Fred McFeely Rogers (March 20, 1928 – February 27, 2003) was an American television personality, musician, puppeteer, writer, producer, and Presbyterian minister. Rogers was famous for creating, hosting and composing the theme music for the educational preschool television series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (1968–2001), which featured his kind-hearted neighborly, uncle type personality , and direct connection to his audiences.
Originally trained and ordained as a minister, Rogers was displeased with the way television addressed children at the time, and made an effort to change this when he began to write for and perform on local Pittsburgh-area shows dedicated to youth. Rogers developed his own show on WQED in 1968, and it was distributed nationwide by Eastern Educational Television Network. Over the course of three decades on television, Rogers became an icon of American children's entertainment and education. He was also known for his advocacy of various public causes. His testimony before a lower court in favor of fair-use recording of television shows to play at another time (now known as time shifting) was cited in a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Betamax case, and he gave now-famous testimony to a U.S. Senate committee, advocating government funding for children's television.
Rogers received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 40 honorary degrees, and a Peabody Award. He was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, was recognized by two Congressional resolutions, and was ranked No. 35 among TV Guide's Fifty Greatest TV Stars of All Time. Several buildings and artworks in Pennsylvania are dedicated to his memory, and the Smithsonian Institution displays one of his trademark sweaters as a "Treasure of American History". On June 25, 2016, the Fred Rogers Historical Marker was placed near Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and was named and dedicated in his memory.
Rogers was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, 40 miles (65 km) southeast of Pittsburgh, to James and Nancy Rogers; he had one sister, Elaine. Early in life, he spent much of his free time with his maternal grandfather, Fred McFeely, who had an interest in music. He would often sing along as his mother would play the piano, and he himself began playing at five. He obtained a pilot's license while still in high school.
Rogers graduated from Latrobe High School (1946). He studied at Dartmouth College (1946–48), then transferred to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where he earned a B.A. in Music Composition in 1951. Rogers was also a trained general aviation pilot.
At Rollins, he met Sara Joanne Byrd (born c. 1928), an Oakland, Florida, native; they married on June 9, 1952. They had two sons, James (b. 1959) and John (b. 1961). In 1963, Rogers graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was ordained a minister in the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
Rogers had an apartment in New York City and a summer home on Nantucket island in Massachusetts. Rogers was red–green color blind, swam every morning, and neither smoked nor drank. He was a vegetarian on ethical grounds, stating "I don't want to eat anything that has a mother." Despite recurring rumors, he never served in the military.
His office at WQED Pittsburgh famously did not have a desk, only a sofa and armchairs, because Rogers thought a desk was "too much of a barrier".
|Terry Gross and Fred Rogers, Fresh Air with Terry Gross|
Fred Rogers had a life-changing moment when he first saw television in his parents' home. He entered seminary after college; but, after his first experience as a viewer, he wanted to explore the potential of the medium. In an interview with CNN in his later years, Rogers stated, "I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there's some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen."
He applied for a job at NBC in New York City in 1951 and then worked on musical programs including Your Hit Parade, The Kate Smith Hour, and The Voice of Firestone. He also worked on Gabby Hayes' show for children. Ultimately, Rogers decided that commercial television's reliance on advertisement and merchandising undermined its ability to educate or enrich young audiences, so he quit NBC.
In 1954, he began working at WQED, a Pittsburgh public television station, as a puppeteer on the local children's show The Children's Corner. For the next seven years, he worked with host Josie Carey in unscripted live TV, developing many of the puppets, characters, and music used in his later work, such as King Friday XIII and X the Owl.
Rogers began wearing his famous sneakers when he found them to be quieter than his work shoes as he moved about behind the set. He was also the voices of King Friday XIII and Queen Sara Saturday (named after his wife), rulers of the neighborhood; as well as X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, Daniel Stripèd Tiger, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, and Larry Horse. The show won a Sylvania Award for best children's show and was briefly broadcast nationally on NBC.
During his off hours, he would leave the WQED studios during his lunch breaks to study theology at the nearby Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Rogers, however, was not interested in preaching; and, after his ordination, he was specifically charged to continue his work with children's television. He had also done work at the University of Pittsburgh's program in Child Development and Child Care.
In 1963, Rogers moved to Toronto, where he was contracted by CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) to develop his debut in front of the camera, the 15-minute children's program Misterogers, which, though popular with children, ran for just three seasons. Many of his famous set pieces—Trolley, Eiffel Tower, the 'tree', and 'castle'—were created by CBC designers. While in Toronto, Rogers brought to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood his friend and understudy Ernie Coombs, who would go on to create Mr. Dressup, a very successful and long-running children's show on CBC, and similar in many ways. Mr. Dressup also used some of the songs that would be featured on Rogers' later program. Coombs was a puppeteer and voice actor on Misterogers. When Rogers returned to the United States, Coombs remained in Canada and was in the cast of the CBC's replacement for Misterogers, Butternut Square, on CBC TV between October 19, 1964, and February 10, 1967 and then starred in his own show, Mister Dressup (1967-1996).
