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Behind the Scenes in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

Do . . . you . . . know . . . why . . . Mr. . . . Rogers . . .of . . . Mr. . . . Rogers’ . . . Neighbor . . . hood . . . TV . .. show . . . talks . . . so . . . very . . . slowly . . . and .. . very ….

Do . . . you . . . know . . . why . . . Mr. . . . Rogers . . .
of . . . Mr. . . . Rogers’ . . . Neighbor . . . hood . . . TV . .
. show . . . talks . . . so . . . very . . . slowly . . . and .
. . very . . . clearly . . . and . . . uses . . . little . . .
tiny . . . words?

During my college years, I had the privilege of working on the “
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” show for WQED Public TV in Pittsburgh.
As an intern, I assisted with the props and sets. One day while
on a break from shooting, I asked Fred Rogers why he talked in
such a leisurely, piecemeal way. What he shared with me, as well
as what I observed being with him, gave me a fresh appreciation
of commitment, compassion and integrity.

“Children understand us when we talk plainly and honestly to
them,” explained Mr. Rogers. “I talk very simply to children
because I want to communicate with them as young as possible.
Even before children understand the intellectual definition of
words, they absorb meaning from the vibration of each spoken
word, the energy of the intention of the communication, and the
feelings of the people speaking.”

This champion of children has been speaking to the hearts and
spirits of youngsters since the beginning of commercial
broadcast communication. Before television was born, Mr. Rogers
was on the first radio station in the world, KDKA in Pittsburgh,
with “The Children’s Hour.” His program later developed into “Mr.
Rogers’ Neighborhood” on public television. Now his slow-talking
children’s show is on hundreds of television stations in the
United States and in scores of other countries.

Fred Rogers relates to children naturally and intimately. He
speaks from his heart directly into their souls. And they
intensely love him in return. The depth to which Mr. Rogers
touches children reveals itself when kids from around the
country come to visit the television studio. Often I watched
frightened children timidly step into the huge studio, closely
hugging their parents, holding onto a leg or an arm. For a child,
a TV studio is an intimidating room full of wires, cables,
monitors, bright lights and scores of big people running around
yelling orders at each other. Peering through this scary mass of
adults, cameras and props, kids would catch a glimpse of Mr.
Rogers on the far side of the set. Overwhelmed with raw
enthusiasm, they’d tear free from their parents, climb over the
cables, weave past all the equipment and jump joyously into Fred’
s outstretched arms.

Somehow, Mr. Rogers always knew when a child was coming and
would drop whatever he was doing to be ready to embrace them.
Many times I saw kids leap several feet before reaching him,
confident their loving hero would catch them once they reached
his waist or chest. And Fred would always snag them-gently,
reverently. Those children held onto him so tightly. Crying with
delight, the kids would tell him repeatedly how much they loved
him. Touching, holding and hugging this gentle, caring person-
who had affected them so poignantly over the airwaves-was the
thrill of their lives.

Often, after a short while, some parents became visibly jealous
of the strong, open affection between their kids and the show’s
genial host. Usually, Mr. Rogers perceived the emotions
emanating from Mom and Dad, and graciously returned the child to
the envious parents. However, when Fred missed his cue, parents
would physically rip their child away from his embrace, making
up some excuse about having to leave.

“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” has a very distinct purpose in
addition to entertainment. In every episode of the show, Fred
weaves a consistent connection of cooperation, caring, fairness,
generosity, honesty, mutuality, trust, openness, spontaneity,
courage and harmony between himself and the show’s characters.
These qualities are the spiritual principles by which Fred
Rogers lives and expresses himself consistently in word, feeling
and action on his program and in his private life. He realizes
parents may be lacking in some values or may not be available
enough to instill these qualities in their children. Fred uses
his interactions with the show’s puppet and human characters to
introduce and demonstrate these values to kids as early in their
lives as possible. Then, when children are older and their world
expands beyond their home to adults and other kids, they have a
solid spiritual and social foundation to draw upon.

