Fred Rogers and his old friend Officer François Clemmons soothe their feet together on program #1663

Zen and the Art of Make-Believe: A Date with Mister Rogers

The very same people who are wet sometimes
are the very same people who are dry sometimes
from ‘Sometimes People Are Good’

When I told my 11 year old nephew Andrew on the phone that I was writing an article about Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, he responded with a fairly devastating parody of Mister’s trademark low-key microscopic view of the mundane “..and look! There’s bubbles of air coming out of the fishes’ mouths! Let’s look closer, boys and girls...Isn’t it wonderful?” Andrew then suddenly shed the affectation of adult cynicism, conceding with a hint of nostalgic enthusiasm that the neighborhood of Make-Believe segments had been at least worth viewing, then finished by sharing the inside scoop that Mr. Rogers ‘is gay’ and ‘owned the Pittsburgh Penguins for a year’,

Such complex responses to Mr. Rogers’ deceptively simple oeuvre are not atypical. I first became aware of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood through a number of memorable parodies, particularly Eddie Murphy’s on Saturday Night Live. Subsequently, I began noticing a strange quality to the occasional soft news items about Mr. Rogers, such as the one in which he advocated the expression of unconditional love in settling labor disputes at his family’s tool and die company in Pittsburgh, cast regular Betty Aberlin’s laughing response to a tabloid’s attempt to dig up some behind the scenes dirt: “In real life Fred Rogers is exactly the person you see on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”. Soon I began watching the show regularly, and, after an initial period of harsh skeptical scrutiny, became addicted to the slyly insinuative anarchistic surrealism of, yes, the Neighborhood of Make Believe segments.

These portions, the central, conspicuously Fredless focus of each program, take place in a simultaneous parallel reality accessed by a shamanic trolley-ride through a tunnel to a neighborhood populated by a polymorphous array of animal puppets and live humans, of human puppets and live humans in animal costumes, of animal puppets in human costume, living in castles, trees, clocks, factories, jungles, and museum-go-rounds; in short, a shifting and centerless array of intermimetic archetypal identities and loci put in the service of whatever that week’s ostensible topic of discussion (When Parents Go Away, Monsters and Dinosaurs, etc.) might be, but always seeming to wind up reiterating that any thought or feeling is permitted expression in the realm of the imagination.

Right from the start, we have to observe that the two-to-five-year-olds at whom the program is directed are attempting to consolidate somewhat less baroque material than might spring to the mind of your fully acculturated adult. Thus, some of Mister Rogers’ injunctions and definitions trigger a battery of exceptions and reservations- I, for instance, have never felt that the policemen are there to help me- that might suggest the presence of an exclusionary, judgmental hierarchy. The Neighborhood of Make Believe is, after all, a monarchy. But this impression is wrong. As King Friday XIII himself has stated, “In this neighborhood everyone can decide for themselves what is best.” and Mr. Rogers’ aim is clearly to arm his viewers with a full and intimate knowledge of the status quo, and the powers with which to -oh so peacefully- overthrow it.

For while he never has the denizens of Make Believe act out any of the most transgressive impulses that wrack the pre-genital psyche, he allows all manner of equally disordinate slippages to occur, from the gleeful and elaborate cruelties of Lady Elaine Fairchild to improbable alliances such as the marriage of an aging human ‘drinking straw salesman’ to a talking starfish in order to provide grandparents (the straw salesman being the biologically related but previously absentee party) to a sad tiger. Such convoluted shapeshifting reaches its textual apex repeatedly in the recurring ‘opera’ events staged by the Make Believists, generally to some cathartic and laudably therapeutic end, but invariably a self justifying phansasmagoria of consensual permission in itself.

As I was becoming a connoisseur of the subtleties of the goings-on in this filigreed anarchist utopia, I began paying more attention to the bracketing segments of each episode; the parts where Mr. Rogers actually appears, setting up the thematic pins for the puppets to knock down, then clearing them away afterwards. I noticed the non-linearity of his thoughts- “A dream of being with your mom on the beach can give you a warm feeling inside BUT a dream of a monster is just a thought in your head, and not real” A reassuringly logical sounding sentence, but with a strange subtext: you can choose your reality from what you can imagine. I found myself wishing I had been exposed to this kind of programming in my infancy: ‘You are special. There’s only one person in the world exactly like you. People can love you just the way you are.’ It surely beats the tape loops most of us inherit.

