NOTE: This story originally aired January 15, 2016
Pittsburghers have a special love for Fred Rogers, the creator of the children’s television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It was produced at Pittsburgh’s public television station, WQED. A recent documentary about Rogers, and news of a feature film about his life starring Tom Hanks, have only intensified the warm, fuzzy feelings.
Michael Long says there was more going on in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood than meets the eye. Long, author of the book Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, the show wasn’t your typical children’s program. Read between the lines, and you’ll discover it was powerful social commentary that often took on the politics of the day—including environmental issues.
If you want to see just how political Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was, Long says you don’t have to look any further than the show’s very first episodes on PBS.
“Rogers was an uncompromising pacifist, and when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted nationally in 1968, Rogers used his first week of programming to share his anti-war beliefs,” Long says.
LISTEN: “Mister Rogers, the Quiet Environmentalist”
At the time, the Vietnam War was headline news. And Rogers came right out of the gate with an episode depicting a paranoid King Friday arming up for a war against a force he calls “the changers.” He even conscripts his own niece, Lady Aberlin, to guard his kingdom. But by the end of the week, Aberlin has convinced Friday that peace is a better option. And this, according to Long, is the heart of what Rogers’ “Neighborhood of Make Believe” was all about.
“Ultimately, in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, peace always wins out and justice always wins out,” Long says. “That doesn’t happen in the wider world. So what Rogers does through his programs is invite us into an alternative polis, an alternative society. That’s a political move on Rogers’ part.”
And Rogers used this platform to explore all kinds of issues: race, feminism, commericalism—and the environment.
“In 1967, there’s this environmental organization called the Pennsylvania Resources Council, and they run a campaign called ‘Don’t Be a Litterbug.’ So Rogers takes notice, and by the following year, he broadcasts episodes with an anti-littering message.”
In this group of episodes, it’s Lady Elaine Fairchilde that plays the foil in the Neighborhood of Make Believe—having to don a dunce cap when she refuses to stop littering. But it’s in 1990, Long says, that we see Rogers at the height of his creative powers on the environment—in five episodes where he explores the issue of waste and recycling.
“In 1990, there were still cities, a lot of cities, that didn’t require recycling. And this didn’t sit well with Rogers. So he develops this storyline in the Neighborhood of Make Believe where there’s a major crisis. And the crisis is that the neighborhood dump is overflowing with trash and stench.”
Rogers’ solution to the garbage crisis: goats.
“There’s a neighboring community called Northwood,” Long says. “And that’s where the goats live. And you know—and I do—that goats are experts in getting rid of trash. And the plan is that a team of highly experienced goats from Northwood will come to Make Believe and divide all the garbage so that it can be recycled. This is the way Rogers thinks. It’s beautiful.”
Long says this creative approach to taking on the issues was vintage Rogers. But it’s important to view these political episodes in context. Watch a clip on YouTube here and there, and you might miss what’s really going on in the subtext—because Rogers was most often reacting to issues of the day in subtle, usually allegorical, ways. Which begs the question: If Rogers were alive today, what issues would he be taking on on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood?
“Had he continued his trajectory of concern for the Earth, I can’t imagine Rogers not doing more episodes on the environment—especially given the importance of global warming. How he would do it—who knows? The guy was an incredibly creative thinker. He was very edgy. There’s no doubt about that.”
Edgy? It’s not a word many of us who grew up watching would use to describe the cardigan-wearing TV host. But Long insists it will be part of Mister Rogers’ legacy.
Michael Long is the author of Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers.