SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been 50 years since “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” first premiered on public television in 1968, and this year has already been full of celebrations: The documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor" premiered at Sundance (and will play in theaters nationwide in June), PBS aired the special "It's You I Like" earlier in this month and we learned in January that Tom Hanks will play Fred Rogers in an upcoming feature film. The children’s television host, who passed away in 2003, would have celebrated his 90th birthday on March 20, 2018, and to commemorate this year of anniversaries, PBS will release “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: A Beautiful Day Collection,” a four-disc set of the program’s episodes, on March 27.
According to The Fred Rogers Company, Rogers received two George Foster Peabody Awards, multiple Emmys — including a Lifetime Achievement Award — and just about every other TV award available during the show's run. Inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999, Rogers is a TV legend and not just for his achievements, but for the considerate way he treated his viewers, as well.
“Back in the early days he pretty much set the course for public television and its role in education,” said KUED manager James Morgese, who has been in the industry going on 40 years. “From an adult standpoint, you’d look at ('Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood') and you tend to underestimate its power because he’s such a gentle figure and he’s talking to children. … When you talk to the now-adults who grew up on that program, you realize the impact it had on their lives.”
Ellen Doherty, executive in charge of production at The Fred Rogers Company, agreed that simply speaking to the child on the other side of the screen made a lasting impact on those who watched it.
“I think that the idea of talking to the camera in a really thoughtful way is definitely one of the things people most connected to,” she said. “That feeling of '(he's) talking to me’ is really incredibly powerful.”
The slower pacing of the program gave children the opportunity to learn lessons beyond counting and their ABC’s, Doherty said. It also taught them how to process their emotions.
“Following instructions, being with other kids, taking turns and sharing … that’s a really important part of learning that goes on at such young ages, too,” Doherty said. “I think that in terms of educational media, (Rogers) looked at social-emotional learning … as the place where he wanted to focus his program.”
For children, emotional learning taught on the program could be anything from going to school and making friends to living with disabilities to learning how to cope with death. Rogers never shied away from sharing his personal experiences, giving his viewers someone tangible they could relate to who could help them make sense of the world around them.
“When kids take a look at the media nowadays, it’s got to be pretty conflicting in their minds as to what’s right and what’s wrong,” Morgese said. “Fred Rogers helped sort all of that out in a very nonpreachy kind of way. He was a minister, but he did it in a very controlled and gentle way.”
Alongside the serious subjects, there was plenty of time for fun on the program, too. According to JSTOR, Rogers believed “that a healthy child should play, feel and be able to inhabit a Land of Make-Believe where creativity reigned, emotions could be discussed and supportive adults listened.”
And if that wasn’t enough, each episode of "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood" was also accompanied by a live jazz band, Doherty said. A student of music composition, Rogers wrote the lyrics and music to most of his songs, including the famous “It’s You I Like,” which inspired the creation of the PBS special paying tribute to Rogers and his lasting influence in the world of television.
But to Rogers’ viewers, it wasn’t his awards, his brilliance or his talent that made their friend special to them. Rather, it was simply that he cared about them, and that he took the time to let them know it. We asked a handful of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" viewers — who are all still fans — what impact the show and its host has had on their lives.
Looking for the helpers
It had been a September day just like any other until Utah native Nancy Bittner heard the news that Twin Towers had been struck. A kindergarten teacher, she worried about what she would tell her classroom of young boys and girls and wondered how she would help them process their feelings.
But as it turns out, growing up on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as a girl had taught Bittner a thing or two about looking “for the helpers” when frightening things happened in the world. Recalling Rogers words, she suddenly knew what she wanted to say to her young students.
“I remembered reading that Mr. Rogers said it was important to first find out what children already know about the situation,” Bittner said. “My students had seen very scary things that morning. They wondered if it would happen to them. Mr. Rogers helped me have the courage to talk to them in a calm and reassuring way. We talked about all the helpers — the firefighters and police officers who were rushing in to try and save people.”
We are all neighbors
Viewer Jill Anderson, who lives in Idaho, started watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” when her oldest child was just a baby and tuned into the program with her family several times a week.
“You would never have to censor anything. You would never have to wonder who could watch it,” Anderson said. “It’s just perfect for everybody.”
But of all the episodes she watched, one of the most influential for Anderson was the time when Rogers spoke with then-10-year-old Jeff Erlanger, who had lost the use of his legs when he was very young and used a wheelchair. With two nieces with spina bifida, Anderson said the show helped her kids have greater empathy for their family members’ situation.
“I could relate with my two nieces and in turn to talk with my kids about it,” she said, adding that Rogers’ overall message was one of tolerance and kindness. “He just said … ‘I don’t care if you’re divorced or married or black or white or Jewish. …We’re all supposed to be neighbors.’”
There's no one like you
From reveling in the Land of Make-Believe with its beloved characters like Daniel Striped Tiger, Henrietta Pussycat and the infamous King Friday, to enjoying the show's "Picture Picture" feature, California resident Robynn Garfield said that Rogers’ lessons have always stuck with her.
“I feel like his impact on (me has) lasted my whole life,” she said. “Just him coming into the set, singing his song, sitting down, zipping up his sweater, looking at the camera and saying, ‘You are you, and it’s the greatest gift you can give to the world.' … I have internalized that message my whole life.”
In fact, the idea has been so meaningful that Garfield says she has since tried to instill that same belief in her three children.
“I tell my kids, ‘The greatest thing you have to offer the world is you. There’s no one else like you. You’re special,’” she said. “Regardless of special abilities or talents, or whether you can draw or paint or dance or do sports, being yourself, just being you, is a wonderful addition to the world.”
The man in the sweater
As a boy, Provo resident Mike Walker would watch “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” every chance he got. So when he attended a PBS conference in Miami as an employee at KBYU and met actor David Newell, who portrayed Mr. McFeely on the show, he couldn’t believe it. When Newell offered to introduce Walker to the host himself, he found that his childhood dream was literally coming true.
But there was one condition: Newell shared with Walker that when it came to meeting his fans, Rogers would take time with each one of them, shake hands, talk to them and give them a hug. His time was their time, so Newell requested that they keep the group small.
“I thought that was amazing that he would be willing to give up probably hours of his time in a day to talk with anybody that wanted to meet with him,” Walker said. “So very open, very loving to his fan base. … Mr. Rogers wasn’t like anybody else. He was kind of your dad.”2 comments on this story
According to Walker, after he met Rogers, the television host gave a presentation in a large conference room later that day to PBS employees and entreated them to remember the people in their lives who were most important to them.
“Being in the business a little bit, you see that some people have a television persona — this image and this person that they project on TV,” Walker said. “It’s not necessarily sincere; it’s this costume they put on for the public. Mr. Rogers was exactly who you saw on his program. He was sincere, he was kind, he was genuine. He loved you.”