Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Directed by Morgan Neville
By Pamela Zoslov
For years a legend circulated about Fred Rogers, the kindly creator and host of the long-running children’s TV program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The story is that one day, Rogers was babysitting his grandson, and thieves made off with his Oldmobile sedan. The thieves, looking at papers and props in the car, realized whose vehicle they had taken. A day later, Rogers found the car parked in front of his house, missing only his personalized director’s chair. (Another version has it that the crooks also left a profusely apologetic note.)
Even Snopes can’t verify the incident, but the story illustrates how beloved Rogers was by the generations who grew up under his gentle televised tutelage. A new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? celebrates Rogers and his pioneering achievements in children’s television, helping the medium evolve from pie-throwing silliness to a thoughtful, compassionate, humane educational tool.
Born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Fred McFeely Rogers (March 20, 1928 – February 27, 2003) was a Presbyterian minister who had an epiphany when watching children’s television at his parents’ home. “I went into television because I hated it so,” he said, “and I thought there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.” He had entered the seminary, but upon ordination decided to make television his ministry. Says one of the documentary’s interview subjects, “He didn’t wear a collar, he wore a sweater.” Rogers and his trademark cardigan, which he would ritually put on at the beginning of every episode, were so beloved an annual Sweater Day is observed in his memory every March 20 (his birthday).
Seated at the piano in an interview, Rogers says his intention is to “help children through the difficult modulations of life,” like going ”from E to F sharp.” The show’s aim was to explain life to children, everything from how things are made to, in the wake of the murder of Robert Kennedy, “what is assassination?” And, most importantly, to tell each of them that he or she is special and loved. He avidly studied child development, absorbing the works of Benjamin Spock, Erick Erickson, Margaret McFarland and others.
After a stint in New York working on NBC shows like “Your Hit Parade” and “The Kate Smith Hour,” he worked at the Pittsburgh public TV station WQED as a puppeteer on a children’s show, where he developed the characters, voices and music he would later use on his own show, including King Friday XIII, Queen Sara Saturday (named after his wife, Sara), X the Owl and Rogers’ timid alter ego, Daniel Striped Tiger (two syllables in “Striped”). He did a “Misterogers” show in Toronto, then returned to WQED to launch “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in 1968. It was a low-budget show with a simple set; one of the film’s speakers says, “He didn’t need to put on a funny hat or jump through a hoop to have a relationship with a child.”
Footage from the debut episode illustrates the seriousness of Rogers’ mission. Amid the strife of 1968, the show addressed issues of war and peace in a way more reminiscent of the then-radical Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour than a children’s show.
The talking-heads documentary interviews the show’s cast and crew members and Rogers’ friends and relatives (his widow, Joanne, and his two sons). We learn that as a child, Fred Rogers had scarlet fever and was confined to his bed for long periods of time. “I had to make up a lot of my own fun,” he said, and music was a means of communication for the shy boy. “Music was my first language…laughing or crying through the ends of my fingers.” Rogers composed and played the music used on his show. His wife, Joanne, shared some of his issues. “We both had childhoods in which you weren’t allowed to show your anger.” The film illustrates Rogers’ lonely childhood with simple, sweet animations of Daniel Striped Tiger as young Fred.
There are few major revelations in this documentary, as there were in director Morgan Neville’s Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom, about the unsung background singers behind many hits of the ‘60s. Fred Rogers was apparently as nice a man as he played on TV, though one of his sons says he occasionally said less than nice things, albeit in the voice of his Lady Elaine puppet. The darkest shadow is Rogers’ behavior toward cast member Francois Clemmons, a gay African American man who played Officer Clemmons. Rogers taught racial harmony on his show — inviting Clemmons, in imitation of Jesus, to soak their feet in a wading pool with him — but his tolerance did not extend to homosexuality. (Not all love was created equal, evidently.) Clemmons recalls:
I went to a gay bar downtown called the Playpen. Oh God did I have a lot of fun. But somebody told Mr. Rogers Neighborhood people about it and he asked me, “Were you downtown at that bar?” And I said, “Yes,” and he said, “You can’t go back there anymore.”
…If I came out publicly, he said, “You cannot be on the show anymore. The sponsors, Johnson & Johnson and Sears, they are not going to support an openly gay man.” Fred was not prepared to lose that market. My marriage failed miserably and I discovered you can’t pray it away.
Sure, attitudes were less than enlightened in 1968; still, it’s interesting to think about certain progressive icons who had less well known histories of suppressing gays. For instance, I can’t hear about Bill Moyers without thinking of how he, while working in the Lyndon Johnson administration in 1964, directed J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to investigate “suspected homosexuals” among administration employees. (Rogers, the film notes, was a lifelong Republican.)
The film is an unabashed valentine to Rogers, who devoted much of his life to advocating for children’s causes, including testifying before Congress on behalf of government funding of children’s television and eventually receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He responded to tragedies like 9/11 with special programs aimed at helping children understand and cope with trauma. He had a remarkable ability to communicate with youngsters, sometimes getting them to express their feelings through his puppet characters. A show segment in which Rogers sings a song with a young boy in a wheelchair can’t fail to make the eyes glisten; a later reunion with the boy, now an adult, is wonderfully cathartic.
So sweet and gentle — or cloying, depending on your point of view — is Rogers’ persona that it practically begs for satire. The most memorable parody was by Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live, whose subversive, ghettoized “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” amused even Rogers himself, who was reassured that it aired too late at night for children to watch.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is one of several recent documentaries focusing on champions of equality and human rights, including Pope Francis and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s not hard to see this trend as a response to a rise in cruelty and intolerance as public policy. We need not ask what Fred Rogers, passionate advocate for children, would have to say about the Trump administration’s practice of removing wailing babies from the arms of their desperate parents at the U.S.-Mexican border. Grade: B+