Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Be A Good Neighbor

For the past two weeks and change, Twitch has been running a marathon of one of the greatest kid's shows of all time: Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

If you were a kid anytime between the seventies and the nineties, it's a good chance this show was a staple of childhood TV viewing on PBS. The show has a very simple premise: A kindly old(ish) man welcomes you into his home and teaches you important lessons how it's good to be yourself, to be a socially healthy person, to understand how things are made, how it's perfectly natural to have emotions, those sort of things. And at least once an episode, a trolley helps us travel to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, a town populated by humans and puppets where anything can happen because this is a TV show and it's all make believe. Those segments tend to follow a storyline over the course of a week, expanding on the lessons Mister Rogers was teaching earlier in the show.

What set this show apart from all other educational shows, even Sesame Street, was its warmth. Mister Rogers was always happy to see you and welcoming you into his TV set of a house. He never talked down to anyone, was always excited to show you new things, very earnest about learning things about anyone he met, and always reassuring us that we're perfectly fine just the way we are. Those are always important lessons to learn, how it's best to learn how to communicate with other by honestly talking to someone about your feelings, not holding anything in feeling safe and confident. You know, being a good neighbor.

He was also not shy to cover more serious issues, like death, divorce, even war. Seriously, there's a series of episodes where King Friday thinks the town of Southwood is building bombs and escalates a conflict.

Yeah...they don't show those anymore. And the marathon skipped that week, too.

My dad would tell me stories about how when I was younger, he'd watch the show to calm down after a busy day at work. I still think I got more out of that show than he did.

Now, it's been over fifteen years since I saw an episode, and I barely remember any storylines so this 24/7 marathon that's been running has been a total godsend. It's so interesting to see how the show started, how it evolved and became the show we know and love today.

Thanks to a site called the Neighborhood Archive, the most comprehensive site about this show I could find, you could look up almost everything about this show like specific episodes, cast members, even every time it was spoofed on TV. What I was most surprised to learn about this show was that the bulk of the 882(!) episodes were made between 1968 and 1976, producing 65 episodes a year, except for 1968 which had 130, and 1976 only having five. After a two year break, the show moved to roughly fifteen episodes a year until the end of the series in 2001 (that year only had five shows).

Those first 130 shows were in black and white, and it was pretty wild to watch. The 1968 shows were quite different than anything that came after it. For one, a good chunk of the familiar puppets, weren't around yet. The Platypus Family, seen here:

Would move into the neighborhood in 1969. In their place was the Frogg family.

Yeah, they were creepy as hell, so they had to go. People keep saying they were scared of Lady Elaine Fairchilde, but those folks had never met the Froggs. They're voices weren't friendly, either. They sounded like they were about to run out of breath, literally croak. Above we see Dr. Frogg's son Tad "sleeping." Sure doc, he's sleeping.

And there was a different song that closed out the episode, called "Tomorrow."

And before PBS, there was NET.

That building could still be seen in the later episodes, as that big red building the show always ends on.

I've been watching this show for years and it took me until yesterday to make the connection. My one regret during this marathon was that I didn't screencap more of the black & white episodes, just this one instance. Kids these days might not have the attention for it, but I was mesmerized an episode early on where Mister Rogers assembles and tries the play the clarinet. He made learning an instrument fun and showing that not everyone is immediately good at playing music right away.

Music was a big part of the show, and we see instruments of all types being shown and played.

Like, of course, an accordion. He drew along to the music, and wouldn't you know it, he points out that everyone would've drawn something different, in their own way.

One time he went to a factory that made mouth organs, er, harmonicas.

Mister Rogers even made the harp seem cool.

King Friday was known to play his Bass Vial (violin) every now and then.

One of my favorite instruments was a stalactite organ.

It was a weird instrument that pounded on the rocks in a cavern to play the tones. Neat, huh? And one episode devoted a good chunk of time to playing an ocarina.

Here we see Mister Rogers teaching Mr. McFeely how to summon Epona. The ocarina is apparently known as the Sweet Potato, so he tried to play it with an actual potato.

This is like some divide by zero stuff right there. And it's currently my twitter avatar, it's just so funky.

You might have noticed above that before his house was painted that familiar blue color, it was beige. And before that, an ugly shade of yellow.

