My friends at NBC thought I was crazy," Fred Rogers would recall. It was 1953, and just a year out of college, Rogers was already a network floor manager on the fast track. But he'd watched his fill of pratfalls and pie fights. Certain that television could do more, he abandoned the big time for something new: A nonprofit
station. Sponsored by the viewers!
"Yep, crazy," they agreed.
Rogers headed home to Pittsburgh to help invent public television at WQED(TV). And, in one of the happiest accidents in broadcasting history, when it came time to create a kids show, nobody volunteered—except Fred Rogers and an actress-cum-secretary named Josie Carey.
debuted on April 1, 1954, hosted by Carey, who mostly introduced educational films. The set was a hand-drawn canvas, from behind which Fred Rogers played the organ music or, when the film broke, performed with puppets. As the aging films snapped more often, kids grew to love the puppets' improvised antics. For an hour each weekday, their personalities emerged: imperious King Friday, the irrepressible X the Owl, and the preschoolers' favorite, Daniel Tiger, who struggled to master a more civilized diet of hamburgers. When WQED invited viewers to visit the station, the turnout jammed traffic for hours.
Most performers would be thrilled by the big numbers alone. But ratings and rewards were distractions to Fred Rogers, who was already more concerned with communicating one on one, fascinated by how the tiniest details of TV could be reflected in children's play. In 1960, he studied child development as part of divinity-school training. The amazing Dr. Margaret McFarland encouraged him to share his music and puppetry directly with children. Fred and his puppets learned how to talk with preschoolers and, more important, how to listen. He emerged as the first Presbyterian minister charged not with a congregation but rather with serving families through television.
debuted in Toronto in 1964 as a 15 minute program for the CBC but returned to WQED in 1968. Developmental insights enhanced every aspect of the show, including the dependable change into sweater and sneakers, a ritual certain to delight preschoolers. Here was the original "reality television" as Misterogers
(which morphed into Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood
showed children the difference between his concrete Neighborhood
and Make-Believe, playfully shuttling between the two with his familiar Trolley.
Rogers could distill the most complex concepts into words that a preschooler could understand and accept. His famously gentle style, often parodied, was completely genuine but misleading. It masked a steely confidence that enabled him to talk with children about anything: the first day of school, a divorce, even death. So it was hard for his Family Communications colleagues to find the words last week when cancer claimed him, far too soon, at age 74. Somehow they managed, as he had every faith they would.
Those of us who had the privilege of working with Fred Rogers would often catch a glimpse of that faith. When the excesses of our medium drove him to despair, he liked to tell of the many others he'd met in the industry—actors, set designers, writers—who relish each opportunity to enhance the lives of others. He was far too modest to see how he had inspired them.
In recent years, Fred liked to describe the space between television and viewer as "hallowed ground." Once I asked him if he meant that as a producer or a minister. He smiled warmly at the question. "Yes," he said.