Six Degrees of Pittsburgh
I spent last Friday in the magical company of Joanne Rogers and a group of people from the Fred Rogers Company who worked with her husband as he made a program which would change the lives of millions. The gathering was in front of 300, mostly students, at the University of Pittsburgh, and as much as I thought I knew the story, it had even more resonance sitting just a couple of blocks where Fred Rogers as one of the early organizers of WQED started his first children's program with actress turned WQED secretary turned children's show host, Josie Carey.
Joanne shared how Fred had this idea at Rollins, where they met in college, that he could use this new medium of television to make a difference. She talked about how after they got married, he moved to New York where he worked as a floor manager on many TV programs, including a Western program starring Gabby Hayes. He asked Gabby how he spoke to millions of children each program. And Gabby said, "Fred, I don't. I just picture on buckaroo" out there.
But still, when Fred came back with Joanne to his hometown because he heard they were starting the first community supported public television show and got a job behind the scenes. When they asked who wanted to do a children's show, only Fred and Josie volunteered. They night before they started, Dorothy Daniels gave Fred a puppet which he put on his hand and became Daniel the Striped Tiger.
There was a sheet that they hung across as a set, and they cut a whole in it so Daniel could poke his head out and announce the time. But earlier on, the films that Fred and Josie were suppose to show as part of the show kept breaking. And so Fred and Josie would do "fill." The show was one hour, live, every day of the week, for $75 bucks a week. And "The Children's Corner" ran for years.
Then, a man from Canada, offered Fred his own show up there-- which is where "Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood" began. But Joanne and Fred didn't want to raise their children as Canadians, so they moved back to Pittsburgh in the mid-1960s where the show which would run four decades began.
There was so much to tell, and that is when Hedda Sharapan told the students how she signed up as an intern back then, and never left. And how David Newell, who had played Bimbo the Clown at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, was asked to come on as a production assistant and do props, and oh yes, Fred said, I would like to play a character who would make deliveries which Fred named after his grandfather, Mr. McFeely. (David was a young man, but played the character until he really was the age McFeely seemed.)
Elizabeth Seamans who played "Mrs. McFeely" said how she moved to Pittsburgh from Boston with the hope of getting a job with Fred. There was no job, but she kept at it, and eventually got to write scripts for the show, where she worked closely with Pitt's Dr. Margaret McFarland-- whom many spoke of with reverential tones as being key to the program in terms of child development. Margaret would tell Fred and Elizabeth exactly how young chidren would feel about certain things-- like food and pets-- and leave it to Fred to use his own creativity for ideas for the show.
Hedda handled the mail that would come in, and told the story of the boy who asked his
Joanne-- never happen again..