Fred Rogers best known as the creator and host of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was a gifted musician. He was a Grammy Award winning song writer, a pianist, a singer and a four time Emmy winning performer. Fred Rogers composed over two hundred songs, nine children’s operas and released twelve albums of children’s recordings. His songs were delightful melodies with heartfelt lyrics that reassure children about their lives and concerns such as the compositions. “It Such a Good Feeling”, “It’s You I Like”, "Everybody's Fancy", and "You Can't Go Down the Drain". Music was central to Fred’s life and his television career. As a child he studied piano along with organ and began writing songs. After earning a degree in music composition he began his career working as a production assistant on the NBC television network’s music programs: the NBC Television Opera Theatre, Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade, and The Kate Smith Hour. Moving to WQED in Pittsburgh he worked with Josie Carey on the pioneering award winning children’s program the Children’s Corner where he co-wrote 65 children’s songs with Carey, played the organ, and sang as the voice of several puppet characters. As the host of his own series that ran new episodes on PBS for 33 years Rogers wrote and produced more than 1,000 original shows which featured his original songs and his musical performances as Mr. Rogers and as the voice of his beloved puppet characters.
“My first love is music. It is a unique way for me to express who I am and what I am feeling. Music was always my way of saying who I was and how I felt. I was always able to cry or laugh or say I was angry through the tips of my fingers on the piano. I would go to the piano even when I was five years old. I started to play how I felt. And so it was very natural for me to become a composer. Having written all of the music for the Neighborhood I feel as if that’s one of my gifts to children…There is something very mystical and wonderful about how music can touch us. You know it’s elemental. .,,, It must be what Heaven is like” -Fred Rogers Interviewed by Karen Herman on July 22, 1999 for the Archive of American Television
Grammy Winning CD "The Music of Mister Rogers"
A group of twelve award winning musicians paid tribute to Fred Roger’s music on the 2005 CD release "Songs from the Neighborhood: The Music of Mister Rogers". The album features pop, rock, jazz and bluegrass arrangements of Mr. Roger’s songs sung by Donna Summer, Roberta Flack, Amy Grant, Ricky Skaggs, Crystal Gayle, BJ Thomas, Bobby Caldwell, CeCe Winans, John Pizzarelli, Jon Secada, Toni Rose, and Maureen McGovern. Selections include “ Won't You Be My Neighbor" by Roberta Flack, "It's Such a Good Feeling" by B.J. Thomas, "It's You I Like" by Amy Grant, "Did You Know?" by Crystal Gayle, and "Are You Brave?" by Donna Summer The entire ensemble sang together on the last track, “Thank You for Being You” an original song written by the album’s producer Dennis Scott. The album was the 2005 Grammy winner for “Best Musical Album for Children”.
Hear the music of Fred Rogers
“With his passing in 2003, TV pioneer Fred Rogers not only left a history of educating and entertaining children behind as his legacy, he also left a rich songbook very few knew Rogers composed himself. This 13-song disc features performers from a wide variety of genres paying homage to Rogers….Songs from the Neighborhood reinvents many of these tunes in a jazzy, laid-back fashion that's not only accessible and catchy to children, but adults will find themselves humming along to these instantly memorable melodies as well. A fitting tribute to a man whose influence will be felt for generations to come.” – Rob Theakston All Music Guide
In recognition of his music, his 50 years in television, and his dozens of books for children Fred Rogers received more than thirty honorary degrees, two Peabody Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (1997), a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1998), an Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award (1998), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.
Child Prodigy from Latrobe
Fred McFeely Rogers was born on 20th, 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. His father James H. Rogers was the president of the McFeely Brick Company, a firm that manufactured bricks used in steel furnaces. McFeely Bricks was founded by his maternal grandfather and namesake Fred McFeely. His mother Nancy McFeely Rogers was a pianist. As a toddler Fred sang along with his mother as she played the piano. At age five Fred amazed his family when he played them songs on the piano such as “Blue Moon” that he learned by ear from the radio. He also played several original songs for his family. He told them that he wrote songs to show how he felt. Fred began piano lessons at age six with Miss Johnson at his parent’s church. Seeing his early passion Fred’s grandmother McFeely encouraged him to pursue music. She bought Fred his first piano and a $25 pump organ. She also made frequent trips to Pittsburgh to buy sheet music for Fred including religious hymns and pieces by Mozart. She challenged Fred to learn “Paderewski’s Minute in G” in one week so that he could audition for a respected Pittsburgh piano teacher. Edwina Byrne came to the Roger’s house to hear him play Paderewski and took him on as a student when he was around age 9. Fred’s dream as a child was to become either a minister or a musician.
