Did Mr. Rogers try to make a rainbow with a flashlight and a squirt bottle?

I’m guessing this goes in General Questions, since there’s a factual answer to the question; if it should be Cafe Society, my apologies.

Anyway, my sister thinks I’m dreaming this, and I’m wondering if anyone can corroborate and/or correct my memory.

The last episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood that I ever saw was surreal. It seems that Mr. Rogers had heard recently about how rainbows were formed, and he explained to his audience about light shining through water droplets. He then told the audience to come with him outside, so they could try an experiment.

He took two things outside with him: a spray bottle, and a flashlight. Holding the flashlight sideways (so the beam shone neither toward nor away from the television camera), he sprayed a mist of water in front of it.

Nothing, of course, happened. He tried it for a couple of minutes before realizing that this wasn’t going to work.

At which point he gave up and went back inside and got out a coloring book and began scribbling in it with a crayon while singing a song about being frustrated.

At which point I turned off the television because I was laughing so hard.

Did this really happen? Has anyone else seen the episode? If so, was he really so unprepared for the show that he didn’t test this experiment before putting it on national television? Or was he so subtle that he deliberately attempted an experiment that he knew would fail, just so he could teach children about frustration?


I don’t think those shows are shown live, so I’d assume it’s the latter (assuming you’re not imagining the whole thing).

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t live, but if it was all orchestrated to teach children about frustration, then the man was a masterful actor. IIRC (and it’s been about 10 years since I saw the episode), he started getting really distracted by the experiment, and muttering to himself and to the audience as he tried to get it to work, and he did seem really excited about being able to create a rainbow ahead of time.

I left the episode with the impression that it was unscripted, but that either they lacked the funds or time to re-shoot the episode with a different theme, or maybe they decided that the show worked as a lesson about dealing with frustration, even though it was originally intended to be a lesson about science.


I do know that similar experiments do work. You can reliably do it with a car washing hose and the sun, or a flashlight and a spray bottle.

In one of last week’s Washington Post’s articles about Mr. Rogers, someone told a story about how he wasn’t able to get a song right. On any other show this would have been edited out, but he left it in because he wanted to show that adult’s weren’t perfect and could be frustrated too.

On NPR last thursday a caller was remembering the same show you described. She recalled that one of the puppets popped out with a prism or something in the end, but otherwise the story was identical.

So I don’t think you imagined it.

A prism? How interesting! I’m even more curious now. Did he start off knowing his experiment was a failure, or did he simply use some good footage of himself screwing up and write an episode around it?

Man, now I wish I hadn’t turned the TV off. That episode pretty much defined how I saw Mr. Rogers as an adult, and it sounds like I badly misinterpreted it by virtue of not watching the whole thing.


Fred Rogers was something of a genius when it came to communicating with kids and getting his message across. If he got frustrated, he almost certainly figured out a way to turn it into a message for kids about frustration.

However, I’m not exactly sure how this could have happened the way you remember it. That’s not really a house, it’s a sound stage. Going outside would have to be a planned thing; they’d have to get ready for an outdoor shot. I find it hard to understand how the experiment would not have been tried before going to all that trouble. I mean, the guy was an experienced TV producer and director; he knew not to throw money away.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the entire thing was planned, especially given the serendipitous appearance of a prism. You don’t just have prisms lying around. Rogers might have deliberately failed the experiment in order to A) get the message of being frustrated across - dealing with feelings was one of his two main themes - and B) giving kids a chance to go outside with a hose and successfully duplicate an experiment that he failed, which is easy to do on a sunny day, thereby making themselves feel like geniuses for outsmarting Mr. Rogers. Making kids feel good about themselves was his other main theme.

But, that’s assuming the NPR called remember it correctly. He ad-libbed on other occasions in order to talk about feelings, such as the famous episode where he stormed in and started talking to the kids about how mad he was over someone hitting his car in the parking lot. And of course there was the goldfish episode. If he had an opportunity to turn a difficult emotion into a theme, he took it.

I remember seeing that show. It was a long time ago but as I recall it he tried to make the rainbow inside his house but I could be mistaken. I’d have a better idea if I could see it today but I’m thinking that the show was probably scripted to show frustration and how it’s ok to be frustrated.

Mr. Rogers Rules!

Well, it was a soundstage, but it did have an ‘outside.’ And he tried to create a rainbow, according to the OP, with a spray bottle and flashlight, which is what you would try on a soundstage.

It’s kinda hard to make a rainbow with just a squirt bottle. It’s better to have something that produces a swath of drops. We’ve all seen how easy it is with a garden hose set to a wide spray.

Another thing – you rerally want a well-collimated source of light. A very distant source (like the sun) works well. Most of the red refracted rays end up along the same direction. If your source is nearby the red band gets spread out over a large area, and you probably won’t see it. (See Jearl Walker’s The Flying Circus of Physics and references therein.)

So if Mr. Rogers was trying to do this in a closed studio with studio lighting and a single-stream squirt bottle he had two strikes against him, and I’m not surprised if it didn’t work. It would have been easy to do outside, though.

I’m pretty sure this is the NPR clip, if you want to have a listen:

Tell me!

IIRC, he went “outside” onto his “back porch” to do the experiment, performing it over a waist-high sandbox he had back there. I think there was a wall behind him, so you couldn’t really tell whether he was actually outside; it could well have been a sound stage, too.

What surprised me so much about the episode was how unscripted it looked. I mean, I thought he was an experienced TV producer, too, and I was astonished that he’d try such an experiment on tape without trying it first off-tape.

And it’s not like he was cussing and throwing things around, but when he started to realize that the experiment didn’t work, he seemed to be losing his cool, trying the same thing over and over, and starting to go back inside, then saying he wanted to try it one more time. It really didn’t seem scripted at all.

Given how the episode ended (with the prism), I’m inclined to think things must have happened like this:

  1. He heard about this experiment.
  2. He tried it outside, in sunlight, and got a rainbow.
  3. He figured he could achieve the same effect in his sound studio with a good flashlight.
  4. He tried it out, on tape, and it didn’t work.
  5. He salvaged the footage by turning it, rather ingeniously, into an episode about dealing with frustration.

Thanks for the NPR link – I’ll listen to it later, when my boss isn’t around :smiley:


Mr. Rogers had goldfish (one or two? I can’t recall now), and at the start of one show, his (or one of them, if he had two) goldfish was belly-up in the bowl. He used that as an opportunity to talk to kids about pets dying, and even about how people die too if I recall correctly.

I’m not sure about that, Mr. Rogers usually does have neat little things handy most of the time so perhaps one was available from a past show.