Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Through his iconic television show, Latrobe, Pa. native Fred Rogers inspired children around the world with messages of kindness, compassion, and learning. Now, more than 50 years after "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" debuted nationally from WQED-TV in Pittsburgh, Rogers' legacy and teachings are more relevant than ever.

Mister Rogers with model neighborhoodSenator John Heinz History Center

Fred the Man

Fred Rogers pursued a career in television because he felt children deserved material better than the programming available at the time. He used his degrees in music composition and child development to create a unique program aimed, not at entertaining, but at communicating with children. Fred’s message of kindness pervaded his television program and his personal life as well. Countless people who interacted with Fred over the years have fond memories, whether a momentary meeting or a lifelong friendship.

Mister Rogers and PuppetsOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Puppets, central characters on the show, also held a special place in the childhood of Fred Rogers. As a child, Fred was often ill and confined to his bed, where he would play with puppets. Each puppet portrays a different personality type, making the characters relatable to a young audience.

"Goodnight God" sheet music (1955)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Music written by Josie Carey and Fred Rogers for the children's show "The Children's Corner." A 1950s fund raiser for the show allowed children to send in a drawing of the puppets and tape pennies, nickels, and dimes to it. Everyone who entered got a copy of "Goodnight God," signed by the puppet characters. Fred helped write the show, but Josie Carey was the host. However, many of the characters and set pieces featured on this show were used again on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Josie Carey and Fred RogersOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Fred and Josie explain how they put an episode of "The Children's Corner" together to WQED station visitors. "The Children's Corner" won the 1955 Sylvania Award for the best locally produced children's program in the United States. Fred and Josie worked on the scripts and music together.

William Schick Eagle Scout letters William Schick Eagle Scout letters (April 15,1954) by Fred RogersOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

In this letter, Fred informs William Schick that he is honored to be his Eagle Scout sponsor and looks forward to talking with him about his future. Honored at a dinner at the William Penn Hotel, each Eagle Scout attended with an individual sponsor from the community. Scout leaders matched scouts and sponsors based on shared interests. Due to Schick’s passion for music, troop leaders assigned Rogers as his sponsor.

Jon Halpern and Fred Rogers correspondance Jon Halpern and Fred Rogers correspondance by Fred RogersOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Despite Mister Rogers' busy schedule he took the time to answer many letters from fans. History Center volunteer Jon Halpern wrote to Fred from 1985 until his death in 2003. Fred and Joanne Rogers often bumped into Jon at the grocery store where he worked and where the Rogers shopped. These personal interactions are discussed in the letters, which Jon donated to the Heinz History Center.

Mister Rogers feeding the fishSenator John Heinz History Center

The Show

In February of 1968, the program "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood" made is national debut and became an immediate hit on public television. Rogers wrote each episode of the thoughtfully paced show, gearing them to young children. Each show illustrated a weekly theme, which played out both in Mister Rogers’ neighborhood and in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. In 2015, The Fred Rogers Company generously donated iconic set pieces from "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood" to the Heinz History Center. A selection of set pieces are on display and continue to promote the values and legacy of Fred Rogers.  

Mister Rogers' sweater and sneakers (c. 1980)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

No episode of "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood" would have been complete without “the sweater.” At the beginning of every show, Fred Rogers—singing his signature “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”—would go to his closet, take out a cardigan sweater and some comfortable sneakers, and put them on. At the end of the show, the whole ritual was reversed.

Mister Rogers in the Neighborhood of Make-BelieveSenator John Heinz History Center

The Set

WQED, Pittsburgh’s public television station, served as the home studio for "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood" throughout its 33-year run. Conveniently located in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, the studio provided easy access to the childhood development experts at the University of Pittsburgh, especially Margaret McFarland, who advised Rogers. Local artists constructed parts of the set, such as X the Owl’s tree, while other pieces, such as the living room couch and rug, came from Sears. Most of the set pieces remained the same for the run of the show, providing a consistent and comforting visual experience for the children who watched.

