Friday, January 13, 2012

Happy Birthday, King Friday XIII

Earlier today, I had a strong urge I feel every now and then. It’s the urge to jump on a plane and head out to Pittsburgh: ride the buses for free with my student ID, eat pancakes at Pamela’s, see some art at The Mattress Factory or The Warhol, catch a show at City Theatre, and grab a drink at The Brillo Box. This afternoon I recalled an extra special reason to visit Pittsburgh today, it’s King Friday’s birthday! King Friday XIII celebrates his birthday on any and every Friday, the 13th.

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Pittsburgh has always held some special magic for me. To start, it is literally Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood brought to life. Secondly, it’s a thriving post-industrial American city. It handled the recession with grace compared to the rest of the country, possibly because its main industry, steel, had already left the city in financial crisis. It’s been rebuilding with art and technology, and finding ways to reinvent and reinvest in some of its most beautiful features. Old buildings are the homes to some of the city’s finest theater and dance companies, and the rivers are used for kayaking.

I first visited Pittsburgh in the fall of 2009. I wasn’t certain if I had made the right choice, leaving New York to go to grad school in Boston. I was there to study child development and media, just like my hero Mister Rogers, but it didn’t feel right. In the midst of my rutt, I received a postcard from the Fred Rogers Company to promote a one weekend only event at WQED: the Neighborhood of Make Believe set on display in the actual studio it was filmed in. Without question, I bought a round trip ticket to Pittsburgh, something so impulsive and very out of character for me.

A few weeks later, my plane landed in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania. Perhaps the best view of Pittsburgh you can get is driving towards the city from the airport. You go into a tunnel, and when you get out, the city is glowing right in front of you, just like Mister Rogers’ trolley as it arrives in the Neighborhood of Make Believe.

I spent my first night tracking down the Fred Rogers statue with friends. We had no clear direction of where we were going, which seemed to make finding it extra special. That’s where I fell in love with the city. The rest of the weekend was spent experiencing as much of Pittsburgh as possible. Any time I mentioned why I was visiting the city (“Because I like Mister Rogers”), the person with whom I was speaking had a story about Fred that they were excited to share. It was so clear that Mister Rogers’ influence was everywhere.

I returned to Boston reinvigorated and inspired. I saw how much power children’s media had, and I realized why Mister Rogers was so successful: Fred’s show was an extension of himself, his values, and his city. He incorporated bits of himself into his creation, which made it real and compelling.

There are so many ways to honor King Friday on his special day, but I recommend you plan a trip to Pittsburgh and see the neighborhood for yourself.

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