My wife and I were a bit surprised when we received a thank-you note from Mister Rogers. I'd attempted to get him a copy of the book we'd written about children's parties. It had been passed from one children's entertainer to another until it reached a musical event where Fred Rogers was giving a keynote.
Six months went by and I'd assumed Mr. McFeely's speedy delivery service had mistaken our book for junk mail and tossed it.
Rogers apologized for the delay, explaining that he was a little behind in his correspondence. Our book was being added to his permanent collection. I was elated! His thank-you was going into the permanent keepsake file in our office.
In truth, I've kept more than his kind note. As a life-long children's performer, I hold his methods of communicating with children in my heart. His approach to interacting with young people went beyond "entertaining" them. He mirrored curiosity, kindness, thoughtfulness and wonder, respecting, accepting and celebrating the vulnerabilities and limitations felt by all children. He helped them to develop attitudes that would allow visitors to flourish as the years passed.
In the 1960s, television programming aimed at the younger set consisted of live shows hosted by ex-vaudevillians, comedians and radio broadcasters who had ventured into TV and meandered to the kid show niche. Most were just passing through this career phase on their way to more sophisticated adult programming. A few found the genre attractive and decided to specialize in the children's entertainment field.
Captain Kangaroo, Shari Lewis, Miss Frances, and Buffalo Bob Smith reigned among the most successful.
The Captain, Bob Keeshan, had begun his TV career as an NBC page, graduating to a stint as Clarabell the Clown, then transitioning into a Captain's costume. He was congenial, warm, and ever so befuddled by the other characters on his show.
Shari was a charming, aggressive, talented ventriloquist who communicated especially well with her adorable puppets. Miss Frances, the agreeable hostess of Ding Dong School, projected a friendly, if bland, nursery-school teacher persona. Technically innovative, her program kept cameras unusually low, giving home viewers a sense of watching from a child's perspective. Buffalo Bob, a veteran broadcaster, starred on The Howdy Doody Show. He was highly involved with marionettes, props, and juvenile situations, part of a cast of outlandish characters who chased one another around the set and got squirted from a seltzer bottle.
Mister Rogers brought something else to the screen. He didn't do gags, pratfalls or anything that smacked of show business. He was an explainer, not a costumed character, just a man, being himself. A person who enjoyed sharing his enthusiasms. These were contagious because they were genuine. That's the message that I got from him, that I've made the center of my programs for kids. Respect yourself and your audience. Be caring and be authentic.
What a wonderful way to approach life.