Mister Rogers Remixed

In my humble opinion, the video above is nothing less than inspired.  I really haven’t given a lot of thought to Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in years, my stepdaughter has outgrown his target audience now and we’ve moved on to video entertainments for her that are a little less pedestrian and simple.  But today, having watched this video, I miss it and the man who made it a reality for generations of American children.

It was just a day or so ago that I happened to come across the news that there’s a biographical movie in the pipeline exploring the life of Fred Rogers.  The idea that ten years have passed since the man’s passing and only NOW are we seeing something move forward on this subject amazes me.

If you’ve had enough curiosity to read my little bio or my LinkedIn profile pages, you already know that I was born and raised in Pittsburgh.  It’s where I’ve lived most of my life and my feelings I expect are very much the same ones that every normal person feels about their hometown.

Perhaps best known to the outside world for a reputation that involves steel mills, three rivers, a fairly successful NFL football franchise and a regrettable legacy of industrial pollution which – thankfully – is mostly a memory today, Pittsburgh is perhaps a little less well known for other things.

Pittsburgh was the hometown of Gene Kelly and Frank Gorshin; Michael Keaton comes from a directly adjacent suburb and rap luminary Wiz Khalifa and I attended the same high school (roughly 40 years apart, Wiz got the nicer-looking cafeteria…)

Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, from the Batman ...
Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, from the Batman TV series (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pittsburgh was also the home of Mister Rogers Neighborhood.  I know that because I lived there.  Literally.  I was one of Mister Rogers’ neighbors.  For real.  My house stood barely 40 yards from his property, we were separated by an alley, “Water Way,” which ran off of Hastings Street in the city’s middle class Squirrel Hill section.

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now please understand, we may have been neighbors but it’s not like we hung out together.  Fred was a married man, an ordained minister and, not incidentally, putting together this children’s television show over at WQED-TV, the first public television station in the country.

So there we were: Fred was busy figuring out just what it was he could and should do in crafting a distinctive offering for this new type of medium and there I was, just growing up through my childhood.

Jump forward now roughly 16 years, I am out of college with my precious degree and Fred is now a television institution in his own right, so recognizable that he is readily parodied by comics as diverse as Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live.

I’m having trouble getting my chosen industry to acknowledge my eminent need to become an overnight unqualified success and then my Uncle Martin, who sells print advertising to major institutional clients in the Arts Community, pulls a few strings…

Now I’m suddenly working at WQED-FM, reading the news during the morning drivetime program, “Sleepers Awake.”  It was on a volunteer basis, but hey, I was working in a major market and not in some jerry-rigged environment above a Tire Store or in a rural house trailer!  I was willing to accept these terms for the sake of getting my chops in at a real urban media outlet that would make for a killer resume entry.

And so it happens that one day, I’m ambling down the hall at WQED, heading for the elevator to go down to the FM Radio Station studios.  Guess who’s at the elevator?

He was even wearing the cardigan sweater.  This was as close as I had ever gotten so far in my career to a bona fide celebrity.  True, when I was at Syracuse University, the late Rod Serling of “The Twilight Zone” fame had walked directly past me just prior to lecturing about 600 of us packed into a lecture hall, but THIS, this was different.

Fred Rogers and I, we were peers.  I was working here.  We were colleagues.  I was determined to make some kind of impression on the man.

Thank God hydraulic elevators are excruciatingly slow to arrive…

I told him I’d grown up on Hastings Street in Squirrel Hill and that I had clear memories of the next door house in which he once used to live.

The man could have acknowledged me with a small brief nod of his head and the flicker of a smile.  He was well over 6 foot tall, which made him a little imposing.  He could have done absolutely nothing and pretended he hadn’t heard me.  He could have beckoned for security.  But he didn’t.

Instead, he turned and his face warmed up with a 100-watt smile.  And in that soft, simple voice that charmed children and parents alike he said, “Well then, we really were neighbors!  How about THAT?”

I was floored.  He sounded JUST LIKE HE DID ON THE SHOW!

It wasn’t an act.  It had never been an act.  He was the real deal.  What you saw was what you got.  It was an important lesson for me as I set out on the earliest chapters of my career in mass media: Be genuine.  Be real.  Be yourself.

A couple of decades later, when my wife-to-be and I met and courted, we discovered we had both spent time working at WQED, where she had been a security guard while studying at a nearby university.  (No, our tenures didn’t overlap…)

She remembered speaking with Fred (that’s how he insisted everybody should address him, as “Fred,”) and he recalling her personally from a visit she had made as a schoolgirl to the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” set.  He even remembered her name without being prompted.  He KNEW who she was.

Her impressions mirrored my own: he was nobody and nothing but Mister Rogers through and through.  He was the real deal.

He was a most remarkable man with a great well of faith that saturated, it seemed, his every breath.  Ultimately, he passed away about a decade ago.  There’s a small statue to his memory on the North Shore of the Allegheny River across from Pittsburgh’s downtown and not too far from PNC Park, the baseball field that is home to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Fred Rogers Memorial Statue in Pittsburgh,...
The Fred Rogers Memorial Statue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Created by Robert Berks, and opened to the public on November 5, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The video had an unexpected effect on me: I found myself missing Fred.  We never were more than momentary nodding professional acquaintances.  But he was certainly special to me and I remain convinced to this day that, for 30 seconds in 1976, I was special to him.

The Fred Rogers biopic is going to be a very closely watched project in Pittsburgh.  Whoever plays the lead will have to do more than just nail the voice, they’re going to have to nail the very spirit of the man.

Good luck on that one…

What memories do YOU have of Fred Rogers and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”?

And how do you like the remix?

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