It was a show that captured millions of hearts and helped engage young audiences in the life and imagination of a man who’s goal was to help them feel good about themselves and learn to have a strong curiosity about every moment in life. Mister Roger’s Neighborhood ran for an incredible 31 seasons and it was truly more than just another television show. As Fred Rogers developed his vision, it became clear that Mister Rogers not only wanted to create a program that was geared towards kids, he wanted to create a safe zone for children, where they all felt welcomed and appreciated and treated like the thoughtful people he knew they were.
Read on to learn about Fred Rogers, the man behind the legacy, interesting facts about the show, and bizarre details that you probably never knew about!
Remember in the beginning of the show, Mister Rogers would come in and take off his jacket and put on one of his many sweaters? Interestingly, many of the sweaters were made by his mother. He wore the sweaters because they offered him the chance to say hello to his mom during filming.
Putting on his sweater wasn’t the only important part of his opening routine, though. Once it was on he would sit down and his next routine would begin.
You know those little sneakers Mister Rogers puts on after he switches his coat for his sweater during the beginning of the show? Well, way back when the show was in its very early stages, Rogers would do a lot of puppeteering behind the sets.
While doing that he came to find that those sneakers were much quieter than his other shoes as he was moving around behind the scenes. They were also probably much more comfortable.
A Feminist Puppet?
Lady Elaine Fairchilde, a character in The Land of Make-Believe on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, was a puppet who both terrorized and inspired children. Although her appearance and voice are criticized on many websites as being scary and disturbing, other fans recall Lady Elaine as an early feminist role model.
She exuded independence and confidence and even engaged in a little mischief from time to time. Lady Elaine’s personality was a far cry from many other female characters on children’s shows at the time.
Mister Rogers, The Ordained Minister
Did you know that Fred Rogers was actually an ordained minister? He received his Bachelor of Divinity degree and was ordained in 1962. He felt that his passion of encouraging children through his television program was a natural part of his work as a minister of the United Presbyterian Church.
The only thing he needed to do was figure out how to break into the business. It may have seemed like a big leap to go from the church to children’s television, but for Mr. Rogers it felt like his destiny.
Why TV In The First Place?
How did someone like Fred Rogers start in television? According to Rogers, he said TV was “something horrible on it with people throwing pies at one another. 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 would go on to prove that TV could be a device of good for more than three decades.
Rogers Left The Ivy League
Fred Rogers started his studies at Dartmouth College in 1946, but in 1948 left the venerable institution for Rollins College in Winter Park Florida. There, he majored in Music Composition and earned a B.A. in 1951. He also met his wife Sara at Rollins.
In 2002, Rogers returned to Dartmouth to deliver the school’s commencement address. In it he said, “So in all that you do, in all of your life, I wish you the strength and the grace to make those choices which will allow you and your neighbor to become the best of whoever you are. Congratulations to you all.”
Rogers seemed to have no crazy scandals in his past. He was not a smoker or drinker and was happily married to the same woman until he died. To the world, he seemed squeaky clean, which of course meant people rumors about his past would eventually be started.
Before those rumors began, though, there was kind of a strange habit he adopted. Every morning, he would swim laps completely in the nude at various clubs that allowed that kind of swimming.
Tension Between Rogers and Big Bird
Caroll Spinney, who played Big Bird on another huge children’s television program, Sesame Street, was asked to be a guest on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in the sixties. After reading the script, Spinney refused to cooperate.
Mister Rogers was going to introduce the kids to Big Bird and have Spinney take the costume off and show them how the Big Bird costume and puppet worked. Spinney did not want to ruin the illusion of the character, so instead, he just appeared as Big Bird.
Even with the patience of a saint, Fred Rogers did occasionally become frustrated. He was only human, after all. During those rare times when he was exasperated, such as facing an extra-large stack of mail to read, he expressed it by uttering the word “Mercy.”
That’s still a pretty tame outburst compared to what most people would probably say. Fred Rogers knew anger and frustration were natural, and he had his own ways of letting them out without harming himself or others.
Mister “Sniper” Rogers?
I’m sure we’ve all heard at some point that Mister Rogers used to be a sniper in the military and that he wore all those sweaters with long sleeves to hide the many tattoos he had all over his arms.
Well, those are just rumors and not true at all. He was never in the military and was actually a pacifist. Like we said, with such a clean past, eventually rumors swirled about what he was hiding.
Though Rogers played some of the many puppets on the show, when he himself was on camera, he was behaving just as he would off camera. He believed that children were smart and thoughtful.