Adroitly, Mr. Rogers never lectures his audience, but rather
relies on his regular cast of puppet people and animals to
present and implant caring concepts through playful adventures.
When Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968, Mr.
Rogers noticed most television stations were showing people
grieving and wearing solemn dark clothes. In addition, radio
outlets were broadcasting very doleful music befitting a nation
in mourning. As an adult, he understood this somberness is the
primary way our culture deals with death. However, he was
concerned about the effect this perspective on death was having
on children. Fred feared that the extreme national outpouring of
grief and despair was sending a very one-sided, negative message
to kids concerning death-one of overwhelming sadness, fear,
abandonment and confusion. In order to present an alternative to
the nation’s morose and bleak cultural perception of mortality,
Mr. Rogers engaged the magic of his puppets.

What a great time the puppets were having playing with balloons!
The puppets bounced and played catch with the balloons until the
balloons became their friends. The puppets became such intimate
friends with the balloons, they gave them personal names. Then,
in the frolic and spontaneity of play, one by one the balloons
were punctured. Some balloons deflated quickly. Others lost
their air more slowly. Because the puppets were losing some of
their balloon friends, they were sad. All they had left of their
friends were limp, lifeless pieces of rubber. Afraid and
confused, the puppets went to Wise Owl and asked him what was
happening to their balloon buddies.

“Where did our friends go? We were having such fun! Now all of a
sudden they’re gone,” the puppets cried.

Wise Owl explained that their friends were not really gone. They
had just changed form. His analogy was straightforward and easy
to grasp.

“First,” Wise Owl told the puppets, “before your balloon friends
arrived, they were part of the Big Air. And when you all blew up
the balloons, you helped bring this Big Air into the balloons.
As the Big Air came into each balloon, it became one of your
balloon friends.” Wise Owl tenderly explained to the puppets
that in the course of living life, the balloon bodies of their
friends were punctured and their essence went back to the Big
Air. “Your balloon friends no longer need the balloon bodies
because they’ve changed form. But they’re still around-in Spirit,
in the Big Air,” consoled the feathered sage. “Can you feel

“Yes! Yes! We can feel them!” the puppets exclaimed in unison.

The puppets’ fears were alleviated. They understood that a
person might grieve when a friend dies, changes form and goes
away. But death does not mean the end; it simply means a friend
has changed form and gone somewhere else. Once again, Mr. Rogers’
young audience was given an alternative way to perceive an
important aspect of life on Earth. And, as is his special talent,
Mr. Rogers imparts a more compassionate and life-affirming way
to embrace life than what is shown in much of ordinary
commercial television programming.

Years later, I was delighted to come across an historical fact
that revealed more of the casual, canny insight of this playful
puppeteer. The word that Jesus of Nazareth used in Biblical
times when he referred to death does not literally translate
into the English word death. The Aramaic word Jesus chose to use
means “not here, present elsewhere.”

The masterful way Fred Rogers used his puppets and the scope of
his understanding of human nature were never more evident than
when the puppets would counsel the technical crew of his
television show.

The crew-mostly cameramen, grips and technicians-rarely talked
directly to Mr. Rogers off the set. They did, however,
mercilessly make fun of him behind his back for the emotional
and expressive way he communicated on the show and in public.
Fred was an easy target for the crew because he was such an open
and, to them, vulnerable man who wore his heart on his sleeve.

Amazingly though, while Mr. Rogers was rehearsing the movements
of his puppets before each show, these same macho, blue-collar
detractors would surreptitiously sneak into the television
studio and ask his puppets for personal advice! Speaking through
the voices and personalities of Wise Owl, the King, Squirrel and
other puppets, Mr. Rogers would dispense guidance to the crew
members about extremely personal issues, such as being impotent
or having serious marital or health problems.

Fred assigned me the task of keeping everyone else off the set
until he, or rather the puppets, finished counseling a worker.
From a discreet distance, I observed these “tough” men cry and
tell the puppets their most secret fears and weaknesses. The men
knew on some level, of course, that inside the puppet was the
hand of Fred Rogers. The same men who would not talk to Mr.
Rogers to his face would bare their souls to his puppet-covered
hands! The genuine concern and compassion Fred expressed
through his puppets to these workers was very moving to witness.

Later, in public, the same crew members he had counseled
continued to ignore Mr. Rogers, as if the puppet encounters had
never occurred. And Fred played along with their detached
behavior, not giving any sign of personal connection with the
workers other than as ordinary members of his crew. However, I
did notice that, over time, the men who got the most counseling
from the puppets participated less and less in the mocking of
their boss behind his back.

Author: Keith Varnum

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