Fred Rogers: The quiet neighbor with an impish sense of humor

Here's a fun Fred Rogers story that I sent to papers ... or, actually, that I will send to papers, whenever the AOL mail becomes unbroken. It's about a dandy PBS special Tuesday, March 6

By Mike Hughes

Television has had
plenty of people with big ambitions and big voices. It also had Fred

“He did have a
quiet power,” said JoAnn Young, who produced and wrote a special
that PBS stations will air Tuesday, early in their pledge drives.

There were many
things that separated Rogers from other TV stars. “He was really
such an unusual combination of interests and skills,” said Ellen
Doherty, production head of the Fred Rogers Company, which produced
the special and the animated series “Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood.”

Rogers -- who died
of cancer in 2003, at 74 -- was an ordained minister, a pilot, a
puppeteer ... and didn't watch much TV. “He went into television
because he didn't like it,” David Newell said.

If Newell doesn't
seem familiar, his TV name might. He was Mr. McFeeley, the postman.
That name came from Rogers' maternal grandfather, Fred McFeeley, who
stirred his interest in music.

Rogers had a thing
for names – some whimsical (Donkey Hodie, King Friday XIII) and
some not.

As “Mister Rogers'
Neighborhood” began, Newell said, a producer handed him a tiger
puppet. “Fred said, 'I'll call it Daniel,' her name was Mrs.
Daniel. And he put it through the canvas hole and he said, 'It's 1492
and that's when Columbus discovered America.' That's the first thing
he said.'”

It was 50 years and
two weeks ago, on a public-TV station in Pittsburgh, near Rogers'
small home town. It was live at first, then was taped ... and almost

“If something went
wrong on the show, like he couldn't do a dance move or he couldn't
put up a tent, he would just let it stay in the program,” Young
said. “Because he felt that children should see that not everything
can be done the first time around. And I love that about him, that

It wasn't what
people might expect. Yes, Rogers' quiet TV image was a lot like his
at-home personality, his widow (Joanne Rogers) said when “Daniel
Tiger's Neighborhood” was launched in 2012. Still, there was that
flip side: “He was whimsical and he loved to be silly.”

This was someone who
saw great value in play, Young said. “The playfulness of his
personality is so integral to the show.”

Newell recalled how
much Rogers enjoyed the crew's humor, from practical jokes to a
sketch that was concocted by the floor cew, including a young
Pittsburgh guy named Michael Douglas.

“Fred came into
the office laughing and he said, 'The crew just did the funniest skit
for me.' And he said, 'You know, that boy is going to be a star.'”

He was right. The
kid – who uses the professional name Michael Keaton, because his
own name was already taken – became a movie star. He also hosts
the PBS special.

That special also
focuses on the serious side. Quietly, Rogers introduced children to
other worlds. He asked Itzhak Perlman about his crutches and sang
with a boy in a wheelchair. Amid a turbulent civil-rights time, he
heard a young black man sing in a Pittsburgh church; for the next 25
years, Francois Clemmons played the neighborhood policeman.

Clemmons also
frequently showed his classical tenor voice. Rogers savored all sorts
of music.

“He was
classically trained,” Newell said. “His major (Rollins College,
in 1951) was in composition. But he appreciated Johnny Costa, our
music director, who was a genius jazz pianist.”

The greats performed
on the show, from Tony Bennett and Wynton Marsalis to Perlman and
Yo-Yo Ma ... whose son played piano with him on the show twice, at
ages 6 and 16.

Those were the only
times he did duets wth his dad, Nicholas Ma said. “It was because
Fred asked. There was no way I could possibly say no.”

This was, after all,
someone whose peaceful, fictional neighborhood he had grown up in..

-- “Fred Rogers:
It's You I Like,” 8 p.m. Tuesday, many PBS stations (check local

-- Most stations air
“Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood” at 9:30 and 10 a.m. weekdays; PBS
Kids airs it at 4 and 4:30 p.m. weekdays. “Mister Rogers'
Neighborhood” is available online