He often said, “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.” More than anything, he believed in the goodness of people, and children in particular.
Ah, the days before DVR. Remember videotaping your favorite shows to watch whenever you wanted? Well, back in the ’90s companies did not want people videotaping their shows because they thought it was a copyright infringement. Mister Rogers felt exactly the opposite and fought for people to be able to record programs.
He said in a testimony to Congress, “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.”
Man Of Many Voices
Fred Rogers was a man with many voices. Not only did he play a role as himself in the show, he also was the voice and puppeteer for many characters such as King Friday XIII, Queen Sara Saturday, Henrietta Pussycat, Daniel Striped Tiger, Lady Elaine Fairchild, Donkey Hodie, Collette, Cornflake S. Pecially, Edgar Cooke, Grandpere, X the Owl, Ino A. Horse, and Larry Horse, among others.
To voice these characters, he made sure that each on represented a certain part of his personality.
Rogers became so well known for his passion for children and wholesome programming that he was asked to be a guest on a Soviet Union children’s show called Spokoynoy Nochi, Malyshi (Good Night, Little Ones).
He was the first foreign guest to appear on the show. It has been on the air since 1964. His love for life was universal, and his belief in grace and understanding was a message he was able to spread worldwide.
Parents Are Important Too
Although most of Fred Rogers’s time was spent speaking directly to children, making them feel special and appreciated, he also created a series of shows that were just for parents. This series was called Mister Rogers Talks To Parents About… and usually had a specific issue he focused on to help parents know how to deal with the problems and questions their children were facing.
The show was not as successful as his children’s program, which he came back to shortly after this detour.
Feeding His Fish
During the episodes, Mister Rogers explained everything he was doing, including feeding his fish. This came about because he got a letter from a blind girl who listened to the show but obviously couldn’t see what Rogers was doing.
She wanted to know what took place in the show so Rogers decided to add lines explaining what he was doing. Just because he was on television, he still wanted to include everyone, even those who could only hear him.
A Lot Of Mileage
Beep Beep! Remember the little, red trolley that would go around and around on those tracks every episode? Evidently, that little trolley spent enough time traveling the tracks that it racked up quite a few miles.
In fact, in one year of filming, the trolley would travel about 5,000 miles. That’s more miles than some people travel in their entire lifetimes! Then again, when a show, and a trolly, run for 31 years, it’s bound to rack up a lot of mileage.
Look Ma, No Hands!
If you paid attention as a kid, you would have noticed that there weren’t any hands on Daniel Striped Tiger’s clock in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. The reason for that is because Rogers wanted to create an atmosphere where kids could use their imaginations and without hands on the clock, they could imagine that it was any time they wanted it to be.
That idea goes along with the overarching theme of self think and critical thinking that Rogers promoted.
Daniel Striped Tiger has been around for a long time. In fact, he was one of the first characters Rogers created. The tiger puppet’s first appearance was in 1955, on The Children’s Corner, which was one of Roger’s first television shows.
Later, a spin-off was created with Daniel Striped Tiger as the father and his son, Daniel Tiger, teaches the viewers about dealing with feelings and having fun. This version of Daniel Tiger is a cartoon and is wildly popular with children.
He’s A Musician Too
Among all of his other talents, Fred Rogers was also a trained composer. He wrote all the original songs for the show and made sure everything was done thoroughly and the right way.
He was a perfectionist and felt that children deserved to have programming that was just as good as anything an adult would watch. If something wasn’t perfect, then it wouldn’t make it on the show. This kind of care is one of the reasons the show is still remembered today.
Mister Rogers had red-green color blindness, a condition where people have a hard time distinguishing between red, green, orange, and brown. Some folks with this type of color blindness also have difficulty telling purple and blue apart.
Red-green is the most common type of color blindness, and is also called “deuteranopia.” Just imagine being at a traffic light and not being sure if the light was red or green! Maybe that’s why traffic lights are tiered the way they are.
Field Trips And Outings
Mister Rogers frequently took his audience along on educational field trips. He visited a variety of places, including zoos, museums, factories, and theaters. Rogers also rode a real school bus in one episode and in another he visited the dentist.
There was never a dull moment on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood! While some of these field trips might have seemed boring, they helped kids learn about the normal, everyday aspects of life they would need to be prepared for in their lives.
A Stolen Car
One popular legend about Mister Rogers, and how universally beloved he was, involves his car being stolen. According to the tale, thieves stole Rogers’ car from its parking place on the street, right in broad daylight.
