As a very young child, there was one television show that I inevitably queued up for: “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” True, I didn’t have a lot of options at the time.
I lived out in the country prior to the advent of satellite TV. Yet despite the limited selection, I always thought “Mister Rogers” had a certain magic about it.
The cheery trolley. The silly puppets. The ever-present sweater vest. I loved it all.
Even looking back as an adult, I find no lack of memorable moments. Focus Features — creators of the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — compiled a number of them.
For instance, did you know that characters from “Sesame Street” once appeared on the show? Big Bird himself trotted onto the set, and Mister Rogers gave an impromptu lesson on dress up and make-believe.
“When you see big make-believe creatures in parades or in plays or on television,” he said, “you can know that the people inside are just pretending to be something else.”
Another great moment was enjoyable as much in hindsight as during its airing.
Mister Rogers once got a tonsillectomy, and footage of the procedure made its way onto the show. But did you know who shot it?
The man behind the camera was none other than George Romero, who went on to make the zombie flick “Night of the Living Dead.” He also said that Mister Rogers “was the sweetest man I ever knew.”
Fred Rogers didn’t always deal in sweetness and light, though. In 1981, he decided to broach the topic of divorce, tackling marital dissolution with as much tact as he could muster.
However, one of his more hilarity-filled moments happened when he welcomed Margaret Hamilton onto the show. Hamilton was best known for playing the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.”
She arrived in a bright pink dress, and Mister Rogers began helping her into her witch’s costume. Perhaps knowing his guest’s fearsome portrayal in the famous film, he moved quickly to assuage his young viewers’ fears.
He commented, “It’s helping me just to see you get into these things, to know that you’re a real lady who got dressed up to play this part. Turn around, and I’ll show my friends that this is a real zipper back here, just like the zipper on my sweaters.”
As the ferocious black gown and cape fell into place around Hamilton, both she a Rogers commented on how “fun” dressing up was. Hamilton added, “You know, this is just like a Halloween costume, too, isn’t it?”
With the tall, pointed black hat on, Hamilton’s transformation was complete. Only this time, the Wicked Witch of the West wore a smile rather than a sneer.
At that point, Mister Rogers asked, “How did she talk?” and Hamilton answered with her famous nasal twang and a high-pitched cackle. “Oh, that would be fun to talk like that!” Rogers answered with a big grin and broke out in a cackle of his own.
Rest easy, Fred. You were a delight to us all, even when showing us the charms of Oz’s most evil witch.
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