Years ago, when he was fresh out of college and floor-managing the Gabby Hayes cowboy show at 30 Rock in New York City, Fred Rogers got a piece of advice to last a television lifetime. "Freddy," Gabby said one day, "when I'm on the air I see just one little buckaroo out there." And right there, perhaps, was given the key to the eventual kingdom of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
Take One. In the Neighborhood with the Voice of Make-Believe.
Tapping a chair in his office: "Why don't you sit here right beside me and we'll be more comfortable."
Eleven o'clock in the morning, Pittsburgh, WQED-TV, and, ah, this voice. Ah, but the pacific, immediately reassuring, just-this-side-of-adenoidal voice of Fred McFeely Rogers. Can it be real? And won't you be its neighbor? Could you, would you?
I've always wanted to have a neighbor just like YOU/ Would you be mine?/ Please, won't you be my neighbor?
It turns out it isn't a phony voice. Not at all. Fred Rogers talks this way in real life. Oh, a little speedier on the uptake, but right at you and chock-a-block with love and sincerity and the same built-in pauses. This is the voice that tells approximately 2 million video kiddies, "You've made this day a special day by just your being you. There's only one person in the whole world like you, and people can like you exactly as you are." In their own way these vocal cords are as famous as Mr. Sinatra's.
Kids are always the first to know if you're a phony, of course. You couldn't fool them this long, after so many years, after so many 5 o'clocks in the neighborhood of Henrietta Pussycat and Queen Sara Saturday and Daniel Striped Tiger. Is it really any wonder this rare and soothing voice goes out nationwide (and to Canada and Pago Pago, too) to 250 PBS stations and 7 million households -- including who-knows-how-many peeping parents?
The neighborhood's core viewing group is 3-to-5-year-olds, but the mail suggests there are any number of "overlaps." To some older kids, Mr. Rogers is a memory chord to lost childhood. He has been on, in one incarnation or another, for more than a quarter of a century. Once Gloria Swanson called up the neighborhood from her Park Avenue neighborhood. She's mad for the show, it turns out.
"I think some people wonder . . . if you're real," the voice is saying. "Some people have actually said just that to me: 'Are you real, Mr. Rogers?' Which reminds me of a story I'd like to tell you. A child said to me once, 'How did you get out?' He meant, how did I get out of the box? So I did my best to explain about television, about how the people on TV are real and all, only you can't exactly touch them. You see, there's this stage in childhood when kids are trying to get everyone and everything in the right places. If you were a child and you saw your teacher in the supermarket, that could be very worrisome. Or, say you were a swimming instructor and a child saw you on the street in a pair of pants and a shirt. He could be quite upset over that.
"So here I was trying to explain about Mr. Rogers and the television neighborhood and how strange it probably was for him to see me outside of that. The child kept nodding and listening to me, and then when I was done, he said: 'But how are you going to get back in?' " ------
Take Two. The Office of Make Believe. What Mr. R. Is Wearing Today.
Smiling, holding up a manila envelope with an address and a big "2" scrawled on it: "I have a meeting downtown at a bank at 2 o'clock. And I can't be late."
There are no tennies on the tootsies. And instead of one of the famous comfy cardigans, there is a well-tailored, muted-gray pin stripe suit and a white shirt with shiny cuff links. The tie clasp has a FMR on the bar. This could be a mortgage banker.
The glasses are pale bifocals. He has them in his right hand, which is stuck up into the folds of his immaculately razored jaw. The hair may be grayer than it appears on TV, but it is exquisitely groomed, every filament in place.
This office, muted, womblike, is deep inside the Pittsburgh PBS affiliate where the neighborhood is taped and sent out to a grateful juvenile nation. It is an office filled with soft colors and personal objects. Over there, for instance, on the piano, is a quote in French from "The Little Prince." It translates: "That which is essential is invisible to the eye."
When Mr. Rogers was 5 years old, his grandmother bought him a piano. All his grief and rage came out at that piano. It was his first way of saying how he felt. "He could just laugh or weep through the tips of his fingers," says a friend who has known him for decades.
