Thirty-four years ago, on five consecutive episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, two feuding sects representing Russia and the United States began stockpiling parts for bombs—at one point stripping the neighborhood’s arts funding to bankroll the build-up.
This might sound like some particularly dark, on-the-nose fan fiction about a Mister Rogers episode written in 2017, but these episodes really did air in November of 1983—and only then. The episodes were pulled from syndication and future releases. While production stills reappeared over the years, and a poor-quality, five-minute clip wound up on YouTube recently, the individual episodes themselves were never surfaced again.
That was until this week. Two of them were anonymously posted to YouTube on Monday.
Now, the question isn’t, “Where are the tapes?” The question is, “Who did this?”
Or maybe more importantly, “Why now?”
Two weeks ago, Donald Trump released a budget that would entirely eliminate federal funding from public broadcasting. The budget also calls for $54 billion in military spending.
Just four days later, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s conflict series, lost for 33 years and focused primarily on the dangers of stripping public funding of art and education to stockpile arms, suddenly appeared without notice on Youtube.
Longtime Mister Rogers fans knew of the lost episodes for decades, but modern viewers have likely never heard of them, let alone seen them.
“It’s surreal, honestly,” said Jorge Flores.
Flores runs a YouTube channel called BlameItOnJorge that mostly deals with lost media and conspiracies. He told his followers on Twitter he was working on an update of some of the spookiest lost media that were still unsolved. Then he got a tweet from a fan.
“First two Mr Rogers Conflict parts were found,” the tweet reads.
Two days prior, an anonymous YouTube user named TROG SLEEP NOW uploaded relatively pristine copies of two of the five episodes in Mister Rogers Talks About Conflict in full. The user hasn’t posted anything else. No other videos, no comments, and not even a profile picture.
Events in American politics make the sudden release of these episodes this week particularly fishy. The series initially aired during the height of the Cold War as a way to better explain the conflict to children than a heavily promoted miniseries on ABC called The Day After, which aired the same week. That miniseries, a gruesome look at the fallout of a potential nuclear war with Russia, was sent to President Ronald Reagan before it aired. He said the film “left me greatly depressed.”
Rogers’ series deals more with the events leading up to a potential war, and how the persistent talk and fear of instant annihilation from the leader of a country can be particularly draining for children.
The premise of the series revolves around the Neighborhood of Make-Believe’s King Friday and his lingering worries that the neighboring town might be building a bomb, after he saw a strange package shipped to a local factory owner named Corny. Over time, without any evidence, King Friday becomes increasingly convinced Corny is gearing up for war, and directs all of the residents of the Neighborhood of Make Believe to start creating bomb parts. He wants 1 million bomb parts, and he also encourages his own residents to arm themselves.
Children were forced to put on gas masks and participate in air raid drills. Yes, in an episode of Mister Rogers.
When Handyman Negri goes door to door to deliver the news, the real-life, present-day political significance becomes abundantly clear.
“I’m on the committee to decide what we’ll use the king’s money for. He wanted to give something to school. I’m all for good music for the children,” Lady Elaine, a puppet, says to Handyman Negri, who is played by actor Joe Negri.
“Well, so am I, but I’m afraid that there’s not gonna be any money for anything like this,” said Handyman Negri. “Everything’s changed, Lady Elaine. King Friday has just ordered 1 million parts from Corny, and that’s going to take all of the country’s money.”
Mr. Rogers, outside of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, famously lobbied the U.S. Senate in 1969 to keep funding public broadcasting. His testimony was widely seen to have single-handedly preserved funding for public TV and radio.
At the end, of course, it turns out Corny was ordering parts for a bridge, not a bomb.
Flores isn’t sure there’s a connection. He says people “look through cabinets and put [tapes] on YouTube and not know they’re this rare all the time.”
“I think that was just happenstance that someone found it and then released it now,” he said. “But I think it was a little political at the time, and I think it was certainly taken off the air for political reasons.”
But when told about the timing of Trump’s budget, plus Rogers’ history of lobbying for the future of public broadcasting, Flores had some second thoughts.
“Woah, I didn't even notice that,” he said. “There may be some reference after all.”
The rest of the ending is only known through descriptions of Mister Rogers episodes from superfans, whose transcriptions of the first episodes were miraculously faithful on the first two releases.
No longer living in fear of perpetual war, the Neighborhood of Make-Believe has a Celebration of Peace. A carpenter sings What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel, the very same poem the real-life Fred Rogers delivered to the Senate in 1969.
Rogers then concludes: ”Rules are very, very important. Not just for games but for all things. Even big things like countries. Countries have to have rules to protect people, too. And someday you'll be helping to make the rules for your country. I trust that you'll make the best kind you know how."
Flores has a quick word for whoever dropped those first two episodes.
“To that guy, thank you for doing it,” he said. “And those last three, put ‘em up.”
At the very end of the last episode of Mister Rogers’ conflict series, King Friday takes all of the bomb parts and turn them into a record player for the school.
The episode then ends with a title card that shows a Bible verse.
“And they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning forks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more."