If you lived near Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon University in the ‘70s and ‘80s, then you lived in Mister Rogers’ neighborhood. His TV show was shot nearby at WQED, just a few blocks from the CMU campus, and run-ins with the icon were inevitable.
One morning in the spring of 1982, I had been up all night partying with a female friend. I was much too fried to drag my ass up over the hill back to my place, so I stuck out my thumb to hitch a ride. Within moments, a gray Ford Pinto pulled over. I got in it and looked over at the driver, and it was Mr. Rogers. He was in full costume — cardigan, khakis and sneakers. In fact, he was exactly as he was on TV: kind, gentle, soft-spoken and utterly genuine.
I wanted to connect with him; to let him know that I, too, was in show business, that he and I were “peers.” I had recently left CMU’s acting program to pursue stand-up. I told him that my comedy partner and I were about to hit the road to play at Crackers Comedy Club in Indianapolis. I also told him that my niece Jessica and I watched his show together every day. I asked, did he perhaps have a picture or something that he could autograph for her?
He reached into the back seat, pulled out a record from a box of albums, and signed it. When he let me out, he looked me right in the eye, and he said, in that voice, so calm, so clear, so genuinely direct and reassuring: “I sure do wish you good luck with your tour, Steve.” He drove away, and l looked at what he had written on the album: “To Jessica, Through the Kindness of your Uncle Steve, Mister Rogers.”
That floored me: He had made it about me, about my kindness, not his. Mr. Rogers was the real deal; he was a saint. And I had been touched by an angel.
As I’ve retold this tale over the years, I’ve been pleased to discover that I was not the only person whose day was made more beautiful by America’s favorite neighbor. I’ve also discovered, much to my delight, that I was not the only person ever to encounter Mr. Rogers while high.
Rebecca, an acting major at CMU in the late 1980s: A guy in my class peed next to him. We were visiting the Mister Rogers set as part of a TV project, and one of my classmates had gone to the bathroom, then he ran back to our group, exclaiming, “I just peed next to Mr. Rogers!”
Ken, a theater student at CMU in the late 1970s: Me and my friends Chris, Ann and Kurt were on Flagstaff Hill; it was about 9 p.m., and we were all tripping our faces off. Out of the fog, sweater and all, walking his dog, comes Mr. Rogers. He noticed us staring and giggling, so he smiled and gave us a wave. Then he disappeared into the night.
Sue, a theater student at CMU in the late 1970s: I was tripping one time, and I was filling up my bike tire with air. Out of nowhere, Mr. Rogers comes up behind me, in full Mr. Rogers mode, and started talking to me — and I’m like, “Man, I am just way too high for this shit!”
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood has always been rich fodder for comedy. But as my research yielded more tales of Mister Rogers’ encounters, what came as quite a pleasant surprise was that the man himself apparently had a terrific sense of humor.
Billy, a stand-up comic working in Pittsburgh since the early ‘80s: I was emceeing some mud-wrestling show, and I was invited to come do some stand-up for the WQED pledge drive. I ran into Mr. Rogers in the hallway, and he told me everybody brings in videotapes of anybody who does a Mr. Rogers impression on TV. Saturday Night Live was doing a lot of Mr. Rogers stuff back then. And they show the tapes to Mr. Rogers and he loves it, and he sits there and watches, and he laughs until he cries!
Mark, a technical theater major at CMU in the late 1970s: There were about four or five of us that came in to do some work one day on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And his regular crew who had worked with him for years: they put a blow-up sex-doll standing in the closet where Mr. Rogers goes to get his cardigan! He opened the closet door and saw the blow-up doll, and he didn’t even crack up; he just said, “Hello; it’s nice to see you today. Why don’t you come over here, and I’ll give you a sweater?” He sat her down on the sofa and played along with the joke.
Victor, an acting student at CMU in the late ‘70s: I got cast to do a bit part for one day on the show. Mr. Rogers did all the voices for all the puppets, and he had the Lady Elaine Fairchild puppet on his hand. (She was an eccentric little old lady, the docent at the Neighborhood’s ‘Museum-Go-Round.’) The story was that she had just traveled from Mexico, so she’s wearing this little Mexican hat with tassels that are little balls hanging from the hat. So she turns to me and says, (falsetto voice;) “Oh, Hello!” and I go, “Hey, hi! Your hat with the little balls that are hanging from it; that’s very nice.” And she said, “I like your balls, too!” Mr. Rogers was totally punning, totally funning with me.”
