From his unforgettable red sweater to the love of feeding his fish, the legendary friendly neighbor, Presbyterian minister, and all-around wonderful person Mister Fred Rogers delighted kids around the world for decades. In fact, it’s been about 20 years since the show came to an end, which can only mean one thing. It’s high time for a stroll down memory lane. You’ll come away at the end of this article as a Mr. Rogers expert, ready to amaze your friends with facts about this amazing and famous television leading man.
Sweet Knits and Hot Kicks
Mr. Rogers’s famous entrance into his living room set, as he sings the opening song, has him remove his coat, slip on a comfy sweater, and put on his sneakers. His never-ending supply of sweaters, available in plenty of shades, were all hand-knitted by his mother. According to him, he wore them to say hello to his mother.
Furthermore, he chose his sneakers as the shoes to wear while on the set because he would do a lot of the puppeteering in the show’s early years, and sneakers produced the least noise – great for moving around behind the scenes.
The Man and the Character
In Fred’s own words: “I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there was some way of using this fabulous instrument to be a nurture to those who would watch and listen.” Mr. Rogers wanted to use the TV to spread good messages, an idea that connected directly to his position as an ordained minister in the United Presbyterian Church.
Unless he was playing a puppet, Mr. Rogers behaved as his true self when on screen, believing children were smart and could tell if you were being authentic or not. “I believe kids can spot a phony a mile away.”
Did You Feed Your Fish?
One of the interesting things about 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' is he narrates what he's doing – specifically, when he's feeding his fish. He began calling out when he was doing this after he received a letter from a young blind girl, who was worried the fish weren't getting fed. Mr. Rogers began stating when he was feeding the fish so she could be at ease.
Fred Rogers had sympathy for the little girl, as he struggled with his own vision problems, specifically red-green color blindness, which makes it difficult to distinguish between red, green, orange, and brown.
What Wonderful Toys
Did you know the little red trolley that makes its once-an-episode trek around the tracks would travel about five thousand miles in one year of filming? Or that Daniel Striped Tiger's clock in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe didn't have hands? Mr. Rogers wanted kids to think it's any time they wanted.
Daniel Striped Tiger was one of the first characters Rogers created, and he appeared on 'The Children's Corner', the predecessor to 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood', and the latest generation still enjoys Daniel Tiger on 'Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood', an animated show which started airing on PBS in 2012. It won an award for Outstanding Achievement in Youth Programming!
One of the most famous parts about 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' is the interesting puppets, and there are plenty of cool facts to learn about these creations. For instance, Prince Tuesday is named such because he was born on a Tuesday, in episode #1117 (it aired on a Tuesday). Lady Elaine Fairchilde was a divisive figure, as plenty of children found her either creepy or inspiring. Various critics said her voice and appearance were disturbing, while others found her an early feminist icon.
Mother Audrey and daughter Adair both played a number of the puppets featured on the show, including Prince Tuesday, Swan Mother, Angelfish, and Audrey Cleans Everything.
Field Trips for the Audience
One of the common practices for the show was to go on field trips with Mr. Rogers, including a zoo, a museum, a factory, and a theater, along with a number of children so they can see the cool things up close. It's possible another legendary kids show, 'The Magic School Bus', took inspiration from this practice.
A fan-favorite episode is frequently the episode when Mr. Rogers visits a crayon factory. The children who went with him watched real crayons be made. The episode with the field trip (“Competition”) also had a drawing contest in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
The Renaissance Neighbor
When he wasn't working on his famous television shows, Fred Rogers might have been writing and playing music. Rogers authored more than thirty-six books, including 'Going to the Doctor', 'Moving', 'Going to the Hospital', 'Making Friends', 'When a Pet Dies', and more. Most of these books were written for children, to help them deal with life and difficult situations.
In addition to being a big fan of music, Mr. Rogers was a trained composer! He composed all the original songs from the show, and is noted as being a perfectionist when it came to the show's music. He believed children's programming deserved the same amount of attention and polish as adult programming.
A Lifetime of Friendship
'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' has won four Emmy awards, but the biggest award tied to the show was when Fred Rogers received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Daytime Emmys, in 1997. His statement, quite short compared to the other speeches, has had lasting impact, and brought tears to watchers and audience members.
“All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence, I'll watch the time.” When ten seconds passed, he completed his speech: “May God be with you.”
Even Animals Were His Neighbors
Fred Rogers loved all of God's creatures. Koko the gorilla became famous for her use of sign language and her legendary first meeting with Rogers. Koko watched 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood', and when Rogers entered her home, dressed just like in the show, Koko wrapped him in a tight hug, and, according to Mister Rogers, “She took my shoes off.”
