How Mr. Rogers Made Friday the 13th Less Scary

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If you’re old enough to know who the man pictured above is, you’re one of the lucky ones. That’s Fred Rogers, better known as Mr. Rogers of the legendary PBS children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers, before his passing in 2003, was a leader in the efforts to educate the mind, body, and spirit of children, as well as nurturing the best in adults, too. (For an example of the latter, and you may want to have some tissues ready, watch his speech accepting a lifetime achievement Emmy award, here.) And, despite the fact that he played with puppets — such as the one pictured above — he took a very rational approach to the world.

For example, he wasn’t afraid of Friday the 13th, and he didn’t want children to grow up fearing it either.

If you’re old enough to know who the puppet pictured above is, you’re also one of the lucky ones. That’s King Friday, the ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, a fictional, puppet-populated realm to which Mr. Rogers travelled in most episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Wikipedia describes King Friday as “relatively egocentric, irrational, resistant to change, and temperamental, although open-minded enough to listen when told he is wrong.” But his name reveals another part of his biography. His full name is King Friday XIII — that is, King Friday the 13th. That’s a reference not to his lineage (there wasn’t a King Friday XII), but to his birthday. King Friday XIII was born on Friday the 13th, and, regardless of month or frequency, every Friday the 13th was King Friday’s birthday.

In a 1999 interview with the Emmy’s website, Fred Rogers explained (full video here, and that link starts at the relevant part):

His name was King Friday XIII. We just thought that was fun because so many people are so superstitious about Friday the 13th that we thought, let’s start children out thinking that Friday the 13th was a fun day. And every Friday the 13th would be his birthday. So we would celebrate his birthday every time a Friday the 13th came. And that was so wonderful about [broadcasting a live TV show] — when a Friday the 13th came, you knew it.

As a nice bonus, if you were a kid who was celebrating a (real) birthday) on a Friday the 13th, while most other grown ups were telling you to that your special day was cursed, Mr. Rogers was throwing the King — and you — a birthday party. For a generation of children, Friday the 13th became a day of celebration, thanks to a guy and his make-believe neighborhood.

Bonus Fact: In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court decided whether VCR makers should be liable for copyright infringement. Many movie and TV production studios objected to their use, arguing that VCRs allowed for illegal copying of copyright materials in a volume and manner never seen before. One TV star, though, took the side of the those who wanted to tape shows off TV to watch later. That star was Fred Rogers. He testified, in part:

I have always felt that with the advent of all of this new technology that allows people to tape the “Neighborhood” off-the-air, and I’m speaking for the “Neighborhood” because that’s what I produce, that they then become much more active in the programming of their family’s television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been “You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions.”

The Court found in favor of the VCR makers and cited Rogers’ testimony in a footnote in the majority decision.

From the Archives: Fred’s Fish: Another detail which underscores how great a person Fred Rogers was.

Take the Quiz: Name the lyrics to the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood theme song.

Related: “The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember” by Fred Rogers. 4.8 stars on 101 reviews.