Frederick McFeely Rogers (March 20, 1928 - February 27, 2003) was the host of the internationally acclaimed children's television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, in production from 1968 to 2001. Mister Rogers, as he became known to millions, was an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA) who lived and worked in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area for most of his life.
Rogers' show won four Emmy awards, including one for lifetime achievement. He also received a Peabody Award in 1983, "in recognition of 25 beautiful years in the neighborhood". On July 9, 2002, Fred Rogers received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contributions to children's education. "Fred Rogers has proven that television can soothe the soul and nurture the spirit and teach the very young," said President George W. Bush at the presentation.
He was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles (50 km) southeast of Pittsburgh. He studied early childhood development at the University of Pittsburgh.
Life and work
In 1954, he began working at WQED Pittsburgh as a puppeteer on a local children's television series, The Children's Corner. For the next seven years, he worked in unscripted live TV, and developed many of the puppets, characters and music used in his later work, such as King Friday the XIII, and Curious X the Owl.
During this period, for eight years he gave up lunch breaks to study theology at a nearby seminary. He had planned to enter seminary after college, but had been diverted into television. In 1962 he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, and specifically charged to continue his work with children's TV.
In 1963, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation contracted him to develop a 15 minute children's show, Mister Rogers' Show.
In 1966 he moved the show back to WQED in Pittsburgh, incorporating parts of the show into a show he developed for the Eastern Educational Network to cities including Boston, Massachusetts, Washington, DC and New York City.
In 1972 Rogers was the commencement speaker for the graduation ceremony at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
In 2002 Rogers gave the Commencement Address at Dartmouth College.
In 2003, a month before his death, Rogers was a Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade, serving with Art Linkletter and Bill Cosby.
Distribution of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood began on National Educational Television on February 19, 1968. The following year the show moved to the PBS network, where it continues to be broadcast today. The last set of new episodes was taped in December 2000 and began airing on August 2001.
After returning to Pittsburgh, he was an active congregational member in the Sixth Presbyterian church of Pittsburgh until his death.
Each show began the same way, with Mister Rogers coming home and singing his theme song, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" and changing into comfortable shoes and a zippered cardigan sweater. One of these sweaters is on display at the Smithsonian Institution, a nod to Rogers' influence in American culture.
The show's target audience was chiefly pre-school children and featured none of the animation or fast pace of Sesame Street. Rogers composed all the music for his show. A typical episode might see him have an earnest conversation with his television audience, interact with live guests, take a field trip to a nearby place like a bakery or music store, and a session with the puppets of his "Neighborhood of Make-Believe". The neighborhood featured a trolley (with its own chiming theme song), a castle and various citizens of the kingdom, including King Friday the XIII.
Mister Rogers was concerned with teaching children to love themselves and others. He also tried to address common childhood fears with comforting songs and skits. For example, one of his famous songs explains how you can't be pulled down the bathtub drain - because you won't fit. He even once took a trip to the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh to show children that a hospital is not a place to be afraid of.
During the Gulf War, he assured children that all children in the neighborhood would be well cared-for, and asked parents to promise to take care of their children. The still timely and reassuring message was aired again by PBS during the media storm that preceded the military action against Iraq in 2003.
Guest stars were often surprised to find that he was a perfectionist, unwilling to let half-baked ad-libbing go on the air. He thought children were people and deserved shows as good as anything else on TV. Guests on the show ranged from cellist Yo-Yo Ma to actor and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno of TV's The Incredible Hulk.
Rogers is quoted as saying, "I got into television because I hated it so. And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."
His gentle manner has been lampooned by some comedians, notably a parody called "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood," on Saturday Night Live by Eddie Murphy in the 1980s. Rogers found the routine funny and affectionate.  When Murphy met Mister Rogers, he embraced him and respectfully pronounced him "the real Mister Rogers". Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion radio broadcasts also ran parodies of Rogers.
At one point in Mister Rogers' life, his car (a second-hand station wagon) was stolen. When the thieves found out who the car belonged to, they promptly returned it with their sincere apologies.
He also appeared as a guest on some other shows, for example on the children's show Arthur, where he played himself, Fred Rogers, the man behind the children's show. Except he was, of course, an aardvark. Like Arthur.
Rogers succumbed to stomach cancer a short time after his retirement. He was 74.
On March 4, 2003, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Resolution 111 by a vote of 412-0 honoring Rogers "for his legendary service to the improvement of the lives of children, his steadfast commitment to demonstrating the power of compassion, and his dedication to spreading kindness through example."
On May 2, 2003, the International Astronomical Union announced that an asteroid, known as No. 26858, had been named "Misterrogers." The announcement was made by the director of the Henry Buhl Jr. Planetarium & Observatory at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh. The science center worked with Rogers' "Family Communications, Inc." to produce a planetarium show for preschoolers called "The Sky Above Mister Rogers' Neighborhood", which plays at planetariums across the United States.
A rumor (turned urban myth) developed that Fred Rogers was, at some point in his life, a sniper for the United States army in Vietnam (or elsewhere), and that he wore his trademark long-sleeved red cardigan sweater to cover the tattoos of his army days. Though this rumor has been thoroughly debunked, it continues to have some circulation. Its persistence represents a typical subculture-style distortion: a popular, well-loved icon is asserted to be a killer or another unsavory figure, when most credible accounts prove such assertions wrong.
At least one episode proved the "tattoo" portion wrong - in one episode, Mr. Rogers described his daily exercises over a montage of clips. Several shots are shown of Mr. Rogers swimming, and no tattoos are visible.
Mister Rogers and the VCR
During the controversy surrounding the invention of the videocassette recorder, Mister Rogers was involved in supporting the manufacturers of VCRs in court. His 1979 testimony at the trial level of the case that became known as Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios noted that he did not object to home recording of his television programs, as, for instance, by families in order to watch together at a later time. This testimony contrasted with the views of others in the television industry who objected to home recording or believed that devices to facilitate it should be taxed or regulated.
The Supreme Court considered the testimony of Mister Rogers in its decision that held that the Betamax VCR did not infringe copyright. The Court stated that his views were a notable piece of evidence "that many [television] producers are willing to allow private time-shifting to continue"; it even quoted his testimony in a footnote:
- "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 Home Recording Rights Coalition later stated that Mister Rogers was "one of the most prominent witnesses on this issue."