Where silver always beats gold!
Updated on 10/26/2018
It may seem like hyperbole to write that Fred Rogers was one of the finest human beings ever to appear on American television, but he really was a good guy. A musician, a minister, a teacher, a producer, director, actor, and a student of early childhood development, Rogers dedicated the greater part of his personal and professional life toward teaching children and adults that everybody is special and that everyone has value. His primary vehicle for reaching his audience was his show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which aired nationally on U.S. public television stations for the better part of 33 years from 1968 to 2001.
Rogers himself wrote, produced, directed, starred in, and even composed all the music for the show. Each episode, Mr. Rogers reminded his television neighbors that they were special “just the way they are”, and taught them many useful life lessons like how to deal with the anger they feel, what to do when they’re sad, and what to do when they’re scared. His main goal was to make every episode a fun and calming experience for the children who tuned in while also giving them new ideas to explore.
There were many endearing characters in the neighborhood as well as some in the “Land of Make-Believe” such as Mr. “Speedy Delivery” McFeely, “Lady” Betty Aberlin, “Handyman” Joe Negri, Robert “Bob” Trow (who also played the characters Bob Dog and Robert Troll), “Chef” Don Brockett, Francois Clemmons, “Mayor Maggie” Stewart, Chuck “Neighbor” Aber, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, King Friday XIII, Queen Sarah, Prince Tuesday, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, Grand Pere, Daniel Tiger, Cornflake S. Pecially, the Platypus family, and many others.
Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was about as unpolished as a television show could get. In terms of production values, the show was far below the quality of other shows that came into being during the show’s run, and they were certainly a far cry from the almost over-produced Disnified and Nickelodeonized kids’ shows today. The set design was amateurish and bland, like something put together by a poorly funded community theater group. The puppets looked like they were made in a children’s art class, except for maybe Lady Elaine who seemed more the scary clown thype than the friendly “Cookie Monster” type. Rogers himself spoke slowly and quietly, sometimes the acting seemed stiff, and the few times the show did use some sort of special effect, it would seemed dated and cheesy. For the most part, Mister Rogers Neighborhood broke almost every rule of television production, especially for children’s programming, but it was because he broke those rules and stuck to his belief that children’s television should be a safe and calm place for kids to grow and learn that Fred Rogers became a household name and a beloved TV personality.
The show was created over many years going back to Rogers’ early days creating children’s television shows in the late 1950s and 60s. His early forays into the “Neighborhood” took place on local stations in the U.S. and Canada, where he honed his craft and built his neighborhood. During that time, Rogers composed some of the music that came to be associated with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and created many of his show’s iconic characters. In 1967, Rogers managed to secure funding in the form of a grant from the Sears Roebuck Foundation, which allowed him to produce a more complete show and to air it nationally in the U.S. on public television. It is this national show that we consider the first of the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood series, even though it had been airing in a handful of local PBS stations. For most viewers, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a brand new show.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood first aired on February 19, 1968, and the second episode aired on February 20. From the get-go the show presented weekly themes that the characters would explore, and in that first week, the theme was change and fear of change, which was very appropriate for the times. Back in 1968 in the U.S., there there was definitely a need for a guy like Mr. Rogers to help young audiences with their fears of the changes and conflict going on around them. The Vietnam War was raging on the other side of the world, there was a large degree of political strife, and the nightly news wasn’t exactly filled with good times and stability. It was only a few weeks before Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted that the Tet Offensive took place and the venerable TV journalist Walter Cronkite shared his view that the Vietnam War was unwinnable and would end in a stalemate. Kids likely heard their parents discussing and arguing over these events. They probably even knew somebody who was drafted and sent to Vietnam. It wasn’t just the war either. In the coming months the country would see the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy — two very disturbing events for both adults and kids. So addressing issues of fear and change were very timely, but also very daring. Even today, it’s not often that one would come across a children’s TV show that would deal as directly with contemporary societal themes as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood did. For the most part children, very prudently, are shielded from these events, but what little information does seep through can be alarming. Fred Rogers understood this. He also understood that children aren’t stupid either. They pick up on stuff, and they can be as complex in their emotions and needs as adults. Unfortunately they don’t have years of experience and personal growth that would help them to deal better with those emotions. This is where the concept of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was genius. This show was not only a bit of fun quiet time with a friendly guy, it also taught kids ways deal with all the depressing and scary adult stuff going on. And it was in the second episode where Rogers really showed audiences that he would not be afraid to discuss the difficult topics.
