Fred McFeely Rogers (March 20, 1928 – February 27, 2003) was an American educator, minister, songwriter, and television host. Rogers was the host of the television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, in production from 1968 to 2001. Rogers was also an ordained Presbyterian minister.
His parents also acted as foster parents to a black teenager named George, whose mother had died. Rogers eventually came to consider George his older brother. George later became an instructor for the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II and also taught Rogers to fly.
Following secondary school, Rogers studied at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, between 1946 and 1948 before transferring to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. He received a BA in music composition there in 1951.
At Rollins, Rogers met his wife, an Oakland native, Sara Joanne Byrd, whom he married on June 9, 1952. They had two children, James (born in 1959) and John (born in 1961), and three grandsons, the third (Ian McFeely Rogers) born 12 days after Rogers' death. In 1962, Rogers graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was ordained a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Rogers died from stomach cancer on February 27, 2003, not long after his retirement and less than a month before he would have turned 75. The Reverend William P. Barker presided over a public memorial in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Over 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 The Very Hungry Caterpillar author-illustrator Eric Carle.
Speakers remembered Rogers' 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." He was a vegetarian who swam every morning, and neither smoked nor drank. His remains are interred at Latrobe's Unity Cemetery in a mausoleum.
Pittsburgh plans to unveil a $3 million statue of Rogers 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.
Rogers had a life-changing moment when he first saw television in his parents' home. He entered seminary after college, but was diverted into television after his first experience as a viewer; he wanted to explore the potential of the medium. "I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there was some way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen.
He thus applied for a job at NBC in New York and was accepted because of his music degree. Rogers moved to New York in 1951 and spent three years working in the production staff for music-centered programming such as NBC Opera Theater. 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 working at NBC.
In 1954, he began working at WQED, a Pittsburgh public television station, as a puppeteer on a local children's series, 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 Curious X the Owl.
Rogers began wearing his famous sneakers when he found them to be quieter than his work shoes when he moved about behind the set. He was also the voices behind King Friday XIII and Queen Sara Saturday (named after his wife), rulers of the neighborhood, as well as X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, Daniel the Striped Tiger, Lady Elaine Fairchild (named for Fred's sister, Elaine) and Donkey Hodie. The show won a Sylvania Award for best children's show, and was briefly broadcast nationally on NBC.
For eight years during this period, 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 as a Presbyterian minister in 1962, he was specifically charged to continue his work with children's television. Rogers is among a string of entertainers (including Jackie Mason, Hugh Beaumont, Clifton Davis and Ralph Waite) who have a formal theological background. He had also done work at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Child Development.
In 1963, Rogers moved to Toronto, where he was contracted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to develop a 15-minute children's television program: MisteRogers (sic), which would be his debut in front of the camera. The show was a hit with children, but only lasted for three seasons on the network. Many of his famous set pieces, such as Trolley, Eiffel Tower, the 'tree', and 'castle' were all created by designers at the CBC. While on production in Canada, Rogers brought with him his friend and understudy, Ernie Coombs, who would go on to create "Mr. Dressup", a very successful and long running children's show in Canada which, in many ways, was similar to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Mr. Dressup had also used some of the songs that would later go on Rogers' later program.
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 included educational stations in Boston, Washington, DC and New York City.
After returning to Pittsburgh, Rogers attended and participated in activities at the Sixth Presbyterian church in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
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 now develops and produces an array of children's programming and educational materials.
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood began airing in 1968; the last set of new episodes were taped in December 2000, and began airing in August 2001. The show has the distinction of being the longest running program on PBS; it ran for 998 episodes.
Visually, the presentation of the show was very simple; it did not feature the animation or fast pace of other children's shows. Rogers composed all the music for his series. He was concerned with teaching children to love themselves and others. He also tried to address common childhood fears with comforting songs and skits. For example, one of his famous songs explains how you can't be pulled down the bathtub drain—because you won't fit. He even once took a trip to the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh to show children that a hospital is not a place of which to be afraid. During the Gulf War in 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 military action against Iraq in 2003.
In February 1990, Rogers' car was stolen while he was taking care of his grandson. The thief apparently realized who the car belonged to after seeing papers and props Rogers had left in the car. The car was returned to Rogers, who found it sitting in front of his home about a day later. The only thing missing from the car was Rogers' director's chair. Rogers' car at the time was an Oldsmobile sedan.
For a time Rogers produced specials for the parents as a precursor to the subject of the week on the Neighborhood called "Mister Rogers Talks To Parents About (whatever the topic was)". Rogers didn't host those specials though as other people like Joan Lunden, who hosted the Conflict special, and other news announcers played MC duties in front of a gallery of parents while Rogers answered questions from them. These specials were made to prep the parents for any questions the children might ask after watching the episodes on that topic of the week.
The only time Rogers appeared on television as someone other than himself was when he played a preacher on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman in 1996 for one episode only.
In 1981, then up-and-coming comedian Eddie Murphy, then a cast member of Saturday Night Live, parodied Rogers' image in "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood", a sketch in which he played a small-time hoodlum who lived in a rundown tenement apartment, that served as a setting for a children's show.
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 he acted as a pitchman for several non-profit organizations dedicated to learning over the years). The chain publicly apologized for the faux pas, and pulled the ads.
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, seven 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.
The Supreme Court considered the testimony of Rogers in its decision that 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.
The Home Recording Rights Coalition later stated that Rogers was "one of the most prominent witnesses on this issue."
Rogers had been a supporter of VCR use since its very early days. In his final week of episodes of the original run in 1976, Rogers used a U-Matic VCR to show scenes from past episodes, as a way to prepare viewers for repeats that would begin the following week.
The chairman of the subcommittee, John O. Pastore, was not previously familiar with Rogers' work, and was sometimes described as gruff and impatient. However, he reported that the testimony had given him goosebumps, and declared, "Looks like you just earned the $20 million." The subsequent congressional appropriation, for 1971, increased PBS funding from $9 million to $22 million.
Pittsburgh Magazine dedicated their April 2003 issue to commemorate Rogers' life and mourn his passing. Included in the magazine is a table of information that measures the impact Rogers had. Among the items cited:
Interview: Writer Tom Junod discusses the legacy of children's TV personality Fred Rogers, who died this morning
Feb 27, 2003; 00-00-0000 Interview: Writer Tom Junod discusses the legacy of children's TV personality Fred Rogers, who died this morning Host:...