During high school Fred Rogers was the editor of the school newspaper and president of the student council. His scholarship and school leadership won him admission to an Ivy League school. After graduating from Latrobe High School in 1946, Fred studied Romance languages at Dartmouth College for one year. But his passion for music was still strong. In the fall of 1947 Fred transferred to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida to study music composition. At Rollins Fred entertained his classmates with his improvised melodies and with popular songs that he learned by ear. He considered becoming a professional Tin Pan Alley songwriter. Fred graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in music composition from Rollins in 1951. While at Rollins, Fred met his wife-to-be concert pianist Sara Joanne Byrd who earned a Master’s degree in piano performance. They were married in June of 1952.
Beginning his television career at NBC
After music school Rogers planned to study to become a Presbyterian minister, but television captured his attention. He saw the potential of this new medium as a means of education. Through family connections Fred was introduced to the president of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), Niles Trammell, who encouraged Rogers to seek a career in television. in 1951, Rogers was hired as an apprentice by NBC to work on its music programs in New York City. He quickly was promoted to an assistant producer. His first assignment was on the weekly program The Voice of Firestone that featured guest appearances by opera stars. He also worked as the assistant producer of NBC Television Opera Theatre. After a year he became the floor director of Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade and The Kate Smith Hour.
Pioneering Children's Television: The Children's Corner
Wanting to create programs for children he left NBC in 1953 to join the new non-commercial educational TV station in Pittsburgh as a program planner. WQED was the first community-sponsored television station in the United States and the fifth public television station. It made its first broadcast on April 1, 1954.
At WDEQ Fred Rogers met Josie Carey who had been hired by station manager Dorothy Daniels to be the host of a children’s show. While she was planning out her new children’s show Fred Rogers approached Josie with his ideas about children’s programming. Josie and Fred decided to collaborate and got Daniel’s permission to work on the show together as co-producers and performers. Fred became a co-writer with Josie and the music director. Carey was the on-screen host and Fred was the puppeteer and organist. The “Children’s Corner” launched its daily broadcasts in 1954. It quickly became a hit in Pittsburgh brining in vital donations to keep WQEQ alive. In 1956 “The Children’s Corner” won the Sylvania Award for the best locally produced children's program in the country. Josie and Fred performed together on The Children's Corner on WQED for 8 years from 1954 to 1961.
Josie sang original songs on the show to Fred’s piano accompaniment. Together Josie and Fred co-wrote 68 songs for the show. Josie wrote the lyrics and Fred set them to music. The first song that they collaborated on was the "Children's Corner" theme song, "Why Hi, Don't I Know You?". Fred Rogers became the puppeteer of “The Children’s Corner” when he created the character Daniel Striped Tiger by one day popping him out of a coo-coo clock to announce the time. Daniel was named after station manager Dorothy Daniel who had given the puppet as a present to Fred. Josie held ad lib conversions with Daniel to fill time between the show’s segments. Over time Fred created more puppet characters including King Friday XIII, X the Owl, and Lady Elaine. Fred rarely appeared as himself on camera. The Children Corner was the fore runner to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Many of the songs and characters used on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood were developed for the Children’s Corner by Josie and Fred.
NBC officials who visited WQED to see a taping of a show by Dr. Spock were impressed by the “Children’s Corner”. Needing a summer replacement show for Paul Winchell, NBC asked Josie and Fred to do a few shows. After the first show NBC received 138,000 letters asking for more episodes. NBC syndicated “The Children's Corner” nationally for 39 weeks. Josie and Fred Rogers flew to New York on Fridays and performed the show live for a half hour on Saturdays. While they were appearing on NBC the singer Teresa Brewer asked to record Josie and Fred’s song “Goodnight God”. They signed away the publishing rights to that song and several others when Brewer’s record label issued two albums of music from the Children’s Corner: “Around the Children's Corner” and “Tomorrow on the Children's Corner”.
After seeing Josie on NBC, KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh hired Josie to do an 8 o’clock morning show called “Josie's Storyland”. For two years she did her KDKA show in the morning and worked with Fred Rogers on “The Children’s Corner” on WQED in the afternoons. Pianist Johnny Costa was her music director at KDKA. Josie introduced Costa to Fred when she hired Costa to appear the NET “Childern’s Corner” series. After the Children’s Corner ended its run on WDEQ in 1961 Josie Carey continued in children’s programming on KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh working with pianist Johnny Costa as her music director on the weekday half-hour show “Funsville”. Fred Rogers continued to work in public television.