In this section, we’ll walk through the second episode, but we’ll mix in some commentary in italics with color.
The second episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was entitled “King Friday Challenges Change” and it starts off the way every show did with Mr. Rogers singing the theme song “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” as he comes in the door to his television house. Back then he wore a trench coat over his suit (later he’d switch to just having a sport coat), which he would take off and hang in the closet before putting on a friendly zip-up cardigan sweater. (In the first episode, the sweater was a button down, but from the second episode on, they were all zip-up.) In this episode, Mr. Rogers arrives with what looks like a framed painting or picture wrapped up in a burlap bag. It was always fun when Mr. Rogers showed up with things to share with his neighbors!
In those days, Mr. Rogers played it a little more fast and loose with his footwear routine than he did in later seasons. In the first episode (the previous day), he had changed into his sneakers from his more formal shoes, but this second episode he did not. The pendulum swung the other way by the third episode and he was already wearing the sneakers when he came in. In general for every later episode, Mr. Rogers would always change from his formal shoes into his sneakers as a sort of signal to all of us television neighbors that the work was done and the fun was to begin. It’s a very subtle thing to have such a routine like this, but fitting since children largely benefit from a certain degree of structure and routine.
Inside the burlap bag, Mr. Rogers reveals that there another bag, a plastic one, with something inside it. That something turned out to be a picture with a string on the back for hanging. The picture is a painting of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe comprising Grand Pere’s Eiffel Tower, the Factory, King Friday’s Castle, the Museum-Go-Round, X and Henrietta’s tree, the fountain, and Daniel Tiger’s clock. After a little discussion about the picture, Mr. Rogers walks over toward the kitchen area, picks up a nail and hammer along the way and hangs the picture.
Mr. Rogers then returns to play around a bit with the burlap bag: he puts a pillow inside and made a punching bag; he steps inside and does some hopping to show how it could be a sack for a sack race; finally he grabs an abnormally large safety pin, pins two ends of sack together around his neck and turns the sack into a cape.
At this point, Mr. Rogers receivs a call on his “phone”, that is, a tin can with a string attached to the wall. The “call” is from Edgar who worked for King Friday in the Land of Make-Believe. Edgar’s news is that Lady Elaine Fairchilde, the mischievous magical proprietor of the Museum-Go-Round, and King Friday’s sister, was still missing. Well not so much missing as she skipped town. The previous day’s episode, Lady Elaine, who could use magic, had re-arranged everything in the Land of Make-Believe — moving the castle, tree, Daniel’s clock and everything else to new places around Make-Believe — and King Friday XIII was very angry about it. He did not like change at all. So in a move straight out of the Donald Trump/reactionary playbook, King Friday set up border guards to keep any more change from happening.
After ending his call, Mr. Rogers explains what border guards are and what they do, then he gets his trusty telescope to look into the Land of Make-Believe. In later episodes he would simply summon Trolley and follow it to Make-Believe, without the telescope bit beforehand.
Taking a moment to think about this story line, it’s a scenario that seems almost too real today — a petulant ruler who blames outsiders for making changes to his kingdom so he decides to shut his country’s borders, even though the real problem is WITHIN his kingdom. One has to wonder how contemporary political pundits would react to such a plot point. Back to Rogers…
Just before Mr. Rogers looks toward Make-Believe, he hears a knock at the door — a visitor. It’s none other than Betty Aberlin in her first appearance on the show! Instead of coming in, she beckons Mr. Rogers to come outside to the porch so they could sit on Grandma Thomas’s swing, which Mr. Rogers talked about in the previous episode. Betty then tells Mr. Rogers that she was going to see her great-uncle King Friday in Make-Believe, but that she’s afraid because of the border guards and said that “having border guards is like being in a war!” She then wonders if she should take a make-believe gun for protection. (Try to insert that thought into a present-day show and see how far you get.) Mr. Rogers, ever so kind, gives Betty his cape to help keep her safe. She then sings “Be Brave and Then Be Strong!” before heading off to see her uncle Friday.
