has (seen) that repeatedly."
He said he doesn't watch much TV, so Rogers is careful not to point an accusing finger at specific shows. But he is concerned.
"What are we feeding the children?" he wondered. "When parents bring a television set into a home, what's seen on that set, the children think, is condoned by the parents. It's like bringing a refrigerator into a home. What's in the refrigerator is what the parents provide. So, how do children know that what they see on television isn't part of the tradition of their family?"
Rogers' personal warmth and kindly demeanor have often been the butt of jokes. But they always seem to be affectionate gibes, even Eddie Murphy's "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood" on "Saturday Night Live" in the '80s. An Internet Web site that mimics PBS's own "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" Web page is one of the latest. It's called "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Watch" and features a gun-toting Rogers recommending action that wouldn't make for a wonderful day in anyone's neighborhood.
Rogers' real weapon of choice is a heavy dose of compassion.
"I've wanted all these years to let the children know that there are many ways to say, `I love you,' and that each one of those children is unique and acceptable," he said. "I'd love to go off to heaven knowing that kids have felt within their being that they have this to share and that their neighbor is every bit as important as they are."