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The Fred Rogers We Know

With his unconventional take on children’s television, Mr. Rogers helped redefine the male role model.

Soraya Roberts is a writer in Toronto who has contributed to Harper’s, Vanity...

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This is the Fred Rogers we know: a thin, wholesome man straight out of a small-town pulpit, with a gentle manner, who looks directly at us, speaks slowly and tells us that he likes us just the way we are. This is the man Canadians have been watching since October 1963, when Misterogers was a fifteen-minute black-and-white children’s program on the CBC that lasted nine months. The show ended four years before the power of American broadcasting would crack it in two. The host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was almost identical to this one. Almost.

In the archives of the CBC’s headquarters in downtown Toronto, there is a longer master recording of a Christmas eve episode of the Canadian series. In it, guest Tom Kneebone finishes a discussion with the puppet X the Owl, who has been peeking out of a tree trunk, animated by the arm of Fred Rogers. The host only appears in this “neighbourhood of make-believe” in marionette form. The camera remains trained on the scene, when, suddenly, the illusion is broken as Rogers’s head emerges on the other side of the wall by the tree. He appears to be attempting to swiftly and unobtrusively make his way to another location. Owl still on his arm, a rushed-off-his feet Rogers turns to the camera and says, exasperated and apologetic, “I’m sorry, you’ll just have to…” motioning for either a cut away or another take.

This outtake from the prototype of one of the most popular children’s shows in the world recalls an aphorism from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s  Le Petit Prince, which would later appear in calligraphy form on the wall of Rogers’s office: “L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux,” which reads in English, “The essential is invisible to the eye.”

*

Visiting the archives of Canada’s public broadcaster this past May was more complex than usual due to increased security in the building. Five days after Alek Minassian had killed ten people and injured multiple others by driving a white van through a crowd, Canadaland reported that a post had appeared on the Incels.me message board with the subject, “[Serious] our next task: shooting up CBC headquarters.” The post has since been removed, but reportedly called for “killing as many of those evil whores and normies reporters as possible.” The term which gives the message board its name refers to “involuntary celibates,” men who make up the misogynistic online subculture Minassian is believed to have been a part. The poster used Minassian’s image as an avatar. It was a disconcerting feeling, sitting in that office, watching archival footage of Fred Rogers, while being closely monitored by security, and wondering if some guy might enter the room and shoot me because he felt he had been overlooked by my entire gender.

The van attack was the sort of event that Rogers, were he alive, would be called to speak about. On the first anniversary of September 11th, he recorded a message which included the words, “I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.” We continue to feel comforted by Rogers, even after his death. His quote about helpers—“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping’”—has gone viral after various school shootings and, more recently, the Manchester attack. “The underlying message of the Neighborhood is that if somebody cares about you, it’s possible that you’ll care about others,” he told Christianity Today. “‘You are special, and so is your neighbor’—that part is essential: that you’re not the only special person in the world.”

What prompted his desire to deliver this message to children? Maxwell King, author of the forthcoming The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, thinks it was rooted in Rogers’s own experience growing up. Though he was brought up in a wealthy family in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Rogers was often isolated. “I had every childhood disease that came down the pike,” he told Wigwag magazine in 1989, “even scarlet fever.” Boys in the ’30s were expected to get “their hands dirty,” according to Canada’s first research chair in Masculinities Studies, University of Calgary’s Michael Kehler, but Rogers’s various ailments may have afforded him a pass for being unlike the others. “Sad though it is, you would get more sympathy for being a little more emotional, a little less aggressive, because it would be explained away as, ‘well, he’s not right,’” says Kehler. Opposing the era’s favoured seen-and-not-heard approach to children, Rogers’s family gave him “a lot of very careful attention, they took him very seriously, they listened to him, they talked to him a lot,” says King. “I think he wanted in his work to provide some of that for children but also to do work that parents could learn from.”

