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How Canada helped make ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’

The appreciatory renaissance of ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ is well under way. But viewers of the recent documentary may not realize that Fred Rogers's career may not have happened without Canadian influence.

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Fred Rogers pauses during a May 27, 1993, taping of his show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Gene J. Puskar/AP

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By now it’s well established that the new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is not just an entertaining portrait of the phenomenon that was Fred Rogers but an escape – back to a kinder, gentler time.

So it’s fitting that the roots of the beloved “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and its personification of the “good American” actually traces back to Canada – what many see today as the kinder, gentler country.

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Most Canadians (and Americans) might not know that the show started as a 15-minute program in the early 1960s on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that, crucially, brought Rogers out from behind the scenes, where he’d been working in Pittsburgh as a puppeteer, and on camera.

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His Canadian stint gets no mention in the documentary. But in watching it, Rogers seems to reflect the ethos of Canada itself. As Canadian children’s author Don Gillmor puts it in the National Post: “Watching the documentary about the late Fred Rogers, ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,’ he comes across as quintessentially Canadian, or at least the caricature we’re often saddled with: earnest, understated, well-meaning, a bit dull.”

That’s in fact Rogers’ life philosophy: In the documentary he explains that he didn’t feel he needed to put on a “funny hat or jump through the hoop” to relate to a child. The lifelong Republican also takes radically progressive stances. The driving message is simple: “Everybody was accepted,” says Cathie LeFort, the daughter of Ernie Coombs, the late puppeteer who accompanied Rogers from Pittsburgh to Toronto and stayed to start his own cultural following north of the border with the kids’ show “Mr. Dressup.”

“What is happening in all of the world is happening in Canada as well to some degree, but it’s definitely not as stark,” says Ms. LeFort, a Canadian-American who was the goddaughter of Rogers. “Canadians are viewed as the more open and kinder culture at the moment.”

Rogers was working on “The Children’s Corner” in Pittsburgh through the end of the 1950s when Fred Rainsberry, then head of youth programming at the CBC, invited him to do a show on Canadian television that they called “Misterogers.” It took a new direction from his work in the United States: Rainsberry coaxed Rogers to interact with children directly on the screen.

“Fred by his nature was a shy and reserved person, and humble too. So the idea that he would be a host of a television show and speak right into the camera, that did not come to Fred Rogers naturally,” says Junlei Li, co-director of the Fred Rogers Center in Pennsylvania. The new template would then play a fundamental role in how he viewed his role moving forward, Mr. Li says.

“Without it, he may have been a behind scenes producer, and musician, and writer. It is possible that we wouldn’t have had ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.’ ”

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In that coaxing, Rainsberry also taught a lesson to Rogers that he would impart to countless children: “That sometimes we need someone else to see more in us than we are able to see in ourselves,” says Li.

Mr. Rogers is not a character that Canadians grew up with, as casual conversations reveal after a recent showing of the documentary in Toronto. But his values were imparted to them through his dear friend Coombs, whose “Mr. Dressup” ran on the CBC from 1967 to 1996.

“When I watched that documentary, I was able to see how much of a mentor Fred was to my dad. And how much of Fred was epitomized in the ‘Mr. Dressup’ show,” says LeFort, who is fighting to have her father included – and indirectly the values he shared with Mr. Rogers – on Canada’s “Walk of Fame.” “He really epitomizes what the Canadian ethos is, that Canadians are kind, Canadians are open,” she says.

This is a recurring theme in the Rogers documentary. After acid was thrown in a swimming pool to keep out African-American patrons, at the height of race tensions in the US, Rogers shared a foot bath with Officer Clemmons, the local policeman portrayed by African-American actor François Clemmons. It was a direct – and radical – counter-message of openness.

That sense of tolerance is also celebrated about Canada today. When President Trump signed an executive order on immigration that became known by critics as the “Muslim ban,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent a counter-message, saying his country would accept 25,000 Syrian refugees. Toronto is celebrated as one of the most diverse cities in the world. “And I think most people see that as a good thing ultimately, that there is this diversity, that it has helped the city and it has helped the country,” says Mr. Gillmor, the author, in an interview.

Both have also been criticized for their limitations. With Canada’s “welcome” has come a more critical look at the harsher sides of national immigration policy and its hypocrisies. Rogers asked Mr. Clemmons, who is gay, not to come out because donors could pull their funding (though Rogers was also personally supportive of Clemmons, which was progressive for the era).

Ugly forces were whipping around during Rogers’ era just as they are now, and Li says the documentary’s success lies in the lesson it teaches about navigating that.

“He was someone who had such conviction and steely backbone, but yet at the same time embodied kindness and a sense of inclusiveness,” Li says. “In this time when it feels that strong convictions and kindness and inclusiveness don’t seem to go together, that strong convictions seem to split people … Fred somehow, his person and his story, exemplify that you can actually have deep convictions and be kind and welcoming and inclusive of your neighbors at the same time.”