Maxwell King’s The Good Neighbor explores the life and enormously influential work of Fred Rogers, the creator and star of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
You clearly did a lot of research for The Good Neighbor. What’s a fact about Rogers that most people wouldn’t know?
Most people wouldn’t know that, when Fred was about 10 years old, his maternal grandmother bought him an extraordinarily expensive piano. He loved music, and often played for his grandmother on his toy piano, and she told him how very good he was. Finally, she told him she would buy him a piano, expecting it to be a small, modest instrument suitable for a little boy. She gave Fred a ticket for the trolley, and he traveled to the Steinway store in downtown Pittsburgh. Fred spent almost three hours there; when he left, the salesmen chuckled among themselves that the little boy had picked an ebonized Steinway Concert Grand that could have cost as much as $60,000 in today’s dollars—they assumed his family could never buy it for him. When he told Nancy McFeely, his grandmother, she was shocked. But she had made a promise, and she kept it, trusting the child to be worthy of this faith and this investment. The little boy traveled back down to the Steinway store with a check. Fred Rogers kept this piano for the rest of his life, took it with him to New York, to Toronto and back to Pittsburgh, composed 200 songs and a dozen operas on it and played it joyfully for decades. And he let his grandmother know that her trust had changed his life.
What made Rogers such a genius at working with children?
Two things: authenticity and high standards. Children can tell a phony a mile away, and Fred Rogers was the opposite: an utterly genuine person. Rogers’ training under Dr. Margaret McFarland at the University of Pittsburgh gave him the background in child development and early childhood education to set the very highest standards for his programming. And his fierce commitment to excellence enabled him to sustain those standards for decades.
Can you tell us more about Rogers’ foray into programming for adults? Why did he want to do it, and how long did it go on?
After years of programming television for children, Rogers decided in the mid-1970s that he needed a break and that he might like producing issues programming for grown-ups to watch on television. But he never fully engaged or felt comfortable with it, and his technique—so extraordinarily powerful for children—wasn’t as successful with adults. He was relieved in 1980 to get back to his true calling.
What did your research reveal about how Rogers conducted himself as a friend?
Rogers was always concerned about treating everyone with great respect and being a good friend to whomever he was dealing with. In fact, he got up in the early morning each day to pray that he would be as good to the people he would encounter that day as he possibly could. And he readily gave his respect and kindness to everyone, whether they were homeless or the president of a large bank.
Why were puppets a part of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”? When did Rogers start developing those characters?
Rogers began developing his puppet characters as a little boy, performing his puppet theater in the attic of his parents’ home in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. And it was pure serendipity that led to his use of the puppets much later when he began producing children’s television. The night before his first program—”The Children’s Corner”—started on WQED in Pittsburgh, the station manager, Dorothy Daniels, gave Fred a small puppet as a gift. That puppet got used on the spur of the moment on the first program and then became Daniel Tiger, the first of many puppets Rogers would use on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
How did Rogers’ childhood in Latrobe shape his television program?
Everything on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”—the trolleys, the streets, the houses, the shops, the companies—all sprang from Rogers’ recollections of his childhood in Latrobe.
What did the number 143 mean to Fred Rogers?
Two things: his weight, all his life, and the expression “I love you.”
What’s one story you learned about Rogers that surprised you?
Fred got mad—not often, but sometimes. Once, he was so frustrated with a tape recorder—which he thought was going to erase an important consulting session with Dr. Margaret McFarland—that he swore at it and threatened to smash it. His secretary, Elaine Lynch, gently took it from his hands and got it fixed.
Why is Rogers’ legacy particularly valuable in our current cultural moment?
Because of all the stresses in modern life—rapid change, greater and greater complexity to society, the growing presence of technology, globalization—we live in a very tense, sometimes angry and hateful environment. Fred’s messages—there is nothing as important as human kindness, and there is nothing we cannot deal with if we just slow way down and talk to each other—are the most important, enduring truths of our time.
In what ways did Rogers’ faith inform his television program?
Rogers was always guided by his Christianity, and his strong values—human kindness, respect, caring, integrity, duty—all derived from his faith. But he was very careful, while emphasizing those values, never to preach or proselytize on the children’s program. And he became, as an adult, a great student of many of the world’s religions and philosophies. He was very happy to find that the same humanistic values showed up in all faiths.
What do you think Rogers would want to communicate to children today?
Be yourself, be full of love, and be full of the joy of life and learning.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Good Neighbor.
Author photo by Joshua Franzos for The Pittsburgh Foundation.