PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — It was the start of something special.
On Feb. 19, 1968, PBS aired the first episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The show would go on to shape generations and become the gold standard of children’s television.
Joe Negri was first brought on the show to play “Handyman Negri.” The role was a surprise to him.
“I said, ‘Fred, I’m not handy at all. I can’t even hammer a nail,'” Negri said. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about a thing. It’s going to be all pretend.'”
It turned out that Negri was good with his hands – just not with a hammer. His musical talents became a mainstay on the show. Negri said he’s grateful for the opportunity Fred Rogers gave him.
“I’m glad he gave me the music shop because he really gave me the great opportunity to utilize my music,” Negri said.
Show producer Margy Whitmer had a front row seat for every episode.
“It really didn’t hit me until later on – a few years later – people still really care about him,” Whitmer said. “They really care about this show. It’s important.”
The original model of the now-iconic neighborhood, seen at the start of every episode, still resides at WQED Multimedia’s offices in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. A pathway often seen on the show is a permanent part of Studio A. They are constant reminders of the years that Whitmer, Negri and many others worked with Fred Rogers.
“He’s like our North Star,” said WQED Multimedia CEO Deborah Acklin. “I think we really orient ourselves off of the goals that Fred had for public television and the goals he had for WQED and his mission to children everywhere that went so far beyond Pittsburgh.”
Acklin said Rogers’ famously gentle demeanor on the show was no act.
“He really was the same person off television as he was on television. There was no acting, there was no pretense. Obviously, he was scripted and he had a real message that he wanted to bring across, but he had that much heart and that much gentleness,” Acklin said.
It was a philosophy that was shared with every child who watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” – that everyone can make a difference by simply being themselves.