Monday, March 03, 2003

Accepting Fred Rogers

Rege Cordic, Bob Prince, Bill Burns, Don Shannon, Hank Stohl, Patti Burns, Ed and Wendy King---depending on your response to these names, I can tell not only that you lived in the Pittsburgh area at one time (and if you grew up there, I've likely already spotted your accent) but when you lived there.

These are some of the legendary names of Pittsburgh media. Pittsburgh has more of a local culture than a lot of places, but like all cities these days, the cast of celebrity names is heavy with local media---the radio jocks, sportscasters, television anchors and weatherpeople, and the hosts of occasional local entertainment programs.

Few become known outside their city, and like these Pittsburgh icons, they almost never achieve anything like their local fame even if they go elsewhere. About the only exception in Pittsburgh was Fred Rogers. He became a part of childhoods from Alaska to Mexico for more than thirty years. He died in late February.

He was part of Pittsburgh TV just about from its beginnings in the 1950s. I was already in college when he began "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" as a local program in the mid 60s, but I'd seen his work---even some of the same puppets---watching Josie Carey's show for children in the fifties. He was that show's producer.

That's maybe the aspect of Fred Rogers that was least noticed---he was a TV professional. He started out on production teams---doing everything from fetching coffee to being floor manager---for early TV outings like the Lucky Strike Hit Parade and the Kate Smith show.

I remember seeing him in the late 80s or early 90s on a local TV retrospective of the early years in Pittsburgh, surrounded by other on-camera pioneers, sensing their camaraderie from the days when they had essentially created an industry. He was one of the few who was still working in TV by then.

Even though I spent some time at the WQED studios and lived in the same part of Pittsburgh for awhile as he did, I only met Fred Rogers once. The word on him in Pittsburgh was that while his company was a bit dysfunctional at times, he was a very smart guy with not a whiff of hypocrisy about him. He was genuine---genuinely Mr. Rogers.

I met him in 1996 or so, after watching the taping of one of his shows. Even then it was rumored that the neigborhood's days were numbered. His musical director, Johnny Costa (another legendary Pittsburgh name in music as well as TV), was ailing, and Fred was said to be inclined to fold the show if Costa retired. But he kept making new programs for several more years, until 2000.

Even in a brief meeting, you could tell he was one of those people who is alive to the moment. Some people have to fight through their self-absorption, their thoughts or emotions, just to see and hear and feel what's in front of them. He took in everything with his senses, which made him perfect for television, and perfect for understanding how children perceive the world. He could be vulnerable in front of the camera, and behind it he could pick out the shadow in the background of the camera shot that might feel threatening to a watching child.

He was way out in front in understanding the power of accepting children for who they are, and for children accepting themselves. Yet he fed their ability to change and grow by realizing that curiosity is the essence and the joy of childhood. He knew how much children sensed, and how much they thought about their world.

He used what he sensed to develop ideas about how to speak to children's concerns. Some of his on-screen rituals, like changing shoes, still seem weird to me, but he somehow knew their symbolic function for kids. It took considerable courage to do what he did. He was one of those rare people who seemed made for exactly what he was doing, and maybe not much else. It was mutual good fortune that Mr. Rogers found his neighborhood, and it found him.

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