In 1966, Rogers acquired the rights to his program from the CBC and moved the show to WQED in Pittsburgh, where he had worked on The Children's Corner. He developed the new show for the Eastern Educational Network. Stations that carried the program were limited but did include educational stations in Boston; Washington, D.C.; and New York City.
Distribution of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood began on February 19, 1968. The following year, the show moved to PBS (Public Broadcasting Service). In 1971, Rogers formed Family Communications, Inc. (FCI), and the company established offices in the WQED building in Pittsburgh. Initially, the company served solely as the production arm of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, but it now develops and produces an array of children's programming and educational materials.
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood began airing in 1968 and ran for 895 episodes; the last set of new episodes was taped in December 2000 and began airing in August 2001. At its peak, in 1985, 8% of U.S households tuned into the show.
Visually, the presentation of the show was very simple, and it did not feature the animation or fast pace of other children's shows, which Rogers thought of as "bombardment". Rogers also believed in not acting out a different persona on camera compared to how he acted off camera, stating that "One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away." Rogers composed almost all of the music on the program.[note 1] He wanted to teach children to love themselves and others, and he addressed common childhood fears with comforting songs and skits. For example, one of his famous songs explains how a child cannot be pulled down the bathtub drain because he or she will not 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 fear. During the Gulf War (1990–91), he assured his audience that all children in the neighborhood would be well cared for and asked parents to promise to take care of their own children. The message was aired again by PBS during the media storm that preceded the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In 1994, Rogers created another one-time special for PBS called Fred Rogers' Heroes, which consisted of documentary portraits of four real-life people whose work helped make their communities better. Rogers, uncharacteristically dressed in a suit and tie, hosted in wraparound segments that did not use the "Neighborhood" set.
For a time, Rogers produced specials for parents as a precursor to the subject of the week on the Neighborhood called "Mister Rogers Talks To Parents About [topic]". Rogers didn't host those specials, but instead invited news announcers, such as Joan Lunden (who hosted the Conflict special), to take on the emcee duties in front of a gallery of parents while Rogers answered questions from them. These specials were made to prepare parents for questions their children might ask after watching the episodes on the topic of the week.
In the mid-1980s, the Burger King fast-food chain lampooned Rogers' image with an actor called "Mr. Rodney", imitating Rogers' television character. Rogers found the character's pitching fast food as confusing to children, and called a press conference in which he stated that he did not endorse the company's use of his character or likeness (Rogers did no commercial endorsements of any kind throughout his career, though, over the years, he acted as a pitchman for several non-profit organizations dedicated to learning). The chain publicly apologized for the faux pas and pulled the ads. By contrast, Fred Rogers found Eddie Murphy's parody of his show on Saturday Night Live, "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood," amusing and affectionate; the parody was also initially broadcast at a time of night when his own child audience was not likely to see it.
In 1998, Rogers appeared as himself on an episode of Candid Camera as the victim of one of the show's pranks. The show's staff tried to sell him on a hotel room without a television. Rogers quickly caught on to the fact that he was being filmed for the show and stunned the show's producers by telling them he did not really need a television. Rogers was also greatly humored to realize his appearance on the show and host Peter Funt, playing a bellman, immediately recognizing him.
Mister Rogers went onstage to accept the award—and there, in front of all the soap opera stars and talk show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, "All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence."
And then he lifted his wrist, looked at the audience, looked at his watch, and said, "I'll watch the time." There was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn't kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch, but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked. And so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds—and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier. And Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said softly, "May God be with you" to all his vanquished children.
Rogers wrote many of the songs that were used on his television program, and more than 36 books, including:
In 1969, Rogers appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications. His goal was to support funding for PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in response to significant proposed cuts. In about six minutes of testimony, Rogers spoke of the need for social and emotional education that public television provided. He passionately argued that alternative television programming like his Neighborhood helped encourage children to become happy and productive citizens, sometimes opposing less positive messages in media and in popular culture. He recited the lyrics to one of his songs.
The chairman of the subcommittee, John O. Pastore, was not familiar with Rogers' work and was sometimes described as impatient. However, he reported that the testimony had given him goosebumps, and declared, "I think it's wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million." The subsequent congressional appropriation, for 1971, increased PBS funding from $9 million to $22 million.
During the controversy surrounding the introduction of the household VCR, Rogers was involved in supporting the manufacturers of VCRs in court. His 1979 testimony, in the case Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., noted that he did not object to home recordings of his television programs, for instance, by families in order to watch them together at a later time. This testimony contrasted with the views of others in the television industry who objected to home recordings or believed that devices to facilitate it should be taxed or regulated.
When the case reached the Supreme Court in 1983, the majority decision considered the testimony of Rogers when it held that the Betamax video recorder 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" and 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.
Rogers was diagnosed with stomach cancer in December 2002. He underwent surgery on January 6, 2003, which was unsuccessful. A week earlier, he served as grand marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade, with Art Linkletter and Bill Cosby.
