Though I attribute my happy childhood wholeheartedly to my parents, there were two people on television who enriched it beyond measure: Jim Henson and Fred Rogers. I simply couldn’t get enough of “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” when they aired throughout the ’80s and ’90s on PBS. There wasn’t a trace of irony in either man’s buoyant worldview or the love they put into their work. You felt that love in every lyric of Rogers’ songs, which I listened to over and over on two cassette tapes. One of my favorites was “It’s You I Like,” a beautiful tune that Rogers memorably sang with one of his guests, a quadriplegic boy named Jeffrey Erlanger, in 1981.
“It’s you I like / The way you are right now, / The way down deep inside you— / Not the things that hide you, / Not your toys— / They’re just beside you.”
At age 5, I decided to write Rogers a letter. My parents let me handwrite the entire note, as well as his address on the envelope. Before mailing it, they wisely made copies of the letter’s complete contents, including two pictures that I drew for him. The letter was dated August 1st, 1991.
Dear Mr. Rogers,
You do such a good job on TV. It’s fun when we do the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
I am a boy. I am five years old. I like to play around with my sister. I like to read books. I am a real good reader.
I love you Mr. Rogers.
One month later, I received a letter back from him. His signature and his message—impeccably worded for a five-year-old fan—are unmistakably his own…
That was a fine letter you sent me. It was good to know about you from your letter. I’m glad you enjoy our television visits and that you like the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
Thank you for the pictures you drew of my face and your face and the hearts. The heart picture was fun to see. You have such good ideas for your drawings. Your drawings are a special gift because you made them for me.
You told me in your letter that you like to read books. I’m glad to know you’re a good reader. Books have always been an important part of my life, too, when I was a boy and now that I’m a grown-up.
I was interested to know that you have a sister and that you like to play with her. You have a special place in your family, and so does your sister.
You are growing and learning many new things every day. Now you can write a whole letter by yourself. It takes a lot of practice to write well. I’m proud of the way you’re growing, and I hope you are, too.
Your television friend,
Eight years after he wrote this letter, Rogers was inducted into the TV Hall of Fame at a ceremony where he was joined onstage by a surprise guest, Jeffrey Erlanger. Their reunion remains one of the most profoundly moving televised moments I’ve ever seen. Rogers passed away in 2003 soon after his retirement. Erlanger passed away in 2007.
While covering Chicago’s C2E2 convention in 2012, I met David Newell, who spent over three decades playing Rogers’ speedy delivery man, Mr. McFeely. The character’s original name, Mr. McCurdy, was a direct reference to William F. McCurdy, the president of the Sears-Roebuck Foundation, which underwrote the program for many years. During his presentation at C2E2, Newell said that Chicago was, in many ways, the salvation of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and had consistently proven to be one of the program’s biggest supporters. Afterward, I asked Newell if he’d do a phone interview with me and he eagerly agreed. As I turned to leave, he hollered his character’s signature catchphrase, “And remember—Speedy Delivery!”
Newell continues to serve as the Director of Public Relations at The Fred Rogers Company. Below is our conversation, originally published at HollywoodChicago.com, where Newell discusses the show’s evolution, his idea to welcome Lynn Swann and the Incredible Hulk as guests, and his latest Rogers-inspired program, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”
Why was it decided to keep the show based in Pittsburgh?
Fred definitely wanted to stay in Pittsburgh. He’s from a town outside of Pittsburgh called Latrobe, Pennsylvania. When Fred was growing up, they had trolleys in the streets. He patterned his show’s neighborhood after Latrobe, and Pittsburgh was just a bigger version of his hometown. Fred went to school in Florida but came back to Pittsburgh when he heard that the public television station, WQED, was going on the air in 1953. He left NBC in New York City and came to Pittsburgh to help start the station. No one wanted to do a children’s program, so he and Josie Carey decided to make “The Children’s Corner.” It really was a forerunner to the “Neighborhood,” and it lent itself to Fred’s sensibilities. Then WQED became a national producing station for public television, and “Neighborhood” was its bread and butter. That’s how it spread out to the rest of the country, Canada and beyond.
It seems that Fred’s background in public television greatly influenced his approach to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
That is definitely true. On “The Children’s Corner,” Fred was behind the set doing the puppets, and all of them transferred over to the “Neighborhood.” The host, Josie, also related directly to the camera. There was more winging it back then. [laughs] There wasn’t a script written out, but the actors had an idea of where they were going to go. They showed 16 mm films on the show, and sometimes the film would break. It was live, so when that happened, Fred would put the puppet up and start a conversation. He also carried over many of the songs, such as “I Like You As You Are.” Josie wanted it to be, “I Like You Like You Are,” and Fred said, “I don’t think we should call it that because it’s not correct English.” Even back then, he was thinking about the impact that television had on children. After seven years on “The Children’s Corner,” he was invited by the CBC in Canada to create a program where he was the host. That’s how the “Neighborhood” came to be. He stayed there for two years and then came back.