Over here, closer, is a giant oil of a kid gone fishing. "Oh, that boy is sooo many things in me," he says dreamily, the gaze drifting upward. "He has a fish, which not only symbolizes a Christian faith, but the love I felt for my grandparents. When I was growing up, one of my grandfathers regularly took me fishing, while the other always wanted to take me deep-sea fishing. But he didn't get to. He died when I was a child.
"I don't know . . . my childhood must have been one in which people communicated to me that there is great value in little children. Why do some people think this work is so . . . odd? There was great love in my childhood. I had a pretty modulated way of dealing with my anger: I always went to the piano. I think there must be a longing in anyone who has been created to want to create something -- don't you? There must be something deep within us all that would like to respond to our initial creation."
His eyes are watering.
"Look: I'm not an actor. I'm not a performer. I wasn't someone prepared for any of this. It's just . . . existential. It has to do with being here and with sharing yourself. It's a real joy to walk through this life with this face, let me tell you. People don't come up to me to talk about the weather. Why, I've had a child come up to me and not even say hello, but instead say right out, 'Mr. Rogers, my grandmother's in the hospital.'"
Take Three. What Andy Devine Allegedly Said.
Maybe a hip and cynical world's inclination to disbelieve in Fred Rogers can be traced to something another kid-vid star allegedly said when his medium was young. The legend also has been ascribed to Uncle Don, who had a children's show back then, though to midwestern kids growing up half a generation ago, it can be linked only with that late, rotund and squeaky-voiced '50s video hero, Andy Devine. The show was known as "Andy's Gang." Midnight the Cat and Froggie the Gremlin were costars. Anyway, the legend is that at the end of one week's program, thinking himself off the air, Uncle Andy whined with perfect clarity into a live mike: "That oughta hold the little bastards till next week."
Take Four. Mr. R's. Personal Life.
Fred Rogers is 54 years old. He grew up in Latrobe, Pa., one year ahead of another Latrobe immortal, Arnold Palmer. In fact, Deacon Palmer, Arnie's dad, taught little Freddy Rogers golf at the same time he was teaching Arnie how to swing. (Arnie was better at the game.) Arnold Palmer has never been a guest on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," though Van Cliburn, Tony Bennett, Rita Moreno, Mabel Mercer, Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann and Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West in "The Wizard of Oz") have, to name a few.
Mr. Rogers' father, deceased, was a well-to-do tool and die manufacturer. Mr. Rogers' mom, also deceased, was a very creative person. For a long time Mr. Rogers didn't have any brothers and sisters, and by the time he was 5, he was getting a chauffeur to take him to movies. He could moon all day at those wonderful '30s musicals. Afterward he'd come home and play the tunes at his piano. He just picked them up. The music was in his head.
For 11 years, he was an only child. Then he got a baby sister. She is adopted.
Mr. Rogers, in his grown-up life, has two sons, both in their twenties, both gone from home, though still in Pittsburgh. Mr. Rogers used to live in a house in a place called Squirrel Hill, which is very beautiful, but now he and his wife have moved to an apartment. The apartment is very beautiful, too. Their twin baby grand pianos came with them, of course. (Mrs. Rogers is a concert pianist.)
Mr. Rogers has a vacation house on Nantucket. In Pittsburgh he drives himself to work every day. It's an ordinary car -- a Chevy, or something like that, says a man who works in the neighborhood.
What seldom gets talked about in the Neigborhood of Make-Believe is CASH. The neighborhood's best-kept secret, in fact, may be what Mr. Rogers makes in return for these oodles of love noodles. (Rogers' response to the seedy subject of money is: "Do we have to?" And Basil Cox, the vice president and general manager of the nonprofit Family Communications, Inc., which produces the neighborhood, says, "I promise you it's considerably less than what he would doubtless be making on the commercial network, or if he were out on the lecture circuit." Probably, Mr. R's salary is in six figures.)
Mr. Rogers has many honorary degrees from important universities. Do you know what he's doing with all those hoods? Making a quilt. He needs six more degrees and then the quilt will be done. (Later, Mr. Rogers wonders if this should be stricken from the record; he doesn't want to offend.)