The local media later reported the incident, and the following day, Rogers found his car back in its parking spot, along with a note of apology. It said, “If we’d known it was yours, we never would have taken it.” Though the truth of this story is undetermined, it’s a great tale.
Kindness to All Earth’s Creatures
Fred Rogers’ extended his famous compassion beyond human beings. He was also a vegetarian and refused to eat meat, famously stating, “I don’t want to eat anything that has a mother.”
After meat-slinging restaurant Burger King produced a commercial that parodied him, Rogers criticized the fast-food giant and said the ads were “very confusing for children.” BK yanked them, proving that even though the disagreed with Mr. Rogers, they still respected him. Probably because he helped raise their employees.
Mister Rogers watched his weight to the pound. Specifically, he stayed at precisely 143 pounds for the last 30 years of his life. He didn’t have an eating disorder, he just really liked the number 143. He said that “the number 143 means ‘I love you.’
It takes one letter to say ‘I’ and four letters to say ‘love’ and three letters to say ‘you.’ One hundred and forty-three.” And now we’re crying on the inside.
A still photo from one episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood has been circulating the internet for years. The image appears to show Rogers flipping the bird (with both hands!). But the truth is that he was teaching children the song “Where Is Thumbkin?” in which singers hold up each finger as they’re named.
He looked decidedly amused as he held up both middle fingers. Now you know the truth, Mr. Rogers really didn’t have a mean bone in his body.
The Tough Stuff
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood touched on a diverse range of topics and issues that youngsters deal with every day, including what happens when a beloved pet dies. In episode #1101, Mister Rogers holds a small funeral for one of his pet fish who died.
The episode actually never aired but it was later released on videocassette. As you know, Mr. Rogers believed in talking to children as if they were adults. He believed they had the power to process anything. The television network didn’t always agree.
The characters in the show all had really strange names, didn’t they? Though we don’t have an explanation for all of the characters, we do know how Prince Tuesday got his unique name.
Evidently, he was born in episode #1117, which aired on a Tuesday, thus, Prince Tuesday. Not every character on every show needs a complicated back story. With the complicated themes Mr. Rogers was already dealing with, his characters didn’t need to be complicated themselves.
In 1975, Fred Rogers hosted The Wizard of Oz actress Margaret Hamilton in several episodes. Hamilton, you might recall, played the wicked witch in the film. Rogers wanted to show his young viewers that although the character Hamilton played was scary, she was a nice person in real life and that witches aren’t real.
In one of the episodes, Hamilton says that she’s “a little sad” that her character scares people but that “when you understand her and when you realize it’s just pretend and everybody can do it,” there’s no need to be frightened.
Fan Favorite 1981
One episode that is consistently cited as a fan favorite involves a field trip to tour a crayon factory, where they were able to watch real crayons being made. The outing took place in an episode titled “Competition,” that also featured a drawing contest held in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
There were several episodes that showed how things were made, and these were always some of the most exciting and most memorable episodes, even if they weren’t the most groundbreaking.
Yo Yo Ma 1985
In one episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the world-famous cellist Yo Yo Ma made a guest appearance. He and Mister Rogers discussed all the ways that music can help us express our feelings and emotions.
Ma later became the first recipient of the Fred Rogers award, which recognizes charitable work. Another famous winner of the award was LeVar Burton, who hosted Reading Rainbow, another seminal children’s program that advocating for the power of reading and imagination.
David Newell was the actor who portrayed character Mr. McFeely, the delivery man on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He has said that the experience was a real pleasure, and he was lifelong friends with Rogers. “Working with Fred Rogers was like receiving a master’s degree in child development.
Fred taught by example, and he was subtle – but suddenly you’d realize that, after working side by side with him, your knowledge base had expanded almost beyond description,” he said.
One of the show’s writers, Betty Seamans, also played Mr. McFeely’s wife. She said of the role: “I was 24 when I started playing this 60-year-old woman, so I’ve always been pretty much in disguise. I look more like her now that I’m 56.
People seem to recognize me more by my voice. She wasn’t a major character, but to this day, it’s so fun if somebody finds out you’re Mrs. McFeely. It gives people this enormous charge. It’s fun to give people this happy moment.”
François Clemmons was an actor on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for 25 years. He played the neighborhood policeman, named “Officer Clemmons,” and he made television history by becoming one of the very first African-Americans to have a recurring role on a children’s series.
Clemmons is multi-talented and also sings opera! Mr. Rogers made sure to cast Clemmons to help normalize African Americans with young people at a time when acceptance and equality were still being fought for.
