Monday, March 26, 2012

Mr. Rogers Goes to Washington

In 1969, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was in danger of having its funding slashed by Congress in a cost-cutting effort. Congress called for hearings on the matter and the issue rested on the testimony by children's television host Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers discarded the idea of simply reading the printed material and instead spent about six minutes speaking openly and honestly about the benefits of educational children's television to the US Senate Subcommittee on Communications, which was headed by Sen. John Pastore (D-R.I.), who was - until that point - unfamiliar with Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

Fred Rogers was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 1928, and earned a B.A. in Music Composition from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, in 1951. His original plan was to attend seminary, but during Spring Break of his senior year, he visited his parents in Pennsylvania and for the first time saw a television set, and the shows that were broadcast on it. He then told his parents that he wanted to enter the television business to bring a higher quality of entertainment. He later explained, "I got into television because I saw people throwing pies at each other's faces, and that to me was such a demeaning behavior. And if there's anything that bothers me, it's one person demeaning another. That really makes me mad!"

He applied for work in television in New York, and was accepted to work on various NBC musical shows, where he started on October 1, 1951. In 1952, he married Sara Byrd, whom he had met in Florida, and in the following year he moved to Pittsburgh, where he was co-producer and head musician and puppeteer for The Children's Corner. During his lunch breaks, he continued his seminary studies at the Western (later Pittsburgh) Theological Seminary; the ordaining body, however, was hesitant to ordain a minister who had no intention of starting or adopting his own church. A solution presented itself, however, in having the ordaining body produce a children's TV program itself as an outreach tool; however, the financing fell through and the concept was cancelled.

Fred Rogers had all of 24 hours to mourn this missed opportunity, as the next day, he received a call from Dr. Fred Rainsberry, head of children's programming for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, who had seen Fred Rogers and was impressed by the rapport he had with children. Rainsberry offered Rogers a 15-minute daily children's show to air all across Canada, and the show MisteRogers was born. The next year, Fred Rogers graduated from the seminary and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, and in 1966 he was able to move the shows to WQED in Pittsburgh, with a slight name change to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Two years later, thanks to a show-saving donation from Sears Roebuck, the show went national.

Rogers impressed Pastore enough to save Public Television's financing on the spot. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood ran for another 32 years, an entire generation, and Rogers himself won a Lifetime Emmy and, in 2002, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was the Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses parade the following January, and died about two months later, peacefully in his bed, with his wife of 51 years by his side.

Links and Sources:

The testimony of Fred Rogers before Congress, available on YouTube here.
A (long) interview with him appears on the Archive of American Television here.
Video of him accepting his Lifetime Emmy is on YouTube here.

The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, by Amy Hollingsworth, Thomas Nelson, 2005. The quote of Mr. Rogers is from this book.

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