Fred loved all animals, and proved it by being a vegetarian, famously saying “I don't want to eat anything that has a mother.” When a Burger King commercial parodied him, Mister Rogers very kindly asked them not to, saying the ads could confuse children. Burger King immediately pulled the ad.
An Unbeatable Piece of Pop Culture
As you might imagine, 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' became a famous television show the world over. Rogers was asked to appear on a Soviet Union children's show called 'Spokohnoy Nochi Malyshi' (Good Night, Little Ones). Mr. Rogers appeared as a character on a fictional show only one time, on 'Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman', as a minister and teacher. Rogers has gone on record saying he loved the show, which is why he accepted the role.
While the show was still running, a recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live featured Eddie Murphy on “Mister Robinson's Neighborhood.” While hilarious, the sketch also called attention to class and race issues.
He Helped the Parents, Too
While 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' was famous for tackling issues children worried about, and speaking directly to those children, Fred Rogers also created a show called 'Mister Rogers Talks To Parents About....'. The show spoke to parents, focusing on one topic at a time.
The show aimed to help parents deal with questions or problems children might have, the struggles and trials of childhood, parenting, and more. One of the most well-known of these episodes, #1101, discussed what happens when a pet dies. In the episode, Mr. Rogers held a small funeral for one of his pet fish.
The Real Man
Fred Rogers first studied at Dartmouth College but left to enroll at Rollins College in Florida, where he majored in music composition and met his wife, Sara.
When mad or frustrated, Rogers would mutter “mercy!” Even though Rogers was quite rich (his worth was estimated around eight million dollars at the time of his passing), he lived modestly, walking to work most days.
Named After the Man Himself
A Pennsylvania theme park named Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood was created after a partnership with the Fred Rogers Company, built with the intention of carrying on the Mister Rogers legacy. There are attractions such as a life-sized trolley leading to a life-sized Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and it allows visitors to interact with characters.
Mr. Rogers was a huge astronomy fan, and even has an asteroid named after him, 26858 Misterrogers. The International Astronomical Union dedicated the asteroid with a statement, praising Rogers for his tireless service to public television, the development of children, and his unique and enduring example of love and respect.
Rogers never shied away from speaking about treating people fairly, with love, and with respect, and 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' set these ideas in front of viewers on a regular basis. The show introduced a number of unexpected progressive ideas and choices.
It had one of the first African Americans (François Clemmons as Officer Clemmons for twenty-five years) in a recurring role on a children's series. Another example is breastfeeding: during an episode called “Food”, a number of animals, mammals, feeding from their mothers appeared on screen, including a human baby.
Years of Special Guests
'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' has had its share of memorable guests during its decades of episodes. Some of these include Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch on 'The Wizard of Oz' – Rogers wanted to remind children that even though she plays a scary character, it was just pretend, and that she was nice in real life.
Another example is Caroll Spinney, the actor who played and voiced Big Bird at the time. Rogers wanted Spinney to take the costume off on camera, but Spinney didn't want to ruin the illusion. Finally, horror-movie icon George Romero worked on the show, and may have even directed the very first episode.
A Music Fan for Life
Jazz pianist Johnny Costa worked as the Musical Director for the show for nearly thirty years, and all the music was performed live by Costa. Famous cellist Yo Yo Ma appeared on the show, where they talked about their love of music, and how it can help express emotions. Yo Yo Ma would go on to become the first recipient of the Fred Rogers award.
One of the most famous stories about Rogers has to do with music: while taking the subway in New York with a friend, school children saw him and started to sing “Won't You Be My Neighbor.” The entire subway joined in, singing along with the children.
True or False
Having been a public figure for such a long time, there are plenty of interesting facts, both true and false, floating around. Some are true and amazing, such as the fact Rogers swam laps every morning...in the nude.
Other facts are amazing, like how he was a sniper in the military and wore sweaters to hide his tattoos, but are FALSE. He never served in the military, and considered himself a pacifist. A story about Mr. Rogers' car being stolen – and subsequently returned by the thieves – remains unverified.
Mr. Rogers, The Political Man
In the late 60s, Mr. Rogers addressed the Senate regarding funding for public television. Despite only speaking for six minutes, he helped to ensure a twenty million dollar funding for PBS. After then-president Nixon suggested the funding should be reduced, Rogers concisely stated how badly this would affect the lives and learning of children.
John O. Pastore, the Chairman of the Subcommittee of Communications, said, “I'm supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I've had goosebumps for the last two days.” In addition, Mr. Rogers pushed for VHS, testifying before congress that people should be able to record their favorite programs.