$20 Million In Six Minutes
In 1969, Fred Rogers addressed the Senate for a mere six minutes and ensured $20 million in funding for PBS. Then-President Nixon, who was not a fan of public television, had just proposed that funding to the station should be cut in half (to $10 million).
In his speech to the Senate, Rogers neatly summarized the devastating effect such a move would have on children’s lives and educations. After Rogers’ testimony, John O. Pastore, the Chairman of the Subcommittee of Communications, said: “I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goosebumps for the last two days.”
It Was A Family Affair
This is pretty neat: a mother-daughter duo worked on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood together. Audrey Ross played a variety of characters including Swan Mother, Monkey’s Aunt, “Audrey Cleans Everything,” Miss Paulifficate, Mother Elephant, and Angelfish. And Audrey’s daughter Adair provided the voice for character Prince Tuesday.
Fred Rogers believed that desks were “too much of a barrier,” so he didn’t have one in the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood studios. Instead, his corner office was furnished with only a leather recliner, a sofa, an easy chair, an old-school phone, and photographs. Sounds appropriate for such a humble man.
Fred Rogers was a truly prolific writer. He authored many (36) books over the course of his lifetime. Titles include Going to the Doctor, Moving, Going to the Hospital, Going to Day Care, Making Friends, The New Baby, Going to the Potty, When a Pet Dies, and The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember. Many of Rogers’ books were intended to help children navigate potentially scary situations.
The Musical Legacy Of Johnny Costa
For nearly 30 years, jazz pianist Johnny Costa served as the Musical Director for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Costa and his trio played live music and sound effects for every episode, providing the trolley whistle, background music, and entry and exit music.
After Costa’s death in 1996, an episode was dedicated to his memory and he was still cited as the show’s Musical Director in the closing credits.
Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman
There was only one time in his professional career that Fred Rogers played a fictional human character. It happened in 1996 when he had a guest role on the popular television series Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman. In the episode, titled “Deal with the Devil,” Rogers portrayed a ministry mentor.
An Emotional Moment
The show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood won four Emmy awards, and Fred Rogers received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Daytime Emmys in 1997. As he accepted the award he said, “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.”
He then counted out the seconds on his wristwatch, and there was not a dry eye in the house as the time ended and he closed by saying, “May God be with you.”
Watch the moment here, if you have a tissue handy.
So Much Love
Once, when running late to a meeting in New York (and caught in the rain with no taxi in sight), Fred Rogers hopped on the subway along with his colleague. Esquire wrote about the event in a 1998 article:
“It was late in the day, and the train was crowded with children who were going home from school…. [T]hey 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.” What a beautiful tribute to the man.
Koko the Gorilla
Koko is the famouswestern lowland gorilla with a knack for language and for her loving interactions with people. She’s quite a celebrity and counted Mister Rogers as a friend. She apparently loved to watch his show and was a big fan. In a 1998 interview, Rogers said that when he first met her, she helped him take off his shoes just the way he did at the beginning of every episode.
In the interview, he relayed this tale: “Koko watches Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and when Mister Rogers, in his sweater and sneakers, entered the place where she lives, Koko immediately folded him in her long, black arms, as though he were a child, and then… she took my shoes off.”
His Legacy Continues
Sadly, Fred Rogers passed away at 74 years old from stomach cancer on February 27, 2003. He may be gone from this world, but his legacy lives on through not only his many years dedicated to wholesome children’s programming. He remains one of the most beloved television personalities of all time.
Mourned By Many
Fred Rogers was diagnosed with stomach cancer soon after retiring, in December 2002. A surgery was unsuccessful, and he passed away February 27, 2003. He was at home with his wife by his side when he died. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette even dedicated its entire front page as a tribute to him the following day, and people around the world grieved.
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood
A new generation of children can get a similar experience to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, with the major themes of childhood, through the spin-off cartoon Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. The animated kids’ show debuted on PBS in 2012 and is still going strong today. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood has won many awards and was also nominated for the Television Critics’ Association Award for Outstanding Achievement in Youth Programming.
It’s All In The Archives
At the Fred Rogers Center in Philadelphia, there is an archive of more than 16,000 items from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The archive contains Daniel Striped Tiger, the Neighborhood Trolley, X the Owl, scripts, handwritten letters sent by Rogers, photographs, various awards, and even viewer mail.
