The Ministry of Mr. Rogers

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

a documentary film by Morgan Neville
John Beale/Focus Features
Fred Rogers and François Clemmons in an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, 1993

In his own remembrances, Fred Rogers’s childhood was a little sad, with a loving but overprotective mother and a father whose life was devoted to the manufacturing business he hoped his son would take over. Born in 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, an industrial suburb of Pittsburgh, and raised in a cocoon of wealth, the creator of the television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was often confined indoors due to asthma or fever. “I had to make up a lot of my own fun,” Rogers says in an interview included in Morgan Neville’s recent documentary film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? When he was ten, his grandmother bought him the Steinway concert grand piano that he would play his entire life. “Music was my first language,” he says. He found that he could express his emotions with notes: “I could literally laugh or cry or be very angry through the ends of my fingers.”

Following two years at Dartmouth, Rogers transferred to Rollins College in Florida to study music, after which he planned to become a Presbyterian minister. But in 1951, while home during his senior year, he experienced “this new thing called television.” As he recalls in the film, “I saw people throwing pies in each other’s faces and I thought, ‘This could be a wonderful tool. Why is it being used this way?’” Thanks to stock the family held in RCA, which owned NBC, Rogers’s father got him a job in New York, working variously with Kate Smith and Arturo Toscanini. Two years later, his father lured him back to Pittsburgh, where a family friend was starting up a public TV station.

Public broadcasting appealed to the minister in Rogers: he was concerned that profit-driven networks like NBC diluted arts programming, and he envisioned programming for young people with less slapstick, more meaning. By 1954, Rogers was producing The Children’s Corner, writing music and songs with his co-host, Josie Carey, and interspersing their performances with free educational films. One day, when a brittle reel broke on live television, Rogers poked a puppet through a backdrop and created the soft-spoken character of Daniel Striped Tiger, who through his own expressions of self-doubt gave voice to children’s fears. Daniel became a central fixture of that early show and the ones that followed.

Over time, Rogers became impatient with the casualness of The Children’s Corner. His family’s wealth allowed him to quit in 1961 and go full-time to the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He returned to TV in 1963, to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, where he developed the prototype of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which moved back to Pittsburgh and public broadcasting in 1968. “It seems to me that there are different themes in life,” he says at the start of Neville’s film, “and one…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.