An Enduring Legacy
Not long after he retired, Fred Rogers received the news he had stomach cancer, and passed away on February 27th, 2003, in comfort with his wife at his side. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette dedicated its front page to him the next day. Although he has departed, his show, theme park, spin-off Daniel Tiger, and more continue his legacy.
His production company decided on an interesting way to celebrate what would have been his 80th birthday. “Won't You Wear a Sweater Day,” and fans around the world wore their favorite sweater, and every year on March 20th the tradition continues.
You Can Still Visit Mr. Rogers
From the Hollywood Walk of Fame (awarded in 1998) to his family mausoleum – it bears the surname “Given” – in Unity Cemetery in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, which was also his birthplace.
After his death, a friend commissioned a statue in honor of the great man. You can find it along the North Shore in Pittsburgh, entitled “Tribute to Children,” and was created by Robert Berks. Finally, if you need to relax after a bad day, the PBS website has many original episodes available to watch still.
No Neighbor is an Island
Mister Rogers didn't begin life as an ever-loving master of happiness. His own mother showed him how the world could be wonderful and beautiful, even in the midst of tragedy. When young Fred would see something scary on TV, his mother told him “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Mr. Rogers grew up to become someone who was always there to help. He became part of the TV Hall of Fame, won numerous Emmys, and is one of the most famous people to ever work on a television show.
Mr. Rogers Thought You (Yes, You) Were Special
One of the most important things about Mr. Rogers is he thought everyone was special. Yes, that means you. “When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch,” he explained.
“That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.” His message still resonates today.
Love Takes Time
Fred Rogers was a cheerful man, but he knew life can still be tough and the world can be painful. He wanted us to realize we have to work hard at being a good person, loving others, and being happy.
Rogers always said that "love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like 'struggle.'" As we grow older, this message becomes something we must take to heart – the weight of the world wants to push us down, and we must stand against it.
Become Someone People Will Remember
Mister Rogers thought every person we meet should be able to benefit from our time. He encouraged people to leave a part of themselves with every person they meet.
If we love as Mister Rogers did, and leave part of that love with everyone we meet, think of how much better we can make the world.
Be a Good Neighbor
Once again, an amazing quote from an amazing man can push us toward being a better person, and a better neighbor. Civic duty was an important thing for Rogers, since he knew everyone needs help from time to time: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say 'It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.' Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider these people my heroes.”
Time and time again, Mister Rogers wanted others to be a good neighbor.
Life Doesn't End
A lot of things end in our lives – we move from school to work, from dating to marriage to parenting. But Mr. Rogers never thought anything ended. One thing leads to another, and life always continues. One thing ending leads to something else beginning, and there's always a way to continue.
Mr. Rogers often helped children deal with things like death or divorce, so he knew it was an important lesson for children to know. Life will continue.
A Peaceful Man for Our Time
“Peace means far more than the opposite of war.” Mr. Rogers was a pacifist, and he knew real, lasting peace could only come about if we actively engaged with other people, and tried to understand their views, and worked together to change the world.
He worked to tackle tough subjects in positive ways that helped children see other viewpoints, and believed we should focus on what can be done right now, and not necessarily could be. We can always improve our lives and the lives of people around us, even if we feel like fighting.
We All Need Our Quiet Time
Every episode of 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' began with Mr. Rogers speaking directly to his viewers. His slow, soothing voice became an important part of the show's appeal, able to inject a little bit of peace into hectic lives.
“Solitude is different from loneliness, and it doesn't have to be a lonely kind of thing,” Rogers once said. Everyone needs some time to calm down and be by themselves sometimes. Quiet thought and reflection can help us solve problems and figure out solutions, and the idea is in stark contrast to the spectacles that are today's television shows.
An Oddly Godly Man
Fred Rogers remained a deeply religious man until his death, and his views were not along the lines of mainstream America at the time (or now). One of his personal central tenants was everyone was a reflection of God, and refused to condemn homosexuality for that reason.
He turned away from using his beliefs to try and influence people, focusing on helping people be the best kind of person they could be and pray they would find faith in their own way. Many of the things he encouraged originate from his faith, and it's because of his faith he became such a beloved television figure.
Back in Washington
Before they became commonplace, and long before Tivo or Netflix, VCRs and VHS tapes were the subject of a debate. TV producers and studios fought against the ability to record, but Mr. Rogers once again appeared in front of the government and explained why it should be allowed.
His argument said that recording shows allowed families to sit down and watch together, and generate a dialogue, and enjoy their favorite shows when they all have the time. It's thought his testimony is one of the main reasons Congress decided not to side with TV producers and studios in the fight against VHS providers and recording.
