When Fred Rogers decided to make PBS his neighborhood, just about every American child near a TV screen instantly became his neighbor.
And by the time my daughters were old enough to watch his show, I was the Denver Post’s TV critic. So I was delighted when Bill, the PR man at our PBS affiliate, invited the three of us to join Mister Rogers for a lunch interview at a fancy restaurant. But why, I asked, did he want to include Annie, age 3, and Jenny, age 5? Because, Bill said, Mister Rogers much preferred the company of children. I thought he was joking.
As I envisioned an award-winning column, I put the girls in their best dresses and headed for the restaurant. Bill had alerted me that we’d be in a private dining room, and the other guests would include the station brass and a few major donors. When we arrived, Bill started to introduce me to Mister Rogers. But he didn’t have a chance — our guest of honor had spotted the girls and immediately started chatting with them.
So I joined the other adults and made idle conversation while waiting for my chance to do an interview. But when it was time to take our seats, I couldn’t find my daughters. Someone nodded toward the fireplace. And there were Annie and Mister Rogers, sitting on foot stools facing each other. Both were leaning forward so that their foreheads touched. “Do you brush your teeth?” Annie asked. “Yes,” said Fred, adding in an earnest tone. “And do you?” I held my breath to hear her response. “Yes, three times a day,” she said.
Just then Bill directed them to their assigned seats, Mister Rogers to be surrounded by those big donors, and we three at the end of the long table. But he’d have none of it: He beckoned to the girls and had them sit with him at the other end, rearranging the silverware so they’d all be safely away from the big people.
I can’t remember what I wrote in my column, and I certainly don’t recall any prizes. But I do recall chatting the next Sunday with a minister at my church, who told me he’d gone to seminary in Pittsburgh with Fred Rogers. He said he was amazed that I was able to get any quotes from Fred. “I always got the impression that he preferred kids to adults,” he said. Trying not to roll my eyes I replied, “And your impression was correct.”
As this experience indicates, being a TV critic was often full of surprises. Another indelible memory dates to 1971, when I’d flown to Hollywood to interview stars of the upcoming season’s’ shows. I arrived a day early, so ABC invited me to be in the first live audience for “The Odd Couple.” The stage play had been turned into a popular movie, and now Tony Randall and Jack Klugman had brought it to the small screen. The first season had the customary laugh track, but Randall didn’t like what it did to his comic timing. And Klugman complained about “the rotten canned laughter.”
So the producers decided to try live laughs for the second season. Everything seemed to be going smoothly — until wisecracks started coming from someone seated behind me in the small studio audience. I could tell from the pained look on the director’s face that the sound track was picking up the voice. Randall and Klugman carried on bravely while the network people huddled, debating what to do.
What was the problem, I wondered — why not just throw the jerk out?
The reason this wasn’t possible became clear after the credits started rolling and the mikes were turned off. Randall came to the front of the stage and announced grandly to the live audience, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, now you can tell your grandchildren that you were in the same TV studio as Groucho Marx!”
~ Barbara Haddad Ryan