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WQED's 'Mister Rogers' special made us all feel special

| Wednesday, March 7, 2018, 10:09 a.m.
Fred Rogers on the set of his show 'Mister Rogers Neighborhood.'
Focus Features
Fred Rogers on the set of his show 'Mister Rogers Neighborhood.'

For about an hour Tuesday night, PBS viewers became kids again — or at least, they could sing, sigh and cry like kids, as "It's You I Like" grabbed at their heartstrings and pulled them gently back to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

The tribute to the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers debuted Tuesday night, hosted by Pittsburgh native and former Neighbor Michael Keaton (he was a WQED stagehand who also showed off his tumbling skills in a tank top and multi-colored tights).

"There wasn't a dry eye in the house," said WQED spokesman George Hazimanolis. "The emotional response was palpable... there were people sharing memories and tributes on Facebook and Twitter by the hundreds."

It didn't take long for the nostalgia to sink in and reduce viewers to a tearful mess.

Sometimes, just the reminder that someone so genuinely kind and genuine could exist was a comfort, especially when everything and everyone else in the world seemed senseless and selfish.

Sarah Silverman, one of the celebrities who talked about how the show affected their lives, shared some of her favorite clips, including Rogers' visit with Koko the Gorilla and Rogers singing "It's You I Like," a song about loving someone for what's inside them, to Jeffrey Erlanger, then a little boy in an electric wheelchair.

The documentary showed how Rogers let himself be seen making mistakes, stumbling and laughing as he tried to keep up with the motions of a "head, shoulders, knees and toes" rhyme or making a borderline-embarrassing noise attempting to play a tuba. It also showed him as a pioneer, tackling issues like birth, death, divorce and disability; or casting a black singer as "Officer Clemmons" in 1968 — the same year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated — and soaking their tired feet together in a kiddie pool.

When the show cut to the last pledge break and Rick Sebak said the show was over with all the regret of a dad telling his toddler that Mister Rogers was done for the day, praise rolled in.

Officials at WQED could not immediately say what kind of viewership the special brought, or whether there was an uptick in pledges when they showed King Friday XIII solemnly telling people that Public Television would like their money — but not all their money.

"It was a strong evening for pledges; we haven't calculated everything yet, but it did very well," said Hazimanolis, WQED's senior director of corporate communications. "Everyone in Pittsburgh kind of knows it's 'their' neighborhood."

If you missed it the first time, WQED will re-broadcast "It's You I Like" at noon on Sunday, March 11.

Note: An earlier version mistakenly credited WQED with producing the documentary.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, or on Twitter @msantoni.

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