That's the seventies for ya. Speaking of a bygone time, he loved touring factories, including everyone's favorite: the crayons!

I could watch Mister Rogers tour factories and other places for ages, and he was always happy to deliver. This was made in 1985 but I swore I watched that as a kid in the nineties. It just shows how timeless the show was. There was even a show where Mister Rogers visits an arcade and is shown Donkey Kong. Sadly, I don't have a picture of that one, it ran while I was asleep.

You might have also noticed that I've included the Twitch chat in all of the screencaps. Much like the Power Rangers marathon a few months back, it was great to watch a show in a virtual group. It's so weird to see a chat room stay mostly positive and loving. But then there's always people (everyone) trying to riff it, and it's not like it gave a treasure trove of material.

Not many people know Fred Rogers was the inspiration behind Max Headroom.

Hischer the ventriloquist dummy showed up at least three times so far, scaring the crap out of everyone.

Showing us how it worked did NOT help.

And then came clown masks. I'm not afraid of clowns, and Mister Rogers assures us that clowns are friendly, and that it's just a person in a mask.

Until an actual clown showed up in the Neighborhood of Make Believe. Chuckles here had to power to give people costumes.

Yeah, Lady Aberlin's a chicken now. And Chuckles was just so...happy.

Then there was an episode where an alien showed up, aping ET. That was a weird one.

One episode had Margaret Hamilton show up, dressing up like the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz. She assured us that she's a kindly old actor, but hearing her go all nuts as the witch? Awesome.

Then Big Bird visited the Neighborhood of Make Believe for a drawing contest. Did anyone else start smiling when he showed up? I did, I even revolved my Sunday around this episode, I wanted to see it that badly.

Why yes, that's a young Michael Keaton as an acrobat.

And yes, that's Keith David! The Electric Company may have had Morgan Freeman, but they didn't have the voice of Goliath from Gargoyles in their cast. Ming-Na Wen (Agent May from Agents of SHIELD) showed up in a few episodes too, but I didn't catch them.

And look, it's Tony Bennett! Did you know he loves drawing?

I always wanted those models as a kid. I wonder what ever became of them? Hopefully in a museum somewhere.

Don't ever talk to me or my son ever again.

And yes, Mister Rogers has gotten mad on occasion. Well, "mad" is too strong of a word here. More like "cross." That frown was as bad he ever got. He had ordered posters of nursery rhymes, but the posters didn't have any characters on them. Turns out you had to pay extra. Even in the pre-internet age, DLC was a bitch. He even sang a song about being angry, and yet it was the most calm song on Earth.

And now for my favorite running gag in the chat: feeding the fish.

About every three episodes or so, Mister Rogers would take a few seconds to feed the fish. Naturally, the chat started to act as the fish and celebrate whenever they were fed.

And when Mister Rogers passed by the tank without feeding them, they get mad.

Then there was an episode where he visited an aquarium and THOSE fish got fed, and the chat just went nuts.

I've seriously been having fun with this. There was even an episode where a Russian children's show host got to feed the fish and the chat was immediately won over.

Zoomed in.

That's how the iron curtain fell, folks. Not by economic collapse, not by David Hasselhoff singing. But when Mister Rogers let a Russian friend feed his fish.

The show also used to hold operas, usually mashing up whatever topics Mister Rogers and the gang were teaching that week into a coherent story. There was one where Daniel Striped Tiger gained a grandpa, that was a touching one. There was one where they're on a farm and a potato bug tries to invade it, one where two people fall in love due to a mutual love of tomatoes. And then my personal favorite, where Lady Elaine is a hummingbird trying to defend Bubbleland from a guy dressed as the North Wind.

Yes, that's all real, and a real story that happened and yes, that's a guy in a dolphin costume. It was amazing.

The marathon continues through Saturday and I urge you to watch at least one episode. It's kept my life calm and sane over the past two weeks, and I hope it helps you, too. We're almost near the end and I kind of don't want to see it end. Mister Rogers got wrinkles, went gray, dyed his hair, then went gray again, and Mr. McFeely aged into his makeup. The episodes with Arthur and Koko The Gorilla haven't run yet, and I'm dying to see them.