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Mr. Rogers, 'Neighborhood' Hero: Facts And True Stories

Icons | August 7, 2019

Left: Publicity shot of Fred Rogers for 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?,' 2008. Right: Publicity photo from PBS for 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.' Source: IMDB

Fred Rogers, whose Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was a children's TV institution, became not just a popular TV host for kids but also a folk hero of sorts to those who grew up on him. His kindly demeanor, his arsenal of puppets, his own childlike fascination with ordinary things, and that wardrobe of cardigan sweaters -- this man was so zen, so chill. Perhaps we should have listened better and learned a bit more from this Buddha of PBS.

Every generation, at one point or another, has thought, “this is a dark time for humanity.” You can bet that when the cavemen couldn’t find anything to kill and were forced to eat grass, they mumbled something similar. In those times of tumult a certain neighborly television character, with his pacifying voice, made everything seem a little brighter. That saint of sociable soothing was, of course, Mr. Rogers.

For nearly 40 years, Mr. Rogers brought calm, heartwarming simplicity to public television. Regardless of whatever strife the world witnessed, there’d always be Mr. Rogers and his tranquil neighborhood. Now that the silver screen’s version of Mr. Rogers, Tom Hanks, is set to portray the famously cardigan dressed muse of mental health. We thought it’s time to revisit his legacy. 

Rogers Felt He Could Do Better Than 'Horrible' Children's TV

Tom Hanks Doing His Best Mr. Rogers (doyouremember.com)

Mr. Rogers's unusual route into children’s television was likely the very reason he flourished. After passing through Dartmouth College for a year, he continued on to Rollins College, a liberal arts school in Florida, earning a musical degree. Rogers graduated magna cum laude.

Then he got into television -- because he thought it was terrible.

Mr. Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine, “When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible and I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen.” Apparently, whatever dregs he saw on television was “something horrible on it with people throwing pies at one another.”

Mr. Rogers Would Flip You The Tallman

The Most Jovial Unintentional Bird In Middle Finger History (youtube.com)

Naturally, no one could unintentionally flip children the bird more warmly than Mr. Rogers. While singing the children’s song “Where is Thumbkin,” Mr. Rogers throws the one-finger salute when he presents the “Tall-man.” “Here I am” indeed. In the video, Mr. Roger genially twirls his middle finger about merrily. Only Mr. Rogers could get away with flipping off a nation of children and acting like he didn't know what he was doing. But it seems likely that he did. In another clip, now all over the internet in GIF form, Fred shoots the rod while laughing and looking right at us -- not so innocent now, are you, Rogers?

A Genuine Soul Down To His Sneakers:

Source: Twitter

Outside of the accidental middle finger or two, everything about Mr. Rogers and his Neighborhood was pure wholesome charm. His mother knitted his sweaters until the day she passed. He explained during an interview with the Archive of American Television, “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother.”

According to documentarian Benjamin Wagner, Mr. Rogers sported sneakers over dress shoes for production value. Wagner wrote, “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set.”

Mr. Rogers Walked The Walk

Mr. Rogers Pleading To The Senate On Behalf Of Public Television (thirteen.org)

He genuinely cared about the welfare of kids. In 1969, he gave an impassioned plea to the Senate against proposed budget cuts to Public Television. President Nixon threatened to cut the budget in half. Mr. Roger’s speech professing television’s power to help children become productive members of society helped sway the government. They eventually increased spending from $9 million to $22 million.

At least some kids picked up a lesson or two. According to a study by Yale, children who watched Mr. Rogers compared to Sesame Street more effectively remembered his storylines and had a much higher “tolerance of delay.” That essentially means they waited longer to throw their tantrums.

Going Down In History

The Famous Cardigan Enshrined In The Smithsonian (smithsonianmag.com)

Other than creating one of the most iconic children’s television shows of all time, he’s also in the Smithsonian. One of his unforgettable cardigans hangs in the famous museum, a symbol of sanity and a simpler time.

It is a tiny, tiny footnote but he’ll also go down as the man who fought for the VCR. Those who fondly used the robot doggy door to entertainment might be surprised to hear that Mr. Rogers helped save it.

When the VCR came under threat of copyright infringement, Mr. Rogers spoke up. “Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others," he said. "My whole approach in broadcasting has always been ‘You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions.’ ... I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important.” 

Tags: Childrens Television | Mr. Rogers | Rare Facts And Stories About History | TV In The 1960s | TV In The 1970s

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!