A long time ago -- the same year he graduated with a music degree from Rollins College in far-off Winter Park, Fla. -- Mr. Rogers landed a job at NBC-TV in far-off New York City. He carried coffee and Coca-Cola for the stars. Pretty soon he got to be floor director of "Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade" and "The Kate Smith Hour." Kate Smith was a wonderful person. Mr. Rogers liked his job very much, but something strange and mystical was pulling him elsewhere. Almost every time he had a free day, Mr. Rogers found himself getting on a train or bus to go visit places where needy children lived.
Even now, Mr. Rogers cannot exactly say what pulled him back to Pittsburgh and to educational TV in 1953 to take up his life's work. And even then, it did not proceed in any straight-line fashion. (He went to Canada for a year and did a 15-minute children's show there called "Misterogers.") "I really believe it was the power of the Holy Spirit," he says. "I mean, what did my parents think about all this? Here I was, leaving New York and network television to come back to Pittsburgh to start working with puppets. It was all so vague. Why, in the beginning, we used to go into the studio and just sort of . . . play."
Mr. Rogers writes all the scripts and all the tunes for the neighborhood. Isn't it funny, but he cannot recall how he came to write the neighborhood's best-known tune. Nope, he says, turning sideways, singing-songing a few bars to himself: "It's a beau-ti-ful day in the neigh-bor-hood . . . "
Here is an important fact about Mr. Rogers: He is an ordained minister in the United Presbyterian Church. For eight years on his noon hour, he went to seminary. He was ordained in 1963. He can't really say why he went, but anyway, his message turned out to be the medium.
On noon hours now, Mr. Rogers goes swimming. Back and forth for a wonderful 40 minutes he goes, enveloping himself, losing himself. He has been doing this for 13 years, and the exercise helps beat back his little hint of belly. It also keeps Mr. Rogers from getting cranky. Mr. Rogers always feels sooo much better when he is through.
Take Five. Interlude With the Mind Doctor.
Her name is Margaret McFarland, and she is a kindly, alert, tiny septuagenarian sitting in a semidarkened room several blocks from the studio. The room is in an old, elegant apartment building in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, and it is here that Fred Rogers slips away to write his scripts and work out some of the ideas that make a child's world less scary. (There is the famous show when he first told children that, no, when the water is let out of the tub, they won't go down the drain with it.)
It is a nondescript office, except for two autographed Pittsburgh Pirates baseballs and a ventriloquist's puppet sitting on a chair. When Fred Rogers was a boy, he went away to Camp Lenape in the Poconos precisely because he heard the camp was going to have a ventriloquist instructor on the staff.
McFarland has been a consultant to Fred Rogers' television work since 1965. She is a member of the Pittsburgh Psychoanalytic Center; she has an academic appointment with the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh; she has worked with the eminent Erik Erikson, among many others. She is one of the most respected psychologists in Pennsylvania, and she is an out-and-out admirer of the work of Fred McFeely Rogers. Every Wednesday morning she and Rogers get together to go over scripts. His role in the development of children in the latter part of the 20th century has been vital, she thinks.
"Fred Rogers is a man who has not closed off the channels of communication between his childhood and his manhood. His empathy with children is rooted in the mastery of his own earliest years. Repression, you see, is not his major defense. His true identity is that of the creative personality. But before this identity was fully integrated, he worked off-camera, behind the scenes, manipulating his various puppets. I said to him, 'Fred, the children need to see you. They need you to help them distinguish between reality and fantasy.'
"When he finally decided he wanted to give his life over to working with and for children, and came out from behind the camera, his creative personality became fully integrated in the way you bring paisley out of many colors."
Take Six. On the Set of Make-Believe.
Nick Tallo, the floor director, has a ring in his left ear. Johnny Costa, the music director, used to play all the big piano houses in the country and once worked for Mike Douglas.
"Cut, please," calls the director. "More energy, please."
Betty Aberlin, who plays Lady Aberlin, is a New York actress currently on national tour in "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road." "I came to this show 14 years ago as another stoned New Yorker," she says. "I loved children the way childless people do. I was expressing it before, but I wasn't really a part of it. And then, too, I was always fending off criticism about being in the show, and about Fred. Friends would say, 'The guy's gay, right?' Or 'Tell me, what's he really like?' What he's really like is right in front of your nose.
"I feel I'm part of Fred's vocation now. I'm a character in his work."
