With a cardigan, a pair of tennis shoes and some hand puppets, Fred Rogers set out to make the kind of children’s programming he felt kids deserved.
Rogers was a pioneer of children’s television with an understanding of the real potential of a powerful medium. “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” aimed to respect and nurture children even as it tackled subjects normally considered taboo for children’s programming. The show ran on public television from 1968 – 2002.
Fred Rogers was a quiet revolutionary, said Shari Zeck, interim dean of Milner Library at Illinois State University and WGLT’s Culture Maven. Even decades after watching Rogers’ show, Zeck still maintains strong feelings for the time she spent watching the show.
“I loved him,” she said with a smile. “I wanted to live in his neighborhood.”
And, no, she didn’t just tune in for the puppets.
“I loved his calm voice, I loved his gentleness. I love how he changed into his loafers. What remains so charming and so endearing about him are these little habits.”
Part of Rogers' appeal was his understanding of a child’s psyche and the way he structured the show to appeal to a child’s needs, said Zeck.
“These little habits that clearly were purposeful became a routine. What comfort we took in those expectations that he would walk in singing. He’d take off his coat, he’d put on his sweater and he’d change his shoes. And he would continue singing as he sat down, never hurried, always like he had all the time in the world.”
“There’s a comfort in that. Children love repetition, so I think part of it ties into that. Knowing that every time he comes through the door, he’s going to do these things.”
There were other kid’s show hosts who had kindly dispositions – Hello, Captain Kangaroo – but they never matched the genuine quality of Rogers.
“The profound niceness or quaintness about Mr. Rogers, I don’t think was shared by any of those other hosts,” Zeck said.
Yes, Mr. Rogers was a nice man, but he never shied away from talking about hot button issues of the day, said Zeck. On his show he spoke about war, race relations, divorce and assassination.
“He was a trained minister, but his approach to children was less from a ministerial position and more from a therapeutic one. He was very much a believer in that children needed to talk about things and that children needed to be listened to.”
“How he approached children was not that they were miniature adults, nor that they were something 'other,' but rather that they were capable of reasoning, that they needed to be heard, that they had stories to tell and that they learn from and respond to stories themselves.”
So, when he approached children, he did so from a therapeutic point of view. He listened to them, he spoke directly to them. When Robert Kennedy was assassinated or something was prominent in the news, he knew that one shouldn’t expect that children hadn’t heard anything about that and were experiencing anxiety and even trauma because of it.
“So he faced it head on, with tenderness and that recognition of the children to be loved as individuals, respected as individuals and to have things explained to them, face-to-face. That was one of his real gifts.”
“When that man looked into the camera, you really thought he was looking at you. When he looked into a camera lens, he was able to convey compassion, genuineness and make little ones and adults on the other side feel like ‘yes, he’s talking to me.’”
Years after the end of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” the show still carries impact, said Zeck. 2018 brought the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” And just this past week a new film, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers, opened to critical acclaim. It’s no coincidence, said Zeck, that the spirit of Mr. Rogers is very much with us right now.
“I think that these sorts of things occur at a similar time for a reason. We are in a rotten place right now in the world. And I think that we are all hoping for some of the comfort that Mr. Rogers can offer.”
“We are in a difficult historical moment and I think we all feel a little need for some beautiful days in the neighborhood.”
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