Childrens' neighborhood loses one of kind

Published 10:07 am Wednesday, March 5, 2003

By By ROBERT BLANKENSHIP - Managing Editor
Several months ago I wrote in this space about how television can be a valuable educational resource and tool. Last week, we lost one of the master craftsman of children's programming who made television safe for everybody and provided children with real-life information that went beyond cliches and fashion.
Fred Rogers, the creator and guardian of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," passed away at the age of 74. He was a true television pioneer, paving the way for future childrens' programming.
Even though others mimicked his show, there was only one "Neighborhood." In many ways, Mr. Rogers was a part of childrens' real lives. While he was on TV, he was not a TV character. They visited him once a day, five days a week and they talked and learned about themselves and life. Where Sesame Street and Barney stop at teaching about colors and numbers, Mr. Rogers often tackled the hard stuff - sadness, anger, divorce, and even death.
Thinking about "The Neighborhood" and how it was so obviously opposite from every other childrens' show makes one wonder how it survived for 34 years. It had no quick-edit cartoons, no super heroes, and no marketable characters.
What "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood did have was the Neighborhood of Make Believe. A staple on the show from its beginning, a trolley would, once an episode, drive by and take viewers to a make-believe place. Here, children saw puppet characters, costumed people and "regular people" living together and often discussing problems. When it was time to return from this make-believe place, the trolley would drive by, returning to Mr. Rogers' house. At that point, Mr. Rogers would discuss the problems of these make-believe characters while also drawing an obvious line between the make-believe world and the world we live in as real people.
In addition to the Neigborhood of Make Believe, Mr. Rogers also took children on field trips to places like factories, parks and stores. He would also have special guests and musicians on the show from time to time.
Music played a big role in the neighborhood. Even those that never watched the show are familiar with the opening song that Rogers sings while changing into his tennis shoes and sweater - which was always knitted by his own mother and is now featured in a Smithsonian exhibit. The familiar tune was one that invited children to join him. For the next 30 minutes, they were treated like real neighbors.
Mr. Rogers studied music in college. He was preparing for seminary when he went to his Pennsylvania home and was turned off by the shows that were being programmed on television. He changed his plan from seminary school to New York where he went to work at NBC. After working there several years, he became involved in raising funds and establishing a public television station in Pittsburgh.
At this station, he produced a kids' show that was a precursor to his future program. He later found himself in Canada producing a show that was very similar to "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood." Soon, Fred Rogers moved back to Pittsburgh and in 1968 PBS picked up the show and it continued through 2001.
Through all of those years, the only thing that changed on the show was the color of Mr. Rogers' hair and the wrinkles on his face.
As children outgrew Mr. Rogers, it became an easy target for ridicule. Its simplicity could be hokey and the overall production seemed old-fashioned. Only when those kids grew to be parents could they once again appreciate and welcome Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood as a pleasant change from singing dinosaurs and hyperactive cartoons.
Fred Rogers did become an ordained Presbyterian minister. He was assigned with the special mission of reaching children through the media - a task he took very seriously. But, his viewers never knew him as a minister. To them, Mr. Rogers was just a great neighbor.

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