His guardians provided powerful examples. Fred’s grandmother, Nancy McFeely, bought him a piano, which encouraged him to express his feelings through music. Though it was his grandfather, also his namesake, who would leave the biggest impression, telling him , “You made this day a really special day. Just by being yourself,” a sentiment Fred would later repeat on Misterogers. It was a small statement, but a radical one considering boys then were not encouraged to be themselves. “Childhood at that time was a grooming to be just like your dad,” Kehler explains, what he calls “lock-step masculinity.” And while Fred’s father was powerful—he was an affluent brick manufacturer—his son was not. A chubby child, Fred was one day chased down the street by a bunch of kids taunting him with the nickname Fat Freddy. “I resented those kids for not seeing beyond my fatness or my shyness,” he wrote in his memoir, Life’s Journeys According to Mr. Rogers. “And I didn’t know that it was all right to resent it, to feel bad about it, even to feel very sad about it.” He was sad for years, according to friend Amy Hollingsworth in the documentary Mister Rogers & Me, but then one day he made a decision: “He would always look for what’s not apparent to the eye.”

*

It may have been NBC’s The Pinky Lee Show, that’s what Rogers told Wigwag. In any case, at home during his Easter holidays in 1951, at the age of twenty-three, he turned on his parents’ newly acquired television and saw a program he didn’t like at all. “I was appalled by what were labeled ‘children’s programs’—pies in the face and slapstick!” he recalled in his book You Are Special forty three years later. “Children deserve better. Children need better.” So, after graduating, he skipped his plans to join the seminary and only a few years later was already producing a children’s program at WQED, Pittsburgh’s public television station. “The Children’s Corner” premiered in 1955 and though actress Josie Carey was meant to be the one on camera, soon Rogers was animating a procession of puppets—Daniel Striped Tiger, X the Owl, King Friday XIII, Henrietta Pussycat—to whom Carey would tell her problems. “In performing the puppets, he was able to express different aspects of his character,” says King. For instance, Daniel represented love and angst, while King Friday XIII represented egotism. In the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Joanne Rogers, Fred’s late wife, said, “Daniel was pretty much Fred.”

While he was working on “The Children’s Corner,” Rogers started studying at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary where an advisor told him to take a course with child psychologist Margaret McFarland, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center. Child development was just starting to take root in the U.S. and Canada in the sixties and Pittsburgh was a significant locus of learning. The Arsenal center was co-founded in 1953 by McFarland and Dr. Benjamin Spock—the pediatrician who wrote the revolutionary calm-the-fuck-down parenting book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946)—as well as renowned German psychologist Erik Erikson. The ages that “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” addressed—mostly between 2.5 and 5.5 years, according to The New York Times—spanned three of Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development: early childhood, which revolved around autonomy, the relationship with the parents and the question of identity; preschool, which concerned initiative and activity; and school age, which involved the exploration of the world. By focussing on children’s feelings about the world and their creativity and imagination and by exposing them to reality, Rogers touched on each of these stages, a rarity at the time. “For younger children there wasn’t media that addressed them in a respectful rational way,” says Laurie Hines, who has written about Rogers and the history of educational television. “Media was entertainment oriented.”

It was Margaret McFarland who would be the greatest influence on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, speaking almost daily with its host until her death in 1988. “She said when I first came to her she knew I was interested in theology and music and writing and all these different things,” Rogers told Jeanne Marie Laskas in Mister Rogers Neighborhood: Children Television and Fred Rogers. “And she said, ‘I remember the day, Fred, when all of those things seemed to come together for you and you called it: the desire to work with children.’”

Karen Vander Ven, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology in Education at the University of Pittsburgh, sat across from Rogers in McFarland’s child development class in the winter of 1962. She remembers little more than his dark hair but can talk at length about her professor. “Margaret had a sense of accepting everybody in their way and that’s what she taught others and that’s what Fred Rogers carried forth,” she says. Vander Ven met with McFarland weekly over the years and says the psychologist’s themes included creativity and the early nurturing role of the mother. McFarland believed the father should come in later to help the child transition into the wider world and to provide “a sense of what it meant to be a man,” though children were not distinctly gendered. “In everybody there’s traditional masculinity and traditional femininity but it ranges along a continuum,” Vander Ven explains of her approach and, she believes, McFarland’s. She shares with me a paper by McFarland titled “The Educational Significance of Misterogers’ Neighborhood” and believes “she fueled him and he fueled her.” So what are children being fueled by now? “The kind of attachment that Margaret McFarland taught us all about doesn’t happen anymore for whatever reason,” says Vander Ven, “and when you don’t feel strongly attached then you try to find another way to be significant which is often to take the upper hand.”