Michael, an acting student in the ‘80s: There was a request to the CMU drama department for somebody to deliver birthday flowers to this woman Barbara that was Mr. Rogers’ real-life office secretary — but they would like it to be done in a Speedo. So I said, “Why not?” It was $50, and to a junior in college, that was a lot of beer! So I’m in the WQED bathroom, oiling up, in my Speedo, and the door opens, and I hear that voice say, “Hi, are you Barbara’s surprise?” And there’s Mr. Rogers. And I’m greasing up, and I’m like, “Yes, I am.” He brings me out to the hallway, runs into the office and starts playing the song “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” on this little piano, and singing. Then he flags me to come in, and I come in with this huge bouquet, and it was a tan Speedo, and his secretary Barbara thought I was naked! She ran out of the room, and I had to chase her down the hall, going, “No, no, no, I’m not naked; it’s a Speedo!”
Sometimes it was surprising for people to see someone so kind and sweet in much more real-life circumstances.
Patrick, an actor at CMU in the 1970s: I was rehearsing a role in Virginia Woolf, and we were taking a break for lunch, so I figured I’ll just go over to the gym and swim laps. I’m taking a shower after, and in walks Mr. Rogers! We’re the only two people in there; we’re totally naked, and you’ve got to acknowledge the elephant in the room, so I said, “Hey, you’re Mr. Rogers, aren’t you?” And he said, “Why, yes I am, and who are you?” So I tell him about the play, and he says, “Would it be all right if I came to see the show?” And I’m thinking of course he never would.
David, a theater professor at CMU in the 1970s and ‘80s who directed the Virginia Woolf production: He sat right in the very middle of the front row of the little 99-seat theater; it was the most noticeable seat in the place, to everyone in the audience and in the play. So there was the ultra-kind and sweet Mr. Rogers at the visual center of this terrible and dark play about these horrible people.
Patrick: One night after the show, the stage manager comes over and says, “Pat, Mr. Rogers is out here and he’d like to come back and say hi.” So, in walks Mr. Rogers. And he was wearing exactly what you see him wear on TV — his cardigan sweater, his khakis, his sneakers.
DAVID: And he said to the cast, “I’m sure glad you don’t live in my neighborhood!”
Always the sweater, the khakis, and the sneakers. More than anything, what I, and the other “chosen people,” were struck by was that Mr. Rogers was not just genuinely kind — he was genuine.
John, an acting major in the 1980s: I helped out with an open house at WQED, where local families got to take a tour of The Neighborhood of Make-Believe. I wore a costume of one of the characters, and greeted the kids. I went downstairs to get a snack, and WQED’s “commissary” was a single automat machine. I was standing in front of it, watching the items spin by, when I got the sense that someone was behind me. I turned to let them go ahead of me — and saw Mr. Rogers, in his cardigan, as if he’d just walked into his TV house. I stared. My mouth dropped open. He looked at the automat, then back at me, and said, “Do you see anything you like?” And I’ve never felt so safe, warm, or innocent as I did in that moment. That was the effect Mr. Rogers had on people. Some people have presence; Mr. Rogers radiated.
Bruce, an acting major in the 1980s: My girlfriend worked for Mr. Rogers, doing scenic art. One day she said, “Why don’t you come down and watch?” They were rehearsing a new song that Mr. Rogers had written. I sat behind the camera. There’s all this activity; grips and gaffers and best boys and assistant cameramen are rushing around; no one’s paying attention to Mr. Rogers. The director calls “Action!” and Mr. Rogers looks around to find the only person in the room that’s looking at him, and it’s me. And he performs to me; looks me in the eye, says his lines to me as though he’s talking to me personally; he sings the song to me.
A couple of years after Mr. Rogers picked me up hitchhiking, my girlfriend Darcy and I went out one night to buy a bag of weed from a friend of hers. The dealer was a very sweet guy with a kind, vaguely familiar face that was obscured by long hair and a full beard. On the way home, it struck me what was familiar about him: I turned to Darcy, and I said, “You know, your friend there kind of reminded me of Mr. Rogers.” She said, “That’s because that’s his son; that was Mr. Rogers’ son.” — I had just bought a bag of weed from Mr. Rogers’ son! And his son was 100 percent the person that he was; no guile about him, no pretense whatsoever.
Fred Rogers passed away in 2003, at the age of 75. The neighborhood is mostly the same, but the days just haven’t been quite as beautiful since.
Steve Bean Levy is a comedy writer and actor. His new show, “The Bean Team Box Set” premieres at The Comedy Central Stage in Hollywood on June 23.