Leaving the neighborhood

By Tyler Vincent

My friends, usually in this column we try to discuss and theorize on the “big news” items of the day.

And since much has happened since our last discussion in the spring, some of you may be turning to this page to see analysis on shark attacks or who’s bed have Gary Condit’s boots been under and why.

But alas, no. Because, perhaps the biggest news story this week, in my opinion, does not have to do with sex or whether or not the finances of the U.S. government are up a creek without a paddle or not.

It’s the passing of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” After more than 30 years on the air, the great Fred Rogers will hang up the sweater and the sneakers in the closet, marking the last time new episodes of the show will be taped. Re-runs will continue to run on PBS.

Many of you reading this may be laughing at the overly-simplistic quality of Rogers’ show. Or the fact that the show never changed. But it has been these qualities that are the true secret of Rogers’ success.

In the words of salon.com writer Joyce Millman, who wrote about Rogers for the online magazines “Brilliant Careers” series, “Outside Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, there has been Vietnam and Watergate, Chernobyl and Challenger, Ethiopian famine and ethnic cleansing, Oklahoma City and Littleton, Polly Klaas and JonBenet Ramsey. But inside, there is peace and calm, familiarity and safety. Troubling feelings and fears are gently explored. Reassurance is given.”

“The whole idea,” Rogers recently told Jeff Greenfield in a CNN interview, “is to look at the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who might feel that he or she needs it.”

Or as another magazine stated so long ago, “Mr. Rogers is the first show that you grow out of. And he probably planned it that way.”

Reports state that the last episode was not any different from any other episode that has run over the last 30 years. According to Doug Young’s Monday article in AP, the show’s producers said they hoped to transfer the show back to reruns “with little disruption to the three-to-six-year-olds who think of Mister Rogers as family.”

In many ways, Rogers’ television show was not only popular but revolutionary. Before the “Teletubbies” were making a half-hour show with five minutes’ worth of material stressing “repetition,” there was Rogers entering the door in basically the same style of outfit, singing the same song (“It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) and taking off or putting on his shoes and socks in the same manner.

Before fellow PBS veteran “Sesame Street” created a stir in the early ’80s with the “Death of Mr. Hooper” episode, Rogers used the death of a family pet as a means of conveying the heavy issue of death in terms his “neighbors” could understand.

When the Cold War was showing signs of slowing down in the late ’80s Rogers hopped on a plane to visit a popular Russian kids show in the same vein as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and told the host of the show that he and his viewers were “welcome in his neighborhood anytime.”

His songs touch on deeper subjects then the usual kids’ show “I Love You, You Love Me” jingles. Songs like “Everybody’s Fancy” and “You’re Growing” addressed kids’ concerns about the uncertainties of growing up. “Let’s Think of Something To Do” encourages kids to use their imaginations. And you and all your “grown-up” sophistication may sneer at “You’ll Never Go Down the Drain,” but there was probably a time when you were a little kid and needed to be convinced that you WEREN’T going down the drain during a routine visit to the loo.

And for those of us in the current generation of college students who love nothing more than to vehemently protest anything that is mass produced and sold by the so-called “multi-national corporations,” Rogers provides an example by not marketing his popular “trolley car” and various puppet dolls at all. There were no Mister Rogers posters or bedspreads. No talking Mister Rogers or Queen Sara talking dolls.

Not so much that Rogers was making a political statement. It just wasn’t what he was about. He probably lost out on making millions of dollars in the process, but then again his reward was probably having the only children’s television show that wasn’t trying to sell you something.

So while many of us can take heart that reruns of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” will be available to us to show to our children, with the fact that he will not be walking through that same door, in that same outfit, singing that same song, it isn’t that beautiful a day in the neighborhood.

So long, old friend.