Won't You Be My Neighbor?

 

            Fred Rogers was one of a kind. Through his iconic television show, “Mr. Roger's Neighborhood,” he influenced an entire generation of children with his simple, folksy message of acceptance and love.  His trademark zip-up cardigan is now on display in the Smithsonian.  Before every show, he would take off his suit jacket and change into the cardigan sweater, and also change from dress shoes to tennis shoes, as if he were coming home and getting into something more comfortable (never mind the tie and the dress shirt and slacks).  The whole idea was to help the kids feel relaxed around him.  His props were simple:  finger puppets and miniature houses, like in a train set.  He wrote and sang his own theme songs (he graduated with a music degree, but his singing voice was plain and unaffected, like he was).

            This documentary features much file footage from the television shows, and also several interviews from Fred Rogers himself.  Though there is no attempt at strict chronology, Mr. Rogers is shown aging through his 40's and 50's and 60's, never gaining a pound.  An avid mile-a-day swimmer, Fred Rogers proudly remained at 143 pounds, a number which was significant to him because of the number of letters in each word of “I Love You.”  His message about accepting yourself as you are, and others as they are, sounds simple, but was counter-cultural in some respects.  He was criticized for not encouraging kids to achieve and compete.  He was enough a product of his time that he encouraged a gay staff member not to “come out” publicly until the culture was more ready to accept a gay man as a child's role model.  Since he was such a gentle, kind, unassuming soul, with a minimum of “macho” bearing, many assumed that Mr. Rogers himself was gay, though he had a wife and had two sons (all of whom are interviewed here).  According to this documentary, Fred Rogers thought his critics weren't understanding the depth of what he what he was trying to do, though reportedly he did enjoy Eddie Murphy's SNL imitation skits, because he thought they were done in a loving spirit.  Overall, though, Fred Rogers didn't think much of other television programming, particularly anything that glorified violence.  He especially abhorred children's programming where violence was prominent, even in cartoons.

            What made Mr. Rogers so popular was that he was able to connect on an emotional level with the kids, because he was unafraid to talk about feelings, like being scared, and feeling inadequate.  Using his puppets, he talked through issues like wondering if he was an accident.  Divorce.  Death. Sickness.  In an age of racism rearing its ugly head with separate swimming pools, Mr. Rogers intentionally cooled his feet in a tub of water, inviting a black man to cool his feet an the same tub of water.   An especially moving segment was his encounter with a boy in a wheelchair who was severely disabled, but with such a good heart that he was able to sing with Mr. Rogers about being “special.”  There's also a moving segment, not about the show, where Fred Rogers is testifying before a Senate Committee about cutting funding for public broadcasting.  Mr. Rogers tosses aside his script and instead speaks from the heart about speaking to the hearts of small children, and his testimony won the day.  And even the former cast members are still moved by Fred Roger's unique public speaking method of asking audiences to take a whole minute of silence thinking of someone who helped them when they were children. 

            Through all of the footage, Fred Rogers remains remarkably the same:  a genuine, sincere, unique persona in the history of broadcasting.  There won't be another quite like him.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association *