Alumna Profile: Margy Whitmer '74
If you’ve seen the trailer for Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the 2018 American documentary film about Fred Rogers, host and creator of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, you’ve seen Margy Whitmer ‘74. She’s the first person to be interviewed on camera, charismatic, bright-eyed, and fashionable. “If you take all the elements that make good television,” she says in the documentary, “and do the exact opposite, you have Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Low production values, simple set, unlikely star. Yet, it worked!”
Raised in Clarion, PA, Whitmer came to Chatham and majored in history and minored in education, cross-registering at Carnegie Mellon University to take child development courses. “Kids are important to me, and I care about them,” she says. “That was really what my heart was about.”
Whitmer remembers getting an exceptionally well-rounded educational experience.
“Each of my education classes had a requirement that we tutor in urban schools, like Homewood and East Liberty. I realized that this was pretty cool. We had to figure out how to get ourselves there; most of us didn’t have cars; it was a real learning experience on lots of levels. It was terrific.”
In college, Whitmer and her friend had briefly volunteered for a public television show called Zoom in Boston while working on their senior tutorial. On the strength of that work experience, she was offered a job after graduating at WQED to work on a state-wide initiative, a series of programs about alcoholism. During the next five years, she moved up the ranks, from production assistant to assistant producer to producer. As a freelancer, she did some work for Fred Rogers’ company, which was located in the same building as WQED. She worked on an early documentary about him, collecting photos at his house in Latrobe. “I remember thinking, there’s really something about him. If I ever get a chance to get on that show, that’d be great.” Then one day, she got the call.
Only they weren’t looking for her.
“They were looking to contact a friend of mine about an assistant producer position on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Whitmer laughs. “I gave them her number, then hung up and thought, ‘Wait, I’d really like to be considered for this.’ So she called back and made the case that even though it was a lower position than the one she held, she’d learn more working on that show. A week later, she got the job. It was 1981.
Whitmer had met Mister Rogers before then—after all, his studio and WQED were in the same building. “I used to have this obnoxiously bright green raincoat,” she says. “And one day we were in the elevator at the same time. I said Hi, Mister Rogers, and he said How are you? and I said I’m fine. He said So what color is that coat? I said It’s green. He said Nice raincoat. I scratched my head and thought Wow, what’s going on with this guy? I later learned that he’s partially colorblind, and when I first started, one of my jobs was to make sure that his necktie and the sweater he put on didn’t clash.”
As producers, “Fred would come up with ideas, and we’d make them happen,” Whitmer says. “Does he want to see people make crayons? Have a celebrity guest? Go to Moscow? Sometimes he’d write something and we’d have to create a new set for it, and those sets were huge—they took up the whole studio. Sometimes we’d have, say, an extra four minutes we had to fill, so we’d think what kind of activity can we do? Who can we find? The time when it was just him on camera were his least favorite parts, so we tried to make them as short as possible.”
“He loved doing the puppets. They were his voice. His inner child remained so strong all of his life. He had a saying that I think about: ‘The child is in me still, and sometimes, not so still.’ He remembered being a child, that vulnerable, small, creature, wondering about the world, how things worked, and trying to figure out who he was. Through his work with the puppets, he was able to validate children’s experiences,” she says.
Today, Whitmer works on a show called Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood that is based on the offspring of characters from the Neighborhood of Make Believe—Henrietta Pussycat’s daughter Katerina, X the Owl’s nephew O, and others. “We do two animated stories focused on a social or emotional issue, and what we call ‘Sweater Kid Visits’, in which regular, non-actor kids go check stuff out around town (Mineo’s Pizza, the Duquesne Incline), and further afield (the National Zoo in Washington D.C. to see the baby panda.” Whitmer produces the Sweater Kid Visits. “We want to transfer the legacy of Fred into this program,” she says.
“Fred worked as hard as he could to never speak in absolutes,” Whitmer says admiringly. “He would say ‘you can feel better’ instead of ‘you will feel better.’ He really wanted to help kids find that place in between.”
“Just because you’re no longer mad doesn’t mean that you’re going to be happy right away. We really want to create that space for kids. We’ve sometimes had to struggle with that with Daniel Tiger because there’s only so much time in each episode – sometimes it’s hard to model all that emotion.”
Whitmer enjoys working on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, but the original occupies a special place in her heart. “As crazy as the studio was, it was still very calm compared to what I know movie and TV sets can be like. Even when it was tense, we all had fun. Fred had a great sense of humor, and we played lots of jokes. There was a piano in the studio, and sometimes Fred would play it as he waited for us to change things around. So one day I put a glass jar on the piano, like for tips. And Fred was playing, and I came by and put a dollar in the jar, and said ‘Can you play Misty?’ I forgot all about it, but at the end of the day, I went back to my office, and on my desk was the jar with the dollar in it and a note in an envelope from Fred that said Dear Margy, Some people say this isn’t enough…. most say it’s too much. I still have that note, the dollar, and the envelope.”