*

In 1962, a day after Fred Rogers commenced from the seminary, he received a phone call from Fred Rainsberry. The head of CBC television’s children’s department had been hired in 1954. According to When Television Was Young: Primetime Canada, 1952-1967, the CBC at the time had “a good deal of admiration for what the BBC was doing, and an equal amount of distaste for the vulgarity of so much of American television.” Rainsberry appeared to share Rogers’ philosophy of children’s programming as a space for child development. He quotes extensively from Mister Rogers Talks with Parents in A History of Children’s Television in English Canada, 1952-1986.

According to Rainsberry’s book, Rogers was introduced to CBC audiences on a show called Junior Magazine. A press release confirmed he appeared as a guest on the show from 1956 to 1961. Then, in June 1961—one year before Rainsberry’s phone call—CBC announced Misterogers (the title was Rainsberry’s idea, according to the Globe and Mail). It was a thirteen-minute segment on a program called Junior Roundup in which Daniel Striped Tiger and friends appeared alongside “American puppeteer Fred Rogers” in an entirely make-believe setting. In an August episode, the host emerges in a bow tie and a plaid jacket with a crown on his head before National Ballet of Canada founder Celia Franca sings “I’m looking for a friend.” A year later, Rainsberry offered Rogers his own CBC show, saying, according to Rogers’ memoir, “Fred, I’ve seen you talk with kids. Let’s put you yourself on the air.”

“Toronto made my career,” Rogers said two decades later in an interview with The Toronto Star. In his memoir, he included a speech in which he said that Rainsberry’s “confidence and support launched me into something I may have never dared do on my own.” According to The Presbyterian Church Spire, Rogers and his family moved to 4 Highland Crescent in Toronto in August 1963. One month later, the CBC announced that Misterogers, a standalone show “evolved from The Children’s Corner,” would be premiering October 15th and airing three times a week. As he would on his more famous show, Rogers only appeared on camera here in a home-style set outside of the neighborhood of make-believe. The fantasy world was occupied solely by puppets and guests. “From the beginning, I want young viewers to know that this is a land of make believe,” Rogers explained at the time. “We are all playing.”

Though CBC’s records indicate that Misterogers ran until June 26, 1964—two years later, the Eastern Educational Network bought 100 shows, which were padded front and back to push them to 30 minutes—the archives only has 17 episodes preserved. An early program from October 29, 1963 already included many of the elements that would appear on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There was our host speaking in that slow drawl, already staring at us right in the eye, already singing the iconic line borrowed from his grandfather, “You’ve made this day a special day by just your being here.” There was the trolley—according to Roderick Townley in Mister Rogers Neighborhood: Children, Television and Fred Rogers, he recalled riding trolleys in Pittsburgh as a child—into the neighborhood of make-believe, where we find the castle, the tree, the Eiffel tower. There were new puppets like Cornflake S. Pecially and new characters like Handyman Negri, both of whom would continue onto Neighborhood. There was talk of feelings around a languid pace, which Rogers told Esquire in 1998 avoided a “message of fragmentation” (“I don’t know how welcome that slow nature of childhood is today,” says Hines). And then there was Howdy Doody actress Donna Miller in a beehive singing the song that would define Rogers—minus the u—“Please won’t you be my neighbour.” 

“He had a very self-acceptance message in his show and that was new,” says Jo Holz, author of Kids’ TV Grows Up: The Path from Howdy Doody to SpongeBob. At the time, television was largely permeated by the ’50s ethos of social conformity. “Almost all children’s shows had some kind of moral lesson attached to them,” she says, “very often simply encouraging good behaviour.” Holz thinks Rogers was influenced by ’60s counterculture, epitomizing the era’s approach of preparing children rather than protecting them (the post-war mentality), addressing subjects like divorce, war, death and illness, “topics that no children’s show, especially not a show for preschoolers, ever dealt with before.” This mindful approach to children, steeped in the knowledge of psychosocial development, is something Rogers appears to have pioneered. Having child psychology experts on the staff of children’s programs did not become de rigeur until Sesame Street, which arrived a year after Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood went national. “I think his show really kind of set the stage in some ways for Sesame Street,” says Holz, who was head of research on the latter. She says that children’s series have since been more willing to talk about serious subjects and treat children as equals: “I think that all goes back to him.”

