“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” in my day, was the butt of many jokes. When I got to college in 1978, there was a “National Lampoon” comedy bit circulating in the dorms that had Mr. Rogers as a child molester, with parents trying to sign a petition to remove him from the neighborhood.
We found it side-splittingly funny, reciting bits of it (in a heavy Southern accent), like, “I laahk to put muh feet in the waay-ding pool, and wasshh them.” And when he’s assaulted by irate parents: “Oops—there goes my loafer … now I’ve got a bloody nose….”
Then there was Eddie Murphy’s even more riotous “Saturday Night Live” ghetto version, “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood.” We couldn’t get enough of that. Because we mostly perceived Fred Rogers as an oddly annoying, square, stuffy fuddy-duddy; he cried out to be disrespected and verbally bullied.
Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Pittsburgh public television premiere of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” documentary director Morgan Neville pays tribute to Fred Rogers with “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”
I invite anyone who harbored a similar view, stated above, to see the documentary and have your respect and faith restored in Fred Rogers—and feel some shame—like I did, for having misjudged this supremely good man.
For 43 years he came in beaming, singing the little Broadway-esque tune on TV in his plaintive voice, changing into Top-Sider sneakers and a rainbow selection of cardigan sweaters, and got down on the floor and played with kids. And invited a black cast member, in the racially charged 1960s, to take off his shoes and cool his feet with him in the same wading pool. Why? Because the children needed to learn about racism.
I didn’t know Fred Rogers was an ordained minister. It explains a lot about his demeanor, about which we, as uncouth youths, used to say: “He’s so weird!”
And even as I write this and think about him helping to towel off that black man’s feet, I am reminded of the biblical passage: “Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.”
Rogers was being of service. He was washing people’s feet. He was ministering. That passage also refers to cleansing oneself morally, on a spiritual path, and what this movie reveals more than anything else is a quiet, unassuming man of towering moral stature. He espoused a Protestant Christianity and a self-help mindset—effective and genuine.
A Different Kind of Hero
There’s long been a rumor that Fred Rogers was a Navy SEAL and wore the sweaters to hide his scary tattoos. No. Just no. I mean, you kind of have to love that such a nonsensical rumor could get started—it would be pretty cool. But no.
Rogers came from a wealthy background. He was overweight as a child and sick a lot. And often lonely. Which, by the way, if you read a lot of actor biographies, loneliness and separation from others are almost always the universal ingredients that accompany a desire for that profession. Also, many actors, at some point, wanted to become priests. Fred Rogers became both.
As a priest, Rogers began to see television as a God-given tool to teach compassion, forgiveness, and tolerance. What else was there for children on TV? “Looney Tunes” Saturday morning cartoons: Road Runner, Bugs Bunny, Daffy, and so on.
It was great fun to see Wile E. Coyote get his comeuppance, but Fred Rogers was singing and talking to the littler, more impressionable children, trying to help them with difficult transitions, like divorce, and with overhearing things like presidential assassinations, talked about by grownups. Rogers helped children to feel safe, heard, and seen. Even after the show had finished its long run, Rogers made a small comeback to support parents and children adversely affected by 9/11.
Possibly the Sole Reason for Children’s TV
Neville tells the story of the leap from the seminary to children’s programming: how Fred Rogers studied the circus aspects and slapstick of the usual children’s offerings to explore the possibilities of bringing something more healing and holistic to the same demographic. No “boob-tube” for Fred. He challenged the zeitgeist of parental escapism, and the numbing and dumbing down of children by parental use of a boob-tube babysitter.
Necessity being the mother of invention, Rogers’s use of puppetry arrived, as he explains, by serendipity. Puppetry offered him an effective, alternative means of communication with children. It also functioned as a form of therapy for himself.
The movie’s most touching moment—and there are many—is when footage is shown (that’s recently been making the rounds on Facebook) from the 1969 United States Subcommittee on Communications. There, Rogers is initially poked fun at, in avuncular fashion, by the tough chairman John O. Pastore.
With heartbreaking simplicity and sincerity, Rogers narrates the lyrics of an anger management song for children, in hopes of securing funding for the show. Pastore is visibly gobsmacked with the scope and power of Fred Rogers’s compassion. He can say nothing other than: “Well, I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars.”
Where’s the Legacy?
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” doesn’t require that you mourn Fred Rogers’s passing. It admonishes us to take a look around at the world we live in. It’s Armageddon time out there. Where’s Mr. Rogers’s legacy?
We are asked, “What are you going to do?” Well, we need, every one of us, to bring Fred Rogers’s respect, compassion, patience, and tolerance back. We need to love our neighbors enough to ask them, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’
Director: Morgan Neville
Starring: Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, François Scarborough Clemmons, Yo-yo Ma
Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Release Date: June 8
Rated 4 stars out of 5