Although ten years apart in age…both of my sons grew up tuned into Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
Mister Rogers….the lean, soft-spoken, slow-speaking, perpetually smiling host of the program….was a prominent and welcomed presence in John and Jeremy’s young world every afternoon.
To begin each episode, Rogers would enter the set through a fabricated doorway into a pretend house, stroll slowly toward a coat closet, remove and hang his suit jacket in trade for a colorful zipped cardigan, and in his un-hurried manner, change his dress shoes to sneakers…..all the while singing the popular theme song memorized by every little one watching, speaking directly to the camera, inviting each child individually into his world of fantasy and unconditional love.
From a low-budget, simply designed studio backdrop, he filled our television screen with make-believe….laced with life lessons and unbridled warmth.
I recently watched the documentary based on the life of Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”
Sitting beside me in the theatre was my husband of forty-five years who was moved to tears multiple times.
So was I.
All those many years ago when our boys, now forty-two and fifty, were riveted to the tube…I honestly wasn’t paying close attention. I felt I didn’t need to. Who didn’t trust Mister Rogers? I knew the content and material my children were absorbing on this PBS sponsored program would be illuminating and educating.
What I didn’t realize until seeing the documentary film, is that I missed an opportunity to enlighten myself.
Fred Rogers understood children.
He had a deep appreciation and understanding of their psyche.
After 9/11, he addressed that tragedy straight on with the use of hand puppets….inanimate objects perhaps indicative of his alter-ego….giving them life and voice….reflecting and expressing the fear and worry he imagined felt by the youngsters who made up his audience.
He was a man of essential goodness. His ability to walk in the shoes and dwell in the minds of children….reassuring, comforting and consoling young people across the nation…was the key to his knowing how to enrich and enhance their tender lives, as simultaneously they absorbed his love. His programs tackled the hard issues of divorce, death, bullying, war and the assassination of Robert Kennedy with candor and openness…his intent always to give voice to their angst and soothe their terror.
He served as a ‘moral compass for generations’, as noted by Rafer Guzman, a movie critic from Newsday.
In a poignant moment from the film, Mister Rogers invites a regular member from the cast of the program, Officer Francois Clemmons, one of the first African-American characters on any children’s’ television series, to join him in the ‘kiddie” pool to ‘cool off his feet’ on a hot summer day.
As explained in the documentary, this gesture of invitation to share the water with his Black counterpart was in direct response to an incident in which a segregated public swimming area was deemed off-limits to people of color. Captured on film and viewed on national news was an event involving several African-American adults who refused to comply and boldly entered the pool. In response, as they swam in the water, a clearly aggitated white male vigorously poured large buckets of harmful chemicals directly into the area in which they were swimming.
Fred Rogers, appalled by this abhorrent incident, on his next show extended the invitation of joining to Clemmons, often utilizing staged moments like the sharing of his pool to counter what he deemed to be alarming injustices in our country.
Mr. Clemmons, also a gay man, was asked by Fred Rogers to not divulge his sexual orientation publicly for fear it would harm the integrity of the children’s show. Years later, as both Fred and the country evolved in supporting the rights of the LGBT community, he physically and figuratively embraced Clemmons, who, in tears, recounted the moment when Mr. Rogers told him he loved him. This was a compelling moment for Clemmons who regarded Fred Rogers as a father figure.
Another heart-warming segment featured a small boy with an illness that extensively limited the use of his body and required confinement to a wheelchair. This charming and endearing young child was scheduled for delicate surgery on his spine with a prognosis of questionable survival.
Mister Rogers hosted this courageous little one on his show and sat at his level, where their faces were but inches apart. They sang together, both joined and suspended in an intimate space of human connection and understanding…almost spiritual in nature. A scene that cannot be viewed without forceful tugs at the heart. This same boy was later featured at the end of the film surprising Fred Rogers at an event in his honor….now a grown man who had in fact survived the perilous surgery.
Fred Rogers was once quoted as saying: “What’s been important in my understanding of myself and others is the fact that each one of us is so much more than any one thing. A sick child is much more than his or her sickness. A person with a disability is much, much more than a handicap. A pediatrician is more than a medical doctor. You’re much more than your job description or your age or your income or your output.”
He was capable of both honest and straight-forward interaction with children while affirming the compelling fact that we are multi-faceted beings to be perceived with a multi-dimensional lens.
As he boosted the confidence and esteem of his audience, Rogers often, through his puppet characters, acknowledged struggle with his own insecurities.
He was an overweight young boy, a target of ridicule and bullying as a child.
In a segment of the film, Rogers’ hand puppet sings about being a ‘mistake’, deficient, a defect. He sang this in duet, face to face, with a young woman whose singing response simultaneously was positive, confident and affirmative….their words overlapping one another….creating the conflicting, dual, inner experience that all of us can relate to when we waver on the question, “are we good enough?”
In a dazzling review by New York Times writer A.O. Scott, he aptly describes Fred Roger’s character…..“His warmth carried an aura of gentle formality. He was not shy about being a role model or a benevolent authority figure. On the contrary, he took the responsibilities of adulthood seriously. He might have been the last of his kind. He acknowledged that anger, fear and other kinds of hurt are part of the human repertoire and that children need to learn to speak honestly about those feelings, and to trust the people they share them with.”
Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister and a life-long conservative.
I made the mistaken assumption he was, therefore, straight-laced and conceivably a bit rigid, but the documentary proved me wrong. The stage hands on the production were prone to perform pranks on the star. One story involved a producer cavorting backstage donning the crown of one of the puppet characters, taking a snapshot with his pants down to his knees exposing his derriere, and then mixing the photo with pictures that Rogers would later be sorting through. He noted that nothing was said by Rogers in regard to the incident for months until at a Christmas gathering, Fred’s gift to that producer was a poster-sized copy of the butt-exposed photograph.
Fred Rogers was a simple man of delicious complexity.
Although Republican and a conservative, Rogers was once criticized by right-wing cable news voices who suggested he was responsible for spawning a generation of ‘entitled’ young persons…..believing he created in children a mindset that everything should be handed to them. In contrast, Scott sites in his article that Roger’s message was in fact, “a call to recognize and respect the dignity of others.” He added, “the most radical thing about him was his unwavering commitment to the value of kindness in the face of a world that could seem intent on devising new ways to be mean.”
If Fred Rogers could be held responsible for anything, it was for instilling confidence and self-esteem in thousands of children over decades with a persistent reminder that everyone has value and deserves to be loved.
This documentary is timely.
We need a public figure who reflects Roger’s aura of gentleness and kindness….who has the capability of inviting each and every one of us to appreciate and own our uniqueness, our specialness, our inherent capability to love….one other, our country, our planet, ourselves.
We need someone who will set an example of loving kindness to counter the current atmosphere of suspicion, ridicule, oppression and hatred. Someone who sees the ‘good’ in everyone and influences the belief that you are worth something; someone who advocates hope; someone who promotes self-respect and models the respect of others.
“Let’s make the most of this beautiful day” was a phrase repeated at the opening of every show…..along with the question, “won’t you be my neighbor?”