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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Mister Rogers Neighborhood

Okay, so this entry is a little bit late, but the reason why is because I was really trying to come up with a suitable topic for today.  It has come to my attention that I have done so many entries on cartoons that I was trying to figure out which cartoons I haven't done blogs on yet.

So, I decided that I would flip the script a little bit.  Instead of doing a topic on a cartoon, why not take a look at a show that provided educational value?

And, certainly I had no shortage of topics in that regard.  After all, I did grow up on a steady diet of PBS and TVOntario during my formative years.

But what show would I choose? 

Oh, I know.  Why don't I do a blog on a particular neighbourhood?  A neighbourhood that I longed to be a part of when I was a kid (and quite frankly still long to be a part of as an adult).

I suppose that I should explain.  You know all of those scenes that you see on television or in film about those perfect little suburban neighbourhoods filled with the happiest middle class people you've ever seen and filled with tons of children playing in the streets?  Well...I never really had that growing up. 

I've mentioned this before in the blog, but my family was considered working class (and I suppose in some manner, they still are), and as a result, I recall moving around a lot when I was a child.  I think I lived in five different houses during the first five years of my life, because just as soon as we settled in, something happened, and we had to be forced to move.  Then when we finally did find a stable home, it was in a neighbourhood that had zero children, and a whole bunch of elderly people.  I mean, I suppose it was somewhat okay, as the elderly people were quite kind (well, MOST of them anyway), but the lack of children certainly was a struggle.  I suppose in one way, it was a huge factor towards my being unable to relate to people my own age.  I just never really had much experience with kids outside of school.

I guess there was just a part of me that wishes that I could be in a part of a neighbourhood where I could be liked and respected just for who I was, instead of being judged and critiqued by the neighbourhood watch, or being the subject of gossip by people who know no other way of life.

It was nice to know that for many years, there was one show in which I could feel like I belonged.  And, whether it be in the real neighbourhood or in some place called Make-Believe Land, I knew I was loved.

Okay, so let's hop on the friendly neighbourhood trolley and take a trip down memory lane to visit "Mister Rogers Neighborhood".

(NOTE:  I am adopting the American spelling for the title only, as that is how it is written.  Any other instances, the Canadian in me will take over.)

Now, the show itself enjoyed a really long run on television.  Believe it or not, the show debuted on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) fifty-one years ago in 1963!  At that time, Fredrick McFeely Rogers - who had just moved to Toronto, Canada from Pennsylvania earlier that year - was involved in a program known as "The Children's Corner", and when that series ended in 1963, a new series was set to debut later that year with Fred Rogers as the star.  The original name of the program was called "Misterogers", and it was scheduled as part of CBC's morning television block for three years before Fred decided to relocate the show to the United States.

TRIVIA:  One of the people who helped Fred develop 'Misterogers" was a man by the name of Ernie Coombs.  When Fred Rogers would relocate to the United States in the mid-1960s, Coombs stayed behind to create another popular kids' show..."Mr. Dressup".

And, would you believe that "Misterogers" set the tone for how future children's television shows would air?  Whereas most kids' shows in the 1960s relied on puppets or cartoons to get their points across, Mister Rogers felt instead that a better approach would be to appear on camera as himself so that the children could identify him the minute he appeared on screen.

And, it worked for me at least.  With his cardigans of many colours, I could easily recognize him and tell him apart from all of the other people who appeared on the show.

TRIVIA:  Do you know why Mister Rogers always changed his shoes from work shoes to sneakers on every episode?  It was Fred's idea.  He observed that his work shoes were too loud for the soundstage, so he opted to wear sneakers whenever he was filming in the house set so that he wouldn't make as much noise!

MORE TRIVIA:  Did you know that one of Mister Rogers' famous cardigans is on exhibit at the Smithsonian?  If ever you're down there, see if you can find it!

Of course, a neighbourhood wouldn't be a neighbourhood if Mister Rogers didn't interact with the community in some manner.  If Mister Rogers ever left the house to visit a library, or mailed a letter, or decided to learn about how a block of cheese was made, the camera would focus on a model of a small city and the camera would mimic Mister Rogers' foot movements by gliding from street to street.  

CONFESSION:  I always wanted that Mister Rogers Neighbourhood model city to play with. 

And, of course he would interact with all sorts of people in the neighbourhood as well.  Postman Mr. McFeely (David Newell) was always making "speedy deliveries" to the Rogers' household.  And, other people who lived in the neighbourhood were Betty Aberlin, Chuck Aber, Don Brockett, Francois Clemmons, Joe Negri, and others.  

Of course, those neighbours might not seem recognizable to you yet.  But whenever Fred Rogers got the hankering to play with the number of toy playsets that were scattered on shelves inside of his kitchen, you knew that you would be seeing their alter-egos soon enough.

After all, whenever the toy trolley on the track inside of Mister Rogers' house arrived, you knew that it was time to visit Make Believe Land.

Oh, and Make Believe Land was a wonderous place.  In the heart of the land was a gigantic castle belonging to King Friday the Thirteenth, the ruler of the land along with his wife, Queen Sara Saturday.  The heir to the kingdom was Prince Tuesday.  

Other puppet characters who called Make Believe Land home were Anna Platypus, Daniel Striped Tiger (my personal favourite), Henrietta Pussycat, X the Owl, and the hideous, freakishly scary puppet known as Lady Elaine!

AAAAAAHHHH!!!  That puppet still gives me nightmares.

Now, Fred Rogers himself never did appear in any of the Make Believe Land sketches, which makes sense.  After all, Make Believe Land was supposed to be a figment of Mister Rogers' imagination.  But Fred Rogers did provide the voices for many of the puppets of Make Believe Land.  I know he did King Friday XIII, Daniel Striped Tiger, Henrietta, X, and Lady Elaine.  In fact, Fred Rogers voiced as many as fifteen different characters in Make Believe Land.

And, Make Believe Land was a magical place where puppets would interact with humans.  And, naturally, all the humans of Fred's neighbourhood became characters.  Chuck Aber became Neighbor Aber.  Betty Aberlin became Lady Aberlin.  Joe Negri became Handyman Negri, and so on, and so forth.

TRIVIA:  Would you believe that a future Hollywood star got his first big break playing a character from Make Believe Land?  Michael Keaton played the role of an acrobat who performed in a troupe called "The Flying Zookenies" in 1975!  Who knew that fourteen years later, he would play Batman!

Now, the show itself ran a really long time on television.  After airing on a couple of networks throughout the 1960s, the show found a permanent home on PBS in 1970, and would air brand new episodes over the next thirty-one years, ending its original run on August 31, 2001.  Fred Rogers would pass away less than two years later, on February 27, 2003.

But his legacy will forever be known as bringing love and happiness to kids of all ages...and most importantly, stressing the idea that we are who we are, and that we should love being us.  Mister Rogers.  The King of Self-Esteem.

And, although PBS did continue to air the program after Fred Rogers' death, almost all PBS networks ceased airing the program in the summer of 2008, and on many affiliates, it hasn't aired since.  A real shame in my opinion, as kids today could probably still get a lot from watching the show.

So, that's why I'm going to end this entry off by posting a link to the farewell song that Mister Rogers would sing at the end of each episode.

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