Composer, producer, pianist, singer
Fred Rogers, known to millions of children simply as Mister Rogers, was the award-winning creator of the television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and during its 30-year-long run, it became one of the most watched and loved children's shows in the history of public television. Rogers's music for the show was written both to entertain and to gently teach his young listeners, and over the course of his career his many albums helped children develop the skills to cope with the adult world. A pioneer in the development of programming for public television, Rogers earned 59 Emmy Award nominations and won two of the coveted awards. In addition to winning numerous other honors during his career, he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, by President George W. Bush in 2002.
Fred McFeely Rogers was born on March 20, 1928, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. His father, James, worked at the McFeely Brick Company, which was owned by his wife's father, after whom young Fred was named. The Rogers family was wealthy, and Rogers was an only child for eleven years before his sister, Elaine, was adopted. He was often kept indoors due to illness, and used his imagination to entertain himself. At age nine he began playing the piano.
As a child Rogers often expressed his feelings through music, and he dreamed of someday becoming a concert pianist. He entered college at Dartmouth, but after a year transferred to Rollins College in Florida, where he met his future wife, Sara Joanne Byrd. Following his graduation from Rollins in 1951 with a major in music composition, Rogers thought of attending theological seminary, but instead accepted a position with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) to work as an assistant producer and floor director. He worked on such programs as the Voice of Firestone, Kate Smith Hour, Lucky Strike Hit Parade, and NBC Opera Theatre. Rogers married Byrd in July of 1952, and the couple had two sons.
Joined Public Television
In November of 1953, Rogers did what some might consider the unthinkable. He left a blossoming career at NBC to participate in a new concept in television. WQED in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was the nation's first community-supported public television station, and Rogers signed on to produce children's programming. "My friends at NBC thought I was crazy," he told Broadcasting and Cable. Rogers created The Children's Corner, a show hosted by actress Josie Carey and featuring Rogers, who played the organ, composed music, and performed with puppets. In 1955 The Children's Corner won the Sylvania Award for the best locally produced children's show in the country. Some of the puppets introduced on The Children's Corner later became well-known regulars on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, including Daniel Striped Tiger, X the Owl, King Friday VIII, Queen Sara, Henrietta Pussycat, and Lady Elaine Fairchilde.
Rogers also attended school part-time at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Child Development. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1963, and was given the charge of continuing his work with children and families through the mass media. During his career Rogers never used the show to profess specific religious beliefs, but always upheld the universal basic values of goodness, caring, and love.
After his ordination, Rogers was invited to create a television program for the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) in Toronto, Canada. In 1963 he debuted as the host of Misterogers, a 15-minute daily program. In 1966 he and his family returned to Pittsburgh and WQED, where he expanded Misterogers into Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which was distributed on the Eastern Educational Network and launched nationally two years later. Rogers was also named chairman of the Forum on Mass Media and Child Development for the White House Conference on Youth in 1968, and in 1969 he was honored with a George Foster Peabody Award.
Provided Security for Children
The activities on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood remained relatively the same throughout its 30-year run. Each day, Rogers walked in the door, took off his coat, put on his sweater, then took off his size 10 1/2 dress shoes and put on his sneakers, all while singing his trademark song, "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," and inviting young viewers to be his neighbor. Each day he fed the fish and then traveled by trolley to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. By always taking the trolley to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, a distinct line was drawn between what was real and what was imaginary.
For the Record . . .
Born Fred McFeely Rogers on March 20, 1928, in Latrobe, PA; died on February 27, 2003, in Pittsburgh, PA; son of James and Nancy (McFeely) Rogers; married Sara Joanne Byrd (a concert pianist), 1952; children: James, John. Education: Graduated from Rollins College, 1951; attended University of Pittsburgh School of Child Development; ordained in the Presbyterian ministry by Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 1963.
Assistant producer and floor director at NBC, 1951-53; left NBC to develop programming for WQED-TV, 1953; developed Misterogers for CBC Television in Toronto, Canada, 1963; returned to Pittsburgh to develop Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, 1966; Mister Rogers' Neighborhood first broadcast nationally, 1968; formed his own production company, Family Communications, Inc., 1971; developed PBS series Old Friends, New Friends, 1978; appeared on Soviet Union television, 1987; aired last original episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, 2001.
