For years, just below the peaches and cream surface of PBS' block of daytime children's programming, churned a seething cauldron of hatred. And the patriarchs of the shows, which are universally recognized at the forefathers of educational children's programs -Jim Henson / Frank Oz et. al of Sesame Street, and Fred Rogers,the creator and host of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood-nearly allowed their hatred of each other to undo that which they created together: Children's television that treated kids as valuable, and programming that taught, entertained, and stimulated children for nearly 40 years.
This is The Muppet Wars. No matter what you've heard, the truth is far worse.
Sesame Street started it all. Before the Muppets, children's programming pandered to children, surface-level tittilation with a complete lack of educational content.
Co-founded by puppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz, Sesame Street debuted in 1969, and quickly set the standard for contemporary educational television. 40+ years later, Sesame Street continues on, largely unchanged, educating and tickling the children of their earlier fans.
Mister Rogers Neighborhood was the brainchild of Fred Rogers, an educator and minister who believed his down-home, earthy charm and his obvious respect for children's intellect could combine to create a show that awakened a child's mind, while still making the child feel comfortable. 'Mister Rogers' ran from 1970 through 2001, and endeared itself to millions of fans.
Still, it was competition between the two PBS stable-mates that threatened to undo it all.
"It started with Mr. Hooper," said Fred Rogers in a 1988 interview. "That grandstanding prick was sweetness and light in front of the cameras. What kids and parents didn't see was his complete contempt for children, and his self-indulgent sadism. He was universally hated on the 'Sesame Street' set, and for good reason."
"Hooper would hit the soundstage, and everyone else had to stop whatever it was they were doing, just to greet this a- -hole," said Rogers. "The universe revolved around Harold Hooper, and he wouldn't waste an opportunity to destroy and belittle those that did not share his self-image.
PBS employees from that era, however, remember that Misters Rogers and Hooper were both difficult prima-donnas, equally unprofessional and belligerent.
"Rogers was obsessed with Mr. Hooper, and obsessed with what he felt was inequitable treatment by the producers," said a set decorator who worked there for a time. "Hooper got the use of the PBS jet, and Rogers demanded to be given that perk as well."
"He pouted for 3 days until producers relented."
"The best part was that Harold Hooper hated kids," said Mr. Rogers. "God forbid a kid stayed near him after the director yelled, 'cut!'. I've seen him punch a 6 year-old with Down's Syndrome in the face, just because he dawdled near Hooper's Store. Lifted him right out of his shoes."
In an attempt for the two camps to work together better, producers demanded that Mister Rogers appear on Sesame Street at least twice a year. In response, Muppets would visit 'Neighborhood' during May and November Sweeps.
The producers' greatest error? Mister Rogers was allowed to ad-lib his lines on "Sesame Street." This led to one of the most controversial moments in television history.
"Mister Rogers gathered a few kids together to play a game," said original cast member Orenthal "Big" Bird, 48. "Then he whips out pictures of Bert, Ernie and some other Muppets."
"Rogers stood up and told the kids that the game was called 'Which Muppet is a Homo'," said Snuffleupagus, from his room in a Staten Island nursing home. "He explained why Bert and Ernie shared a bedroom."
"Everyone knew about Bert and Ernie," continued the make-believe mastodon . "It was the worst-kept secret in television. But Rogers had no right 'outing' them on TV."
"Big Bird was standing next to me, Maria and Susan on the set. He leaned over to Maria and said, 'they're f--ked Their careers are over.' Susan started to cry."
Muppets in Rogers' neighborhood didn't work out well, either.
"I wanted Kermit, or Grover, or Cookie Monster, someone who would draw an audience," Said Rogers. "First day of Sweeps, they send me Guy Smiley and that 'Manah Manah' guy. I mean, Guy f--king Smiley?"
Shulie Herschel "Guy" Smiley, who died of renal cirrhosis in 2005, was fired in 1990 for fraudulently padding expense reports. During his appearance on "Neighborhood" it was alleged that he was intoxicated.
"This a - - hole was tanked," Rogers recalled. "Ten minutes later, Smiley is naked from the waist down, he beat Prince Tuesday into a coma, and then he started running after Lady Alberlin, holding his privates and singing, 'Look at my horse, my horse is amazing.'"
Rogers cleared Smiley off the set himself.
"I beat his ass, threw him in his purple Coupe DeVille, and sent him back to The Bronx, or whatever God-forsaken place the show is from."
To be continued.