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On the Arts: Fred Rogers has unique ability to make world more beautiful

Sunday, November 19, 2000

By Rob Owen

Some things in life are just right. You can't explain them, but they seem more than fortuitous, maybe even predestined.

 
 

Rob Owen is TV editor of the Post-Gazette. You can reach him at rowen@post-gazette.com.

   
 

Moving to Pittsburgh felt that way to me for many reasons, and one of them was the opportunity to cover Mister Rogers. He's always been a presence in my life.

Like most children of the 1970s, I watched "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and was enthralled by the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, especially the trolley. I loved trains and was fascinated by the layout of the tracks and the space between the Neighborhood and Mister Rogers' house. Was there something in between the two besides a dark tunnel?

Among the puppets, I was intimidated by Lady Elaine Fairchilde but felt a kindred spirit in Daniel Striped Tiger. And I wished there were toys of King Friday's castle and the Museum-Go-Round, like the models Mister Rogers kept on shelves in his kitchen.

I also had a fascination with what you'd consider the supporting characters, particularly the platypus family. I'm not sure what it says about me, but even today when I'm interviewing actors and producers at network parties in Los Angeles, I gravitate toward B-list types and find them far more interesting than the most famous stars.

Mister Rogers re-entered my life in the 1980s when I was in high school. During my "I wanna be Steven Spielberg" phase (that came after the "I wanna be Tom Brokaw" stage and before the "I wanna be a TV critic" era), I made home movies with friends. In retrospect, they were awful in all sorts of amateurish ways, but we had fun doing something creative.

When the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" was released in theaters, a friend's father kept mistakenly calling it "Who Framed Mister Rogers." That slip of the tongue led us to make a trilogy of home video films starring yours truly as ... Mister Rogers.

It was the era of Eddie Murphy spoofing Mister Rogers on "Saturday Night Live," but in our version little effort was made to imitate Mister Rogers beyond a few lines of dialogue popularized by Murphy. The short films we made (including "The Last Temptation of Mister Rogers" and "Mister Rogers and the Last Crusade") weren't meant to make fun of Mister Rogers. He was the good guy, the hero.

Just as he is for so many in real life.

A few years ago, my high school journalism teacher told me how she recently came to appreciate Mister Rogers when she and her family were getting ready to move to the Washington, D.C., area in the early '70s. She was overwhelmed by the prospect. Should she look for a house in Maryland or Virginia? Which area had the best schools for her children?

Tired after a long day of trudging around, she found herself in a hotel room, upset and certain that her life was imploding. The TV was on and she heard a soothing voice. She didn't know anything about "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" at the time, but the longer Rogers spoke, the better she felt.

"He was saying everything would be OK, and it just really made me feel better," she said. "He was talking about something else, of course, but it just transferred."

Rogers often has that effect.

Pat Mitchell became president and CEO of PBS in March. She remembered her second week on the job as a whirlwind of chaos. Near the end of a busy day, she asked her assistant if there was anything else on her schedule. There was one appointment left: Mister Rogers.

"I thought she was kidding. I thought, that's what I really do need, and then I looked up and he was walking down the hall," Mitchell said. "The minute he walked in the door, he started to talk to me in that voice, and I instantly got calmer. All the stress and tension of the day evaporated. ... I was really emotionally affected by it in a very profound way. I may have to invite him back to visit me on a once-a-month basis! Maybe more often, depending on how things go."

Tour groups come through the Post-Gazette newsroom regularly. Last week, when I found myself explaining the jobs of people in the Arts & Entertainment department to a group of elementary school children, I asked if they watched the "Neighborhood."

Almost all of them said they had tuned in when they were younger. One fourth-grade girl recalled her favorite "Mister Rogers" episode: He showed how a marble is made. Marble making can fascinate a child, and that simplicity makes the "Neighborhood" stand apart.

Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said the gentle pace of the "Neighborhood" put it at the opposite end of the educational television spectrum from PBS's "Sesame Street."

" 'Sesame Street,' with its morphing lady bugs and fast cutting, is much more out of the Madison Avenue style and very effective as such," he said. "And then there's Mister Rogers. He has this glacial pace, like you're being invited into a very safe, quiet, comforting realm of everybody's dream of an uncle you could go over and play with."

Peggy Charren, founder of the advocacy group Action for Children's Television, said "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" is as good for parents as it is for kids.

"It's kind of role modeling," Charren said. "When I see Mister Rogers and hear him talking, I remember it's not a good idea to lose your temper with children and scream and yell. The way to talk to children is the way he does, and we should remember that more often."

Covering Mister Rogers from time to time for the past couple of years, I discovered what another TV critic warned me: Mister Rogers is a tough interview. Not because he's trying to hide anything, but because he'd much rather talk about you than about himself.

During an interview for a Post-Gazette story last weekend in which he announced that his show was drawing to a close, Rogers frequently asked me questions. He wanted to know if I'd had a sense of a family tradition passed on from my parents. He wanted to know if I'd seen the baby elephant at the Pittsburgh Zoo. And he shared with me a quote by author Karen Armstrong that a friend recently sent him.

It's a small nugget of wisdom that's worth sharing: "If your notion of a personal God leads you to denigrate other people or to run other people down or condemn other people's beliefs, then just question it a moment and ask yourself if you're really listening to your God or to yourself."

"Isn't that wonderful?" Rogers asked.

It is. As is he.



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