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50 Years Later, Mister Rogers Remains Our Favorite Neighbor

Feb 18, 2018
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Fifteen years after his death, Fred Rogers is having a moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

FRED ROGERS: (As himself, singing) It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your favorite neighbor is about to get his face on a stamp, his own movie starring Tom Hanks and two documentaries. It's no coincidence tomorrow will be 50 years since "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" first aired on national TV. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this on the lasting legacy of the show.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: There were other kids' shows in the 1960s that had puppets and talked to kids. But "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was different. He was on public television, for one thing - no commercials. And he was relaxed.

ELIZABETH MAHONEY: He was never as obvious as those other shows.

LIMBONG: That's Elizabeth Mahoney from the University of Pittsburgh. For more than 20 years, she oversaw the Rogers archive - tapes of the show, scripts, puppets - cataloging data. She noted the show's soft, subtle repetition. The shoes always went on and off. The jacket was always traded in for a sweater.

MAHONEY: He really did create an environment that children were comfortable in because some of the same things happened every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

ROGERS: (As himself) Do you ever change your shoes when you come home from some place - oh, your school or your work or - get ready to play?

LIMBONG: Mahoney says Fred Rogers got help from a child psychologist named Margaret McFarland.

MAHONEY: She talked with him about the manner in which children see the world and thinking about, how can this 3- or 4-year-old understand my concept?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

ROGERS: (As himself, singing) Fences - the world is full of fences. And some I like. And some I don't like - the kind that keep me out.

LIMBONG: While the show was comforting, it also pushed against the status quo of 1968. "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was one where men baked cakes in the kitchen. Women wore army uniforms. Michael Long is author of the book "Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering The Countercultural Mister Rogers." He says the show dealt with the heavy topics of the time.

MICHAEL LONG: In 1967, just before the show debuted nationally, race riots were rocking the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: In a hundred places, Detroit is afire.

LONG: And at the same time, the Vietnam War was raging.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: In the weekend of last Saturday, 218 Americans died in combat.

LONG: And Mister Rogers decides that he's going to devote the first week of his national program to issues of war and peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

ROGERS: (As himself) Here we go, to make believe.

LIMBONG: On the first week of his show, there's this five-day story arc where King Friday XIII is preparing to go to war...

LONG: ...Because he's upset that things have changed in the neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

BETTY ALBERLIN: (As Lady Alberlin) Just because Lady Elaine made a few changes is no reason for you to set up border guards.

ROGERS: (As King Friday XIII) There may be other changers, and I refuse to let them come in.

LIMBONG: The king builds a fence with barbed wire around the castle. People are required to give their name, rank and serial number if they want to come over.

LONG: And so Lady Aberlin decides that she's going to exercise a voice of dissent. And she and another character in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe devise a plan whereby they're going to float peace balloons with peace messages attached to them. And these peace balloons are interpreted by King Friday to be paratroopers. And he calls for his armed troops to fire on these peace balloons.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

ROGERS: (As King Friday XIII) Fire the cannon. Fire the cannon. Man your stations...

LIMBONG: Eventually King Friday XIII acquiesces and accepts the messages of peace and change. From issues like violence to border walls to gender roles, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" has something to say to kids and to the rest of us 50 years later. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

ROGERS: (As himself, singing) Tomorrow - it soon will be tomorrow and be our day. We will say a very happy tomorrow to you.

See you then. Goodbye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.