Two stagehands are dropping fake snow from the rafters. "Is it true this is the stuff they confiscated from De Lorean?" one asks.
"If it is, I'm sweeping up."
Take Seven. The Night Johnny Carson Changed His Tune.
Fred Rogers and his neighborhood are to the electronic flash of "Sesame Street" what Ma and Pa Kettle are to Richard Pryor. (In Washington the two shows come on back-to-back.) The Rogerian technique -- helping children discover the worth in little things -- is about as old-hat as Miss Francis and "Ding Dong School," though that '50s program doubtless didn't have the academic base this one has.
Probably because he is so sincere, even naked in his feelings, Rogers has become the ripest mock in all TV. Somewhere down deep it has to hurt. In a macho world, there seems something not quite manly about what Rogers does. Everything about his show seems to beg for parody. Enough of that parody is cruel, and if Rogers himself won't say this, his staff will. They are protective of him and loyal to the program, and yet, in an ironic twist, they are avid collectors of some of the Mr. Rogers parodies.
The staff loves the "SCTV" parody, where Mr. Rogers, done up like a 90-pound weakling with a sunken chest, squares off in a boxing ring with a busty Julia Child. It's the Battle of the PBS Stars. Mr. Rogers comes out for the bout in pasty legs and black, wriggly socks.
Rogers himself says, "I don't really mind the parodies of me as long as they're not hostile. I think some comedy can be downright hostile. And some of it can be dangerous. There was this radio disc jockey we heard about who was saying things like 'Now boys and girls, just go get your mother's hair spray and your father's cigarette lighter and I'll show you how to make a blow torch.' "
Sometimes it seems as though half the drive-time radio jocks and stand-up comics in America do Mr. Rogers imitations. Eddie Murphy of "Saturday Night Live" does a ghetto version of the neighborhood ("I hope I get to move into your neighborhood someday. The problem is when I move in, you all move away"). The neighborhood has shown up in movies ("Being There" and "Poltergeist"). Rogers himself has done guest shots on the shows of Charlie Rose, David Letterman, Richard Simmons. (That one was rare, people say.) And then there's Johnny Carson.
Carson has done several Mr. Rogers skits, one called "Mr. Codger's Neighborhood." Though hilarious, the message seems to be that Rogers is a simpleton and maybe a faker to boot. A while ago, David Newell, the PR director of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" (he also plays Mr. McFeely), called up Fred DeCordova, producer of the Carson show, and said: Hey, how about some equal time?
So Rogers got invited on the show. He came on late in the program in his tennies. He was visibly nervous. This hip, talk-show palaver was not exactly his thing. Almost before he got into the chair, the audience was snickering.
And that's when a funny thing happened: Carson turned protective. He seemed ashamed of his audience's bad manners. (Never mind that he couldn't resist getting in a few good jokes at Rogers' expense. Carson is a showman, and when the show calls for a laugh . . . ) But it was as if some atavistic Midwestern compassion came suddenly welling up. We may be urban-cool and all, Carson seemed to be telling his audience, but in some other, deeper, feeling way, we're all losers. During the break, Carson leaned over and told Rogers that the first show he had on TV back in Omaha or wherever was a kid's show, and that he knew you couldn't dare be a phony, not with kids.
Take Eight. What Happened at the Ocean That Day.
"Can't you spot moments in your life when you just know?"
Mr. Rogers is telling a story. His eyes are big as walnuts. As usual, there are the pregnant pauses, the time for wondering aloud, for star-gazing at mystery.
"We were in Florida vacationing, and the boys were quite small, and Joanne put a lot of suntan lotion on Jamie, who was 2, I think. She went out about waist deep and dipped him in the water. I was standing right near her, and I thought, well, I'll just grab him. [He grabs.]
"But he was gone. I looked and looked. [He is up out of the chair, looking and looking.]'Joanne!' I screamed. I screamed to the sky, and in a couple of seconds I saw this foot and I grabbed for it. But it was coated with lotion and it slipped away again. An eternity passed. [An eternity is passing.]
"Finally, I had him. Well, we just sat on the beach and wept. [He is sitting on some invisible beach, weeping with relief.]
"And after that I knew."