Roger’s pursued his dream of becoming a minister by taking classes the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary during the run of “The Children’s Corner.” Graduating with honors from the seminary in 1962 Fred was ordained as a minister by the United Presbyterian Church to work with families and children through the mass media.
In 1963 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) hired Fred Rogers to broadcast from the CBC studios in Toronto a daily fifteen-minute television program called “Mister Rogers”. In 1964 the program was expanded to a half an hour and was broadcast in the United States on the Eastern Educational Network. In 1968 production of the show moved to WQED in Pittsburgh for national distribution by the National Educational Television network (NET), the forerunner to PBS. The show was renamed Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Fred Rogers offered Johnny Costa $5,000 to arrange, conduct, and play the music for 100 episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Needing college tuition money for his son Costa took Fred up on his offer in 1967. Costa said in interview "I believed in Fred's work. Forget your money, your fame, your ‘career' and do something good, really good. I really made a good choice.” Mister Rogers' Neighborhood began airing in 1968 and ran for 1,000 episodes.
Music set the tone for Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Every episode opened with Fred singing his composition, "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" accompanied by the magical fingers of Johnny Costa. To make children feel good about themselves Rogers often accompanied him-self on piano while he sang his compositions such as “You Are Special” and "You'll Never Go Down the Drain”. Celebrated musicians from many genres performed on the shows including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, pianist Andre Watts, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, singer Tony Bennett, saxophonist Eric Kloss, guitarist Joe Negri, jazz singer and pianist Mabel Mercer. Viewers were transported to the "The Neighborhood of Make-Believe” via the "Magic Trolley" and Johnny Costa’s jazz piano music. There they heard King Friday XIII, Bob Dog, Daniel Striped Tiger, Handyman Negri, Lady Elaine sing the music of Fred Rogers. Also in the land of Make-Believe were held performances of thirteen original mini-operas written by Rogers that featured American baritone John Reardon and other well-known guest singers. One of the operas, "Josephine the Short-Necked Giraffe" was a collaboration of Josie Carey and Rogers based on story that Fred had written as a student at Rollins College. Every episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood ended with Fred singing either “Tomorrow” that he co-wrote with Josie Carey and his own song "It's Such a Good Feeling (to Know You're Alive!)."
The last episodes of Mister Rogers were taped in December 2000 and aired in August of 2001. Fred Roger retired from active production of his show in 2001, but he continued to write children’s books and videos. In December 2002, Rogers was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. He made his last major public appearance as a grand marshal of the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, California, on New Year's Day 2003. Returning to Pittsburgh he underwent surgery that was unsuccessful. Fred Rogers died on February 27, 2003 at his home in Pittsburgh less than a month before his 75th birthday.
Symphony Tribute to Fred Rogers
The Pittsburgh Symphony held a memorial concert for Fred Rogers in March of 2004 titled "The Music of Fred Rogers". The show featured performances of Roger’s music by Tommy Tune, John Lithgow, soprano Renee Fleming, vocalist B.E. Taylor, pianist and Rogers’ family friend Jeannine Morrison, and the Children's Festival Chorus of Pittsburgh. The opera tenor trio of Cook, Dixon & Young sang selections from the Roger’s and Josie Carey opera, "Josephine the Short-Necked Giraffe." Vocalist B.E. Taylor sang a Daniel Stripped Tiger song. Pianists Joanne Rogers' and Jeannine Morrison, performed Chopin piano duo. Opera stars Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson made video appearances. The actors who portrayed the characters of Mr. Roger’s Neighborbood also performance including David Newell (Mr. McFeely), Chuck Aber, Joe “handiman” Negri, Francois Clemmons, Bob Rawsthorne, Michael Horton, Carl McVicker and Lenny Meledandri. Rogers' last musical director, Michael Moricz, arranged the compositions that were conducted by PSO's Lucas Richman. Of the 19 Roger’s songs performed were five from Rogers' collaborations with lyricist Josie Carey from WQED's "The Children's Corner." The event was hosted by Paula Zahn and Pat Sajak. The concert was the first ever performance of Fred Roger’s music by a major symphony orchestra. In a interview about the concert Joanne Rogers said music comforted her husband, when he as angry or sad he would play out his emotions on the piano. Fred Rogers comforted the children of the world with his music, kindness, and love.