Won't You Be My Neighbor: How Things Should Work

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
Directed by Morgan Neville
Focus Pictures, 93 minutes, PG-13

I was a teen when Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted on National Educational Television—the old name of PBS—in 1968, so I never watched the show. (Nor, would I hasten to add, would I have gone anywhere near NET back in my working-on-my-attitude days.)  But I think I know why the show remained a staple for children from the day it first aired as local show in Pittsburgh in 1963, to the day Rogers finally left his cardigan and sneakers in the closet in 2001.

As a fine new documentary on Fred Rogers (1928-2003) shows us, one key was that what he did was delightfully old-fashioned. Rogers recognized early on that kids were so over stimulated that their imaginations often got stifled. Even by the standards of  pre-f/x days, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a throwback. He used ratty-looking puppets such as Daniel Tiger, Owl, and King Friday XIII, never even tried to throw his voice, favored obviously flimsy sets, and was so low-key that, when he had turtles on the show, it was even money who moved slower, Rogers or his reptilian guests.

Parents often hated the cheesy production values of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, yet the same folks will tell you that their kids adored the show. And why not? Rogers made a point of telling kids that his neighborhood was make-believe—a simple act that encouraged them to use their own minds to fill in gaps between fantasy and reality. How unlike so many of today’s video games, Websites, toys, and entertainment formats in which outside creators script the outcomes. In a word, Rogers took children seriously.

He also spoke their language, a vernacular that was calm, concerned, and caring. Rogers detested violent cartoons, loud noises that jarred children, and people who scolded and hectored. The characters on his show—such as Lady Aberlin, Officer Clemons, Handyman Negri, Postman Newell, and Rogers himself—were helpful and exuded “love,” the quality that Rogers believed the only transformative force in the universe. In Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, even conflict was resolved quietly. He literally got on the same level as children, always bending down and leaning in. Yo-Yo Ma tells the charming tale of how his younger, nervous self was intimidated by Fred Rogers, who addressed him on air a literal three inches away. Who cannot smile at the idea that Yo-Yo Ma might be the only person on the planet ever frightened by Mr. Rogers?

One of the film’s revelations is that Rogers tackled what was happening in the world outside the make-believe world. The show's educational TV debut came just months before Bobby Kennedy was killed, and Rogers taught kids what the word “assassination” means—as well as how to deal with sadness. 1968 was also a year in which segregationists doused swimming black children with pool chemicals and treated adults far worse. In a landmark act of kindness, an episode of the show featured Mr. Rogers cooling his bare feet in a kiddies’ pool and inviting Officer Clemmons—African American opera singer François Clemmons—to join him and sharing the same towel. Rogers also dealt with traumas such as the Challenger tragedy and 9/11.

Some might recognize the swimming pool scene as a reenactment of the ancient Christian rite of mutual foot washing. I say this with all humility: One of the things that made Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood work was that Fred Rogers—an ordained Presbyterian minister and lifelong Republican—was a man who took his faith so seriously that he actually practiced what others merely preached. In his neighborhood, there was no need to proselytize; actions spoke louder than words. 

The documentary is filled with remembrances, testimonials, and archival footage. A sequence with the gorilla Koko is especially touching, as was another with Rogers chatting with a paraplegic boy, Jeff Erlanger (1970–2007), as if he was the most important kid in the world. Interviews with Rogers’ widow Joanne poignantly remind that Mr. Rogers wasn’t a character; it was who he was. This was echoed by show director Juniel Li. Clemmons, who grew up mostly fatherless, came to see Rogers as a surrogate dad—once the two got over the fact that Clemmons is gay.

Another nice thing about the documentary rests with Rogers confronting his own bias; that is, the film backs gently away from sanctifying Rogers. When he died, some right-wing faux Christians protested his funeral, and held aloft signs placing Rogers in hell for his embrace of anything their small minds found distasteful. They are, of course, the immoral equivalent of jihadists—those so blinded by their own sanctimony that they could not see Fred Rogers for what he was: a decent human being. Someone in the film—if memory serves it was Li—remarked that being a good person is the way the world should work. It doesn’t, but in times such as our own in which ego, greed, and nastiness abound, what a refreshing thing it is to consider that goodness can prevail. Forget the lack of glitz and sheen, who would not wish to reside in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood?

Rob Weir


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