When he was back in town, he had a lot of talks with the child development people at the University of Pittsburgh, and would intersperse child development theory in the programs. The show has its origins in solid child developmental psychology, and Fred had a meeting every Tuesday with his mentor, Dr. Margaret McFarland, a child development expert. Her specialty was children’s play and how much you can learn by observing children at their play. If they don’t vocalize something, it may come out in how they react to other children while at play. Fred always called children’s “play” their work. That’s how important he thought play was. He would take topics that would be of concern to a young child, such as the death of a grandparent, and would use the death of a goldfish to get his point across and have children talk about it. He did a program on angry feelings to show that human emotions are natural and that there’s nothing wrong with being angry, but what’s important is how you use it. You don’t hit someone. He broke down the message in his song, “What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?” Yet he never forgot the fun, and would expose kids to art, science, sports—a “smorgasbord of opportunities and experiences,” as he called them.
There’s some astonishing, Capraesque footage online of Fred at a 1969 senate hearing where he convinces the judge to not slash PBS’s $20 million of funding in half. Was the future of the show really at stake?
It all was. It was the Nixon era. Senator [John] Pastore was put in charge of getting stories about public television, and we had just been on the air for a year. The senator was feisty and so tired of hearing written statements. He told Fred to plead his case without notes, and Fred turned his decision. After Fred spoke, Pastore said, “It looks like you’ve just got your $20 million.” $20 million was like $80 million now. It was a lot of money, and the ruling affected all of PBS. Frank Capra is a perfect description of the courtroom scene. That’s a very good analogy. Fred was like Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” He put his written remarks away and spoke from the heart. Since then, PBS has had its ups and downs. The station is always being challenged on its funding and slowly, over the years, they’ve cut into it. That block of children’s programs saved public television. The money that they would take away from public television, if they cut it down completely, wouldn’t even be able to build one tank. It’s a drop in the bucket compared with what they spend on other things.
Watching that footage, you get the sense that the “Fred Rogers” persona was never faked for the cameras.
Yes, that was Fred. His wife always said, “What you see is what you get.” On television, Fred would use simpler language that children could understand, but he wasn’t an actor. He never wanted to be an actor or a television star. He wanted to create good programming for young children and as a result, he became well-known. His pure joy was the creation of the scripts and the music. He loved finding ways to educate children without having them realize they were learning something. He felt more comfortable being behind the scenes in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. He didn’t like being on camera as much, so he just decided to be himself. On some level, children understood that they were watching someone who respected them.
What were some ideas you brought to the show that ended up onscreen?
One idea of mine was the Incredible Hulk episode. When superheroes were becoming popular, kids were jumping off rooftops and hurting or killing themselves because they thought they could fly like Superman. I saw these stories in the paper and asked Bill Bixby, who was in our studio making “Once Upon a Classic,” if it would be possible to come to Universal, watch one of the “Hulk” tapings and interpret it for children. We showed Lou Ferrigno putting his makeup on to break down its potential scariness for children, and help them know that it’s pretend. The witch and monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz” scared a lot of children, so we had Margaret Hamilton come on the program in her street clothes. She put on a witch’s costume that was similar to the one she wore in the film, and told children how she would cackle. Then we went to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe where she played the witch and talked to the puppets. She was wonderful woman.
We went to Russia when things were still tense in ’89. “Nightline” had done an overview of Russian television, and one of their children’s programs had been compared to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” So we located Tatiana Vedeneyeva to talk about her show, “Good Night, Little Ones.” Fred couldn’t speak Russian and Tatiana couldn’t speak English, but he learned how to sing, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” in Russian, and they sang it together. Then she came to the states and recorded one of our programs.
We did another show on Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann, who would often go to the Pittsburgh Ballet and work out with the ballet dancers. What dancers go through is very difficult and utilizes all the muscles. I thought it would be a good idea to show a football player mixing with the ballet dancers because that would break a stereotype. We also did a whole week on angry feelings and based it on the show “Stomp,” where they take household items like old pots and pans and make percussion instruments out of them. It gave children alternative ways of expressing their feelings. When Fred would get frustrated onset, he would play the piano. You always could hear when he was working through something. [laughs] He said he got his frustrations out through his fingertips.
How did “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” come about?
We wanted to carry on Fred’s legacy and have his message move on to future generations. Angela Santomero, whose company is Out of the Blue Productions, came to watch a “Neighborhood” taping when she was in college. She pitched the idea of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” to us, and in turn we submitted it to public television as a potential program. They knew who she was because of “Blue’s Clues,” and knew that her track record was fine. We couldn’t reproduce Fred, but we could take his gentleness and some of his ideas and characters and bring them to this show. The request from public television was to make the show animated. It has two twelve-minute stories interspersed with some live action sequences that somehow relate to the stories, such as a trip to a factory. People who grew up with the original “Neighborhood” will be able to recognize the characters.
Our company, Family Communications, Inc., has been renamed The Fred Rogers Company. Fred didn’t want the name changed because he didn’t want the attention on him. That’s how self-effacing he was. When he passed away, we thought the change would be another way for us to carry on his name. I think Fred would say, “Oh, okay…” [laughs]