|By William Flood
It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, A beautiful day for a neighbor, Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
If you’re over the age of 40, you could probably sing those lyrics by heart. You grew up hearing Fred Rogers’ uplifting words on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Whether you’re an adult with kids of your own or barely into your 20s you can marvel at the Neighborhood of Make-Believe at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh and celebrate the story of Fred Rogers’ life at a theater near you.
The movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, debuts in November starring none other than Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. It’s not the first production to celebrate Rogers’ life. Last year, during the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a documentary entitled Won’t You Be My Neighbor? hit theaters featuring archival footage of Rogers, his colleagues, and family. Even as a documentary, it grossed nearly $23-million at the box office.
The singing, soft-spoken, deeply philosophical Rogers was a native of Latrobe, Pa., near Pittsburgh. Even as a child, he was known for his love of puppets and music. He went on to earn a degree in music composition and later was ordained as a Presbyterian minister from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
After graduating, Rogers spent three years in commercial television at NBC, then seven years at the nation’s first public television station, WQED in Pittsburgh. It was there that he drafted a puppet-based series called The Children’s Corner that would eventually lead to his namesake show. In 1963, Mister Rogers, featuring a cast of puppet characters and a trolley that transported viewers to a world of make-believe, aired on Canadian television. The U.S. version, re-titled Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, aired Feb. 19, 1968, on the predecessor to today’s PBS.
Elements of Rogers’ life, beliefs, and personality were inextricably woven into the show. In an era when kids were glued to cartoons hijinks and caped crusaders, Rogers countered, using imagination, idealism, and messages of kindness and compassion. Many thought the show was hokey. In truth, it did lack flash; but with the help of local child development experts, Rogers was able to approach important topics like divorce, discrimination, disability, and even war with his young viewers. Drawing from his native Pittsburgh, Rogers crafted an idyllic neighborhood filled with friendly public figures and even a loveable trolley to teach viewers the value of community.
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood went off the air in 2001 after an amazing 912 episodes. It was the longest-running series on public television and influenced three generations of children. It was bestowed a Peabody award in 1969 and Daytime Emmy awards in 1985, 1997, and 1999. Rogers himself was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award in 1997.
While millions watched the show, very few ever experienced the studio set in person — today, at the Heinz History Center in downtown Pittsburgh, you can. On exhibit is the largest collection of items from the show, including: the living room set that Mister Rogers walked through each show; King Friday’s castle; the Great Oak Tree, home of Henrietta Pussycat and X the Owl; Picture Picture; Mr. McFeely’s Speedy Delivery tricycle (not commonly known, Rogers’ middle name was McFeely); and, that iconic Cardigan sweater Mr. Rogers donned each show. Bill Isler, president of the Fred Rogers Company says additional pieces will be made available. Even the children’s section got a bit of the “Neighborhood” with a special Google Doodle featuring Mr. Rogers’ content.
The museum’s gift shop offers many Mr. Rogers’ souvenirs. However, if you’d like a vintage collectible, you’ll find a few items worth huntin. Fairly common are press pictures of Rogers and/or cast members on and off-set (many autographed). There are 12-inch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood records. In the 1970s, a series of character puppets was marketed, featuring characters like King Friday and Lady Elaine and a push-toy trolley was released. Today, DVD sets are available plus dozens of books on Rogers and the show. Parents will find a number of wonderful children’s’ books written by Rogers himself.
Fred Rogers died in 2003 at the age of 74. He left a legacy for children with messages about kindness, respect, and community. Marielle Heller, director of the upcoming movie said Rogers’ “is a story for our times, a story about kindness and family connection and trying to tap into our better self.”
So, as he asked us, each and every show...
Won’t you please?
Won’t you please?
Please, won’t you be my neighbor