Jim Wiener: Three Lessons Learned from Mister Rogers
In honor of the 50th anniversary of MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD, we asked Chief Programming Officer Jim Wiener to tell us about his experience with Fred Rogers, the show and the impact of the Rogers Legacy on generations of children. Here’s what he had to say:
THREE LESSONS LEARNED FROM MISTER ROGERS
50 years on the air, and another 14 years before that on television in Pittsburgh and in Canada, Fred Rogers taught us all a lot. And he did so in a sly way, passing on life lessons disguised as conversation. It seeped into our heads, only to percolate a day or two later. I was lucky enough to receive some lessons first hand.
First, some background. I worked at WQED in Pittsburgh 1986-1997. This was a huge station with well over 250 employees, producing national PBS series like NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, INFINITE VOYAGE and WONDERWORKS. And it also housed a separate production company: Family Communications, Fred Rogers’ group. They taped their shows a few times a year in a mammoth studio, and two set pieces were stored in the concourse, King Friday’s Castle and the Great Oak Tree, home to Henrietta Pussycat. Tour groups would come through, and whether they were kids or adults, they’d stop dead in their tracks. These old and worn set pieces were venerated shrines.
I’d usually run into him on the elevator, and would greet him with “Hey, Fred, what’s happenin’?” And he’d reply “Not much. How are things in YOUR neighborhood?” Yep, he was the same in person as he was on the television. He wasn’t just a gentleman, he was, quite literally, a gentle man.
Over the years, I’d work with many on his production team, and most often with David Newell (aka Mr. McFeely). He’d come to our studio to tape messages for public stations (“Speedy Delivery to you! Mr. McFeely here! Join me February 17th at WITF in Harrisburg…”). Handyman Joe Negri and Neighbor Aber did host breaks for many of our programs on WQED’s second station, WQEX. And when I produced a live special on PITTSBURGH’S ORIGINAL TELEVISION STARS, Fred Rogers made the “surprise entrance” late in the show. Many of these “stars”—newscasters, local talk show and kids show personalities, were big names in the city. But they all revered Fred Rogers as the local guy who became a national treasure, if not a global icon.
So here are three lessons Mister Rogers taught me.
TELEVISION IS ONE ON ONE— TO THE SEVENTH POWER
On a road trip through New Mexico, my wife and I were leaving one morning from a roadside motel in the one-streetlight town called Mountainair. We packed up, and my wife sat in the car while I checked out. When I walked back to our car, I noticed the door to our room was open, and a picture was being painted for me.
The maid was already cleaning up. Her 4 year old was there because the sitter wasn’t available that day — or any day maybe – so she had to tag along. And while mom worked, the daughter was watching TV, namely MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. The daughter was leaning against the bed, and instinctively knew when to lean forward when her mother put on the sheets or smooth out the bed spread. But her attention was glued to the man on the screen. He was talking to her. All in the middle of nowhere.
That demonstrated the power of reach. Years before the web, broadcast television could reach most of the country and virtually every household had one or more television sets. And, in so many of them, a little girl, or a couple of boys and girls, or even an elderly person, living alone, felt Mister Rogers was talking directly to them.
I told Fred Rogers that story a few weeks later, and he just smiled in wonderment. Of course he knew his series was viewed by millions, but hearing the story of making a connection to one girl while Mom was working… that truly mattered to him.
A FRIEND IN NEED IS A FRIEND, INDEED
This expression is usually interpreted as a friend who helps another with a problem is an especially good friend.
But I look at it as a true friend is one not afraid to seek out another friend for counsel.
One morning, I walked into the Family Communications offices to fill out a form for an autographed picture. This was protocol for employees, and when Fred Rogers would get a stack of requests, he’d fill them out (“To Michaela…” “To Brian…”), and staff would have a contact name and phone for pickup. But I couldn’t find the forms and no one else was in the office yet… until Fred arrived. “I’ll just do that right now. Come into my office.” Fred Rogers was the only person I knew whose office had no desk, but did have a recliner. The man liked to put his feet up while on the phone.
