Behind the Scenes In Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood
By Keith Varnum
Keep me away from the wisdom that does not cry,
the philosophy which does not laugh and
the greatness which does not bow before children.
– Kahlil Gibran
Do . . . you . . . know . . . why . . . Mr. . . . Rogers . . . of . . . Mr. . . . Rogers’ . . . Neighbor . . . hood . . . TV . . . show . . . talks . . . so . . . very . . . slowly . . . and . . . very . . . clearly . . . and . . . uses . . . little . . . tiny . . . words?
During my college years, I had the privilege of working on the “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” show for WQED Public TV in Pittsburgh. As an intern, I assisted with the props and sets. One day while on a break from shooting, I asked Fred Rogers why he talked in such a leisurely, piecemeal way. What he shared with me, as well as what I observed being with him, gave me a fresh appreciation of commitment, compassion and integrity.
“Children understand us when we talk plainly and honestly to them,” explained Mr. Rogers. “I talk very simply to children because I want to communicate with them as young as possible. Even before children understand the intellectual definition of words, they absorb meaning from the vibration of each spoken word, the energy of the intention of the communication, and the feelings of the people speaking.”
This champion of children has been speaking to the hearts and spirits of youngsters since the beginning of commercial broadcast communication. Before television was born, Mr. Rogers was on the first radio station in the world, KDKA in Pittsburgh, with “The Children’s Hour.” His program later developed into “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” on public television. Now his slow-talking children’s show is on hundreds of television stations in the United States and in scores of other countries.
Fred Rogers relates to children naturally and intimately. He speaks from his heart directly into their souls. And they intensely love him in return. The depth to which Mr. Rogers touches children reveals itself when kids from around the country come to visit the television studio. Often I watched frightened children timidly step into the huge studio, closely hugging their parents, holding onto a leg or an arm. For a child, a TV studio is an intimidating room full of wires, cables, monitors, bright lights and scores of big people running around yelling orders at each other. Peering through this scary mass of adults, cameras and props, kids would catch a glimpse of Mr. Rogers on the far side of the set. Overwhelmed with raw enthusiasm, they’d tear free from their parents, climb over the cables, weave past all the equipment and jump joyously into Fred’s outstretched arms.
Somehow, Mr. Rogers always knew when a child was coming and would drop whatever he was doing to be ready to embrace them. Many times I saw kids leap several feet before reaching him, confident their loving hero would catch them once they reached his waist or chest. And Fred would always snag them—gently, reverently. Those children held onto him so tightly. Crying with delight, the kids would tell him repeatedly how much they loved him. Touching, holding and hugging this gentle, caring person—who had affected them so poignantly over the airwaves—was the thrill of their lives.
Often, after a short while, some parents became visibly jealous of the strong, open affection between their kids and the show’s genial host. Usually, Mr. Rogers perceived the emotions emanating from Mom and Dad, and graciously returned the child to the envious parents. However, when Fred missed his cue, parents would physically rip their child away from his embrace, making up some excuse about having to leave.
“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” has a very distinct purpose in addition to entertainment. In every episode of the show, Fred weaves a consistent connection of cooperation, caring, fairness, generosity, honesty, mutuality, trust, openness, spontaneity, courage and harmony between himself and the show’s characters. These qualities are the spiritual principles by which Fred Rogers lives and expresses himself consistently in word, feeling and action on his program and in his private life. He realizes parents may be lacking in some values or may not be available enough to instill these qualities in their children. Fred uses his interactions with the show’s puppet and human characters to introduce and demonstrate these values to kids as early in their lives as possible. Then, when children are older and their world expands beyond their home to adults and other kids, they have a solid spiritual and social foundation to draw upon.
Adroitly, Mr. Rogers never lectures his audience, but rather relies on his regular cast of puppet people and animals to present and implant caring concepts through playful adventures. When Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968, Mr. Rogers noticed most television stations were showing people grieving and wearing solemn dark clothes. In addition, radio outlets were broadcasting very doleful music befitting a nation in mourning. As an adult, he understood this somberness is the primary way our culture deals with death. However, he was concerned about the effect this perspective on death was having on children. Fred feared that the extreme national outpouring of grief and despair was sending a very one-sided, negative message to kids concerning death—one of overwhelming sadness, fear, abandonment and confusion. In order to present an alternative to the nation’s morose and bleak cultural perception of mortality, Mr. Rogers engaged the magic of his puppets.
What a great time the puppets were having playing with balloons! The puppets bounced and played catch with the balloons until the balloons became their friends. The puppets became such intimate friends with the balloons, they gave them personal names. Then, in the frolic and spontaneity of play, one by one the balloons were punctured. Some balloons deflated quickly. Others lost their air more slowly. Because the puppets were losing some of their balloon friends, they were sad. All they had left of their friends were limp, lifeless pieces of rubber. Afraid and confused, the puppets went to Wise Owl and asked him what was happening to their balloon buddies.