Remember Koko the Gorilla? They Were Really Good Friends
One of the more famous episodes of 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' is when Rogers visited Koko the gorilla. The two loving creatures, man and gorilla, developed a lifelong friendship. Koko's caretakers revealed Koko loved to watch episodes of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and Mr. Rogers even considered the animal to be one of his children.
When Rogers passed away in 2003, Koko and her caretakers made a tearful final farewell to one of Koko's dearest friends.
No, Mister Rogers Didn't Flip Off the Camera
Again, no, Mister Rogers didn't flip off the camera. You may have seen this picture floating around the internet, of a young Fred with his middle finger extended and a big smile on his face. Of course, Rogers doesn't seem like the kind of man who would do such a thing, and watching the clip in context helps: Rogers is singing a song about counting on your fingers, and is even surrounded by children.
However, it does seem as if Fred knows what he's doing, and has a big smile – maybe he foresaw what would happen.
Mister Rogers knew children should get to play. While people sometimes think play and learning are separate – impossible to have both at the same time – Rogers thought play was the work of childhood.
Rogers believed that "play is really the work of childhood". He used play in his show to get children to try new things and open their minds, with the help of songs, games, and interactions with the audience.
While Rogers didn't talk much about his direct family when working on his show, their names popped up frequently, since he often named characters after family members both close and distant. Mr. McFeely, the Speedy Delivery man, was one of these names, Fred Rogers' grandfather.
Rogers naming characters on his beloved show was his way of showing respect to his loved ones. Even just with a simple name, Rogers practiced what he preached by making family part of what he had dedicated his life to. What a name to have, McFeely, and have it become something famous and beloved.
Another False Fact, Unfortunately
It's thought that an audio recording of Mr. Rogers arguing with his wife, in 1981, was unearthed, and the recording has Fred explaining frustration at the argument, but also telling his wife how lucky was, and how special she was to him.
While the “recording” seems exactly on brand for Rogers, there is no such recording. The image is from the webcomic 'XKCD', which parodied the rise of recordings and stories about the improper on-goings of famous people, with a twist, having Rogers be just as kind and respectful as we think in his private life.
Don't Give Up On Others
“How sad it is that we give up on people who are just like us.” Among the many smart, or even brilliant, things Rogers believed was the idea that we give up on people too quickly, before we understand the person or know who they really are. If we are able to really fully and truly understand who another person is, we will be able to stand with them and support them.
He thought we are all, essentially, similar, and by giving up on someone we give up on someone like ourselves. More words to live by from this wonderful man.
Exactly 143 Pounds for Thirty Years
Fred Rogers maintained an exact weight while he could: exactly one-hundred and forty-three pounds. Despite his hectic schedule of filming, writing, and responding to fan mail, he kept his weight at this figure for almost thirty years. Rogers had grown up as a chubby child, and wanted to maintain his weight and health.
However, Rogers chose this specific number for a wonderful reason. Writer Tom Junod took comfort in the number because “the number 143 means 'I love you.'” How, you may ask? “I” has one letter, “love” has four, and “you” has three. 143.
Public Television's Kind Savior
While also saving VHS and VCRs, Rogers also saved public broadcast television. In front of Congress, he thought PBS should stay funded to help children. Mister Rogers was more successful than he could have dreamed. After his testimony, Congress sat down to discuss the cuts they had been planning, but instead of cutting the funding to $9 million, they increased it to $22 million!
Thanks to his help Rogers' show continued to teach, inspire, and instruct children for years to come after his brave, civil, and heartfelt speech in front of some of the most powerful men and women in the nation.
A Hard Man to Interview
Mister Rogers was a hard man to interview. How can this be, you ask? He was humble, loving, genuine, and interested, you may say. He should have been the easiest man in the world to interview. In fact, these things are what made it so tough – he was always interested in getting to know other people, and that included interviewers.
Eventually Rogers' natural charm would win over interviewers, turning the questions they had planned on themselves, and telling Rogers about their families and lives. Rogers apparently had a photo album full of pictures he'd taken with interviewers, and would often become friends with them, checking in frequently.
A Subway Full of Song
One day, during a trip to New York, he tried to hail a cab. When none were available, he took the subway. He expected to go unnoticed, but we all know that wasn't going to happen.
A number of children recognized him and, afraid to introduce themselves, they began to sing the opening song of 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'. People of all ages soon joined in the singing, and the subway car became a full-throated choir. Mister Rogers grew a big, big smile, full of adoration for all the people respecting him. It may be he then realized his teachings now inhabited the hearts, minds, and souls of the people who had grown up watching his television show, children and adults alike.