He autographed the picture of himself, then asked me if I could stick around. He had a problem. He was going into one of his two-week taping sessions, and it would be the first one without his long time musical director, Johnny Costa. Costa was a jazz pianist with astounding talent. Many jazz greats appeared on NEIGHBORHOOD shows simply because they wanted to meet “the white Art Tatum” who had no great ambitions to be a recording artist. He died in 1996 at the age of 74, and Fred was uneasy with it all. Johnny had always been there to play the credits and interludes live on tape, and now they’d have to re-use his recordings.
What could I say, but throw out the usual platitudes like “the show must go on,” “Johnny would have wanted it this way.” “Other NEIGHBORHOOD actors have died over the years like (Chef) Don Brockett. You adapted.” Who was I to be giving advice to the man millions looked to for advice and affirmation?
But Fred didn’t need any big answers, he didn’t even need a close friend to commiserate. He just needed a friendly face to talk to, and I was in the right place at the right time.
Many think it takes courage to just keep your problems to yourself. It takes more courage to seek a sympathetic ear in a time of need.
YOU REALLY ARE THE ONE AND ONLY
Nearly a year after I left Pittsburgh for Dayton, I went to the PBS Annual meeting and saw Fred Rogers from a distance in the lobby talking to a woman. I walked up expecting to catch his attention, and then after a few minutes realized that a crowd of folks from PBS and public stations nationwide were assembling with the same idea.
And yet, Fred Rogers maintained his focus on this one woman and never looked over her shoulder to acknowledge another soul. I didn’t recognize her—she could have just approached him and said how much she enjoyed his series or how much it meant to her family. And by God, he was going to give her his undivided attention until their talk concluded. How special would that make anyone feel?
OH, AND A FEW MORE LESSONS FROM ME
First, in my experience, there are three stages in a young person’s life, encapsulated in how they felt about Mister Rogers.
Ages 1-7: He’s wonderful. They’d watch him every day if they could. He could do no wrong.
Ages 8-17: Especially with boys, “He’s a wuss!” Very uncool to admit to liking the old guy.
Ages 17-22: “OMG, he was right all along!” The epiphany hit anywhere late in high school through college. The kids matured and smartened up. The lessons sunk in. Fred Rogers was in demand as a college commencement speaker, and he was a rock star getting standing ovations. Virtue wins out.
Secondly, in his final years, Fred Rogers was a public speaker who had an uncanny ability to cut through the noise and get adults to focus on his words. Everyone else just got louder. He got softer. And it worked.
And he had a habit of making them cry a good cry. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Daytime Emmys, and as he spoke, there were cutaways of glamorous soap opera stars with mascara running down their faces. PBS presented an award to LeVar Burton for his work on READING RAINBOW, and they played a tribute to him on the big screen from Fred. They came back to Burton. He was crying like a baby, as was half the audience.
Thirdly, Fred Rogers was not a saint.
My boss at WQEX had a seven-year-old daughter. He asked a former staffer who then went to work for Family Communications if Gabriella could sit in for NEIGHBORHOOD tapings. That night, my boss asked Gabriella about the experience. “It was very interesting,” she replied, then added “You know Mister Rogers swears when things go wrong… in his voice as King Friday.”
When technical glitches or missed cues slowed things down, even Fred Rogers could get a little testy. And apparently his puppets were downright ornery.
WQED’s studio crew regarded Fred Rogers with a reverence that approximated the kids in Boys Town and their regard for Father Flanagan. But they weren’t above playing a prank on him.
They asked for a quick rehearsal of the open, so Fred walked through his front door singing “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…” took off his sport coat, went to the closet for his cardigan, and opened the door… to a large inflatable woman.
Was the ordained Presbyterian minister surprised? Yes.
Was he shocked and appalled? He responded by reaching into the closet, pulled out the doll, and began dancing with it.
He turned the tables, and then it was a surprised crew that roared with laughter.
At the time I knew him, I was convinced that if Jesus came back to earth and made the rounds, there would be plenty of people and events that would prompt plenty of face palms. But he’d point at Mister Rogers and say “now THIS guy gets me! All that I taught, all those parables I told, and so many got it wrong. But not THIS guy! He walks the walk. HE is the genuine article!”
Fred Rogers wasn’t a saint. But he was the genuine article.