Mister Rogers and Mariclare Barrett, a friendship: the dollhouse

Fred with Clare's son, Gregory. Mariclare Barrett, photographer. 

(I first published this on February 23, 2015.)

This is the first in a series of stories about Mariclare Barrett's special friendship with Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers). Mariclare (Clare) is my husband Terry’s sister. (Clare has metastatic breast cancer, so when she visited recently, we made audio memos as a way to begin documenting memories.) Clare and her former husband had a close friendship with Fred, a friendship that began in 1982 when they interviewed him for an article in their magazine, Vegetarian Times. Their friendship continued until Fred's passing in 2003. The unedited audio is about seven minutes. It's titled The Dollhouse. Clare edited the transcript to add and clarify her story.

The Dollhouse
I have only boys as children so when the request for a dollhouse came from QB when he was about four years old, I thought, “That’s odd. A dollhouse. I don’t know. That’s not a boy toy.” I was a little uncertain about it, and let it go.

Six months later, he asked again.

I decided to ask my friend Fred about it. It’s wonderful to have a wise friend when you’re perplexed, and no one could have a wiser friend than Mister Rogers.

So I said to Fred, “I’m a little nervous about this because QB wants a dollhouse.” And he said, “Well, what do you think he wants to do with the dollhouse?” I said, “I suppose he wants to play with it.” And he said, “Wouldn’t that be interesting to see how boys play with a dollhouse?”

So for QB’s fifth birthday, I got him a Fisher-Price dollhouse and all the little rooms of furniture. The bathroom, the little toilet, tub, and sink. It also had a family, the mother, father, two children, a boy and girl.

I played a lot with a dollhouse as a kid and was excited to see them play with it. They opened it, or QB did, and he was just delighted. So I showed him and his brothers how to set it up. I put all the little bedrooms together, the living room, and the furniture. I was very pleased with the whole thing and with myself. Mostly for setting it up and getting it done.

Then I took a phone call in the kitchen and began icing a cake. The next thing I knew, I was aware that my boys were running through the house. They ran by humming siren sounds with the adult dolls in Dixie cups, which were, as it turned out, helicopters. And the adults were looking for the children who had been lost since the house was hit by a tornado. I went back to our living room and the house was asunder. A fire truck was there. The tornado had struck. The children were missing.

I had a complete meltdown because this is not how you play with a dollhouse. I thought, “What is wrong with these children?” But I appreciated the humor of it, laughed and said, “Well I guess that’s it.” I was witnessing how boys play with a dollhouse.

They played with it all the time in unusual ways. They would incorporate Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, and, take cereal and Jello boxes out of our kitchen and to construct sets of different cityscape levels for stories they acted out. They had a lot of playtime with this dollhouse.

So Fred just loved that story of the boys and the dollhouse. He was so interested in that.

Not long after this, he visited. (Fred had a meeting in Chicago with the Sears Foundation, a sponsor of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. We lived in Oak Park.) After lunch, he asked the boys if he could see their dollhouse.

Upstairs they went. Fred watched as my boys gathered around the dollhouse. He had the most wonderful, unique ability even though he was a tall man to make himself very small. He could just fold himself into a very small package. So he sat in the corner of the bedroom and watched my two oldest children, Nick and QB, play with the dollhouse.

I watched him watch them. There was something about his unconditional positive regard—there’s a term, an old psychology term, that was made popular by Carl Rogers, the psychologist. “Unconditional positive regard.” That’s how he observed them play.

Fred did very close work with child psychiatrist Margaret McFarland. With her he wrote every script and every song in the program, always seeking to help children understand their feelings and accept themselves because “people can love you just the way you are.” He often closed the program with that assurance: “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive, it’s such a happy feeling you’re growing inside….”

Play was everything to Fred.

He often spoke about the importance of child play with dolls and puppets. He said he was acting out the fears and delights of his own childhood.

He created and voiced all the puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Each day the trolley took us into and out of that make-believe land where anything could happen. Donning the traditional black outfit of a mime, he gave life to the characters that embodied different parts of his own personality and psyche: Daniel Striped Tiger was timid and fearful. X the Owl was aloof and imperious. Lady Elaine Fairchild was a trickster, unpredictable and sometimes frightening. Each puppet had his or her own way of being in the world, and in their interactions, we witnessed the drama and relationships between royalty (King Friday and a Queen Sarah Saturday, Prince Tuesday) and the ordinary denizens of the Neighborhood.

I have the sweetest memory of Fred watching my boys play with their dollhouse. I realized that if you watch children without interfering or trying to interact with them, in short time they’ll get down to the business of play and forget about you being there.

Mr. Rogers gave me that realization. I watched them use their imaginations. I loved how they interacted together and with the dollhouse despite what Fisher-Price or I had in mind about how boys play.