When Sesame Street debuted in 1969, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood had already been airing on PBS for two seasons. As the elder statesman, Rogers wasted no time bullying the cast and crew of the show he characterized as "Puppets Singing Numbers."
"It was stupid sh-t, really," said Muppetmaster Frank Oz, who, in recent years, has taken to wearing a 'Yoda and Grover are NOT the same voice!' T-shirt everywhere he goes. "He'd steal the Muppets and take sick pictures of them."
Founder Jim Henson agrees: "One time I went to my car, and under the windshield wiper blade were two Polaroids. In one, Fred had Cookie Monster's face near his junk, and he was making an 'OOoo' face. On the other, he had written 'I hate Vagina' on a blackboard in a thought-bubble, and posed Ernie underneath it. If I wasn't a Seventh Day Adventist, or whatever the hell I am, I would have kicked his ass."
Rogers found, however, that he was picking on America's darlings: By 1971, Sesame Street was a national phenomenon; Big Bird appeared on the cover of Time magazine, the cast was invited to meet President Nixon at the White House, and Gordon and Susan moved into a $500,000 dee-luxe apartment in the sky.
"We had the 8:00a - 8:30a timeslot for his first two years," recalled Rogers. "Suddenly, Sesame Street is picked up, and we're doing 9-9:30. What f - - king kid is home at nine A.M.? I'll tell you who: Retards! Retards, truants, and kids whose parents floated here on a door. After two years, I'm teaching 'red light/ green light' to a bunch of retarded Cuban school-ditchers!"
Rogers resentment began to leak into his work. Soon, the segments that Mister Rogers wrote for the show began to move away from the educational entertainment of his young audience, and toward angering their parents.
"Stranger and stranger," said Bob "Bog Dog" Trow, a regular human cast member on the show. "The segments went from 'Let's Visit a Crayon Factory' to 'Crop Circles are God's Way of Telling The World That Sometimes Corn Needs To Lie The F - -k Down.' "
Said Trow: "There were a few segments that we were able to talk Fred out of, during the table-read or at rehearsal. I am convinced that Fred wrote segments like 'You Are Not Lactose Intolerant, You're A P-ssy.' And 'If You Can't Divide By Zero Your Little Sister Will Have To Die' just to get parents to write him hate letters."
Rogers also felt that, by hiring people with no television experience, he was training talent only to have them defect to other shows. Most famously, 'Neighborhood' employed balding overactor Michael Keaton, who worked as a set-dresser until moving to Hollywood, and Keith David, who played Keith the Southwood Carpenter before starring as "Black Guy With An Interesting Job that You'd Normally Associate With A White Guy, To Prove That The Director Is Not Racist" in Volcano, Armageddon, There's Something About Mary, Pitch Black, Barbershop, Agent Cody Banks, The Chronicles of Riddick, Crash, ATL, Delta Farce, and First Sunday.
What most people don't know is that many of the Muppets got their start in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
First it was Harry Monster. Born Hyman Messerschmidt in 1913 in Hungary, Harry moved to Hollywood in 1934, and began writing for ABC's "Immigrant Hoedown." In 1937, he was hired by Fred Coe to be head writer on the Philco Television Playhouse.
Because his success gave him a public forum, Monster made it a crusade to educate the nation regarding his opinions on Germany's foreign policy in the 1930's.
"At the time, the United States had no intention of getting involved in a European War, and the only thing stopping Germany from complete European domination was France and England on the East, and Russia on the West," said Monster, in a 1973 interview with Phil Donahue. "France and England were useless, so I simply said that 'becoming a Russian was better than becoming a German, even if I had to become a Communist.' "
These statements caused Monster to appear in front of Senator Joseph McCarthy, during his anti-communist reign of a - -holiness. Monster was subsequently black-listed, and worked from 1939 to 1967 as a valet in an Italian restaurant in Sherman Oaks, CA.
"Neighborhood" was Monster's renewed foray into television, when Rogers hired him as a segment producer on August 12, 1967.
"I couldn't thank Fred enough," said Monster. "I thought I would end my career in his employ."
That plan changed when Monster was spotted by Jim Henson while scraping pigeon sh-t off of Rogers' Mercedes.
"Henson stopped dead in his tracks, and just stared at me, for a good 30 seconds," Monster recalled. "He cast me as Harry Monster on the spot."
"While Fred Rogers paid me in Valium and clearance deli-meats, Henson was offering me real money: $19,000 a year. I could not sign fast enough."
It didn't hurt that Monster didn't need hours of make-up to become his Sesame
Street character. However, Monster claims that he never noticed that he looked exactly like a Muppet.
"Yeah, I just thought everyone from Hungary had googly eyes, huge black eyebrows made of feathers, and was covered head-to-toe in dense blue fur. In retrospect, I guess I was just wasn't very observant."
TO BE CONTINUED.