The First & Last Time Mister Rogers Sang “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (1968–2001)

Mr. Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood, the icon­ic tele­vi­sion series that ran from 1968 to 2001, is a major child­hood touch­stone for so many.

Raise your hand if you have a Pavlov­ian response to the famil­iar open­ing seg­ment, in which Fred Rogers opens the front door to his hum­ble liv­ing room set, heads to the clos­et, singing, to exchange his jack­et for a com­fy cardi­gan sweater, and then sits on a wood­en deacon’s bench to swap out his street shoes for a pair of can­vas sneak­ers.

As per the show’s web­site, this rou­tine was a promise of sorts to view­ers:

I care about you, no mat­ter who you are and no mat­ter what you can or can­not do… Let’s spend this time togeth­er. We’ll build a rela­tion­ship and talk and imag­ine and sing about things that mat­ter to you.

Fans of all ages—some too young to have caught the show in its orig­i­nal run—have post­ed over 28,000 grate­ful, emo­tion­al com­ments on the video, above, which teams the open­ing seg­ment of the first episode, Feb­ru­ary 19, 1968, with that of the last episode, August 31, 2001.

The biggest change seems to be the move from black-and-white to col­or.

Oth­er­wise, the tweaks are decid­ed­ly minor.

The wood­en doors are replaced with sim­i­lar mod­els sport­ing cast iron hinges.

The win­dow seat gets some pil­lows.

The shut­ters give way to cafe cur­tains, open to reveal a bit of stu­dio foliage.

A fish tank is installed near the traf­fic light that sig­naled the start of every episode.

The clos­et fills with bright sweaters, many hand knit by Mr. Rogers’ mom—at some point, these tran­si­tioned from but­tons to zip­pers, which were eas­i­er to manip­u­late and were qui­eter near his body mic.

(Once, Mr. Rogers but­toned his sweater wrong, but opt­ed not to reshoot. Cast mem­ber David “Mr. McFeely” Newell recalled that his friend saw the on-cam­era boo boo as an oppor­tu­ni­ty “to show chil­dren that peo­ple make mis­takes.”)

There are the framed trol­ley prints and Pic­ture Pic­ture, as con­stant and unfash­ion­able as the braid­ed rug and Bicen­ten­ni­al rock­ing chairs that were a fea­ture of my grand­par­ents’ house.

It’s such a good feel­ing, a very good feel­ing, to see how loy­al Rogers and his pro­duc­ers were to these famil­iar ele­ments through­out the decades.

Brace your­self, friends.

Mr. Rogers was kind of over these open­ers.

As his wife, Joanne Rogers, told The New York Times in 2001, a few months before the final episode aired:

He does­n’t miss the show. I think he miss­es the Neigh­bor­hood of Make-Believe because he enjoyed work­ing with peo­ple around him. He real­ly loves all of them, and he’ll keep in touch. But he did not enjoy what he called ‘inte­ri­ors,’ the begin­ning and end­ings of the pro­grams. He had got­ten where he had real­ly dread­ed it so.

It wasn’t so much the repet­i­tive nature of the greet­ing as the need to put on make­up and con­tact lens­es, a telegenic con­sid­er­a­tion that didn’t fac­tor in to the old black-and-white days. Mr Rogers said that he would have pre­ferred pre­sent­ing him­self to the camera—and to the neigh­bors watch­ing at home—exactly as he did to his friends and neigh­bors in real life.

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)

Mr. Rogers Takes Break­danc­ing Lessons from a 12-Year-Old (1985)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Mon­day, Feb­ru­ary 3 when her month­ly book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain cel­e­brates New York, The Nation’s Metrop­o­lis (1921). Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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