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Mr. Rogers' neighborhood keeps on growing

AT a time when screaming and bashing ``Go-bots'' and ``superheroes'' are overrunning children's television, Fred Rogers remains a calm, quiet voice of humanity and reality. ``Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood,'' for 30 years now a fixture on public television, may be parodied by Eddie Murphy and Johnny Carson. Adults may occasionally snicker at its innocence, simplicity, and easy (some might say plodding) pace. But millions of children continue to watch it faithfully -- and millions of parents are grateful it's there to watch.

In the small, inconspicuous headquarters of Mr. Rogers' company, Family Communications Inc. -- a suite of rooms in the WQED building on Pittsburgh's Fifth Avenue -- a file cabinet overflows with letters from Rogers fans of all ages.

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One begins, ``Hello . . . I am 22 years old. I have a son . . . who is 15 months old. I have known you as my friend from watching your show.'' The writer then relates how ``Neighborhood'' shows dealing with such subjects as childbearing, grief, and moving helped her through some trying experiences. Another letter, from a young teen-ager, tells how the ``Neighborhood of Make-Believe,'' a regular feature on Rogers' show, inspired a successful classroom project.

Each message has the tone of someone writing to an old friend. And that, in essence, is the appeal of Mr. Rogers. People young and old instinctively trust him. Relaxing in an armchair in his rather cramped office, he sums up the philosophy behind his TV show: ``I set up to give the kids myself. If I were playing a part, that would be entirely different. . . . If you're yourself in the presence of somebody else, that person can feel it's all right to be himself or herself.''

That's true, in his view, whether the ``somebody else'' is the child sitting in front of the TV set or comedienne Joan Rivers acting as host on the ``Tonight Show.'' When Mr. Rogers appeared on the late-night talk show with Ms. Rivers, he spoke and acted just as he does in his ``Neighborhood'' segments. ``I even sang one of my songs for her,'' he remembers. The usually brassy Rivers listened attentively. Later he heard that friends of the comedienne had written to tell her that ``at last people could see the real you.''

Being oneself can produce on-the-air moments that radically depart from TV orthodoxy. Breaking into his familiar disarming grin, Rogers recalls one such moment after a guest appearance on the ``Neighborhood'' by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Mr. Ma had just finished playing a short piece. Rogers turned to his young viewers and said, ``Sometimes when you hear something so wonderful, you just want to sit and be quiet for a moment.'' And that's exactly what he did -- unheard-of behavior in the frantic, keep-the-eye-engaged world of TV.

What led this gentlest of TV hosts toward work with children? He ponders this one for a while. ``I think it was because I never closed the door on childhood myself,'' he says. From his earliest days in the business, working as a gofer at NBC in the early '50s, he'd spend time off visiting places that serve children -- orphanages, special schools, hospitals.

He still does that. Recently he attended a pageant at a local elementary school here and stayed after it was over to watch some of the kindergarteners play. He overheard one little girl say to a friend, ``Now you make the cookies because I'm making the hot chocolate.'' All they had, of course, were tinfoil pans, sand, tongue depressors -- and imagination. It ``struck me again,'' Rogers says, ``how universal play is.'' Similar boys and girls in similar circumstances might have said the same thing a half-century ago.

So while the surroundings of childhood may have changed considerably -- helped on by such phenomena as television and evolving patterns of family life -- the needs of the heart and imagination remain constant, he observes. ``Sure, some of the outward trappings of life are different, but you know very well what's important and what's basic.''

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What's basic, both on screen and off, to Rogers is helping individuals appreciate their worth. Illustrating this point, characteristically, by an anecdote, he remembers once telling his producer, Dorothy Daniels, that that day's efforts in the studio had resulted in ``the worst program I've ever done!'' Her reply: ``Fred, your worst is better than most people's best.'' The memory brings that soothing smile and the comment, ``Isn't it wonderful to have people who support you?''

Whether the day's ``Neighborhood'' theme is the passing of someone you love or learning that winning is far from everything, Rogers' goal is to give children that same kind of support. At the heart of his work, he explains, ``is an attitude about childhood -- a respect for growing personality.'' Children seem to sense this, which is why they're willing to sit for 30 minutes and watch ``someone feed fish and talk about life,'' as he puts it.

Many parents share that perception. ``It's parents of young children, watching over their shoulders, who are the ones who seem to best understand what we're doing,'' says Rogers. As a father of two grown sons himself -- James, 26, and John, 24 -- the responsibilities of parenthood are close to his heart. ``What's needed most of all,'' he says, ``is support for parents' innate desire to help their children grow.''

He's written a book on this theme, ``Mr. Rogers Talks With Parents,'' plans another to be called ``Mr. Rogers' Play Book,'' and is strongly in favor of such societal changes as flexible work hours to allow parents to remain at home with their infants.

Rogers' own neighborhood is an eastern suburb of Pittsburgh where he lives with his wife, Joanne, a concert pianist. The two met while studying music at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. Like his wife, Rogers puts his musical background to solid use; he composes all the songs used on his show.

Looking back on his long career in television, and especially on the array of friendships generated by his show, Rogers comments quietly, ``It's a fascinating life that I have.''

And its rewards? ``Just last night I went to the movies. A young man in line to get popcorn said, `You really are Mr. Rogers, aren't you? I had some of my best hours with you as a kid.' ''

That experience, he says without a hint of over-statement, left him nearly speechless with gratitude.

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