Let’s board Trolley and revisit the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood TV show and TV series finale, hosted by the lovely and talented Fred Rogers. The show began on Canada’s CBC in 1963, with the title stylized MisteRogers.
In 1966, it first aired as MisteRogers’ Neighborhood on EEN. In 1968 the show moved to National Education Television (NET) which would be replaced by PBS. The title was eventually re-styled as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood TV series finale first aired 15 years ago today, on August 31, 2001.
Fred McFeely Rogers hosted the children’s show, which featured Betty Aberlin (Lady Aberlin), David Newell (Mr. McFeely), Joe Negri (Handyman Negri), Robert Trow (Robert Troll), Chuck Aber (Neighbor Aber), Bill Barker (Dr. Bill Platypus), Audrey Roth (Miss Paulifficate), Don Brockett (Chef Brockett), François Scarborough Clemmons (Officer Clemmons), Betty Seamans (Mrs. McFeely) and more.
My father (who, along with Mom, bought me the above album) was a self-employed carpenter and was generally home from work in time to watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with me. He particularly enjoyed Lady Elaine Fairchilde.
When I was cooking (or making a mess in the kitchen, or both) he would call me “Chef Brockett.” When I “helped” him in the garage or cellar, he would call me “Handyman Negri.” When I was pokey, I was “Speedy Delivery” (as well as “Flash Gordon”).
An older father at my birth, Dad was born 17 days before Fred Rogers and died 21 days before Rogers’ February 27, 2003 death. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers was a vegetarian, who neither smoked nor drank. None of that can be said of my father. Still, the two were — in the most important ways for a child — cut from the same cloth, woven of gentleness, acceptance, and loving kindness.
I was just starting to breathe after my Dad’s death, when Mr. Rogers passed away, three weeks to the day, later. I sobbed as if I had lost my father all over again. In a way, I had. We all had. I remember feeling there might no be one left who truly likes me just the way I am. Years later, I write this with tears streaming down my face.
I prefer company while I cry, so grab a hanky (like Rhett Butler, Dad always had one and I bet Mr. Rogers did, too) and watch Fred Rogers as he is inducted into the Television Academy 14th Hall of Fame, in 1999. Other honorees inducted that year were Herbert Brodkin; Robert MacNeil & Jim Lehrer; Lorne Michaels; Carl Reiner; Fred Silverman; and Ethel Winant. Even the worldly, celebrated stars in the audience are moved to tears.
The tribute begins with a clip of the classic Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood segment featuring Jeffrey Erlanger, then a young boy in a wheelchair (see below). This was episode 1478, which first aired February 18, 1981. In a candid conversation, Rogers talks to Erlanger about his challenges. The segment closes with the two singing, “It’s You I Like.”
Erlanger surprised Rogers at the 1999 induction ceremony. After Erlanger spoke, the tearful audience gave him a standing ovation. Rogers quietly asked him to stay on stage and support him, as he gave his acceptance speech. Erlanger died a little more than four years after Fred Rogers.
The take away from the speech is surely this: “Fame is a four-letter word. And like tape, or zoom, or face, or pain, or life, or love, what ultimately matters is what we do with it.”
While it was sometimes mocked as lightweight or saccharine, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was anything but. Do not be deceived by the host’s calming demeanor and deliberately quiet, slow delivery. Primarily aimed at children between two and five years of age, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood broached topics including death, divorce, disabilities, and feelings, including not just love, but shame, anger, and fear.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood TV Series Finale
The 31st and final season of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood consisted of only five episodes and debuted on PBS between Monday, August 27 and Friday, August 31, 2001. The theme was “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood Celebrates the Arts.” The Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood TV series finale does not contain a farewell message, because PBS wanted to be able to rerun it seamlessly, along with the other episodes. Watch it, now.
Mister Rogers Returns
Eleven days later, on Tuesday, September 11, terrorists hi-jacked airplanes and flew them into the World Trade Center in NYC and the Pentagon in Washington DC. Another plane was headed for the White House, but the passengers were able — at the cost of their own lives — to stop it.
Rogers returned soon after his TV series finale to record a public service announcement, with King Friday XIII’s castle as his backdrop. Gone, you will note, are Trolley’s tracks, because you cannot go home, again. The PSA is a message for parents, on how to discuss bad news with children. Watch.
About five months before his passing, Rogers returned to PBS on the one-year anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, with another message encouraging parents to help children express and deal with their feelings, in healthy, constructive ways. The Fred Rogers Company says, “This was one of his last recordings as he died from stomach cancer the following February.” Because of its privacy settings, the video cannot be embedded here. Watch it at The Fred Rogers Company.
If you didn’t have time to watch the entire Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood TV series finale, here is a clip of its final moments. Rogers sings, “It’s Such a Good Feeling,” as he takes off his sneakers, puts his dress shoes back on, and hangs up one of the sweaters (hand-knit by his mom) for the very last time.
I will sign off by noting that like Lady Aberlin and Daniel Striped Tiger, my mother and I would “Ugga mugga,” when I was little. This became such a part of “my” life I had forgotten “Ugga mugga,” came from Mister Rogers Neighborhood.
I continued “Ugga mugga-ing,” with my own three children, every night, when I put them to bed. My youngest child, who invented the “Ooblish” language at age five (long story), added to it. (I like to think that Mr. Fred Rogers would be proud of me for raising a son who used his imagination to invent a new language.)
We went from, “Ugga mugga, ugga mugga, ugga mugga, moo!” (we added the “moo” quite early on) to, “Ugga mugga, ugga mugga, ugga mugga, moo! Eergergh feergergh, eergergh feergergh, eergergh feergergh, meergergh.” We would bump the tips of our noses (rather than just rubbing noses) on the “moo” and “meergergh” parts.
It was only after this article was originally published, and I went on a Labor Day Mister Rogers deep-dive, that I realized/remembered (thanks to an interview with Betty Aberlin, here) the origins of “Ugga mugga.” Thank you, Lady Aberlin.
What do you think? Who did you watch the Mister Rogers Neighborhood TV series with? Did you watch the series finale? Do you think PBS should return the show to the daily lineup? Can you think of any other children’s television program that can compare?