Mister Rogers led a simple life but it was one that we all enjoyed sharing every day of our childhood. Where he came from when he entered his house we never do know, and where he leaves to we never wonder about either, but at home he takes the time to feed his goldfish, take us on visits with other friends and neighbors and give us a glimpse into the lives of a royal family of puppets and their subjects, all the while spreading seeds of wisdom for us to absorb into our daily lives and use to grow into better people.
"You always make each day a special day. You know how? By just being yourself. There's only one person in the whole world that's like you, and that's you. And people can like you just the way you are"
The elements that children and parents alike have come to love about Mister Rogers' Neighborhood were not created at once, but have evolved throughout the years. Let's take a trolley ride into the past to see how these events connected with one another.
In order to learn about the history of the show we must first explore its creator...Mister Rogers. Fred McFeely Rogers was born on March 20, 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, 40 miles east of Pittsburgh. After he graduated from Rollins College with a degree in music composition he was hired by NBC to work as an assistant producer for The Voice of Firestone ( 195? ) and later, as a floor director, for other popular programs such as The Lucky Strike Hit Parade, The Kate Smith Hour and the NBC Opera Theatre.
WQED Pittsburgh, the nation's first community-sponsored educational television station, hired Mr. Rogers as a producer and as their program director. One of the first programs he produced was The Children's Corner, hosted by Josie Carey. The show aired live and featured Carey taking children on a visit to a land of make-believe peopled with puppets. Many of the characters that would be featured later on Mister Rogers Neighborhood first appeared at the Children's Corner, including Daniel Striped Tiger, X the Owl, King Friday XIII, Henrietta Pussycat, and Lady Elaine Fairchilde. Rogers served as puppeteer, composer and organist of the program which went on to win the Slyvania Award for best local children's program in the nation.
"You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are."
During the late 1950s Rogers attended a theological seminary during his off-hours and became ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1963. It was around this time that he was invited to create a children's program for CBC station in Canada based on The Children's Corner. The head of Children's Programming at CBC saw how well Mr. Rogers interacted with children and asked if he could appear in front of the camera as host, rather than just as a puppeteer. He then renamed the show Misterogers and it continued successfully for three years.
In 1966 Fred Rogers purchased the rights to the show and moved it back to his hometown station WQED and created Misterogers Neighborhood. It was broadcast throughout many Eastern stations but lack of funding led to the show being cancelled after a year. However, public response to its cancellation was so overwhelming that the Sears Roebuck Foundation decided to fund the show and it then aired nationally on NET, National Educational Television...the predecessor to PBS. It was then that it's name changed to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. The series lasted from February 1968 up until February 1976, when it went off the air for three years and then continued on again up until August 2001.
The Neighborhood of Make-Believe
Near the closing of each program Mr. Rogers would sit beside the trolley tracks near his window seat and watch as the Neighborhood Trolley came into the room to make its stop. He would refresh our memory on the events occurring in Make-Believe and then with the clang-clang ringing of the trolley bell we would be taken into the land of the royal puppets.
" If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to people you never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave with every meeting with another person. "
Mister Rogers always kept the realms of Make-Believe and reality separate from one another and never permitted children to think that the imaginary world of puppets was interlinked with real life..even in the Neighborhood. But once there, imagination was free to run wild. Oddly enough though, the stories in Make-Believe were often more stressful than in Mr. Rogers life. King Friday, Queen Sara, or Prince Tuesday always had a problem on their hands, whether it be preparations for a party or complications arising over a guest that didn't behave nicely towards them. These were the situations that allowed the show to teach lessons to children on life, relationships, behavior, morals and responsibilities.
Aside from royal family, there was also X the owl, Henrietta Pussycat, Daniel Striped Tiger, and the ( Dr.Smith look-alike ) Lady Elaine Fairchilde, voiced by Fred Rogers.
When we weren't following Trolley to the neighborhood of Make-Believe, Mister Rogers would let us tag along with him as he ran errands or went to pay calls on friends. Some of those friends included musicians, artists, builders, designers, writers and famous people. Even politicians. Mr. Rogers wasn't choosy as to whom he associated with. Other times we stayed at home and watched him do a craft project in his kitchen, working alongside his beloved goldfish.
Another favorite part of the show was when Mr. Rogers would pop a videotape into Picture-Picture and take us on a tour of a factory, or a food plant to see the "behind-the-scenes" making of a certain something-special. One day he showed us how pianos were made, another day how chocolates were dipped, and another day how rubbers balls were painted in all their swirly-colors.*
There was even an insightful look into how Mr. Rogers' house was "assembled" prior to production of the show. This clip can be seen here.
Mr. Rogers' house really consisted of only three areas - the front porch, the living room and the kitchen. It's simple decor and suburban country charm was not changed during the show's 30 year span. The kitchen was the most exciting place to be for this was the room where Mr. Rogers would feed his goldfish, or open his retro 1950s refrigerator, or sit at the table to begin a craft project.
The cast of Mr. Rogers evoled over the years in some small ways, but the main characters remained the same. Below we have highlighted just a few of the most memorable faces :
Mr. McFeely ( David Newell ) - the Speedy Delivery man, was one of the most frequent guests to Rogers house. He would often bring letters from old friends and on special days, those awesome videotapes for Picture-Picture. Sometimes he would make time to stop by for a chat before once again embarking on his speedy run. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night would keep Mr. McFeely from his appointed rounds.
David Newell began his career with the show as associate producer back in 1968 but two years later he took on the role of Mr. McFeely and remained the memorable Speedy Delivery man for over thirty years. Incidentally, Mr.McFeely's character was named after Fred Rogers grandfather. Today, Newell continues to make guest appearances as Mr. McFeely, and even appeared in a 2008 documentary film about the character. Some characters take on a life of their own....
Lady Aberlin ( Betty Aberlin ) - Lady Aberlin was the sweetest lady in the land of Make-Believe. When she wasn't being herself, Aberlin often took on the parts of other characters, such as Mrs. Mefford.
Betty Aberlin was 26 years old when she began her career with Mister Rogers in 1968 and was one of many members who stayed until its final episode in 2011.
Handyman Negri ( Joe Negri ) - Joe Negri started as a jazz musician and then as musical director for a Pittsburgh television station during the 1950s. During the time he worked on 67 Melody Lane he met Johnny Costa. Costa later became musical director of Mister Rogers Neighborhood and it was probably through Costa that he met Fred Rogers and joined the series, staying for its entire run. Here is a great video of Negri and Costa in 1955.
Mister Rogers Neighborhood's cast and behind-the-scenes staff included many extremely talented musicians, and it is no wonder - music was an integral part of each episode. Fred Rogers, an accomplished pianist himself, composed over 200 songs for the series. Some of his songs remain the most memorable children's tunes. Who can forget "It's Such a Good Feeling"?
" It's such a good feeling to know you're alive. It's such a happy feeling, you're growing inside. And when you wake up ready to say, 'I'll think I'll make a snappy new day', It's such a good feeling "
Lyrics like these capture the essence of what the entire series was all about - caring for others, being a helper in life, always staying positive, and appreciating others and yourself. It was a feel-good program filled with song, knowledge, wisdom and the joy that can be found in simple pleasures.
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood lasted for over 33 years because generations of children drew to Fred Rogers' honest approach to life. Ah yes, such simple programs are so rare to find these days.
* This post has a great collection of clips from ten of the best How It's Made segments of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
For further info and an astounding amount of behind-the-scenes trivia, check out The Neighborhood Archive and The Fred Rogers Company website.