By the time “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was in its prime on PBS, most baby boomers were past the prime of their childhood. But before the show ended its 33 year run, most boomers’ children had sat in front of the TV and become Mister Rogers fans. Which means many boomers had had Mister Rogers in their homes. That would include Seattle journalist Tim Menees, but his connection to Mister Roberts ended up going far beyond the TV screen.
A cartoonist friend who, as I recall, had once played pro baseball… and even if he hadn’t, he looked like he had, with rangy, big hands, dark hair stylishly slick… phoned me long ago and opened with, “Hey, rag arm, was that you I just saw on ‘Mister Rogers’?”
I said, “Yeah, and what were you doing watching ‘Mister Rogers’?”
“Babysitting my granddaughter.”
I’d been a guest on Pittsburgh’s PBS station’s arts program, and David Newell— better known as “Mr. McFeely,” the delivery man on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood— stopped by the studio. He invited my family and me to watch his boss tape a show at the station.
We arrived midway through the taping and during a break, Fred Rogers came over. Our daughter Becky, then four, gaped at him. He said, “How are you, Becky?”
She said what anyone might, when confronting a deity: “Mister Rogers, I have new shoes!”
Mister Rogers said in his soothing Mister Rogers manner, “Becky, they’re beautiful but it’s what’s inside you that’s important.”
She nodded mutely, mouth open, because that’s how it goes when the clouds part.
Our son Timmy and I ended up on the show. Mister Rogers was taping a segment on divorce and we played customers in “Negri’s Music Shop.” We even landed speaking parts:
Mister Rogers: “Hi, Timmy.”
Timmy: “Hi, Mister Rogers.”
Mister Rogers: “Hi, Tim.”
Me: “Hi, Mister Rogers.”
We did our lines in one take, although anyone who has acted in a school play or local theater realizes how hard real acting actually is, and how effortless the pros make it look.
Fast-forward to last month, and an exhibit of photographs taken of Mister Rogers by a photographer friend of ours. He captured the star on the set, at home, and exercising before heading for work. Mister Rogers’ wife Joanne was in the crowd and I relayed the above story, and the following story, to her.
Several years after my “rag arm” call, the guitar player in an oldies band for which I played keyboard enrolled in the Presbyterian Seminary. During his time as a student pastor at a staid old church in Pittsburgh, he asked the rest of us to play on the morning he gave his maiden sermon. The subject was akin to,“What Music Has Meant to Me.” We set up front of the altar. On cue and to gasps from the pews, although it could have been stunned silence, we tore into a Little Richard classic. I pounded the piano and screamed (how else do you sing Little Richard?), “Lucille, you won’t do your sister’s will…“
After the service, as the congregation bolted for the doors, one of the flock walked over where we were standing. Exactly as he’d spoken earlier to my family and me, and conversed on TV with millions of children, Mister Rogers said to me, “Tim, that was wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing your music with us.”
I have long assured folks that the late PBS superstar was not some reality-TV-show fraud. Hopefully the Tom Hanks movie about him, which comes out later this year, will be true to that theme. With Mister Rogers, who you saw is who he was.
Special thanks to photographer Jim Judkis for his images of Mr. Rogers.