His trademark cardigan sweater and tennis shoes ingratiated Fred Rogers to an entire generation of children, but the beloved kids’ television show host nearly missed his calling altogether.
Even though Rogers was ordained in 1963 as a Presbyterian minister, it was after seeing his first television program in his parents’ home that he suddenly knew his life’s path.
“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,” Rogers said in an interview with CNN.
For several years in the 1950s, Rogers worked for a series of music-oriented children’s shows on NBC. But the soft-spoken, creative Rogers felt strongly that advertisements and marketing efforts directed at children severely hindered the educational value of children’s programming.
In 1954, Rogers brought his puppeteer skills to public broadcasting, working on “The Children’s Corner” on WQED in Pittsburgh. It was in this atmosphere that Rogers developed many of his most memorable puppet characters, including King Friday and Queen Sara Saturday, whom he named after his wife.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Rogers’ famous sneakers became his choice in footwear after he found that they allowed him to walk quietly behind the scenes of the live television productions. The host’s trademark opening song, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, became part of the national consciousness in 1968, when “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” began airing in Pittsburgh and was soon picked up by several other large markets, including Boston and New York. In 1969 PBS contracted the show, and it was broadcast nationally.
In comparison to other contemporary children’s programming, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was slower paced and softer in tone and theme. Rogers emphasized the importance of imagination and creativity while urging children to love themselves and their neighbors. It was an approach that resonated with children, but also begged to be parodied. Comedian Eddie Murphy famously riffed on the popular host in his “Saturday Night Live” skit, Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.
Rogers is also known for his vociferous protection of children, and in 1969 he testified in front of a congressional subcommittee to oppose funding cuts to public broadcasting. During the moving testimony, Rogers recited the lyrics to one of his popular songs. “Fred Rogers has proven that television can soothe the soul and nurture the spirit and teach the very young,” said President George W. Bush as he awarded the soft-spoken pioneer the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to children’s education initiatives. The award came just months before Rogers’ death.