Friday, November 17, 2006

Behind the Music: Mr. Rogers

Some people have famous friends whose names they can drop and stories they can dine out on. I have Mr. Rogers. And I don't even really have him: I have a father who used to work with him.

My dad built Mr. Rogers' original sets (not the ones that you remember - this was before the show was nationally syndicated).

You would think that would make me pretty cool among my peers as a kid, wouldn't you? Sadly, it had zero effect on my social standing. In fact, on a couple of occasions, I found myself defending his honor against jeering "friends" and nearly coming to blows with them (but that's another story). But we did get Christmas cards from the Rogers clan for a few years, and I met him a couple of times.

Yes, he is exactly like that in real life, and much more genuine-seeming.

I had originally planned to take advantage of my celebrity insider-ness and share with you the story of how X the Owl got his treehouse. I have a friend who showed me some work she was doing for Elmo that involved a suspiciously Neighborhood-of-Make-Believe-looking tree. And I mentioned to my dad that I thought Elmo was stealing from Mr. Rogers, and he told me the story of how that tree came to be. However, my dad is writing his own book, and that story is in there, and we decided that perhaps it would be best if I didn't scoop his book.

So instead I'm going to tell you that, the first time I met him was in Buffalo, NY, and I was probably two years old. I remember seeing him there in the restaurant, and being shy, and finally blurting out, "did you know you're on t.v.?" He thought that was adorable, and when I met him again nine years later, he remembered that and mentioned how incredible it was that, in my childlike way, I really had thought that perhaps he was on television and he didn't know it. (Which tells you something about how kids imagine television. Bean* asked me today if we could go on television and never come back, and I realized that what he was thinking television would be like - a magical place in which one could exist only if one didn't also exist in real life - was far, far different from the studio that I had in my mind.)

What I also remember about that second meeting was that there was a very determined little boy in the studio who very much wanted King Friday for himself. He grabbed onto the puppet and held on for dear life, and Mr. Rogers managed to get him to let go without pulling or asking for help or even raising his voice. I'm sure it helps to be a television personality when a little kid has glommed onto your stuff and you want it back - the little kid just looked at him with big, round eyes and, after a while, let go - but Mr. Rogers deserves at least some of the credit for knowing how to be with young children.

I had little tolerance for the show once I turned six or seven, but Bean (I finally came up with a blog name for him!) is enjoying him now, and I notice and remember having been drawn to Mr. Rogers' gentleness, his dorky yet endearing way of moving, the way he is entirely willing to make a fool out of himself in order to capture the moment for a small child on the other side of the screen.

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