I watched an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood this morning where Fred talks about how balloons are made and Prince Tuesday, in the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe”, being worried about his parents not coming home. Mr. Rogers’ message really hit home. “Children need to be able to believe their parents, and Prince Tuesday needed to know that his mother and his dad really did mean what they said about coming home.”
If you have never watched a single episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, your childhood must have been boring. Fred Rogers always had a gift of teaching children the world around them as well as learning how to love and be loved. He always meant what he had to say in front of the camera. In an imperfect world, he talked to the young viewers as a way they could understand. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the latest documentary from director/producer Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom). He dives deep into the most humble, down-to-earth, and complex human-being who ever lived.
Born and raised near Pittsburgh, Fred Rogers hated how children’s television shows, back in the 1960s, were presented. They would always display cartoon violence or slapstick (“It’s not all clowns and guns”). After attending graduate school for childhood development at the University of Pittsburgh, he decided to star in a show on WQED, in which he would eventually host for more than 30 years. The show contained colorful sets, puppets (not to mention providing the voices of all of them), and, most importantly, life lessons to teach to the kids around the country. The documentary mixes interviews from his friends (from Yo-Yo Ma to Francois Clemmons), his wife Joanne, and his two sons talking about his life and legacy, home footage of Fred Rogers, and gorgeous hand-drawn animated sequences that play out as his dreams as Daniel Tiger, who represents his childhood anxieties and feelings; trying to understand the meaning of what’s going on.
While seeing the documentary, I learned about the man I never knew. For instance, Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. It makes sense considering his Christian beliefs of “love your neighbor, love yourself” worked well for the show. His soothing voice, beautiful music ability, and bright personality is what made the show shine. He never talked down to the young viewers. He gave them full understanding about everything including the meaning behind number 143 and assassination, following the death of Robert F. Kennedy.
Rogers was no stranger to criticism and rumors. This included being a Navy veteran, being gay, and having tattoos. Of course, they were all false. Also, on a monumental day on May 1, 1969, he spoke before the Senate to defend the cutting of $20 million in PBS funds, proposed by Richard Nixon.
Rogers had a delightful sense of humor. He always had fun with his crew on the set, especially when they pull pranks on one another (their stories had the audience in stitches). He didn’t care for the parodies of the show, from Johnny Carson to Saturday Night Live. While he idolized Eddie Murphy, he found his parody Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood to be quite offensive.
With the world infested with segregation and the Vietnam War being in full swing, black men were thrown out of a “whites only” pool by guards pouring bleach on them. However, in one episode, Rogers invited Francois Clemmons (who was black and gay) to be on the show to sit and talk with him dipping his feet in the wading pool. He told Clemmons he likes him just the way he is. No matter what race, gender, or disability, he treats everyone as equals. His song, “It’s You I Like”, showcases the true love in one another.
But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a perfect documentary for this day and age. It’s definitely something that would make people learn more about Fred Rogers and his show. I doubt there will be another person like him. He will always be my role model. This is easily one of 2018’s best!