This connection between Make-Believe and the “real” Mr. Rogers world was blurred in these early episodes. Later on, it was only Mr. McFeeley and Trolley who were able to bridge the two worlds as themselves. Although other characters such as Betty Aberlin, Chef Brockett, Joe Negri, and others would appear in both worlds using their real names, their characters were altered versions of themselves or rather themselves but if they had lived in Make-Believe all their lives. It was as if the viewer were imagining the “real” characters in the Neighborhood as being make-believe characters in the Land of Make-Believe. Some very meta stuff going on here.
After Betty sets off, Mr. Rogers again looks through his telescope to see Make-Believe before greeting Trolley who is heading over to Make-Believe himself.
In Make-Believe, we see Edgar and King Friday at the castle, both of whom are wearing silly little combat helmets as if they were at war. (Friday’s helmet has 13 stars on it, making him a 13-star general.) Since Friday had ordered border guards stationed, he demanded that all visitors give their name, rank, and serial number, which he demands of Trolley when he comes by. Trolley responds with his usual chirps and rings, which satisfies Friday. He then instructs Edgar to do the same for everyone who comes by. When Edgar asks if Friday means family too, Friday gives an emphatic yes. At this point, Friday reminds Edgar of their battle cry, “Down with the changers! Because we’re on top!”
It’s interesting to consider the context of this story line, which came during the Vietnam War era. The political overtones are all too apparent, but still played down to a child’s level. In this story line, Rogers is dealing with children and their fears, specifically a fear of change, along with their reactions to those fears, and eventually how to deal with them. He is also, however, mixing in a tiny bit of political commentary with the King’s slogan and his idea to shut down the borders turning the Land of Make-Believe into a police state. It is as if he was trying to tell his young audience that children and adults can fear change in the same way, and both can overreact in the same way. At a time when children were hearing and seeing all kinds of disturbing things on TV, in the papers, and in their parents’ discussions, Rogers chose to deal with those fears rather than sidestep them. In a sense, Rogers was willing to go where adults were afraid to with their children.
Lady Betty Aberlin shows up in Make-Believe and is immediately halted by Edgar who demands she give her name, rank, and serial number. Lady Aberlin is astounded by the question, and responded with, “Well Edgar, you know my name — it’s Aberlin. And my rank, well, I’m a Lady.”
Edgar demands she give a serial number for his “report” to King Friday, but she doesn’t have one so they make one up for her — 34567.
At the end of the conversation, Edgar is satisfied with Lady Aberlin’s answers and goes to see if she is allowed into the castle. This leaves Lady Aberlin alone outside the castle, incredulous as she ponders the new security measures King Friday had put in place. When Edgar returns, the two discuss how they don’t like the way things are going in Make-Believe and that the changes King Friday is imposing are indeed bad changes. Neither likes the state of things in Make-Believe.
The scene then cuts over to the tree where X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat live. Henrietta is a shy, worrisome character while X isn’t shy at all, and acts as a sort of elder brother figure to Henrietta. She is scared of all the military in the Land of Make-Believe, but X tries to console her saying that there’s nothing to worry about, unless somebody starts shooting. Of course X is trying to hide his own fears, he’s very concerned about the soldiers and border guards, and tells Henrietta that he feels as if they’re at war. Henrietta isn’t very comforted by X, but he then reassures her that if she ever gets scared, she can come into his house to stay with him until she’s no longer scared. Neither wants to leave their houses to go around Make-Believe alone.
The scene cuts back to Lady Aberlin who is in the throne room with King Friday. (In later years, audiences no longer see the of the inside of the castle.) In their discussion, Friday isn’t amused when Lady Aberlin makes a joke because, he said, “These are serious times.”
In their discussion, Lady Aberlin tries to convince Friday that he’s overreacting to Lady Elaine and her changes, but Friday refuses to concede. The paranoid king wants the borders shut so that no more “changers” can get in. After their discussion, King Friday orders Lady Aberlin to watch the northern gate of the castle. When she tries to leave, King Friday tells Lady Aberlin that she has been drafted into his army, and then orders her to march.
