Fifty years ago, on February 19, 1968, NET would later evolve into PBS showed the very first episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
The episode is available to purchase in places like Amazon Video, and it’s interesting to notice how even though the early shows are in black and white and the sets are slightly different, for the most part, even then, it was the same program that Fred Rogers would bring to children for several decades.
That first show in particular is a curiosity, as it is mentioned that things have moved around in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. The real reason for that is that Mister Rogers’ show had been aired in a smaller amount of markets prior to the national launch. In fact, Fred Rogers had been entertaining and teaching children ever since the 1950s where he worked alongside Josie Carey in the Pittsburgh-produced Children’s Corner. The first show of his own, Misterogers — one word, which was also used in the first few years after going national — ran in Canada.
Last summer as a fundraiser for PBS, Twitch.tv streamed [almost] every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from the national era, and that became a fascination as well as an addiction. I was the guy in his late thirties streaming it through the TV, just so every half hour I could be told I’m special just the way I am. It had a calming effect much like it had when I was 5 years old. Watching so many historic moments in the marathon also got me addicted to the Neighborhood Archive — a comprehensive website that will tell you everything you always wanted to know about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and the characters, the songs, and the make-believe within. Certainly, in a world where you wake up and look on Twitter and see such anger and division between the people of this country in the year 2018, Mister Rogers provided a great escape, full of characters like King Friday XIII, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, Daniel Striped Tiger, Mr. McFeely the Speedy Delivery man, Lady Aberlin, and other favorites.
Mister Rogers preached the gospel of inclusion, including people of color in positions of authority and even employing gay actors and crew without judgement. Of course I didn’t know that as a child, but that impresses me now. It is also thanks to Fred Rogers that we have things like PBS and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood funding, as his visit to politicians to get funding for public broadcasting is one of those great moments in TV history. Check that out below.
The other wonderful thing about Mister Rogers for a child is that he encouraged kids to learn and to let their imaginations run free. Whether it was the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, the stories we’d see in Picture Picture, or even when Rogers would have miniatures of the Neighborhood in his kitchen, I am certain that a lot of my desire to use my imagination came from that show. Heck, I even had my mother change the color of the walls in my bedroom because Mister Rogers changed his, and if I could have had a traffic light in my house, I totally would have.
PBS is doing a wonderful special of great Mister Rogers moments during their next pledge drive. I highly recommend that you check it out; it’s due in March. They presented this special at the Television Critics Association press tour last month, and seeing David Newell — Mr. McFeely, who still introduces himself with a “Speedy Delivery” — made it all so much more real. I’ve attended many press events and rarely get star-struck; in this case, I absolutely did. The special is great, by the way, though I wish some other still-surviving “neighbors” like Betty Aberlin and Francois Clemmons had been interviewed.
I still want a traffic light in my house. I’d buy a set of Neighborhood of Make-Believe miniatures if one were ever to be made. But most of all, I’m grateful to Mister Rogers for giving us what has now become fifty years of “beautiful days.” He may have passed in 2003, Fred Rogers’ legacy lives on to this day with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a series that brings good messages to a new generation. A big-screen movie about Rogers’ life with Tom Hanks is in the works; this should be exciting, though my personal choice to play Mister Rogers might have been Michael Keaton, who worked on the Neighborhood and was from Pittsburgh himself.
He was our friend, and he was special. He might not have been the stereotype of “cool” but he was an icon who could bring out the best in us all.