DPTV celebrates 50th anniversary of ‘Mr. Rogers’

Tom Long
The Detroit News

He was an innovator whose influence still lingers in the untold millions of lives he touched. He was beloved by young and old, rich and poor; his appeal transcended class and race, religion and political belief. He was extraordinary and oh-so-ordinary.

Fred Rogers on the colorful set of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

But what’s striking at this juncture in history, with all the dissonance and distress plaguing American life, is just how flat-out decent a human being Fred Rogers was. Decency seems in too-short supply these days. Here was a man who was, along with everything else, simply a good man.

PBS is justly celebrating Mr. Rogers’ decency, innovation and influence as the 50th anniversary of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” has just passed. The show debuted in 1968 and ran through 2001, amassing a total of 895 episodes. Fred Rogers died at 74 in 2003.

Beginning Monday, Detroit Public Television will offer episodes of the animated spin-off, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” paired back to back with the episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” that inspired them on DPTV and its Detroit PBS Kids Channel. And on March 2, DPTV will hold a charity sweater drive at the Oakland Mall where kids can meet Daniel Tiger.

But the centerpiece of the PBS celebration is a special, “Mr. Rogers: It’s You I Like,” which DPTV will air March 3. It’s an inspiring and revealing look back at how simultaneously low-fi and high-minded “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was.

Narrated/hosted by Michael Keaton — who was actually part of the Mr. Rogers ensemble early on and shows up in featured clips — the special looks at facets of the show while also interviewing stars who are looking back at clips. People as varied as Sarah Silverman, Whoopi Goldberg, John Lithgow, Yo-Yo Ma, Esperanza Spalding and Judd Apatow discuss and often marvel at the show.

There are musical clips (Rogers had a degree in music), including a young Wynton Marsalis jamming with the show’s house band, and Ma performing first with his 6-year-old son Nicholas, and then again with Nicholas when he’s 16, as well as other kids performing. And, of course, there are the heartwarming, life-affirming songs Rogers himself wrote and sang.

There are field trips, Mr. Rogers showing kids where bicycle helmets and dolls and pretzels and crayons are made. And there’s a particularly touching clip where Mr. Rogers meets and converses with Koko, a gorilla who has learned sign language.

One thing that’s somewhat startling is how direct the show was in handling serious issues that kids shows rarely address. Death, depression, disabilities, anger — “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” dealt with them all. In one episode he even showed a cat giving birth.

“You know what I love about him? He never lied to kids,” says Silverman. “He leaned right in and always told the truth.”

“It’s so far beyond just entertainment,” Lithgow adds.

It is, of course, somewhat startling to watch the time lapse of Rogers’ aging. He was 40 when the show started, over 70 when it ended, and his hair turns from dark to varying shades of gray and back as the special travels through time. But he’s always Mr. Rogers — joyous, loving, welcoming, warm and thoroughly decent.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic

‘Mr. Rogers: It’s You I Like’


6:30 p.m. March 3


■Starting Monday for a week, DPTV will offer episodes of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” paired with the episodes of “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” that inspired them from 9:30-10:30 a.m. and from 4-5 p.m. on Detroit PBS Kids.

■To promote Mr. Rogers’ message of being a good neighbor, DPTV and Oakland Mall will hold a sweater drive and Daniel Tiger meet-and-greet from 4-7 p.m. March 2 at the center court of the Oakland Mall. The clothes will be distributed by St. Vincent de Paul.