A Personal Question
Michael G. Long, who authored a biography called Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, says that he’s frequently asked if Rogers was gay. Long diplomatically deflects the question but says instead that:
“Perhaps we should turn the camera lens toward ourselves and assure Fred Rogers that we like him just as he was: the opposite of machismo, a loving husband and father, a close friend and employer of gays, a man who grew to support at least one friend’s desire for an openly gay relationship and, above all else, a compassionate human being who assured each of us that, no matter who we are or what we do, we are always and everywhere lovable and capable of loving anyone. Just as they are.”
From Mister Rogers to… Horror?
Pittsburgh native George Romero was hired by Fred Rogers to work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, making films for the show. It was Romero’s very first film job.
He went on to become famous for his work making gruesome horror films and is referred to as the father of the modern zombie movie. His filmography includes such titles as Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Monkey Shines.
Mister Rogers’ Theme Park Ride
Planning a road trip to Pennsylvania anytime soon? If so, keep this in mind: there’s a theme park in Ligonier, PA that partnered with the Fred Rogers Company to create an attraction called Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. In a statement, the park said that “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood continues the legacy of Fred Rogers in such an attractive and innovative way.”
On the attraction, visitors ride life-size trolleys to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where they get to interact with a variety of characters from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Hey, cool! There’s an asteroid named after Fred Rogers, who was a big astronomy buff. It’s appropriately called “26858 Misterrogers.” In its dedication of the asteroid, The International Astronomical Union declared, “Fred McFeely Rogers (1928–2003) was a tireless and passionate advocate for children who taught that everyone is unique and deserving of love and respect ‘just the way you are’. For more than 30 years he used his public television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a vehicle of service to the youngest members of the human family.
Let’s Talk Money
According to one website, Fred Rogers had an estimated net worth of $8 million of property when he passed away. Despite his professional success, he remained humble and true to his roots, living modestly in a normal house in Pittsburgh. He even walked to work most days.
Pop Culture References
Mister Rogers has been referenced by many modern television shows and films. In the smash hit TV series Breaking Bad, D.E.A. agent Hank is describing a drug leader who seems to lead two disparate lives, and says “It’s like Scarface had sex with Mister Rogers or something.”
Saturday Night Live
Yet another reference to Mister Rogers’ show came in the form of a recurring sketch on the comedy series Saturday Night Live. Actor and comedy legend Eddie Murphy parodied Rogers in a spoof called “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood.” Mister Robinson doesn’t have quite the charmed life that Mister Rogers seems to, and discusses his financial problems and legal issues quite frankly with his audience.
Won’t You Wear A Sweater Day
To commemorate what would have been Fred Rogers’ 80th birthday, his production company organized “Won’t You Wear a Sweater Day.” Fans were encouraged to wear their favorite sweaters to honor their memories of Mister Rogers. Won’t You Wear a Sweater Day takes place every year on March 20th.
The beloved Fred Rogers was buried on a high hilltop in the scenic and historic Unity Cemetery in Latrobe, Pennsylvania – also his birthplace – along with his mother, father, and other family members. He is interred in the family mausoleum, which bears the surname “Given.” Visitors wishing to pay their respects can find his burial site at the back of the cemetery.
Many of the original Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episodes are available for viewing on the PBS website. In its introduction to the series, PBS says that “in this variety of videos, children are not only introduced to people and places far beyond their own neighborhood, but also are invited to create a relationship with a trusted adult who addresses their inner feelings and concerns.”
You Can Visit a Statue Of Mister Rogers
After Fred Rogers died, his friend (and heiress to the Mellon fortune) commissioned a statue of him. Located along the North Shore in Rogers’ beloved Pittsburgh, the bronze statue is known officially as the “Tribute to Children.” Famed artist Robert Berks created the sculpture and it was the last piece he ever made before his death in 2011.
Hollywood Walk Of Fame
In 1998, Fred Rogers was presented with his own star on the iconic Hollywood Walk Of Fame. The then-69-year-old led 200 well-wishers through a rendition of “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” during the ceremony. One 36-year-old man in attendance said of Rogers, “The man just puts you in a different frame of mind,” he said. “It’s magical. I think he’s an American institution.”
Rogers’ star can be located on the south side of the 6500 block of Hollywood Boulevard.
Fox News Called Mister Rogers “An Evil Man”
Seriously? In a 2010 piece, Fox News declared that Fred Rogers was “an evil man” and that his television show had spawned a nation of lazy, entitled socialists. All because he had dared to tell children that they’re all special just the way they are. The Fox News piece said that Rogers’ message had “unintentionally did a whole generation or two a disservice.”