Though Rogers initially worked at Pittsburgh’s publicly owned local station WQED, the CBC offered a model for how a national public broadcasting corporation could be used to educate children. Five years after the Rogerses left Toronto to raise their kids in the United States, President Nixon planned to cut funding the public broadcasting sector. Rogers would sit before the U.S. Senate and single-handedly secure $20 million to continue his work. Education historian Laurie Hines wonders if “that different perspective that maybe he had in terms of utilizing a government designed place” would have emerged without his brief sojourn in Canada. More than five decades later, the crowd at Toronto’s Hot Docs screening of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? erupted after watching the footage of Rogers turning Senator John Pastore to mush, saying, “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger—much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire.”

*

What do you do with the mad that you feel
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong…
And nothing you do seems very right?

— “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?,” Fred Rogers, 1968

This is the little boy we know. This blond boy with the big plastic sword. Writer Tom Junod, profiling Rogers for Esquire in 1998, watches the host, in the midst of taping his program, approach this boy, kneel down in front of him, and say, “Oh, my, that’s a big sword you have.” And the boy says, “It’s not a sword; it’s a death ray.” And Rogers whispers something in his ear, and Junod will later find out that something was, “Do you know that you’re strong on the inside, too?” Rogers knew that boys who carried plastic swords wanted to show people that they were strong on the outside. One wonders what he would have said to Alek Minassian. “If we can encourage boys and girls to be reflective, to be introspective, then we’re avoiding pent up frustrations, we’re avoiding pent up anger because we’re able to talk through those emotions within a supportive context,” says masculinities expert Michael Kehler. That Fred Rogers was a man encouraging men and boys (as well as women and girls) to express their feelings was revolutionary. Alongside the men’s liberation movement of the seventies, which exposed the manacles of conventional masculinity, he helped to redefine the male role model. “He was opening up a conversation about being able to talk about your feelings and not feeling any less than a man because you have feelings,” says Kehler, “So he was making the invisible visible.”

Junod said of observing Rogers, “I definitely saw another way of being a man.” In The New York Times in 1983, Rogers wondered if his expression of, as Glenn Collins writes, “sensitive, giving aspects of masculinity” posed a threat. Though it is unclear how exactly his nature formed, Laurie Hines says religion teaches, “your strength is not in your masculinity, your strength is in your Lord.”

But one well-known story suggests that Rogers may not have had as inclusive a view of masculinity as many believe. A member of the audience at the Hot Docs screening of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in May expressed surprise that Rogers advised actor François Clemmons, who played a police officer on the program, not to be openly gay in order to remain on his show (Clemmons subsequently married a woman but has since divorced and come out). Junlei Li, co-director of the Fred Rogers Center, who took part in a Q&A, said that Rogers was not homophobic, he just never wanted to limit his audience. Li noted, for instance, that Rogers was anti-war, but never mentioned it on his program because he knew some kids had soldiers for parents. Joanne Rogers confirmed in the documentary that she and her husband had a number of gay friends. Clemmons recalled that during the taping of one particular episode of Neighborhood, he noticed Rogers was looking straight at him as he signed off with his traditional “I like you just the way you are.” When Clemmons asked Rogers if he was talking to him, Rogers said he always had been. “No man had ever told me he loved me like that,” Clemmons said.

Clemmons’s story is the story of masculinity, the story of the expectations men have of themselves and of others. One can see those expectations manifest in both Alek Minassian and the cop on the scene of Minassian’s crimes who, while Minassian shouted at him to “Kill me!” “Shoot me in the head!,” stopped him without doing either. It is the story told in the last lines of a song written by a man who believed the essential was invisible, but somehow made it visible all the same:

I can stop when I want to
Can stop when I wish.
I can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
And know that the feeling is really mine.
Know that there’s something deep inside
That helps us become what we can.

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