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Living Room setOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

The original living room set from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" includes the entryway where Mister Rogers began and ended each show and a typical living room from the 1970s. Mister Rogers sat on the bench to change his shoes at the start and end of each episode. This bench, as well as much of the set furniture, came from Sears, one of the early sponsors of the show.

TrolleyOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

X the Owl's TreeOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

This tree, a theatrical prop on the set of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," is where X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat lived.

King Friday XIII's CastleOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

King Friday XIII ruled the Neighborhood of Make Believe from this castle, also home to his family, Queen Sara Saturday and Prince Tuesday.

Mister Rogers tying his shoesSenator John Heinz History Center

The Cast

Mister Rogers’ cast had both puppet and human members. Fred created and voiced many of the puppets and developed each character that the cast members depicted. The cast consisted of people trained in public theater and television, as well as people Fred met and asked to participate on the show. Some of the cast have generously shared their memories of the show and donated the wardrobe and props used by their characters. 

Mister Rogers talks with Officer Clemmons and Mr. and Mrs. McFeelyOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Officer Clemmons also ran a music studio and in the episode depicted he is giving Mrs. McFeely a singing lesson as Mister Rogers and Mr. McFeely observe.

Daniel Striped Tiger buttonOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Button featuring Daniel Striped Tiger from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." According to David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on the show, and Margaret Whitmer, the show's producer, Daniel Striped Tiger is the puppet who most embodied the characteristics of Mister Rogers. Daniel Tiger's creation is also linked to the origin of WQED. On March 31, 1954, Mrs. Daniel, the head of WQED, had a party to celebrate the launch of the nation's first community-supported television station. Mrs. Daniel gifted Fred with a tiger puppet, which he named in her honor.

Chef Brockett's hatOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Don Brockett, who played Chef Brockett wore this hat and apron, one of many props on the show. Chef Brockett appeared in early episodes of the show as the owner/operator of Brockett's Bakery. Don suffered from the effects of polio, and the show did not shy away from discussing his disability. Fred made a point of having people on the show who used leg braces, wheelchairs, and other aids in order to destigmatize disability for children.

Painting of Joe NegriOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

A performer from a young age, Joe Negri began playing the guitar as a teenager and joined a swing band at age 16. He entered Carnegie Tech in the 1950s to enhance his musical training. From there he began a 40-year television career on KDKA before he moved onto WTAE, where he was an "on air performer" and musical director. Fans of the show remember him best as Handyman Negri on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," where he would play guitar duets with King Friday XIII and sing with Lady Elaine.

Officer Clemmons uniformOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Francois Clemmons sang in the choir at Fred's church. Fred asked him to play officer Clemmons on the show in its debut year of 1968. As a black man who grew up in a poor neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s, Francois did not have a positive image of the police. But Fred convinced him that this Officer would be a helper and spread a more positive message than what Francois had expererienced. Through their friendship, Clemmons educated Fred on the ongoing struggle for racial justice. Together they sent a powerful message in 1960s America when they soaked their feet together in a pool at a time when civil rights activists in the South still fought to integrate pools.

Fred Rogers, Francois Clemmons, and Burgwin Elementery school studentsOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Fred and Francois often sang together on the show. Here they entertain local school students who came to visit the set.

Mister Rogers putting on his signature red sweaterSenator John Heinz History Center

The Legacy

“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” remained a daily part of the PBS line-up until August 31, 2001. The show totaled 895 episodes, won four Emmy Awards, and Fred won the George Foster Peabody Award in 1992. He passed away on February 27, 2003.  His legacy still guides educators, creators of children’s television, and fans everywhere.

In Memoriam: A Requiem for Fred Rogers Program In Memoriam: A Requiem for Fred Rogers Program (2004)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Credits: Story

Thank you to The Fred Rogers Company.

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