For many parents, “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” provided a rare moment of relief, a half hour when they could count on the creatures that Lewis Carroll called fabulous monsters to sit before a television screen, completely absorbed by the gentle magic of the least charismatic wizard in the history of children’s entertainment. There is nothing at all mystifying about the appeal of Fred Rogers for adults. But for those of us who never experienced the show as a child, there is something bewildering about the hold of a man who, like Robert Browning’s Pied Piper of Hamelin, seemed to possess some kind of “secret charm” that drew children into his orbit.
It is no coincidence that “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” begins with a threshold experience—Fred Rogers opens the door, crosses over into another domain, and transforms himself through costume change. In the classics of children’s literature, the transition from reality to fantasy is often clearly marked by a gate, a door or a window. You reach Neverland by exiting through the window. In the film version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy has to open a door in order to reach Oz. Mary Lennox turns a key, pushes a gate and enters the secret garden. What Fred Rogers offered was probably the obverse of this threshold experience. Instead of feeling Mary Lennox’s excitement, Dorothy’s astonishment or the exhilaration of the Darling children, the child watching Mister Rogers experiences the reassuring repetition of a familiar ritual.
Ask children (and former children as well) what they liked about “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and you will learn about the power of that moment—when Mister Rogers takes off his jacket and tie, puts on the cardigan and laces up his sneakers. That scene, repeated in each episode, created a reassuring sense of predictability, intimacy, trust and familiarity in the double sense of the term. It didn’t matter what else happened. Mister Rogers had created in that moment a bond, a connection that made it possible to sit through the mind-numbing, quirky and often camp amusements that followed when you took the trolley into Make-Believe.
In an odd reversal of the rules of children’s entertainment, Fred Rogers favored the familiar. Although he sometimes took his viewers to the post office or to a factory, more often than not he stayed at home and remained in the mode of slow motion. That mode has its own magical quality, one that the German philosopher Walter Benjamin celebrated in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin reminded us of how close-ups of the objects that surround us, investigations of familiar places and attention to the hidden details of what is routine not only help us understand the realities of our daily lives but also open up “an immense and unexpected field of action.” It was Fred Rogers’ genius to recognize that children have a real capacity to explore the mundane, discovering the strange and wondrous in the familiar.
Yet Fred Rogers also recognized that the familiar space he had created was also a safe area for exploring topics considered taboo for children’s ears, subjects that adults discuss in whispers and hushed tones around children. “Did you ever know any grown-ups who got married and then later they got a divorce?” he once asked. And, after a suspenseful pause, Mister Rogers added: “Well it is something that people can talk about, and it is something important.” We all know that Mister Rogers had a gift for making children feel special, but his real talent came in the form of showing that there are lions, tigers, and bears, oh my, right at home and that, when you invite them in for a chat, they begin to lose their power to scare you.
Maria M. Tatar is Loeb professor of Germanic languages and literatures. She teaches Literature and Arts A-18: “Fairy Tales, Children’s Literature, and the Construction of Childhood."