Documentary opens the book on the life and work of Mister Rogers

Published: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 31, 2003 at 11:06 p.m.
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Fred Rogers, who died in February, rehearses the opening of his PBS show, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" during a taping.

The Associated Press
For about 35 years, Fred Rogers has invited viewers - especially younger ones and their families - to be part of his neighborhood with his show on PBS.
"Fred Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor" takes a look at the life and work of the television pioneer who created a world with puppets, the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, a little red trolley, and talked and sang about feelings and caring.
With a library of close to 1,000 programs, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" continues to air on PBS - each beginning with Rogers putting on one of his sweaters, changing his shoes, and singing "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood."
The documentary airs tonight at 9:30, also on PBS.
"It's a nice way of introducing people to the adult Fred," said David Newell, who worked with Rogers since "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" first aired in 1968 and has played Mr. McFeely, the delivery man who is always in a hurry.
"A lot of adults don't understand the 'Neighborhood' at first viewing. This explains a lot of why he does what he does on television. It gives the essence of Fred Rogers in a short time."
The documentary is narrated by actor Michael Keaton, who worked as a stagehand in the late 1970s for WQED, the public television station in his hometown of Pittsburgh, where "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was produced.
"Yes, I knew Fred Rogers and worked with Fred Rogers, and he was essentially the same guy off camera as he was on camera," Keaton says in the documentary. "We obviously didn't know back then that 'The Neighborhood' would become the longest-running program on public television. It was a simple, old-fashioned production that everybody really enjoyed working on."
The documentary covers Rogers' life from Latrobe, Pa., to his early days in television in New York as a floor manager at NBC to Pittsburgh, where he helped start WQED, the first community-owned station. It also covers his work in Canada, where he was encouraged to be on camera, and the development of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
It includes clips from some of his earliest work, including "The Children's Corner" in the 1950s when Rogers was a behind-the-scenes puppeteer, as well as more recent programs and interviews.
In the documentary, Rogers remembers his early days in television, including working on "The Gabby Hayes Show."
Rogers came to television when the field was still forming, said Ron Bishop, an associate professor in the communication program at Drexel University. "He built on respect and kindness ... beginning from the premise that everyone is special. And he didn't back down from explaining tough issues to kids but did it in a forthright manner," Bishop said.
Rogers took children's programming seriously. "What if you were offered an hour of television live every day?" Rogers asks in the documentary. "Can you ... can you imagine what it is like to try and fill that up with value? I wanted to give the best I could."
The "Neighborhood" in many ways is un-TV-like, said Matt McAllister, communication professor at Virginia Tech.
"The thing that always struck me was the slow pace and how gentle and contemplative it was, especially when you compared it to other programming. But very young kids responded to that and many parents appreciated the slowing down of their lives. ... It has been this lone small island in a sea of frenetic images," McAllister said.
The "Neighborhood modeled civility, self-respect and tolerance, and Mister Rogers used his program to help kids deal with their fears such as death, divorce and disability," said Alan Stavitsky, associate dean of journalism and communication at the University of Oregon.
"Kids would pick up on feelings and values without being lectured to. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister and ministered through television without being overtly religious."
Fred considered his work a ministry, said Joanne Rogers, his wife of more than 50 years. "But it was a ministry without religiosity," she said.
Joanne Byrd met Fred Rogers at Rollins College. He was planning on transferring from Dartmouth to Rollins because of its music program and she was one of several music students who piled into an old Franklin car to meet him at the train station and show him around, she said. They formed a strong friendship and "probably were looked upon as a couple."
She went to graduate school at Florida State University and he got a job at NBC in New York after graduation. In April 1952, he proposed to her by letter and she called him from a pay phone to accept. They were married in July 1952 and had two sons, who now are parents themselves. While he worked in television and took divinity and child development classes, she was a concert pianist.
Since his death in February, she has become more involved in his work, including promoting a book of his writings, "The World According to Mister Rogers."
She is accustomed to being on stage as a performer but finds that different from public speaking, she said.
It has been difficult for her to watch episodes of the "Neighborhood," but she thoroughly enjoyed the documentary.
His on-camera persona was his true self, but if there is anything that doesn't come across in his television work, she said, "it's that he had such a good sense of humor and was lots of fun. People who knew him know that. But when he's talking or being interviewed (on TV programs), he is pretty serious."
She has taken a more active role in Family Communications Inc., the nonprofit company her husband founded in 1971, to help his work continue.
"Fred hoped adults would sit down with their children and watch the TV shows, that they would be a catalyst for family communication - that's what he called his company," said Newell, who is public relations director for the company. "We are taking Fred's philosophy and integrating it into different projects," such as books, training for child-care providers and others.
"The company and his legacy will go on. That's the way he wanted it."
Other continuing efforts include sweater drives for charity, a traveling Mister Rogers exhibit and planetarium shows for children.
As a broadcaster, Rogers set the tone for preschool programming on PBS and set the bar for the rest of television, said John F. Wilson, senior vice president of PBS programming.
When Rogers spoke at events, "he did this thing where he would take off his watch and ask the audience to spend a few minutes thinking about people who had been important to them. 'I'll keep the time,' he would say," and sniffles could be heard throughout the room.
"Now if someone were to ask the thing," Wilson said, "I wonder how many people would think of Fred Rogers."

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