Tuesday, 17 April 2012
[This is reposted as part of our Best-Of Revelife Week. It was originally posted on September 9, 2010.]
By Justin at Faith and Geekery
King Friday: I heard a story about a king who got inside a bubble, and I thought that would be a-mu-using.
Handyman Negri: But King Friday, that story’s just pretend.
King Friday (leaning in like it’s a secret): So are we. So are we.
(Thanks to Quaking Aspen for helping me remember this quote!)
Since we’ve been talking about Mister Rogers lately, I went back online and on TV to watch some of Mister Rogers Neighborhood to see what I remembered, and what I probably missed the first time around.
I forgot just how, well….odd the show could be at times. We probably all have warm, fuzzy memories of a soft-spoken man, puppets, a trolley, and rituals involving fish, sweaters, and shoes. That’s all true, but there was also a lot of Mister Rogers allowing kids to be kids, and allowing imaginations to run free. Both of these resulted in some rather unique and, at times, outright surreal moments.
Before I begin, a few quick things: Mister Rogers had 895 official episodes, a number of which predate PBS. The chances that anybody (who isn’t affiliated with the show) has seen all of them is pretty small, so if you’ve seen something stranger than anything listed below, please let me know. I’ve also not included anything not directly related to the on-air show, such as Mister Rogers chucking a tent after fumbling with it. Finally, I’m greatly indebted to The Neighborhood Archive for its numerous recaps of episodes.
1) Mister Rogers Tries Breakdancing
The full segment sets things up nicely: a twelve-year-old boy named Jermaine stops by to show Mister Rogers and those watching what breakdancing is. Jermaine talks a little about why he likes it and shows Mister Rogers how to do a few moves:
Mister Rogers always seemed to be game for trying out new things, and there is something rather charming about man in his early 50s dancing with a boy in a way he’d never do otherwise. That said, I love this animated GIF.
2) Mister Rogers Meets the Incredible Hulk
Back in the late 70s, the Billy Bixby/Lou Ferrigno television series The Incredible Hulk was a hit with adults and kids alike. Since this was such a popular fantasy series and the Hulk was kind of scary for the younger set, Mister Rogers decided to visit the set of the show for two episodes. He meets Bill Bixby, who does a fine job of explaining the show and the concept of pretending in context of his young son who was starting to realize that the man on the screen turning into a monster was his dad.
Later on he talks to Lou Ferrigno, and we get to see Lou getting into makeup as they talk about what they do when they get angry. This is the only video I could find, and while it does have a lot of the interview, I wish it was of better quality. It does, however, contain this great exchange:
Mister Rogers: Of course, you and the Incredible Hulk are two different people. And what I’m interested in is when you get angry — you, Lou Ferrigno — get angry, what do you like to do? And what do you do when you get angry? You don’t turn cars over or jump out windows or things like that, do you?
Lou Ferrigno: No, thank God.
3) The Purple Panda
This character only showed up in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, mostly because the idea was about as out-there as the show could get: a panda bear from outer space who only speaks in monotone. Also, he’s purple.
The Purple Panda was from the planet Purple, where every boy is named Paul and every girl is named Pauline. He first greets people with the phrase “We are people from the planet purple.” Everything is the same, and everyone is the same. Rules for their people are fairly strict; the panda that visits the neighborhood is not allowed to return home because he sat in a rocking chair — something forbidden on their planet.
What makes the character so odd is how different he is from the rest of the brightly colored, happy people in the make-believe world. He’s glad to be there, but he doesn’t quite fit in yet. He’s from a world where everyone is the same, has the same name, and where there is only one color. Even the Borg would have questioned trying to assimilate this planet, yet that seems to be the point: The Purple Panda gets to learn that people being different is okay, and everyone else does, too.
4) Big Bird Visits the Neighborhood
In the late 70s Mister Rogers visited Sesame Street, the place where harmless monsters and giant canaries live with people in harmony. Later on, Big Bird would visit the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and be part of their adventures.
This alone isn’t that odd, nor is it something you would expect to cause a lot of friction. However, apparently ironing out the details of how this was going to happen revealed a lot of the differences between the shows and the philosophies behind it. According to Carrol Spinney (the man behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch), he was originally supposed to show up on Mister Rogers’ show as Big Bird, and then take off the costume to show how the operation worked. Spinney didn’t like the idea of shattering the illusion for children, while Mister Rogers didn’t like the idea of passing off a man playing pretend as real on the show. The two allegedly argued on the phone for twenty minutes before working out a compromise — Big Bird would end up with the other pretend characters in the Make-Believe segments.
Part of this is pretty conventional, but at the same time, there’s still the image of Mister Rogers arguing with Carrol Spinney. I’d like to think they used their Henrietta Pussycat and Oscar the Grouch voices to ease the tension.
5) The Neighborhood of Make-Believe Makes Bombs and Prepares for War
By 1983 tensions with the Soviet Union were rising again, and there were quite a few movies and shows dealing with the threat of nuclear war. The most prominent in the US was The Day After, which dealt with a city in rural Kansas being bombed and the horrible repercussions that continued long after. This made-for-TV movie generated a lot of controversy before it aired, and even the broadcast itself contained multiple warnings about the depicted content being potentially upsetting to both young and older viewers. My eighth grade teacher showed it to us years after it originally aired. Watching a few episodes of Mister Rogers afterward would have been a good idea to calm us down.
Apparently Fred Rogers agreed, since he wanted to create a series of episodes around the topic of conflict to air the same week as the movie. In his story, the Neighborhood of Make-Believe is concerned that the neighboring town of Southwood is preparing for war against them. King Friday orders everyone to start making bombs, spying on Southwood, and preparing for the worst. The children are taught about air raids and gas masks in school, generals are assigned, and characters openly protest the King’s decisions. Of course it all turns out to be a false alarm, but it causes people think about how easily things can escalate without proper information.
The series of episodes ends with an on-screen quoting of Isaiah 2:4. These episodes were rarely seen after their initial broadcasts, showing up only a few times when the nation was nearing wars or armed conflict.
What did I miss? Sound off about your favorite bizarre Mister Rogers moments.