Standing on a makeshift podium along Hollywood Boulevard, his voice low and soothing and mellifluous, television icon Fred Rogers led 200 well-wishers through a song that has become a standard for generations of American children:
“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. . . .”
They sang along Thursday, not just the young, but the old as well--mothers with cameras, men in gray-flecked beards, ponytails and black leather jackets--each reliving a bit of their own childhood as they watched the 69-year-old Rogers get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
On this crazy boulevard--where freaks, hookers and the homeless wander, where celebrities have gathered amid glitz and glamour--it was the soft-spoken Rogers, clad in his famous royal blue cardigan, who stopped noon-hour traffic as he crooned the words to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the theme song to his timeless children’s program.
They are lyrics the audience knew by heart, a tune made famous by Rogers, who opens his acclaimed public television show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” by changing into a sweater and sneakers before leading viewers into his imaginary world of music and make-believe.
On this day, Mr. Rogers became Mr. Hollywood. Fans brought copies of his books and albums to be signed. People leaned out of passing trucks, yelling, “You da man, Fred!”
Michael Edelstein watched wide-eyed. The 36-year-old Bronx native grew up watching Rogers and admits that he still tunes in if he crosses the show while channel surfing.
“The man just puts you in a different frame of mind,” he said. “It’s magical. I think he’s an American institution.”
In the 30 years since he began hosting his afternoon show, Rogers has become a central figure in American popular culture--using his slow-cadenced voice to inspire young viewers to be comfortable with themselves and not miss out on any of the wonders of childhood.
Rogers’ show is the longest-running program on public television, and his drawl has been parodied by countless comedians, including Eddie Murphy with his “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood” skits on “Saturday Night Live.”
Today, one of Rogers’ sweaters (his mother used to knit them for him) resides in the Smithsonian, and he has been honored with nearly every award in broadcasting, education and early childhood development.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, he spoke to his Hollywood fans Thursday with his trademark quiet simplicity.
Who else would feel at home reciting “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” near the corner of Hollywood and Vine? And then he found a way to turn what is usually a hokey Hollywood-hype event into a meaningful moment:
“The children who watched the program for 30 years will be represented by this star, and they are far, far greater than any star in the sky.”
With Hollywood’s honorary mayor, Johnny Grant, acting as emcee, Penn Dalton--a 10-year-old Irvine boy--read aloud a letter he had sent to Rogers as a 4-year-old, wanting to know how he got his face on all those pennies.
Said his mother, Ginny Dalton: “He thought the Lincoln Memorial on the back of the penny was the trolley from the show and that Mister Lincoln was Mister Rogers. Mister Rogers sent him a personal response gently explaining the truth. That’s his style, making every kid feel special.”
Second-grade teacher Katie Shiban recalls how the friendly routine of each show was so soothing to her as a child. “I remember that routine, how he walked in the same way, changed his clothes and his shoes, fed the fish.
“In my own classroom, I’ve seen how kids crave that routine, like they’ve seen on the ‘Mister Rogers’ show. If I miss one thing, they’ll say, ‘Miss Shiban, you forgot to tell the morning story!’ ”
These are the kind of Rogers fanatics who would know the show’s most whimsical trivia--that members of the royal puppet family are named after the days of the week, that Daniel Striped Tiger was the first puppet resident to make his appearance, and that X the Owl is so-named because he “ex-caped” from the zoo.
Rogers enjoys the attention--even the imitations.
It involved a local afternoon TV host in the South who donned a sweater and in a slow voice turned to the camera and said, “Now, boys and girls. Get your mother’s hair spray and your dad’s cigarette lighter and press the buttons at the same time and you’ll have a blowtorch.”
“We put an end to that real fast,” Rogers has said.
But on the day that Mr. Rogers greeted fans from 6 to 60, not everyone displayed his patented neighborliness. On the boulevard, some Hollywood brashness crept in.
After the unveiling of the sidewalk star, as children jostled for his autograph, reaching through a metal restraining fence, a television reporter pulled the television host by the sleeve, leading him toward a live interview.
“Hey!” yelled one angry photographer. “Can’t you at least let him pose with the children first?”
Indeed, there didn’t seem to be enough of Mr. Rogers to go around. After receiving complaints that the ceremony was holding up traffic, a dozen uniformed police officers guided the gray-haired grandfather away from his young fans and toward a waiting limousine--leaving some without an autograph or even a handshake.
Can you say, disappointed?
Times researcher Nona Yates contributed to this story.