Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood wasn’t a part of my childhood – I was already a teenager when it first aired nationally in 1968 – nor my son’s, as we didn’t have TV at all when he was the appropriate age for the show. I always went on the assumption that, had Fred Rogers been around when I was a precocious and prematurely cynical preschooler, I would have found his very gentleness of manner a little condescending, “babyish.” Knowing that he existed in a parallel universe to an onscreen world of violent cartoons was comforting on some level, I suppose. But on the odd occasions when I would be exposed to the show for a minute or two as an adult, I found myself bemused and a little put off. Silly me.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? the new documentary by Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom director Morgan Neville, goes a long way toward showing me how wrong I was, and how much my family missed. Yes, Fred Rogers was very “whitebread,” a Presbyterian minister and a lifelong Republican who insisted that a key cast member who happened to be gay stay closeted. But he was also a humanist, a developmental psychologist of the Benjamin Spock/Erik Erikson/Margaret McFarland school, a fierce advocate for generous government funding of public broadcasting, a formidable jazz pianist.
And his show, while constantly reinforcing messages that helped children feel secure and loved and valuable, was anything but “safe.” Some of its veteran performers and other Rogers associates choose the word “radical” to characterize the guy – in a most admiring way. From an early program that helped kids deal with the news of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy to a post-retirement appearance addressing the horrors of 9/11, Rogers didn’t shy away from the difficulties of growing up in a scary world. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood devoted whole weeks of programming to subjects like death and divorce. In his understatedly subversive way, he countered the horrors of racism, such as segregated swimming pools, by inviting the neighborhood’s black police officer to join him in soaking his feet in a kiddie pool on a hot day. Negative feelings like anger were not glossed over, but Rogers made sure to model constructive ways of channeling them (attacking a piano keyboard with gusto was his own favored method).
Even the inhabitants of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe were not sheltered from bad things happening. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? makes it clear that the rather shabby, insecure puppet called Daniel Stripèd Tiger was Rogers’ favored vehicle for processing his lingering self-doubts as a survivor of childhood bullying. In eerily prescient footage from the show’s very first week on National Educational Television, we see the character King Friday XIII ranting about how much he hates change, and ordering the construction of a big wall to keep out undesirables. In the show’s latter years, Rogers – a conservative in the old-fashioned sense of the word – took a lot of flak from neocons for his relentlessly encouraging messages to children; they accused him of making kids feel “entitled” and “special” without having earned such a sense of self-worth.
One needs visual exposure to Fred Rogers’ interaction with other people – children especially – to understand fully how wrongheaded such criticism is. When he talked to people, it was a one-on-one transaction, with full engagement and respect. He made intense eye contact. He knew how to listen, how to mirror, knew when it was best not to say anything in response, making space for the child to volunteer more. If only contemporary adults still had him as a parenting role model, our fractured, fractious society might become a happier place.
While the interviewees in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? share some of his less saintly side, including a capacity for practical jokery, they concur that the kind, earnest guy we saw onscreen was the real, consistent Fred Rogers. He “got” children, and children – especially his target audience of preschoolers – “got” him. So palpable was the sense of mutual trust that his persona fostered that even Koko, the gorilla who famously learned sign language (and died last month), immediately welcomed Rogers into her space with hugs and a signed “I love you.” It’s one of the most moving scenes in the movie, and there are other bits likely to inspire viewers to reach for a hanky as well.
In a time in America when neighborliness often appears to be a quaint, retro sort of human value, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a timely reminder that things don’t have to go on that way. Maybe we need to rebrand it these days as a sense of community and commonality, but it still makes life more worth living. See this documentary while it’s still around, if you need to rekindle your sense of hope.