40 years ago, Mister Rogers took a break from his vacation to film his only Christmas special
Merry Slopperydozafanoondapuck to you all!
Image: © The Fred Rogers Company / neighborhoodarchive.org
In 1953, Pennsylvania native Fred Rogers moved back home after working a few years in the Big Apple. The young puppeteer had honed his craft on commercial television for NBC, but he yearned for something more enriching, something more fulfilling for young viewers. He landed a job on The Children's Corner, on the Pittsburgh public television station WQED. On that show, Rogers introduced some soon to be famous friends, the puppets King Friday XIII and Curious X the Owl.
Throughout the Fifties, Fred Rogers developed his friendly TV persona. After a temporary move to Toronto, Rogers settled back at WQED and premiered Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (then styled as Misterogers' Neighborhood) in 1966. The cardigans, the sneakers, the creatures, the cozy atmosphere — it all added up to an instant classic and a vital part of our childhoods.
However, after a decade, Rogers took a breather. In 1976, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood went on hiatus. For three years. But you can't keep friendly Fred Rogers away from Make-Believe for too long. A year later, the sweater-loving host took a break from his vacation to film Christmastime with Mister Rogers. It would be the only Christmas special in his half-century-plus career.
Well, technically, it should be labeled a holiday special. The ever-inclusive Mister Rogers celebrated Hanukkah, singing "I Have a Little Dreidel," and even welcomed "children who celebrate neither" Christmas nor Hanukkah. The trolley was even decorated with a maroon velvet reading "Happy Chanukah" on one side and "Merry Christmas" on the other.
The special begins with a gift, naturally. Mr. McFeely gives Mister Rogers a new pair of sneakers. Rogers then addresses the audience, "I've been thinking about what I'd like to give you for Christmas. I'd really like to give you something that just fits your own wishes and needs the way these shoes just fit me. I suppose the thing I'd like most to be able to give you is hope."
Over the next hour, Rogers and his friends belt carols, singing "Rise Up Shepherds and Follow," "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World." Gifts are exchanged (X the Owl receives a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, while Daniel Striped Tiger gets a toy truck) as we learn that the holiday season is called Slopperydozafanoondapuck in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. According to Kind Friday, that translates to "what a difference one person can make."
Frances Bay guest stars as Franny Hamilton, a neighbor who pops in to borrows eggs. Some might remember her as Fonzie's grandmother, Grandma Nussbaum, on Happy Days, or perhaps as the grandma in Happy Gilmore.
The special even busts a common myth about Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. It has been said that Mister Rogers and Mr. McFeely only shake hands in the final episode of the series. Not so — the two shook here, when the special aired in December 1977.
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood returned from haitus in 1979, continuing to air through 2011. Today, this holiday gem goes overlooked. We will admit that we forgot it in our list of 12 Unforgettable Live-Action Christmas Specials of the 1970s.
But now we'd like to make up for that and wish you all a Merry Slopperydozafanoondapuck.