Fred Rogers inherited this particular, most central loop verbatim from his maternal grandfather, Fred McFeely, a liberating presence in the overprotected life of a fat and sickly only child in Latrobe Pennsylvania, birthplace of Arnold Palmer and Rolling Rock beer. By the time Rogers was in his senior year studying music composition at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida in 1951, he had fully internalized the simple mandate for unconditional dignity. Returning home for spring break, he decided to check out this television thing, and was appalled by a children’s show consisting of people throwing pies at one another. In an instant of negative epiphany, between the frantic human degradation onscreen and his intuitive grasp on the vast potential of the medium, Mr. Rogers saw his future. He announced to his startled kin that, rather than entering Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in the fall he would move to New York and get a job in TV.

That he did, quickly working his way up at NBC studios to be a floor director via the Kate Smith Show, the Lucky Strike Hit Parade, and the NBC Opera Theater. With a substantial foothold on the ballooning fiscal cathode landscape, Rogers pulled yet another gear-stripping about-face by abandoning New York and commercial television to write and produce a children’s program for the nation’s first community supported public TV station- WQED in Pittsburgh. The Children’s Corner ran for seven years, garnering many awards before its writer/producer/puppeteer/musician, who only occasionally appeared onscreen, headed north to Toronto to debut a new program, Misterogers, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. After one season, Rogers was back in Pittsburgh, with an expanded half-hour version of his show on a regional educational network, which ran until 1967, when funding dwindled. Thanks to the Sears Roebuck Foundation and viewers like you, however, a newly revamped WQED program, now called Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted on PBS stations nationwide.

It is this signal event that will be commemorated with a special 30th anniversary series of new programs February 16-20. The immediate and continuing success of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (Lifetime achievement awards from the Daytime Emmys and Television Critics Awards, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the last year alone) is a remarkable anomaly in the history of television. The very antithesis of sensationalism, Mr. Rogers’ hypotensive talking head and gently fantastic storytelling inverts the traditional relationship between repetition and novelty in standard broadcast fodder, where numbingly monotonous social and aesthetic programming is gussied up with a plastering of convulsive perceptual difference, enough to keep the synapses snapping and no more. And while the public craving for semiological cortex candy has increased in a blatantly addictive exponential curve, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood has retained its stripped-down production values and air of restraint in their essentialist entirety (the passage of 700 episodes betrayed only by the discrete leaps in Fred’s hair color)-- in truth, a willingness to appear foolish and unfashionable; a calm, still presence at the center of frantic Global Electronic Culture.

Rewarding as it may be to us to filter Mister Rogers’ message through Lacanian views of puppetry or contrast his microscopic explication of overlooked everyday phenomena with the gnomic semiological involutions of Barthes, Rogers’ work remains curiously unscratched by such theoretical probing. It is the willingness to fall that sets Rogers’ work apart from that of most other contemporary cultural workers. Where surrealist and situationist rallying cries for imaginative individual and social transformation have been long kitschified through best-sellers and fashion, the Neighborhood’s anything but strident agenda continues to imprint itself on generations-worth of our most fundamental cultural constructions. Self-invention, mimicry, and strategies of plagiarism at the core of most post W.W.II cultural voguing, particularly in the arts and queer culture, are predicated on a radically dialectical model of human development wherein one’s most basic identity is a pattern against which to define oneself , with the unimaginable possibility of synthesis pushed into some distant future. What Mr. Rogers posits is an essentially good and absolute synthesis that lies below, so that, should we fail, we fail not into a shadow world of denied Otherness (that is, turning into our parents), but merely into a simpler and less comprehensive wholeness than the one we were attempting.

