Progress staffer reflects on ‘Mr. Rogers Neighborhood’ turning 50

Growing up as a child during the 1970s, there were few things outside of books available to my then-young demographic.

Saturday morning cartoons, the annual Charlie Brown Christmas special, and the rarefied animated Disney movie and, around northeast Oklahoma, vintage Popeye the Sailor cartoons on the tail of the locally-produced “John Chick Show” or after school, sandwiched between “Uncle Zeb” segments.

One bastion of children’s programming in the 1970s was found on PBS, thanks to the then-burgeoning Children’s Television Workshop, which gave us Sesame Street and the first incarnation of The Electric Company.

And then, there was “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.”

This Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the first episode of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.” Until it was passed by Sesame Street a few years ago, “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” had been the longest-running children’s show on television, from 1968 until it went off the air in August 2001, with amiable host, Fred Rogers inviting children into his home, talking to — not at — them, in a reassuring, always calm voice and demeanor, the likes of which hadn’t been seen before or since, and probably never will, at least not ironically.

For many people today, Fred Rogers is less an actual memory than a cultural blip or reference page on Wikipedia, but for those who grew up watching this kindly, sweater-wearing neighbor every day, he was a safe place to visit, someone who valued children and their feelings at a time when such a thing was considered groundbreaking.

For those who’ve never had the pleasure of watching an episode, one of the reasons it had such a long life was in its simplicity: a playhouse situated in the context of a neighborhood.

As children, it didn’t matter where Mr. Rogers lived — he could be around the corner, down the street, or in another part of the country, but he always felt like a neighbor. Back in a time when the adults all around you were angry or worried about the real life of Vietnam or Watergate or their jobs, meeting one — Mr. Rogers — in a familiar place every day was a comforting thing.

Fred would open each episode with the same, familiar theme, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” put on one of his iconic sweaters (all of them, made for him by his mom in real life), and spend a few minutes, one-on-one time, with the audience — the kids. There would be inspirational guests and recurring characters like the Speedy Delivery Man, Mr. McFeely (which sounds a little odd to adult ears, but “McFeely” was Rogers middle name), sing a song or two (Rogers himself wrote hundreds of tunes over the course of the series run), take educational field trips, and, with just a little imagination, take a visit to the Neighborhood of Make Believe to check in on its puppet-like (because they were actual puppets) inhabitants, such as King Friday, Queen Sara Saturday, Daniel Striped Tiger, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat and others, most of them, puppeteered and voiced by Rogers himself.

Mr. Rogers Neighborhood may sound quaint — even old-fashioned to the point of being corny — by today’s children’s entertainment mores, but with the benefit of hindsight, Mr. Rogers took a big, contusing world in which children felt overwhelmed, and shrunk it down into a neighborhood-sized version to which any child could relate to and explore, stirring our then-childlike curiosities and encouraging our imaginations while doing so.

While Rogers may seem, by today’s standards, antiquated, he was — both on his program and in real life — a figure that children could look up to, who would encourage children, who knew that they’d be safe in the company of, and who was ever-steady, and every optimistic about tomorrow. As he used to sing:

“Tomorrow, tomorrow, we'll start the day tomorrow with a song or two; tomorrow, tomorrow, we'll start the day tomorrow with a smile for you; til then I hope you're feeling happy, til then I hope your day is snappy; Tomorrow, tomorrow, it soon will be tomorrow and be our day, we will say a very happy tomorrow to you.”