Mister Rogers Creates a Prime Time TV Special to Help Parents Talk to Their Children About the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (1968)

Near­ly three min­utes into a patient blow-by-blow demon­stra­tion of how breath­ing works, Fred Rogers’ tim­o­rous hand pup­pet Daniel Striped Tiger sur­pris­es his human pal, Lady Aber­lin, with a wham­my: What does assas­si­na­tion mean?

Her answer, while not exact­ly Web­ster-Mer­ri­am accu­rate, is both con­sid­ered and age-appro­pri­ate. (Daniel’s for­ev­er-age is some­where in the neigh­bor­hood of four.)

The exchange is part of a spe­cial prime­time episode of Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood, that aired just two days after Sen­a­tor Robert F. Kennedy’s assas­si­na­tion.

Rogers, alarmed that America’s chil­dren were being exposed to unfil­tered descrip­tions and images of the shock­ing event, had stayed up late to write it, with the goal of help­ing par­ents under­stand some of the emo­tions their chil­dren might be expe­ri­enc­ing in the after­math:

I’ve been ter­ri­bly con­cerned about the graph­ic dis­play of vio­lence which the mass media has been show­ing recent­ly. And I plead for your pro­tec­tion and sup­port of your young chil­dren. There is just so much that a very young child can take with­out it being over­whelm­ing.

Rogers was care­ful to note that not all chil­dren process scary news in the same way.

To illus­trate, he arranged for a vari­ety of respons­es through­out the Land of Make Believe. One pup­pet, Lady Elaine, is eager to act out what she has seen: “That man got shot by that oth­er man at least six times!”

Her neigh­bor, X the Owl, does­n’t want any part of what is to him a fright­en­ing-sound­ing game.

And Daniel, who Rogers’ wife Joanne inti­mat­ed was a reflec­tion “the real Fred,” pre­ferred to put the top­ic on ice for future discussions—a lux­u­ry that the grown up Rogers would not allow him­self.

The episode has become noto­ri­ous, in part because it aired but once on the small screen. (The 8‑minute clip at the top of the page is the longest seg­ment we were able to truf­fle up online.)

Writer and gameshow his­to­ri­an Adam Ned­eff watched it in its entire­ty at the Paley Cen­ter for Media, and the detailed impres­sions he shared with the Neigh­bor­hood Archive web­site pro­vides a sense of the piece as a whole.

Mean­while, the Paley Center’s cat­a­logue cred­its speak to the dra­ma-in-real-life imme­di­a­cy of the turn­around from con­cep­tion to air­date:

Above is some of the footage Rogers feared unsus­pect­ing chil­dren would be left to process solo. Read­ers, are there any among you who remem­ber dis­cussing this event with your par­ents… or chil­dren?

Ever vig­i­lant, Rogers returned in the days imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing the 2001 attack on the World Trade Cen­ter, with a spe­cial mes­sage for par­ents who had grown up watch­ing him.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mr. Rogers’ Nine Rules for Speak­ing to Chil­dren (1977)

When Fred Rogers and Fran­cois Clem­mons Broke Down Race Bar­ri­ers on a His­toric Episode of Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood (1969)

All 886 episodes of Mis­ter Roger’s Neigh­bor­hood Stream­ing Online (for a Lim­it­ed Time)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Mon­day, Sep­tem­ber 9 for anoth­er sea­son of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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