Much of the cultural blindness to Fred Rogers’ accomplishments is easily diagnosed. The very idea that everyone is special , nevermind just the way they are is anathema to most creative types. Most sophisticates crave reassurance that they have left the commonplace back on the farm, that they have elevated themselves to a rarefied plane of higher perceptions and abilities. Many seem drawn to the arts solely to acquire the socially potent aura of ‘specialness’ that surrounds creative activity. And not entirely without justification. Ethologist Ellen Dissanayake traces the central biological impulse of artmaking to the act of ‘making special’. In most cultures the separate, higher realm of the ‘sacred’ or ‘aesthetic’ serves in part as the standard against which everyday experience is defined. But in some cases, such as Balinese and Hopi cultures, the interpenetration of the sacred and mundane is so near total that virtually everything becomes special. And if art is no longer a specialty, who’s going to pay $70,000 for their kid to ‘learn’ it at a university?

By occupying the art medium of our time and reversing the flow of specialness juice, Mr. Rogers attempts to provide society at its most inchoate configuration with the power to transform life into art in every moment. And in simultaneously offering demystification of adult reality (most vividly in his visits to ‘neighborhood’ industrial sites, marble factories and peanut butter processing plants) and validation and permission to perform powerful interiorized work with the imaginative, without opposition or exclusion, Mr. Rogers is following in a tradition of subversive children’s media reaching back to at least ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Mary Poppins’, where the discomfiture of societal conformities are dwarfed by the infinite accommodations of the raging and invisible dreamtime. As the child is empowered to walk in both worlds at once, entertainment as distraction is displaced by a hypnotic and deliberate reintegration of amputated psychic parts, and the specter of social coercion evaporates. As public conventions and roles derive their meaning from the imagination, rather than vice versa, they dwindle to one of many aspects of serious play. To implant at the autonomic level the idea that Obedience should be a subordinate impulse to Whimsy, to capricious and unpredictable changes in direction- a principal that guides Mr. Rogers life as surely as it does his work- is an inversion of power structures at their deepest root.

Such integration must by definition embrace the contemporary bete noir of child sexuality, and though explicitly unspoken, it is this aspect of Mr. Rogers’ presentation that plays the goat for his more covert breaches of protocol. Apart from Andrew’s insight I have heard three independent accounts of children being forbidden to watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood because the host is ‘creepy’ and ‘perverted’. Mr. Rogers’ own testosterone-NOT delivery coupled with the deeply androgynous interspecial commingling of identities that characterizes The Neighborhood of Make Believe combine to strike a deep nerve in the cartoonishly exaggerated gender polarization of American society, which responds with what typically tribal policing techniques as can be rationalized appropriate to such an amorphous internal threat- i.e.: gossip and ridicule. But nobody really believes that Mr. Rogers molests children. The uneasiness reflected in the superficial name-calling and speculation betrays a much deeper response than the titillating distraction of forbidden love merits.

The sexual ambiguity and gentle hedonism of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is threatening because it is not advanced in opposition to anything but rather arises in adherence to a non-dualistic pre-verbal totality, and the redundant light in which our culture’s rigid gender stereotypes are thereby cast, however revolutionary, is only the tip of the iceberg. In insisting on only the essential, and insisting that what is essential is good in a way that precedes the duality of good and bad, Mr. Rogers, in spite of his Presbyterian roots, is testifying to a quintessentially Buddhist or Taoist cosmology. “What I’d like to know is how I can offer people silence.” he stated last year “That’s my big, big, big challenge.” By staying so close to the bottom, Mr. Rogers, in contrast to campy ‘common-sense’ moralizers like the Landers/Van Buren twins, hasn’t had to pull any about-faces to accommodate politically correct tokens of inclusiveness or pop psychotherapy fads. In fact, the longer Mr. Rogers cleaves to simplicity, the more he seems to be able to accommodate. “In the practice of the Tao” writes Lao Tzu “every day something is dropped. Less and less do you need to force things, until you finally arrive at non-action.” Through the power of Make-Believe, we need not banish either our most perverted fantasies or our most cherished truisms, not even our fear of looking uncool. In the coolest of media, the amniotic warmth of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a still and almost empty hub to our spinning collective cultural identity, renders all positions provisional between the fundamentally affirmative Alpha and Omega of being. And people can like us just the way we are.

Doug Harvey is fancy on the outside