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Violent Images: The Assassination Special

Earlier today I received an email from Neighborhood Archive reader Adam Nedeff. Adam recently had the opportunity to view the often-discussed but rarely-see Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Assassination Special. Although the special was aired in response to the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy, today marks the the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. As a result, there certainly will not be (and have not been) a shortage of violent imagery on television today.

Adam's email to me (shared with his permission), including a detailed description of the Assassination Special, follows:

I visited the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, California. The Center is the home to a massive video archive containing a broad variety of programs spanning the entire history of television. I decided on a whim to search the Center's database for "Mister Rogers" and was amazed that they had this program

On June 5, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles. He died the following morning. It was only a few months following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Fred Rogers was disturbed by the graphic nature of the news coverage of both incidents and was concerned about the impact it was having on children. Overnight, he wrote a script for a special program that aired on June 7, 1968. Here's my recap of that program.

The program takes place in Mr. Rogers' TV house, as usual, but the presentation is very different from a typical episode. There is no actual title for the program given at any time. The show simply fades in to Mr. Rogers' house, and Mr. Rogers is already there. He wears a suit through the whole program, never changing into a sweater and sneakers. The most drastic change in presentation is that even though there are several Make-Believe segments and singing in this program, the language Mr. Rogers uses and the topics he discusses clearly demonstrate that he's gearing this episode towards adults, not children. And what I find most interesting about this special is that--at least to my eye--Mr. Rogers is visibly nervous through most of the program. He fidgets and looks for things to do with his hands: sitting near a plant and twisting the petals on a flower, scratching a spot on the wall next to him for at least a solid minute while he speaks, and pushing a toy truck back and forth. He even has uncharacteristic trouble looking at the camera for much of the program. This is a decidedly different endeavor for him, and it's fascinating to see how it's affecting him.

Mr. Rogers discusses the different ways that children play and explains that there is sometimes more happening than just simply playing. He shows a toy truck and illustrates how a child pushes a truck back and forth and sometimes hides a toy behind another object, just to "find" it himself immediately. A child might actually be doing these things to ponder loss, the need to find something that's missing, or coping with the idea of leaving a place and coming back. A child's play is very complex in this way, and Mr. Rogers observes that he and his associates have recently observed children acting out rather disturbing and callous acts while they play with each other. He talks about how children often play about things they see in the mass media, or things that they hear about grown-ups discussing.

We go to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe (no trolley, we just go straight there). X the Owl is in his tree and Lady Elaine is in Henrietta's house. Lady Elaine excitedly talks about watching the news and seeing "that man get shot by that other man at least six times!" X somberly says that seeing it once was enough for him. Lady Elaine wants to pretend she's shooting X and that X shoots her, and X gets upset and says he doesn't want to play about that. Lady Aberlin walks up to them and X talks about how nervous it makes him to play about things like that. Lady Aberlin says that thinking about a thing, or talking about it, or playing about it doesn't make it happen. She explains, "That man didn't shoot the other man just by thinking about it. He actually had to pick up his gun and do it." X and Lady Elaine wonder why it happened and Lady Aberlin says "That man shot the other man because he must have been very, very angry about something." But she emphasizes that he still had to do it. X thinks about times that he wished for things because he was angry, but they didn't come true, and Lady Aberlin assures him that the wishes he makes won't hurt anybody. X says he used to wish he could fly when he was little, but that wish did come true. He then realizes it came true because he made it happen. X feels better and Lady Elaine suggests that everyone in the neighborhood should have a picnic because it might make them feel better. Lady Aberlin promises to be there.

Back at Mr. Rogers' house, Mr. Rogers has a set of building blocks and builds a tower. As he does so, he explains that everybody in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe trusts Lady Aberlin, because she always does exactly what she promises. As he builds the tower, he explains that playing about something can actually feel very real to a child. One thing he observed in the playtimes he's seen is that some children actually feel better about being the victim in a pretend-violent act, because they know they aren't the ones hurting somebody. He talks about his associate, Margaret McFarland, who noticed a child building a very high block tower, taller than himself, and knocking it down. He did this twice, and McFarland was surprised because the blocks were hitting him on the way down and he didn't seem to care. McFarland sensed he was upset and the boy explained, "Somebody shot my head." Even though it was just play, the result affected the child's mood.

Mr. Rogers goes onto explain that a very common mistake that adults make--and one that he admits to making himself early in his career--is trying to "be somebody" in the presence of a child. He says that children feel uncomfortable and guarded when adults try to project an image. He says that if you are comfortable with yourself and you don't try to "be somebody" in a child's presence, the child will feel safer and more willing to talk about whatever is on his mind.

We go back to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where Norma Canner is playing with a group of children inside King Friday's castle. They stomp their feet and play with noisy toys together, as King Friday watches. (Looking at the Archive, it appears to be exactly the same Neighborhood of Make-Believe segment as episode 0097.)

Back at Mr. Rogers' house, Mr. Rogers' explains a child's desire for control. He talks about a common behavior for a child, raising his hand toward a parent as if he's about to hit, and then stopping his arm in mid-air and pulling back. He explains the importance of praising a child for doing this, so the child will feel good about having self-control. He sings "What Do You Do with the Mad That Feel," making it a point to put very strong emphasis on the words "something else instead." He talks about the need to cope with anger. He talks about a day when he was feeling very angry about something. He took his son outside and they went for a walk in the woods. His son noticed how tightly Mr. Rogers was squeezing his hand as they walked and asked "Are you mad about something?" Mr. Rogers told his son what he was mad about and realized he felt better. He encourages parents to talk about their own mad feelings with their children, because their children might respond by later telling them when they feel angry about something.

Back to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Daniel and Lady Aberlin are playing a game that Daniel calls "Where's Betty?" (Peek-a-boo) Daniel gives Lady Aberlin a balloon and asks her to blow it up. She does, and then Daniel asks her to let the air out. Daniel asks where all the air went and Lady Aberlin explains that it became part of "the big air around us." She explains that when people lose air, new air comes in, because people work differently than balloons. Daniel abruptly asks her "What does assassination mean?" Lady Aberlin observes that Daniel must be hearing that word a lot lately. She explains that it means "somebody got killed in a surprising way." Daniel complains that people talk about it too much, and Lady Aberlin tells him that people talk about things that make them feel sad or scared. She helps Daniel feel better with an ugga-mugga. Daniel says he doesn't want to go to the picnic. Lady Aberlin says she's going because she promised she would, but tells Daniel exactly when she'll be back.

Back at Mr. Rogers' house, Mr. Rogers explains Daniel's curiosity about balloons and bodies, saying that children have many fears that are based on not fully understanding how a body works. He explains that most children see a body as "a tube" that contains everything, and when something is lost from the body, it can't be regained. He discusses how a picnic was fine for Lady Elaine and X, but not fine for Daniel, but that's okay because everybody's different. He explains how some families might feel comforted watching TV coverage of the upcoming funeral, but other families might be better off just going for a long walk together, and we should find our own ways that are right for us.


All in all, an impressive half-hour. Everything that Mr. Rogers says to his adult viewers is in the form of a suggestion, not a rule or a declaration of "this is what's best." It took me a second to figure out the point of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe segments on a program geared toward adults, and I finally realized that it was just another of leading by example. Lady Aberlin takes on a very parental role toward Lady Elaine and X, demonstrating how to talk to children about their pretend. Norma Canner is demonstrating how to harness aggression and turn it into forms of play that are completely harmless. And Daniel is demonstrating the emotional toll that recent events can have on a child, even if play and aggression aren't even issues for that child. It's a powerful program...


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