I was born in Seattle in 1966, the same year that Fred McFeely Rogers moved to Pittsburgh from Toronto and adapted his 15-minute Mister Rogers sketches into 30-minute segments for WQED. Rogers, who was born and raised in Latrobe, Penn., had worked widely in early television. After earning a BA in music composition at Rollins College in Florida, he worked as an assistant producer for NBC's The Voice of Firestone, The Lucky Strike Hit Parade and The Kate Smith Hour -- three of the most popular shows in early TV.
By 1968, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was so successful that it was broadcast on PBS stations around the country. Fred Rogers taped his last new episode in the year 2000, and he died recently after a short bout with stomach cancer at the age of 74.
In the few weeks since Rogers' death, we have been deluged with tributes, interviews and nostalgia for the man with whom so many of us grew up. The tributes are well founded: Rogers was one of the pioneers of educational television, and he perfected a virtually fad-proof formula for engaging children. (I still remember one of his science experiments: it involved pouring pepper in a bowl of water and watching the pepper scoot to the side of the bowl when a bar of soap was added to the mix.)
When I hear his trademark song, "Won't you be my neighbor," and the clang of the trolley, I am transported back to the olive green shag carpet that covered the living room floor of my neighbors, Allen and Laura Frost, on which we sprawled to watch Mister Rogers' Neighborhood every day. I will confess, however, that this is an eerie sensation, almost creepy. Rogers' friendliness was so disarmingly sincere, so unbelievably sweet and gentle, that his persona became vulnerable to the kind of parody that Eddie Murphy developed on Saturday Night Live in the mid-'80s. How did anyone so genuinely kind thrive in the increasingly unstable world of Pop Art, Suburbanization and Post-Modernism?
Part of what made Mister Rogers ever-so-slightly scary was his affect of hyper-sedation. He seemed as calm and soothing as a cocktail of Valium and Xanax. Was there some kind of anger, or rage, beneath that calm veneer? In fact, as Fred Rogers was interviewed over the years, he nearly always mentioned anger and the importance of learning to express it in healthy ways. As a boy, he explained, he used music to express his anger. He saw his show as a way to teach children to do the same. Anger management, of course, is good. But did Mister Rogers ever take it too far?
Perhaps his anger had a political dimension. Though Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was pretty tame compared to the socialism on Sesame Street, his show did advocate public transportation with the magic trolley that signaled the beginning and the end of the magical portion of Mister Rogers's show. It was also a diverse neighborhood, with an owl, a duck-billed platypus and a purple panda. But most of all, Mister Rogers promoted urban, face-to-face dwelling in a time of increasing suburbanization. Mister Rogers created a magical, make-believe urban utopia. (The real Fred Rogers himself lived for many years in an apartment complex.)
While Mister Rogers lived in an urban neighborhood, I spent most of my adolescence in the suburbs. When I was eight, my family moved to a suburb about 25 minutes from downtown Seattle. I liked living near woods and water, but I hated that I could not walk to see my friends or to the store. I knew something was wrong with my neighborhood: the postman drove a truck, the houses were all new and shiny, and all of my neighbors looked just like me: white and lucky. But all those years with Mister Rogers taught me well; since leaving home at the age of 17, I have lived exclusively in cities -- within walking distance (or nearly so) of my school or work. I have lived in apartments, co-ops, rooming houses, and, now, in a duplex.
Today, in my urban neighborhood, I have a lot of neighbors who do not look like me. And we do not always get along. One of my neighbors became so angry that she could not park right in front of her front door every day that she dug out her back yard and made a drive way. She vacuums her house every Sunday at 12 AM. Her dog barks all day. But thanks to Mister Rogers I LIKE the fact that I do not like all of my neighbors. I live in a city. I am forced to find ways to live with people who are different from me. Finally, at long last, I live in Mister Rogers' neighborhood. It won't be the same without him.
Publication date: 03/13/03