Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Mister Roger's 90th Birthday

Earlier this year, on February 19, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood celebrated its 50th anniversary. Today would have been the 90th birthday of the man who both created and hosted the show, Fred Rogers. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood would prove to be the third longest running children's show in American television history (after Sesame Street and Captain Kangaroo). The show was founded on the premise that while children were different from adults, they were still human beings with their own thoughts and concerns. Furthermore, Mister Rogers believed that with a gentle, but firm approach children could be taught how to act properly.

Fred Rogers was born on March 20 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He earned a degree in Music Composition from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. He later graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was ordained a minister in the United Presbyterian Church. It was after his parents got their first television set that Mister Rogers decided to go into television. Later on in an interview with CNN, he explained, "I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there's some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen."

It was in 1951 that he got a job at NBC, working on such musical programmes as Your Hit Parade, The Kate Smith Hour, and The Voice of Firestone. He would later work on The Gabby Hayes Show.  He quit NBC in 1954 and went to work for Pittsburgh public station WQED as a puppeteer on The Children's Hour. It was there that many of the puppets who would later appear on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood first appeared.

It was in 1963 that he moved to Toronto, Ontario where the CBC hired him to develop and host a 15 minute children's show titled Misterogers. It not only marked the first time Fred Rogers was in front of the camera, but included many of the features that would later appear on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, including the castle and the trolley. After four years he returned to WQED in Pittsburgh and took the show with him, renaming it Misterogers Neighborhood. The show aired through much of the East and ran for 100 episodes. It was cancelled due to a lack of funding.

Fortunately, the Sears Roebuck Foundation decided to fund a revival of the show, giving it enough money to be aired nationally on National Educational Television (the predecessor to PBS). The new show, still titled Misterogers' Neighborhood, debuted on February 19 1968. It was in 1970 that it was renamed Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

Ultimately Mister Rogers' Neighborhood would run until August 31 2001, a total of 33 years. Through the years the show was nominated for several awards and won several as well. Its success was largely due to several factors, not the least of which was that Fred Rogers never talked down to his audience. In fact, the Fred Rogers on the show was pretty much Fred Rogers in real life. He once told Newsweek, "One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away." Much of the show was devoted to educating children on how to handle their emotions, such as anger. He emphasised the importance of being nice to others. And while Mister Rogers was gentle in demeanour, he sometimes addressed serious issues of concern to children. Indeed, in November. 1983 he actually addressed an issue that most children's shows never addressed, that of nuclear war in a series of episodes entitled "Conflict". "Conflict" was not the only time Mister Rogers addressed a serious issue on the show. Early in the show's run, he discussed death when one of his goldfish died.

Of course, Mister Rogers did not simply discuss feelings and issues of concern to children. He also gave children an inside look at various professions. In the show's long run, Mister Rogers visited a dairy farm, the headquarters of the United States Postal Service, and various other workplaces. Over the years he featured such guests as Tony Bennet, Julia Child, David Copperfield, Marcel Marceau, Rita Moreno, and even fellow children's show host Bob Keeshan (forever remembered as Captain Kangaroo).

One important aspect of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, although it was not often discussed, is that it was both multi-ethnic and multi-racial. Early in the show's run an African American teacher named Mrs. Carol Saunders appeared regularly. It was a bit later that an African American police officer, Officer Clemmons, appeared as a regular. Over the years characters and children belonging to a number of ethnicities appeared on the show. In a decade of race riots, when racism still occurred all too often, Mister Rogers' neighbourhood was one where everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, got along.

Fred Rogers's activism went beyond his television show. In 1969, only around two years after the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had been launched and about a year before PBS would be founded, there was a real danger that funding to public television would be severely cut. Fred Rogers appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications and eloquently spoke of the need for public television. Senator John O. Pastore, who had never been particularly friendly towards the television industry, told Mister Rogers, , "I think it's wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million." For 1971, funding for public television was increased $9 million to $22 million.

Fred Rogers would also play a pivotal role in insuring the average person could record TV programmes on VCRs. With the introduction of the VCR in the Seventies there also arose controversy. The motion picture industry maintained that such technology constituted copyright infringement, and in 1976 Universal and Walt Disney sued Sony to halt the sale of their Betamax recorders. A U. S. District court ruled in Sony's favour, but in 1981 Universal filed an appeal. Fred Rogers came to Sony's defence in the case known as Universal Studios vs. Sony Corporation of America, which reached the Supreme Court in 1983. Mister Rogers stated, "Some public stations, as well as commercial stations, program the Neighborhood at hours when some children cannot use it ... I have always felt that with the advent of all of this new technology that allows people to tape the Neighborhood off-the-air, and I'm speaking for the Neighborhood because that's what I produce, that they then become much more active in the programming of their family's television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been "You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions. Maybe I'm going on too long, but 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." The Supreme Court ruled in Sony's favour, and cited Fred Rogers's comments in their decision.

If Fred Rogers is still so very respected, it is perhaps because he emphasised on his show and even lived his life according to the simple philosophy that all human beings have worth and that everyone should be accepted for who they are without condition. In the book The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, Fred Rogers is quoted as saying, "Mutual caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other's achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undue thought of gain." Now more than ever, we have need of the kindness, patience, and tolerance that Mister Rogers taught on his show.

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