Me and Mister Rogers

culture / TV

Neighborhood watch

As a kid, I loved Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I had reasons to like the star; I was a quiet, gentle kid from southwestern Pennsylvania, and Fred Rogers was a quiet, gentle man from the same area. More importantly, I had precious few male role models in my family life, and Rogers modeled a warm-hearted, happy, self-assured masculinity that didn’t rely on mustering bravado or projecting toughness. Instead, he expressed his feelings, smiled and laughed, and freely shared his vulnerabilities. That gave me hope, as an insecure kid.

Of course, I eventually outgrew the show. Mister Rogers was geared for the five-and-under crowd, and I moved on to other series: Square One, Carmen Sandiego, Batman: the Animated Series.

Still, I retained an affection for Mister Rogers, and I would check in on his show from time to time, even as a teenager. It was reassuring to see his program continue, largely unchanged. Oh, his hair was whiter and his posture more stooped, but he was that same happy neighbor, beaming as he stepped into that familiar, dingy little sound stage.

The trolley, but bigger

My reentry into Fred Rogers’ orbit came from an unexpected angle: a summer job.

In spring of 1999, as my high school graduation neared, I needed to earn cash for college, but I dreaded the thought of another summer spent mowing lawns or slinging quarter pounders at McDonald’s. Fortunately, I had another option: the family-friendly amusement park near my house.

At the brief screening interview, I expressed interest in a “character” role—a park job that that involved performing a script, rather than pushing a sequence of buttons. I secretly hoped to land a job leading tours at the Wild West illusion house, where I’d get to create an over-the-top, old-timey character. (More importantly, I’d spend the summer working with my then-girlfriend, who was returning to that same role.)

To my dismay, there were no open positions at the illusion house. Instead, I was offered a job as the only male trolley driver on the park’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe” ride.

Yes, this was a real thing. The thirteen-minute experience piled thirty park guests into a life-size replica of the trolley from Mister Rogers’ show. This electric train trundled through a plywood tunnel and emerged into a humid, sun-dappled patch of forest. The track wound its way through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe, stopping at King Friday’s castle, the tree house of X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat, Lady Elaine Fairchild’s Museum-Go-Round, and Daniel Striped Tiger’s clock house.

My job was to “drive” the trolley through the Neighborhood and encourage passengers to engage with its animatronic residents. As our trolley neared, each character would emerge from its set and “talk” (i.e., play back a recording of Fred Rogers himself, in character). Pauses in their delivery were my cue to recite a well-memorized script.

The plot wasn’t exactly Shakespearean; at the first station, King Friday commanded us to invite every character we met to attend an imminent “Hug and Song” party. At each stop along the way, I would dutifully lead the passengers in the prescribed mantra: “Come along, come along, to the castle Hug and Song.”

I spent two full summers driving the trolley, and this routine grew very familiar.

For example, by my calculations, I recited that “Hug and Song” line tens of thousands of time. By the end of my second season, I could have performed the script in my sleep and knew precisely where there was room for improvisation.

By sheer repetition, I had also mastered the skill of trolley-driving: I could stop the massive train on a dime and could tell by feel when the tracks had been recently greased. I knew exactly how each scene was likely to malfunction, too: the Merry-Go-Round would fail to spin open, leaving Lady Elaine to squawk at us from inside. X the Owl’s door would get stuck. Daniel Tiger, true to his shy reputation, would stay hidden away inside his clock. I had even invented ways of explaining away these problems, satisfying curious kids and amusing parents with a knowing wink.

It was a good job, as park jobs go, and it kept me entertained far better than working the carousel or the roller coaster ever could have. Still, the work eventually grew tiresome, and as my second summer drew to a close, I was eager to disembark the trolley—permanently.

Meeting the man himself

There was one perk of trolley-driving I haven’t yet mentioned: we were treated to visits from the show’s stars. For example, more than once, Mr. McFeely (the Neighborhood mailman) dropped by. All fine and good, but that paled in comparison to the time that Mr. Rogers himself visited.

We spent the better part of a week sprucing up the ride for Rogers’ arrival. We swept and re-swept the loading deck, scrubbed down the trolleys, and washed the scene platforms along the track. Park maintenance repaired animatronic malfunctions that hadn’t worked properly for ages. Everything was well-oiled, crisp, and shiny when an elderly Mr. Rogers showed up, slim and hunched but not particularly frail.

There’s not much I can say about Fred Rogers himself that others haven’t written more eloquently. But it’s true what they say: his real-life personality was very similar to the one he projected for the TV audience. I remember that he smiled a lot and that he seemed genuinely interested in each of us college kids working the ride.

We lined up for photos (I still have that snapshot, somewhere) and accompanied Mr. Rogers to a nearby pavilion, where we shared a picnic lunch and said our goodbyes. It was a wonderful way to bookend my summer—and my twenty-year relationship with Mr. Rogers as his “television neighbor.”

Last thoughts

A few years later, I was heartbroken to learn that Fred Rogers had passed away. He had kept his stomach cancer a secret from the public and died soon after his diagnosis, at the age of 74.

Reading through his obituaries, I was astonished to learn that Rogers and I had shared a birthday. That’s a coincidence, of course. But it felt significant to me—one more thread linking me to a remarkable man. ■