memories of everyone’s favorite neighbor

Susan with old friends Daniel Striped Tiger and David “Mr. McFeeley” Newell.

I feel as if I have known Daniel Striped Tiger my whole life, but I only met Mister Rogers’ first puppet in person in March when he and David “Mr. McFeeley” Newell posed with me for a picture at the Center for Theater Arts’ gala. Shy as always, old Daniel said nothing about his son’s upcoming PBS show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, but the tame tiger and Newell, the late Fred Rogers’ right-hand man, unleashed a flood of family memories that might have surprised Daniel’s creator.

My first memory is a guilt trip. You see, I am old enough to remember the predecessor to Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood—Josie Carey’s The Children’s Hour—but not old enough to forget that I didn’t like that show. This upset my mom, who was on an advisory committee to promote educational TV, as they then called Channel 13, because she wanted children, including hers, to be educated. Educated?  Wasn’t that why kids went to school? I wanted to be Annette Funicello not Henrietta Pussycat. “Can’t I puh-leese just watch Mickey Mouse Club? I whined.

My next memory redeems me, for when my daughter was small, I came to love Mister Rogers Neighborhood just as my mother had loved The Children’s Corner. How calming… what good values… and those songs, well, they just brought a tear to my good parental eye. OK, sweetie, you can watch Sesame Street and The Electric Company sometimes, but don’t bug me about Zoom or The New Zoo Review because It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood every day on Mister Rogers. I was thrilled to be in the audience for the taping of a conversation with Mister Rogers and impressed when David Newell, minus his Speedy Delivery uniform, joined a board of directors I was on.

My son-in-law’s Mah (he’s from Boston) must have liked Mister Rogers, too, as one of his memories reveals. Seems 6-year-old Ben was at the family’s summer home on Nantucket, probably sneaking a traitorous peek at The Muppet Movie and singing The Rainbow Connection (which he and my daughter danced to at their wedding), when there came a knock at the door. No doubt the ever-ready Ben switched the channel back to educational TV, by then known as public television, in case Mah walked in. Then he answered the door.

Omigosh, who was on the porch wearing Nantucket Reds and a comfy sweater but Mister Rogers—the real Mister Rogers. Ben pondered the situation. Was Mister Rogers there to see if Ben was watching the right channel? Was he there because he knew Mah was a fan? Was he there to invite Ben to meet Neighbor Aber, Chef Brockett and Mayor Maggie? The possibilities were unlimited.

But there was one possibility Ben had not considered. “Hello son,” Mister Rogers said kindly, as Ben’s eyes grew wider. “I am looking for Senator Heinz.”

Bummer. Mister Rogers wasn’t there to see Ben at all. He was looking for some guy named John from Pittsburgh who had rented their house the previous summer. Never breaking character, Mr. Rogers chatted for a moment with Ben and his Mah, patted Ben’s head and was gone, forever relegated to the TV screen.

Ben’s story has regaled many people over the years. But, when it comes to Mister Rogers memories, no one can upstage my stepsons.

When Lance and Sean, now in their 40s, were small, their dad took them to play basketball on Saturdays at the PAA in Oakland—the heart of Mister Rogers’ real-life neighborhood. As those who knew Fred Rogers confirm, he swam laps at the pool there daily. So the boys were bound to meet him sooner or later, they hoped.

Finally it happened. One Saturday, they were in the locker room changing, when around the corner strolled Mister Rogers in the flesh—and I mean in the flesh, for he was wearing nothing but his birthday suit.

Of course, the boys already knew from one of Mister Rogers’ songs that “Your body’s fancy and so is mine”; still shock and awe ensued, and whispers of “I saw Mister Rogers naked,” were rampant at Upper St. Clair’s Baker School for the next few days.

When Mister Rogers, still dripping from his swim, encountered the staring boys, he probably wished Lady Elaine would wave her boomerang, toomerang, zoomerang and make them disappear or that their dad had told them, “That  show is for girls.” But he just smiled and headed to his locker.

One of my favorite songs from the neighborhood is You Are Special, and I guess Mister Rogers did make the boys feel special—sort of how Janet Jackson’s fans felt when her wardrobe malfunctioned at the Super Bowl. And on the plus side, as with every Mister Rogers’ show, there was a lesson: Keep your pants on in public, or no one may want to be your neighbor.

The boys moved on to “classics” like Animal House and Weekend at Bernie’s, so I can’t promise they took that lesson to heart, but I can say for sure that those of us who grew up with Fred Rogers and his friends were lucky indeed. Thanks to Family Communications and Daniel Tiger Jr. for keeping up the neighborhood. Good luck with the new show.

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is scheduled to debut on most PBS stations in fall 2012.