“Where did our friends go? We were having such fun! Now all of a sudden they’re gone,” the puppets cried.
Wise Owl explained that their friends were not really gone. They had just changed form. His analogy was straightforward and easy to grasp.
“First,” Wise Owl told the puppets, “before your balloon friends arrived, they were part of the Big Air. And when you all blew up the balloons, you helped bring this Big Air into the balloons. As the Big Air came into each balloon, it became one of your balloon friends.” Wise Owl tenderly explained to the puppets that in the course of living life, the balloon bodies of their friends were punctured and their essence went back to the Big Air. “Your balloon friends no longer need the balloon bodies because they’ve changed form. But they’re still around—in Spirit, in the Big Air,” consoled the feathered sage. “Can you feel them?”
“Yes! Yes! We can feel them!” the puppets exclaimed in unison.
The puppets’ fears were alleviated. They understood that a person might grieve when a friend dies, changes form and goes away. But death does not mean the end; it simply means a friend has changed form and gone somewhere else. Once again, Mr. Rogers’ young audience was given an alternative way to perceive an important aspect of life on Earth. And, as is his special talent, Mr. Rogers imparts a more compassionate and life-affirming way to embrace life than what is shown in much of ordinary commercial television programming.
Years later, I was delighted to come across an historical fact that revealed more of the casual, canny insight of this playful puppeteer. The word that Jesus of Nazareth used in Biblical times when he referred to death does not literally translate into the English word death. The Aramaic word Jesus chose to use means “not here, present elsewhere.”
The masterful way Fred Rogers used his puppets and the scope of his understanding of human nature were never more evident than when the puppets would counsel the technical crew of his television show.
The crew—mostly cameramen, grips and technicians—rarely talked directly to Mr. Rogers off the set. They did, however, mercilessly make fun of him behind his back for the emotional and expressive way he communicated on the show and in public. Fred was an easy target for the crew because he was such an open and, to them, vulnerable man who wore his heart on his sleeve.
Amazingly though, while Mr. Rogers was rehearsing the movements of his puppets before each show, these same macho, blue-collar detractors would surreptitiously sneak into the television studio and ask his puppets for personal advice! Speaking through the voices and personalities of Wise Owl, the King, Squirrel and other puppets, Mr. Rogers would dispense guidance to the crew members about extremely personal issues, such as being impotent or having serious marital or health problems.
Fred assigned me the task of keeping everyone else off the set until he, or rather the puppets, finished counseling a worker. From a discreet distance, I observed these “tough” men cry and tell the puppets their most secret fears and weaknesses. The men knew on some level, of course, that inside the puppet was the hand of Fred Rogers. The same men who would not talk to Mr. Rogers to his face would bare their souls to his puppet-covered hands! The genuine concern and compassion Fred expressed through his puppets to these workers was very moving to witness.
Later, in public, the same crew members he had counseled continued to ignore Mr. Rogers, as if the puppet encounters had never occurred. And Fred played along with their detached behavior, not giving any sign of personal connection with the workers other than as ordinary members of his crew. However, I did notice that, over time, the men who got the most counseling from the puppets participated less and less in the mocking of their boss behind his back.
Fred Rogers taught me how to communicate in the most profound and affecting way—heart to heart, soul to soul. He not only showed me how to convey messages through direct transmission, he modeled how to do so with clarity, love and integrity. By daily example with the children and crew, he demonstrates how to use authenticity of intention to connect with other human beings on the most fundamental spiritual level.
He aligns his eyes, face and voice to instill a potent and consistent tone to his sharing. He utilizes his body and gestures to carry the strength of his conviction. To express the lightness and accepting nature of his presence, he uses spontaneous laughter, play, fun and humor. He employs music, poetry, art and dance to share on still more levels and reach a broader spectrum of children—of all ages! His carefully chosen words, stories and actions were the outer expression of inner eternal truths that have served me well over the years.
I was, indeed, honored to hang with Mr. Rogers in his ‘hood.
This true story is an excerpt from Keith’s latest book, Inner Coach: Outer Power:
Forty-eight firsthand stories reveal the amazing creative powers within you that can heal your body, expand your heart, and attract phenomenal abundance into your life. Fresh and captivating, Keith shows you the practical, everyday use of levitation, alchemy, multi-dimensional travel, near-death experiences, out-of-body journeys, parallel realities and time-tripping. Spiritual teachers unveil their secrets to happiness. Ancient shamans impart how to manifest an easy flow of money. Angels illustrate how to heal the body instantly. Nature devas share keys to attracting soulmates. Spirit guides demonstrate how they can save your life in a crisis. Using his vast exploration as a healer, mystic, acupuncturist, urban shaman, filmmaker, personal coach, and seminar leader, Keith helps you become a real Miracle Maker!
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