Rogers died on the morning of February 27, 2003, at his home with his wife by his side, less than a month before he would have turned 75. His death was such a significant event in Pittsburgh that most of the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published the next day and an entire section of the paper devoted its coverage to him. The Reverend William P. Barker presided over a public memorial in Pittsburgh. More than 2,700 people attended the memorial at Heinz Hall, including former Good Morning America host David Hartman; Teresa Heinz Kerry; philanthropist Elsie Hillman; PBS President Pat Mitchell; Arthur creator Marc Brown; and Eric Carle, the author-illustrator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Speakers remembered Rogers's love of children, devotion to his religion, enthusiasm for music, and quirks. Teresa Heinz Kerry said of Rogers, "He never condescended, just invited us into his conversation. He spoke to us as the people we were, not as the people others wished we were."
Rogers is interred at Unity Cemetery in Latrobe.
The Blue's Clues episode "Our Neighborhood Festival" featured a dedication to Rogers at the end of the episode which read: "In Loving Memory of Fred Rogers. The neighborhood won't be the same without you."
On New Year's Day 2004, Michael Keaton, who had been a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood before becoming an actor, hosted the PBS TV special Fred Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor. It was released on DVD September 28 that year. In 2008, to mark what would have been his 80th birthday, Rogers' production company sponsored several events to memorialize him, including "Won't You Wear a Sweater Day", during which fans and neighbors were asked to wear their favorite sweaters in celebration. The event takes place annually on his birthday, March 20.
Rogers received the Ralph Lowell Award in 1975. The television industry honored Rogers with a George Foster Peabody Award "in recognition of 25 years of beautiful days in the neighborhood" in 1992; previously, he had shared a Peabody award for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood in 1968. Also in 1992, he was initiated as an honorary member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity, the national fraternity for men of music. Rogers was a National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity. He was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999. One of Rogers' iconic sweaters was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution, which displays it as a "Treasure of American History". In 2002, Rogers received the PNC Commonwealth Award in Mass Communications.
In 1991, the Pittsburgh Penguins named Rogers as their celebrity captain, as part of a celebration of the National Hockey League's 75th anniversary, based on his connections to Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh. Card #297 from the 1992 NHL Pro Set Platinum collection commemorated the event, making Fred one of only twelve celebrity captains to be chosen for a sports card.
George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, for his contributions to children's education, saying that "Fred Rogers has proven that television can soothe the soul and nurture the spirit and teach the very young". A year later, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed Resolution 16 to commemorate the life of Fred Rogers. It read, in part, "Through his spirituality and placid nature, Mr. Rogers was able to reach out to our nation's children and encourage each of them to understand the important role they play in their communities and as part of their families. More importantly, he did not shy away from dealing with difficult issues of death and divorce but rather encouraged children to express their emotions in a healthy, constructive manner, often providing a simple answer to life's hardships." Following Rogers' death, the U.S. House of Representatives in 2003 unanimously passed Resolution 111 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."
The same year, the Presbyterian Church approved an overture "to observe a memorial time for the Reverend Fred M. Rogers" at its General Assembly. The rationale for the recognition of Rogers reads, "The Reverend Fred Rogers, a member of the Presbytery of Pittsburgh, as host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood since 1968, had a profound effect on the lives of millions of people across the country through his ministry to children and families. Mister Rogers promoted and supported Christian values in the public media with his demonstration of unconditional love. His ability to communicate with children and to help them understand and deal with difficult questions in their lives will be greatly missed."
In 2003, the asteroid 26858 Misterrogers was named after Rogers, by the International Astronomical Union, in an announcement 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.
Several buildings, monuments, and works of art are dedicated to Rogers' memory, including a mural sponsored by the Pittsburgh-based Sprout Fund in 2006, "Interpretations of Oakland," by John Laidacker that featured Mr. Rogers. Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, completed construction of The Fred M. Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media in 2008. The Fred Rogers Memorial Statue on the North Shore near Heinz Field in Pittsburgh was created by Robert Berks and dedicated in 2009. The statue was placed in front of the surviving footing of the Manchester Bridge, which was cleaned and carved out in order to place the statue there.
In 2015, players of the Altoona Curve, a Double-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, honored Rogers by wearing special commemorative jerseys that featured a printed facsimile of his classic cardigan and tie ensemble. After the game the jerseys were auctioned off with the proceeds going to the local PBS station, WPSU-TV.
On March 6, 2018, a primetime special, hosted by actor Michael Keaton, aired on PBS. The hour-long special, which also features actress Sara Silverman, musician Yo-Yo Ma, actor Tom Hanks, actress Whoopi Goldberg, screenwriter Judd Apatow, actor John Lithgow, actor David Newell, and producer Ellen Doherty, honors Fred Rogers and commemorates the 50th anniversary of his series.
Fred Rogers appeared on a commemorative US postage stamp in 2018. The stamp, showing him as Mister Rogers alongside King Friday XIII, was issued on March 23, 2018, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Allen taught Fred to fly in a little Piper Cub when Fred was in high school
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