March 8, 2008

Going Back For A Day In The Neighborhood

When Google Video first launched, it seemed like no matter what you searched for, the results were always 9-part interviews with public television pioneers by the Archive of American Television. Joan Ganz Cooney can keep waiting, but I picked and chose my way through Fred Rogers' tapes while I was working today. Here's some things I learned:

  • I knew that his middle name is McFeely, but I didn't know Fred McFeely was his grandfather, who owned McFeely Brick Company, which doesn't have much Internet presence apart from Mr. Rogers' own bio.
  • The sweaters were originally from his mom, who would knit sweaters for everyone each Christmas.
  • The sneakers were a vestige of his days on live TV, doing the puppets on Children's Corner, when he'd have to run from the piano to the puppet stage without making any noise.
  • He and Josie Carey, the on-air host of Children's Corner, got totally ripped off by a music publishing company, Bregman, Vocco & Conn, when they naively signed over the copyrights to dozens of songs in a songbook/LP deal.
  • Rogers was incapable of speaking a bad word about anyone, apparently, which means the excruciatingly careful praise he gave Bob Keeshan tells me he was not a fan of Captain Kangaroo or commercial children's television. The Street didn't even come up.
  • Later, in 1970, Rogers took control of The Neighborhood from WQED and set up his own production company after seeing his face on the side of a milk carton, some promotional deal the station hadn't bothered to tell him about.

    mister_rogers_puppets.jpg

    Which led me to check out Family Communications, Inc., the non-profit company that continues Rogers' mission and produces educational materials and programming and programs for kids, teachers, parents, and kid-contact professionals. Unlike Sesame Street, which has put its giant, merchandising cart before their programming horse [Elmo, Abby Cadabby, I'm looking at you], FCI has almost no licensed products at all. I mean, there are some. Mostly, there are books. And soft, kid-sized, non-authentic-looking puppets. And public television swag-style tote bags.

    mister_rogers_trolley_holgate.jpg

    There are a couple of sizes of trolleys; Holgate's fine-looking, exclusive, hardwood version has been in production since 1990. It's $60, and only 4x7x12, so it sounds a bit too collectible and pricey to play with, and yet it's not life-size or even an exact, scaled down replica.

    mister_rogers_blocks.jpg

    There is a set of Mister Rogers wood blocks, decorated with characters and scenes from the Neighborhood of Make Believe. Or with someone's perfunctory line drawing approximations, anyway. Am I the only one thrown off by the puppets having legs? And don't you think Lady Elaine Fairchild was sort of the pants-wearing type?

    I've watched on and off over the last couple of years, and there is almost no vintage stuff, either. Not toys, collectibles, artifacts, almost nothing. Certainly not compared to the stuff that's around for the 'Street.

    Brand-wise, Mister Rogers Neighborhood is run down and practically crying out for gentrification. As glitzy, expensive, over-designed properties are being developed all around it, The Neighborhood is a piece of solid, historic architecture, on a prime piece of real estate, that demands a careful, thoughtful restoration, not just thoughtful caretaking.

    There has to be a way to build on and expand the unique, honest, legacy of Mister Rogers without exploiting or diminishing the trust people place in him and the show. He mentioned not doing commercials because he didn't want to be a "huckster." One of the reasons I like the show so much as a parent is that there is no merchandise firehose pointed at my kid. But what about pointing it at me?? If I'm so special, why can't I buy some awesome, nostalgia-tinged gear, clothes and toys? For my kid, I mean. It's for the kid.

    Rogers spoke off the cuff about continuing the show after he was "gone," possibly by turning the puppets into costume characters and "coaching" people on the voices. After seeing how desperately lame Jim Henson's alter ego has turned out, maybe this isn't such a good idea.

    Still, he's our only hope. There is absolutely no way a TV show as non-commercial as Mister Rogers could emerge or survive today; this is it, the only one left. So can't we get some better Mister Rogers merchandise, so we can keep the dream alive?

    Family Communications, Inc. shop [fci.org]

  • 6 Comments

    I am a huge mr. rogers fan. Here is a great interview with him and diane rehm (2 of the slowest talking folks ever) http://wamu.org/programs/dr/03/02/28.php
    i love daddytypes, it's a breath of fresh air.

    Oh man, Mr. Rogers merch? Over the line, Smokey.

    [exactly. but does that mean the merch that *does* exist has to be so sub-par? -ed.]

    I don't think I would buy any merchandise (and let's face it, I am buying it for me, not for my daughter). Not to get all weepy, but he was the only thing I really loved on the show. Just him talking and singing and showing us stuff. So unless the merchandise is a life-size pitch-perfect android recreation of Fred Rogers, I'm probably not interested.

    [and if it were, I would be totally creeped out. -ed.]

    I wouldn't want to see more merchandise, although we have a cd of bedtime songs and a couple of books. I would like to see the show available for download on iTunes, though. The 8 shows that are available on DVD have been in heavy rotation for a while at our house. It would be nice to get some new ones. I would also love to see a compilation of factory tours.

    [factory tours. the kid LOVES those. -ed.]

    Oh, how I wish all of the episodes were on DVD... The factory tours were the best. My favorite was always the crayon factory!

    [the Sesame Street version is online, you know -ed.]

    I just re-discovered Mr. Rogers on public television and started recording it for my 4 year old daughter. I told her it was Mommy's favorite and now it is all she wants to watch. Thank goodness, because if I have to watch Dora or Barbie one more time I may scream. Not to slam current television offerings but really, do they even compare? She is participatory, interactive and very interested. Proof that today's kids can be entertained and more, learn timeless lessons without all the techno-glitz. Personally, I would love to see more and better memorabilia. Agree! I would buy! It would help reinforce her interest, and yes- it would be a fun walk down nostalgia lane for me too.

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