Awards: Sylvania Award for Children's Corner, 1955; University of Georgia, George Foster Peabody Radio and Television Award for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, 1969; Saturday Review television award for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, 1970; National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Emmy Award for Individual Achievement in a Children's Series, 1974; Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Ralph Lowell Medal for extraordinary contributions to public television, 1975; National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Children's Series, 1984; star on Hollywood Walk of Fame, 1998; National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award, 1998; National Educational Television Award for Excellence in Children's Programming; named one of the "50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time" by TV Guide, 1996; inducted into Television Hall of Fame, 1999; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2002.
Addresses: Website— Fred Rogers Official Website: http://www.pbskids.org/rogers/.
While some programs require change in order to succeed, it was continuity that made Mister Rogers' Neighborhood a success. The regular routine, along with Rogers's method of speaking directly to the camera and specifically to each child, helped children feel secure and comfortable. This comfort level allowed him to discuss some of the more serious issues of childhood with his viewers. He talked about children's fear of getting a shot or a haircut, and about being afraid of the dark. To address many of these concerns he wrote songs, including "What Do You Do?," about how to handle angry feelings, and "You Can Never Go Down the Drain," for children who were afraid of the bathtub. He talked straight with children about their feelings surrounding death and divorce. "The world is not always a kind place," he told Entertainment Weekly. "That's something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it's something they really need our help to understand." Day by day, Rogers counseled children through the medium of television, using his songs, puppets, and gentle conversation.
Music was always a large part of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Each show began with the song "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" and ended with "It's Such a Good Feeling." During the show he included songs of celebration as well as songs that addressed his young viewers' concerns. He sometimes played the piano or brought in musical guests, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, or trumpet player Wynton Marsalis. The puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe often performed opera productions written by Rogers.
After Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, Rogers was concerned about how children were interpreting what they were seeing on television. The decision was made to create a special episode of the show. "Overnight, Fred wrote a script helping children understand this word 'assassination,'" the ABC News website reported, quoting Hedda Sharapan, longtime associate producer of the show. "And we made a program that aired Friday night, helping children and families, helping families include their children some way in the mourning … this was not just an adult thing … children realized something was going on, let's help children deal with it, in an appropriate way." Rogers also aired additional shows after the assassination attempts on President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, and after the fatal shooting of Beatle John Lennon.
Formed Family Communications, Inc.
In 1971 Rogers formed Family Communications, Inc., as a nonprofit company designed to produce Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. The company later expanded beyond television to non-broadcast materials that sent the same messages of positive emotional growth to children and their families. In 1974 the show won an Emmy for Individual Achievement in a Children's Series. The show stopped production in 1975 but continued to air in reruns. Rogers became an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Information Sciences in 1976. In 1978 he created a new series for PBS, titled Old Friends, New Friends, which focused on older people and ran through 1981. In 1979 he returned to production of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
In 1984 Rogers received a second Emmy Award, this one for Outstanding Writing in a Children's Series. He also donated one of his trademark sweaters to the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. "Mister Rogers' style of comfort and warmth, of one-on-one conversation, is conveyed in that sweater," remarked Dwight Bowers, the museum's custodian of the famous sweater, as quoted in Smithsonian magazine. Rogers was the first recipient of the Association for Childhood International's "Friend of Children" award. An article in Childhood Education stated that the award honors a person who "works outside of the field of education, whose work has improved the quality of life for children and who demonstrates a commitment to children on a national or international level."
Rogers appeared on a children's show in the Soviet Union in 1987. The following year he invited the host of the Soviet Union's children's show to appear on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. The show became a theme park attraction in 1989, when Idlewild Park in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, opened a ride that featured a life-size trolley ride through the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Rogers taped public service announcements for PBS on the eve of the Gulf War to reassure children, stating that "all children shall be well taken care of in this neighborhood and beyond—in times of war and in times of peace," according to the New York Daily News. In 1991 an article in U.S. News & World Report reported that 45 percent of preschoolers thought Mister Rogers should be president.
Became a Cultural Icon
In 1996 Rogers was named by TV Guide as one of the 50 greatest stars of all time. In 1997 the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. When he arrived at the podium to receive his award, Esquire reported his words: "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 … I'll watch the time." The moment was so emotional for so many that Rogers continued to open many of his future speeches in the same way. In 1998 he received a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
When Rogers was taping a series of shows about sign language, he traveled to visit Koko, the gorilla at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, CA. Koko had been taught American Sign Language and had also been exposed to children's programming on television. When Koko saw Rogers, she immediately hugged him and then took off Rogers's shoes.
On August 31, 2001, the last original episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood aired. The show became the longest running show on public television, and the reruns continue to be played. The show's universal themes ensure that the show will stay relevant for years to come. "Children all have the same inner needs—they long to be loved and to know that they're capable of loving," Rogers told the Columbia, South Carolina State. "That's a very deep need that doesn't change." President George W. Bush presented Rogers with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. The award is the highest civilian honor, and was given to Rogers to recognize his contribution to the well-being of children.
In December of 2002 Rogers was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Despite the diagnosis, he kept a commitment to be a grand marshal at the Tournament of Roses Parade, where he rode in a car with Bill Cosby and Art Linkletter. "More times than I could count I heard people yelling, 'Welcome to the neighborhood, Mr. Rogers,'" Cosby recalled. Rogers underwent surgery in January of 2003, but died on February 27, 2003, at age 74. He was survived by his wife, two sons, and two grandchildren.
In remembering Rogers and his lasting contributions to children everywhere, a story in Esquire on the subject of heroes described the following: "Once upon a time, Mister Rogers went to New York City and got caught in the rain. He didn't have an umbrella, and he couldn't find a taxi, either, so he ducked with a friend into the subway and got on one of the trains. It was late in the day, and the train was crowded with children who were going home from school. Though of all races, the schoolchildren were mostly black and Latino, and they didn't even approach Mister Rogers and ask him for his autograph. They just sang. They sang, all at once, all together, the song he sings at the start of his program, 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' and turned the clattering train into a single soft, runaway choir."
King Friday XIII Celebrates, Small World, 1962; reissued, 1969.
Won't You Be My Neighbor, Small World, 1967; reissued, 1971; reissued, Columbia, 1982.
Let's Be Together Today, Small World, 1968; reissued, 1972; reissued, Pickwick, 1981.
Josephine the Short-Neck Giraffe, Small World, 1968.
You Are Special, Small World, 1969; reissued, Youngheart, 1997.
A Place of Our Own, Small World, 1970; reissued, 1972; reissued, Columbia, 1981.
Mister Rogers Knows that You Are Special, Small World, 1972; reissued, Columbia, 1981.
Come On and Wake Up, Columbia, 1972; reissued, 1981.
Mister Rogers Sings 21 Favorite Songs, Columbia, 1973.
Bedtime, Family Communications, 1992; reissued, Hal Leonard, 1993; reissued, Youngheart, 1997.
You're Growing, Youngheart, 1997.
Coming and Going, Youngheart, 1997.
Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2003.
Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book III, Gale, 1998.
Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Vol. 18, Gale, 1998.
Newsmakers, Issue 4, Gale, 2000.
Rogers, Fred, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, Family Communications, Inc., 2003.
Broadcasting & Cable, March 3, 2003, p. 10.
Childhood Education, Summer 2003, V. 79, p. 228-K.
Entertainment Weekly, March 14, 2003, p. 14.
Esquire, November 1998, p. 132.
Newsweek, March 10, 2003, p. 61.
New York Daily News, February 27, 2003.
Philadelphia Inquirer, November 7, 2002.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 27, 2003.
Smithsonian, May 2003, p. 31.
State (Columbia, SC), March 29, 2002.
Time, March 10, 2003, p. 72.
U.S. News & World Report, March 10, 2003, p. 4.
"Can You Say 'Goodbye?'" ABC News—Nightline, http://www.abcnews.go.com/sections/nightline/DailyNews/mr_rogers_010713.html (November 4, 2003).
"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: Fred Rogers Biography," Family Communications, http://www.misterrogers.org/mister_rogers_neighborhood/biography.asp (November 4, 2003).