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How I came to make ‘Lessons from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’

By Staff | Feb 11, 2015

Judy Rubin appearing with Fred Rogers in early “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” show. PHOTO PROVIDED

Islander Judy Rubin’s documentary of the television legend Fred Rogers premiered Feb. 7 at the BIG ARTS Schein Performance Hall. A child development expert, Rubin met Fred Rogers in Pittsburgh in the 1960s. She would appear as the Art Lady in three seasons of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Rubin wrote a history of her relationship with Fred Rogers that she shared with Islander/Island Reporter readers.

“I was very lucky to have had the same mentor as Fred Rogers a gentle, wise child psychologist named Margaret McFarland. In 1963 she invited me into the field that became my life’s work art therapy. Although I had begun as an art teacher, when I did art therapy with schizophrenic children under Margaret’s supervision I felt like the ugly duckling who had found the swans; it ‘fit’ and has remained a passion for over 50 years.

“Margaret’s involvement with Fred began when she supervised his play therapy with a child for a course in counseling at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She went on to help him learn Child Development and consulted on everything he produced until her death in 1988. When I first worked at the Child Study Center she directed (co-founded by Benjamin Spock and Erik Erikson), she told me there was a very creative fellow she wanted me to meet when he returned from Canada where he was doing a show for the CBC. That was Fred.

“I remember vividly observing him visit the preschoolers at the Center before he was on TV, asking them which puppets in his suitcase they wanted to talk to that day. The children had intense conversations with King Friday, Lady Elaine or whoever they had requested, ignoring Fred who was fully visible. It was most impressive. In 1965 while we were both on the staff, Fred asked if I would be the Art Lady on the television program he was planning for the next year. I said I couldn’t because I wasn’t a performer, and he replied that was precisely why he wanted me. I then said I wasn’t able to do it because I was pregnant with our third child and I planned to nurse. He said that was no problem since the tapings would probably last only three hours and I could nurse before and after. I still demurred, but a few months later, I received a package in the mail with six scripts.

“I then called Fred who urged me to try it at least a few times before rejecting the idea. He was very persuasive as well as persistent, and when he told me that the program was going to be shown on the Eastern Educational Network – which meant that my beloved grandmother could see it in her nursing home in New Jersey – that tipped the scales for me. I was relieved that my monthly visits to him were unscripted. My charge was to read the scripts, to think about what kinds of art activities were compatible with the theme of each show, to bring in work done by young children, and to create art with him at the kitchen table where we usually sat. He asked that I use only easily available materials that could be found around the house so all viewers could do the activities at home. Because I was too vain to wear my glasses and see the cue card when it was held up at the other end of the studio, he would kick me under the table to tell me we should be wrapping up.

“Although I had been reluctant to do it, my grandmother loved my television visits and I was impressed by the mail we were getting from parents about how best to make art activities available to their children. Fred actually stimulated me to make my first film, after I told him about some work I was doing with multiply-disabled blind children and that no one would believe how creative they were. He said, ‘You’ll just have to make a film.’ I replied that I didn’t know anything about making films, and he said, ‘You must know someone with a camera.’

“So I asked the photographers at Children’s Hospital who had been making slides for my talks, and they said they had just bought a 16mm camera and would love to film at the School for the Blind. Making that film included witnessing a creative miracle: a jazz score created by a gifted blind saxaphonist improvising in response to a sighted pianist, first in a church and later in a sound studio.

“I knew Erik Kloss, who was having great success in the world of jazz at the time, because he had helped me with a blind boy I was treating in art therapy who was attending the same school he had gone to. Although I didn’t know it, Erik was also a frequent guest on Fred’s show over the years (website link with his bio if you’re curious: sites.google.com/site/pittsburghmusichistory/pittsburgh-music-story/jazz/modern-era/eric-kloss).

“After creating that film at Fred’s suggestion in 1970, I was sold on the value of film as a way to teach about art therapy, at least as good as the textbooks I was also writing.”