A Celebration of Two Neighborhoods

Sure, “Sesame Street” is marking 40 years – but it’s also a time to remember Mister Rogers

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You’d have to live under a rock – or in a garbage can – not to know that “Sesame Street” is marking its 40th anniversary today, complete with a guest appearance by first lady Michelle Obama.

But amid the “Sesame Street” celebrations in the media, there's an opportunity to recall another kid-friendly destination also brimming with hope and possibilities: “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

A statue of Mister Rogers was recently dedicated in a park in Pittsburgh, where Fred Rogers took his little show national in 1968, a year before the debut of “Sesame Street.” The studio at WQED was renamed in Rogers’ honor, and the show’s set was reconstructed at the station and opened to the public for the weekend.

The ceremonies, in keeping with Rogers’ image, were low-key compared to the anniversary hype surrounding “Sesame Street,” another PBS icon. Still, one wonders what a man who made his mark addressing children at eye level would have thought about the larger-than-life statue, which stands 10 feet, 10 inches – even taller than Big Bird.

Mister Rogers’ neighborhood was really two places: his “home,” where he welcomed friends and guests who instantly became friends. Then there was the Land of Make-Believe, reachable by a toy trolley’s travels through a tunnel (paging Dr. Freud). Rogers created a magical kingdom where simple hand puppets like King Friday and Henrietta Pussycat and a couple of trusted adults played out simple morality tales.

While the wonderful “Sesame Street” tends to keep it broad, playing to attention spans whittled by TV, Mister Rogers maintained a slow pace and a steadfast mellowness – never raising his voice or scolding. He declared, as he donned his sneakers and cardigan, that it was be “beautiful day” in his neighborhood – and he made sure that every viewer was a welcome, valued guest. "It's you I like,” he’d sing.

While Rogers died in 2003, his show remains in reruns, suggesting a timeless quality. “Sesame Street” is going strong, still able to hold the attention of the adults who first visited as children. (Oscar the Grouch’s Fox News satire – it was called “Pox News” – rankled some recently. But the bit showed that “Sesame Street” hasn’t lost its sense of humor, even if Cookie Monster’s diet is a little less sweets heavy these days.)

The New York Times has reported that children 2 to 5 are watching nearly 25 hours of TV a week, a record figure and a disturbing one. Let’s hope all the selections aren’t the usual junk, and that along with fine TV friends like Blue, Dora and Diego, children are getting a chance to spend some of those hours on “Sesame Street” and in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Even all these years later, they’re both places well worth visiting.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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