It is here where the allegory veers away from “helping children deal with change” and far more into the contemporary political realm. Many children watching had relatives and real-life neighbors who had been drafted into the military to go fight in Vietnam, which was a scary prospect. Again these were ideas and issues that were hovering in the air in the U.S., and kids likely picked up on them.
The story cuts back to the Neighborhood and Mr. Rogers in his house. As he often did, he discusses some of the things he and his audience saw in Make-Believe, but also he reassures everyone that Lady Aberlin seems calm and on top of the situation. He also acknowledges X and Henrietta’s real fears.
The segment ends with a doorbell. Mr. McFeeley is at the backdoor with a newspaper for Mr. Rogers. Mr. McFeeley was always in a hurry, but in those early days he was in way more of a rush than he was in later episodes. After he leaves, Mr. Rogers looks at the camera and says, “He’s always in a hurry, has so many things to do.”
The newspaper has King Friday on the front with a headline that read “King Friday XIII Establishes Border Guard: King Against Change.” Rogers then talks about how the King doesn’t like change, and how generally old things are comfortable but that new things are also good.
Going back to the newspaper, Mr. Rogers talks to the audience about who reads the paper in their houses and asks if any of his television neighbors read papers as well. He then tells a story of how he used to read the paper at breakfast, but would hold the paper up to read it so that he was behind it. This didn’t make it fun for the people with whom he was sitting because they couldn’t see and talk to him. So he decided to set the paper aside and wait until everyone was finished breakfast before he would take it out to read.
At this point, it is getting time for the show to end so Mr. Rogers begikns to go over some of the things he and his audience saw. As he’s doing this, he changes out of his sweater and back into his sport coat. In true Mr. Rogers fashion, he says that he would be thinking about his television guests. He then sang his very peaceful and very easy to sing “Tree” song to the camera. Very calming. Very soothing. Very friendly. He then talks about X being brave and reassuring telling Henrietta to come down to his tree roots if she gets scared. Fred says what a good neighbor X is.
After Mr. Rogers puts on his overcoat and steps toward the door to leave for the day, Mr. McFeeley shows up again to give Mr. Rogers the burlap sack he had given to Betty. Apparently Mr. McFeeley didn’t recognize Lady Aberlin in her soldier garb. He tells Mr. Rogers that the sack was given to him by someone in a soldier’s uniform who told him the sack belonged to Mr. Rogers. “It’s a funny business,” he says before leaving abruptly. Mr. Rogers smiles knowingly, says a few more words about it being a “funny business” and then sings a song to end the show (a different one than what we’d come to hear in later episodes).
Cut to the model of the Neighborhood, credits, end.
Even though Rogers was discussing some very complex and important topics, he was friendly and easy going the whole time, even cracking smiles. What set him apart from almost every other host of a children’s show was his ability to be positive, friendly, but still direct even when discussing scary things. What is especially remarkable about Rogers’ discussions about King Friday is how he never really vilifies the King for his actions, but instead tries to help his audience understand his point of view and the points of view of all the characters. Already Mr. Rogers was laying the seeds of conflict resolution and understanding, which he would come back to often over the show’s run.
Fred Rogers had been creating his neighborhood for several years before Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood became nationally available. In those days, the shows were a little more raw and unscripted than later ones, but they were just as friendly and charming and remained so throughout the show’s run. As with any production, over time, the characters became a little bit better developed, the set was improved, more people were brought in, Mr. Rogers never moved away from his format and message, and most importantly, the sincerity of his message never waned.
The second episode the national show of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood established the show’s weekly themed structure, which allowed Rogers and his troupe to really delve into complex topics such as divorce, how to handle things when friends argue, dealing with change, and many other situations and feelings. These were topics that families often would find difficult to discuss with their children, and indeed, many parents simply weren’t used to relating to children in such a way. In that sense, Mr. Rogers was not only speaking to children, but also to parents as well.
Here’s a link to episode 2 at “The Neighborhood Archive”.
You can watch the full second episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on Amazon.com (available with Prime).