Mary Rawson was standing in the kitchen of her Squirrel Hill apartment one day when the phone rang. She picked it up. Fred Rogers was on the line. He wanted Mary to be a part of his show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“I was bowled over,” Mary remembered recently. At the time, in 1970 or early ‘71, she was an actor working in television production. She’d met Fred after volunteering to paint sets for his show at WQED.
“It wasn’t that Fred asked you to be in the neighborhood because you were the best actor or singer,” she said. “There was a simpatico. Something resonated. I didn’t want to parse it out too much because I didn’t want to spoil it.”
Fred asked Mary to play the role of Cousin Mary Owl in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. She was cousin to X the Owl, who lived in an oak tree. These are beloved characters well known to millions of children who grew up watching the show.
While not in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, Mary played herself, and in one of the early episodes, Mary took her two children Christopher, 4, and Meghan, 2, to see the family’s pediatrician. Mary and her kids were filmed boarding a bus and making the journey to a doctor’s office, which had been created in the WQED studio. The family’s pediatrician was invited to play a real-life role.
“When our pediatrician asked Meghan to open her mouth so that he could examine her throat, she opened her mouth, her eyes and her whole face — it was very sweet,” Mary said. “It was Fred’s way of telling kids, It’s not scary to visit a doctor.’”
Fred had a way of explaining frightening events in ways that were comforting and hopeful. Mary recalled a Fred Rogers quote widely shared after events like the attacks of 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
We’ve included in this post a picture of Mary with Fred and Francois Clemmons (in his role as Officer Clemmons) on the set of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The picture was one of a series made by a Pittsburgh Press photographer in March 1971. Other photographs show producers, directors, camera operators and other members of the production crew as they prepare to tape a show. In one especially memorable picture, Fred is on his knees behind the set, operating a puppet.
Clemmons is seen in a number of images. He joined the show in 1968 and remained for 25 years. He explained how he got the role in a StoryCorps episode last year. He’s thought to be the first African-American to have a recurring role on a children’s television series.
Mary remained a part of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” until the program’s final taping in 2001. Fred was diagnosed with cancer in December 2002 and died a few months later, in February 2003.
Fred Rogers had a unique ability to speak to children as if he were not a character on television but a friend speaking specifically to them, addressing their individual concerns. This was no act, Mary said. “That’s what every person felt. He was so genuine. He was the most present and genuine person I’ve ever met. He was always right there with you. There was nothing better than running into Fred.”
— Steve Mellon