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:
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.
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.
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]