Breaking Barriers Through Mister Rogers Neighborhood
Steve Adubato goes on-location to The Turrell Fund Day for Children in Shelburne, Vermont to sit down with Dr. Francois Clemmons, singer and actor who played Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to discuss Dr. Clemmons’ groundbreaking role on the show, the impact of Mister Rogers Neighborhood on generations of children and the lessons Fred Rogers taught Dr. Clemmons about the importance of love.
"We are honored to be sitting with an iconic figure in media, in the arts, and in the world of Fred Rogers, who we recognize today. This is Doctor Francois Clemmons, singer, actor, and he was Officer Clemmons in Mister… on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, starting in 1968. Tell folks... and by the way, we'll show some footage of Officer Clemmons while you're talking. Who was he? And why did he matter so much, sir? Well I was the first black person to have a steady role in children's television. Fred was a visionary, and I think he knew how important it was to have representation of all races, not just white people. So he invited me to come on the show and to sing. That's what I am. I'm a singer. And he thought up a role that I would do as a helper. They talk about a helper a lot. And there were some problems, some racial problems, that he was trying to address in his own way, in our culture. Doctor King was very active at the time, and there were some assassinations. You know, Robert Kennedy. And he thought that these things needed some way of expression among young children. They were aware of what was going on, and he was totally concerned about the effect it would have on children. He felt it was best for them to know that the neighborhood had people of all races and all colors. And we were friends in our private life, as well as we were on television. You said he was a mentor of yours? Yes. He was my mentor in the sense that he encouraged me to continue my operatic career, to continue my auditions, my studying, and the traveling that it involves. It was very difficult, I tell you very honestly. And many times, I called him on the phone, and he gave me encouragement, and... you have to take language lessons and coachings and voice lessons, and it's very expensive. And I couldn't have done it had he not stuck by me in the way he did. He saw to it. In times when I was discouraged, he said, "No, no, no, no. You've come too far. You've done too much Francois. You can't stop now." So... and he was also... I say, my biggest fan. He came to hear me, in New York City Opera, in Philadelphia, in Pittsburgh, in Cleveland, Chicago, whenever I sang, I'd look up and there he was sitting out there in the audience. When you were Officer Clemmons on that show, there..."