for release Friday June 3, 2005
by Melodie Davis
Lessons from the Neighborhood
Do your children watch “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood?” Did you grow up watching it, or did your children?
I have two outstanding early memories of Mr. Rogers. My first was as a college work-study student at our local PBS station. I recall hearing a young, chain-smoking, hyper producer/director complain loudly during the half hour that Mr. Rogers was on in the background as he worked at the station: “I can’t stand him! He talks so slowly, he drives me up a wall.”
The beloved (by everyone else, it would seem) children’s TV program host died, of course, in 2003, but his work is still seen and, I dare say, his influence felt. At least we can hope it is.
My other memory is of my great relief as a young mother when I could have a respite from the exhaustion of motherhood by planting the girls in front of the TV, knowing that for a half hour, I could be “Mommy off duty.” They were also permitted to watch Sesame Street, and not much else.
I had a chance to “almost” visit Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood when I was in Pittsburgh, Pa. recently for a communications conference. Not a visit to the old set, which stopped production in 2000, but via a visit from Sam Newberry, associate producer, producer, and supervising producer over the years for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Instantly I recognized his face as one of the behind-the-scenes persons who occasionally appeared on the actual program to help Mr. Rogers demystify the media. Rogers always wanted kids to realize the difference between the TV world and the real world, and occasionally included his crew and staff on the set. Newberry said one time the production crew gaped as Mr. Rogers took an unscripted walk off of the prescribed “set” into the cameras and monitors.
Rather than jumping in to talk about what they were currently doing with the old neighborhood, Newberry turned the tables and asked us a question: “What are your memories about the program? We are trying to discover what there was about Mr. Rogers’ that made it so successful.” He said they were always seeking more feedback in their research for new media projects.
This, apparently, was something else that Mr. Rogers was a natural at: turning the tables, stopping any interview or appearance long enough to transcend his prescribed role, and start asking questions of a host, reporter, or interviewer. “What do you remember about your grandmother,” he would ask, and the reporter would get so absorbed they would come out and realized they hadn’t gotten any notes, according to Newberry.
When Rogers received a Lifetime Achievement award from the Daytime Emmys, Newberry said Rogers had wanted to have a minute’s worth of silence in the middle of the awards ceremony to help those in the audience think about all the people who helped them get to where they were today. His staff was nervous about how the Emmy producers would take it, and talked him into doing just ten seconds of silence. So, after thanking all those who had helped him to become the person he was, he deflected all the attention from himself and urged the audience to “Take ten seconds of silence to think of a person who has helped you along the way, and I’ll watch the time.” And he proceeded to do just that, watching his wrist watch for 10 long seconds—with many in the audience actually tearing up. If you are a show regular, you know he often has children observe a minute of quiet time on the program with Mr. Rogers “watching the time.”
Newberry insisted that Rogers was the genuine article—he was just as gentle with children, focused on people, and interested in everything and everyone as he was on the program. “But, he wasn’t a namby-pamby pushover,” Newberry cautioned. “He could be very forceful about something he wanted, or didn’t want to do.” At the awards ceremony, he observed the ten seconds of silence because he genuinely wanted people to think about those connections and relationships. It was his way of doing ministry with people.
He was, of course, an ordained Presbyterian minister first of all, and he saw his job as his spiritual ministry—no church steeple needed. Rogers died in 2003 at the age of 74 from cancer. The media called him a “cultural icon,” but I think his neatest trick, beyond completing 33 TV seasons and almost 1,000 original episodes, was that ordinary people and especially children just saw him as an “almost” real friend.
The beauty of this is that the programs are still being telecast—and of course you can get them on video, too. Adults can always learn something too: how to better totally focus your attention on who you are talking to, making others feel important, listened to, and cared for.
For more on what’s going on currently in the “Neighborhood,” visit www.fci.org
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Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
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