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Memory Lane: Fred Rogers

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 27, 2013

It has been 10 years since Fred Rogers died, and I still miss him. Here's what I wrote when he passed:

Fred Rogers was tough. You might not have thought that, based on his on-the-air style. The host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, who died Thursday of stomach cancer at 74, was one of the gentlest presences in children's television, a soft-spoken friend and neighbor to his young viewers.

That personality was also evident off camera.

In the mid-'80s, while an officer of the Television Critics Association, I set up a chat for members with Rogers. Arriving late, Rogers encountered a couple of children who had brought him gifts. Rogers brought the kids along to the TCA meeting and, before he took reporters' questions, opened the presents and thanked the children.

The kids, after all, were more important to him than a couple of extra lines in the newspaper. Even Thursday, after his death, his company's Web site offered guidance to people on how to explain Rogers' death to children.

This gets to how Rogers was tough.

He was unwavering in his approach to his show, which ran for more than 30 years on public TV before he ended production late in 2000. (Reruns have continued since.)
He had a vision of how he wanted to talk to children, and what he wanted to tell them.

He stuck to that even when it meant venturing far from his Pittsburgh-area home, including when he produced an early version of the Neighborhood for Canadian television in the early '60s. He held firm even when he might have had more money and greater fame in other ways.

Rogers told me once about meeting with a network executive about taking his act to commercial TV. The executive asked Rogers what kind of costume he would wear on the air. (Though Rogers' sweaters became a costume of sorts, he avoided the clown suits and funny makeup that was more common in the '50s and '60s as Rogers began talking to kids on TV.)

Having asked what the executive meant, Rogers was told, "You'll have to jazz up what you do. You can't just come on as yourself. . . . You really need to jazz up the neighborhood."

Rogers' reply: "I think this meeting is over."

In a medium that talked down to kids more than it talked to them, Rogers never underestimated his viewers, no matter what their age.

He thought it was fine to talk to them about opera and about war. He thought classical musician Yo-Yo Ma was a good guest. I still have a Yo-Yo Ma CD that I bought when one of my sons was intrigued by seeing Ma on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

He felt a long-standing disenchantment with commercial TV, which started when he worked for NBC in the early '50s.

As a floor manager -- a liaison between the show's director and its cast and crew -- his work included pulling singer Snooky Lanson from backstage craps games and working on early tests of color TV. (Rogers finally had to tell his bosses he was colorblind.)

It also found him dealing with young performers' pushy mothers, and "programs in which people would throw pies in each other's faces . . . things I thought were starting to be demeaning."

Looking for a show that would be "a thoughtful companion to the person at home," he joined Pittsburgh educational-TV station WQED in 1953, about six months before it went on the air.

"My friends at NBC thought I was absolutely nuts," he said. But it proved "a blessed move."

His duties included serving as producer and puppeteer for Children's Corner, a series that saw the first appearances by the puppets Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday XIII.

The show was a success in Pittsburgh and beyond, even getting a Saturday run on NBC as a fill-in for Paul Winchell's show.

The NBC version drew an audience -- "We had something like 50,000 letters a week," Rogers recalled -- but NBC ultimately dropped it. Rogers said an NBC vice president told him that the show was too good for TV's mass audience.

"That began to show me how glad I was that I had gone into educational television," Rogers said.

He was accordingly a great admirer of Frieda Hennock, the Federal Communications Commission member who fought so hard for the establishment of educational television, what we now call public TV.

Although Hennock's battles with commercial TV magnates cost her the seat on the FCC, she remained outspoken about the need for noncommercial television. So did Rogers, who was no fan of "enhanced underwriting announcements" and other blurrings of the line between commercial and noncommercial TV.

"I think we must preserve what Frieda Hennock set out to do, and that was to have some channels that were completely noncommercial," he said.

And even if the noncommercial side of public TV has eroded over the years, it has had a place for Fred Rogers.

Sure, it was easy to mock and parody his speaking style and his deliberate pace. Easy, that is, until you watched a child drawn to the set by him. There was magic in Fred Rogers, a magic made from a singular vision and a will of steel.
 

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