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But he’s not here and so those of us who grew up amid his tender ministrations are left to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that at least Mr. Rogers was, even if he no longer is.
I am almost 40 now and there are only a few really vivid television memories that remain from my childhood -- the careening bed from “Love American Style,” the endlessly tense speeches and hearings from the Watergate scandal, and Mr. Rogers.
Mr. Rogers showed up in our house at the same time every day and he always walked in the door with a smile on his face. He took off his jacket and his good shoes and put on those canvas sneakers and a cardigan sweater and if he did something too different -- like maybe forgo the sweater because it was summer -- he explained why. He looked directly into the camera and he talked right to you in a voice that was respectful and interested. He didn’t try to be hip or cool; he was never sarcastic or glib or cute. He talked to you as if you were a good friend of his and you just knew, even though you were a kid, that he really meant it.
“The thing is, on ‘Sesame Street,’ you knew Big Bird couldn’t really see you,” said my brother, Jay, whom I called immediately when I heard that Mr. Rogers had died. “And on ‘The Electric Company’ you figured Rita Moreno was probably in it for the money. But Mr. Rogers, he was just there because he liked you. For some reason.”
Jay, although two years younger than I, is a globe-trotting, deal-making studio executive now and he was just as upset as I was by the news. Neither one of us remember very clearly all the details of the show -- Queen Sara and King Friday, the mailman, the railroad all sort of blur together. What we remember is the man walking through the front door beaming, day after day after day. “He was never ever in a bad mood,” said my brother wistfully. “He was always glad to see us.”
The real miracle of Mr. Rogers is that he survived adulthood. Our adulthood. For children raised during Vietnam, Watergate and the years that have stacked up to create our scandal-plagued, celebrity-worshipping, instant-merchandising culture, Fred Rogers turned out to be just as sincere and genuinely good as he seemed when we were kids.
He was not revealed to be a womanizer or a pedophile or a heroin addict; he did not bilk investors of millions or commit tax fraud. Neither did he try to capitalize on his own fame for personal gain. He never tried to turn his neighborhood into an empire.
In 1999, he reluctantly agreed to start a Web site but there is no Mr. Rogers talking doll, no Fred Rogers cardigan line, no Prince Tuesday or Henrietta Pussycat bedsheets or action figures.
Over the 30 years his show ran, he won a bunch of awards and toured the country, but he never “went Hollywood” -- he and his wife, Joanne, lived in Pittsburgh, for heaven’s sake.
He was an ordained Presbyterian minister, but his spirituality was so clearly one of loving tolerance it could not be considered divisive by anyone not a radical fundamentalist.
Instead, he remained a calming voice in times of tragedy -- on his Web site is a video clip of him offering thoughts on how to help kids deal with scary news. He was an indefatigable champion of educational children’s programming and, perhaps more important, became an icon of quiet but unswayable integrity in a world that often seems run by profits, ratings and public opinion polls.
Fred Rogers famously got into television because he thought it was so terrible -- he wanted to see if he could create a place where children could go, where they would not just feel safe and loved but where they would be safe and loved.
Thursday, as people spread the news and sang that familiar song, as they thought for a minute about how different things would be if more public figures were like Mr. Rogers, it was pretty obvious he had done just that.
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Mary McNamara is a culture columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times. Previously she was assistant managing editor for arts and entertainment following a 12-year stint as television critic and senior culture editor. A Pulitzer Prize winner in 2015 and finalist for criticism in 2013 and 2014, she has won various awards for criticism and feature writing. She is the author of the Hollywood mysteries “Oscar Season” and “The Starlet.” She lives in La Crescenta with her husband, three children and two dogs.