Claim: Children's television show host Fred Rogers hid a violent and criminal past.
Origins: In 2003 the television world mourned the loss of Fred Rogers,
the gentle and genial host who delivered lessons on love, kindness, and friendship to children for over 30 years on the television program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. His show-opening "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" ditty, his daily on-camera donning of a cardigan sweater and comfortable shoes, and his tinkling Neighborhood Trolley were all familiar, reassuring icons to millions of children (and their parents).
Any popular, decent, clean-cut celebrity is fair game for all sorts of scurrilous rumors these days, it seems — we're either too cynical or too bored to accept that a kindly, soft-spoken man who made a career out of teaching and communicating with children as an adult — no funny costumes, no frenetic comedy gags, no sickly sweet "baby talk" — could possibly live up to his television image. He must be concealing some deep, dark secret antithetical to his public persona, and the variety of rumors floated about Mr. Rogers over the years certainly reflected that sentiment.
Among the more common of the Mr. Rogers-related urban legends are the following claims:
Fred Rogers began his television career as a result of his being convicted of child molestation; one condition of his sentence was that he fulfill a community service obligation by performing a television show for children on a local public station. This circumstance explains the lack of children on his program and the presence of adult characters with suggestive names, such as Mr. McFeely
Given the protests and boycotts directed at Disney when it was revealed that Victor Salva, the writer-director of their 1995 film Powder (released through Disney's Hollywood Pictures subsidiary), had served time for child molestation, it stretches credulity to the breaking point to believe that the host of a children's program on public television could have remained in that position for thirty-three years without having been hounded off the air amidst howls of condemnation from thousands of outraged parents.
Fred Rogers got his start in television through his musical background when, after earning a bachelor's degree in music composition in 1951, he was hired by NBC television in New York to serve as an assistant producer (and later as a floor director) for several of the music-variety type programs (The Voice of Firestone, The Lucky Strike Hit Parade, The Kate Smith Hour) prevalent on TV in the early 1950s.
A few years later, he returned to his hometown area to develop programming for WQED in Pittsburgh, the nation's first community-sponsored educational television station. One of the first programs he developed for WQED was The Children's Corner, which contained many of the elements and characters Fred Rogers would incorporate into his own show when he made his on-camera debut as host of Misterogers for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1963.
Aside from the difficulties of working with very young children on scripted television shows, the lack of children on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was due simply to stylistic choice. Although some children's shows of the era featured youngsters who interacted with hosts on-camera, other shows (such as Sheriff John, my local favorite) opted to create the illusion of a one-to-one relationship between host and viewer by excluding children from the studio. The latter method allowed a host to establish a rapport with the youngsters in his viewing audience by appearing to be speaking to them directly, not to the other children on the screen with him.
As for Mr. McFeely, the grandfatherly character who runs the "Speedy Delivery Messenger Service" in Mister Rogers' neighborhood, his name is easily explained: 'McFeely' is also Fred Rogers' real middle name, taken from his grandfather, Fred Brooks McFeely.
Fred Rogers served as a sniper or as a Navy Seal during the Vietnam War, with a large number of confirmed kills to his credit.
This same rumor has often been applied to boyish country singer-songwriter John Denver (among others), and it's just as false when told of Fred Rogers. Not only did Fred Rogers never serve in the military, there are no gaps in his career when he could conceivably have served in the military — he went straight into college after high school, he moved directly into TV work after graduating college, and his breaks from television work were devoted to attending the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1963) and the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Child Development. Moreover, Fred Rogers was born in 1928 and was therefore too old to have enlisted in the armed services by the time of America's military involvement in Vietnam.
Fred Rogers always wore long-sleeved shirts and sweaters on his show to conceal the tattoos on his arms he obtained while serving in the military.
As noted above, Fred Rogers never served in the military, and he bore no tattoos on his arms (or any other part of his body). He wore long-sleeved shirts and sweaters on his show to maintain an air of formality — although he was friendly with the children in his viewing audience and talked to them on their own level, he was most definitely an authority figure on a par with parents and teachers (he was Mister Rogers to them, after all, not Fred), and his choice of dress was intended to establish and foster that relationship.