‘WON’T YOU BE MY neighbor?” The children’s television host Fred Rogers used to sing that at the beginning of every show. And for many who grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he seemed more like a neighbor than the ones who lived next door. For some, he still does.
The low-key host, producer and principal puppeteer of a show that started in his hometown Pittsburgh and would go on to become PBS’s longest-running attraction, Rogers was a comforting presence in a society that can be anything but. An ordained Presbyterian minister, devoted lap swimmer and strict vegetarian, he received 50 to 100 letters daily from fans, some of whom were going through hard times, and responded personally to each and every one of them.
“The world is not always a kind place,” he said. “That’s something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it’s something they really need our help to understand.”
As it turns out, Rogers was also a prolific composer, although it’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (the aforementioned theme song) that still lingers in our memories decades later. The fact that the words “neighbor,” “neighborly,” and “neighborhood” appear eight times over the course of a one-minute song may have had something to do with that.
It’s only fitting, then, that on what would have been Fred Rogers’ 93rd birthday, his life and legacy will be celebrated with “Happy Birthday, Mister Rogers,” a March 20 concert featuring a diverse lineup of musicians covering his songs and talking about his influence on them. The streaming event — which is also dedicated to Fred’s wife Joanne Rogers, who passed away in January — will feature performances by Vanessa Williams, Lee Greenwood, The Cowsills, Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr., Micky Dolenz, Sandi Patty and several others.
Most of these artists also appear on Thank You, Mister Rogers: Music and Memories, a 2019 tribute album produced by Dennis Scott. A talented songwriter in his own right, Scott had previously released Songs From the Neighborhood: The Music of Mister Rogers, an album that won a 2005 Grammy in the Best Musical Recording for Children category. He’s also spearheading a campaign to get Rogers inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which fans can sign a petition for at ThankYouMisterRogers.com.
While Rogers likely would have been flattered by the effort, receiving that sort of recognition was never his primary intent. During his 1999 induction into the Television Hall of Fame, he began his acceptance speech by pointing out to the industry movers and shakers on hand that fame is a four letter word. He encouraged them to reflect on their responsibility to meet the “deeper needs of those who watch and listen, day and night,” and then called for 10 seconds of silence to reflect on someone who’d been a good influence on them.
Some may have spent those 10 seconds thinking about the man in front of them, who had, after all, served as a role model for generations of young viewers. The cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who made several appearances on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — as did musicians like Wynton Marsalis and Tony Bennett — recalled how Rogers told him that fame isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if it’s used for good in the world.
“There are three ways to ultimate success,” Rogers once said. “The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”
Happy birthday, neighbor. We’ll do our best.