It’s a moment a parent never forgets. During the first year of our son’s life, my wife and I took turns looking after him during the day. We did it in shifts. I had the morning hours, then went to work. She had the afternoon after returning home from work. We passed at the door. Clearly, I had the better deal for one simple reason: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was on PBS in the morning. For almost two years, every weekday, I got to watch Fred Rogers, Lady Aberlin, Mr. McFeely and all the puppets from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, including Trolley. But it was something that happened in that first year, before our son’s birthday, that made all the difference.
During the first twelve months, he spoke little. But one morning, there we were, watching Fred Rogers go about his business, when the kind-hearted, nurturing television personality asked his audience, “Shall I feed the fish?” My son, who up until then had hardly said a word, leaned forward in his high-chair and said to the television screen in a soft, whispery tone, “Yes.” I did a double-take. I couldn’t wait to tell my wife when she arrived home from work. We had a breakthrough. Our son had said his first complete, fully legitimate word, and he used it correctly. And it was all because of Mister Rogers. A minor anecdote, perhaps, but in our world, at the time, it meant everything.
In the new documentary from director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? sheds light on the man who must have inspired American children everywhere to not only say their first word, but to get an understanding on the complicated world around them, and he did it in his neighborly, singularly avuncular way. The show was aimed at children between the ages of 2 to 5, but everyone, everywhere was invited.
Using new interviews, archival footage, fresh animation, and TV clips of the show, Won’t You Be My Neighbor creates an endearing portrait of an ordained minister from Pennsylvania who believed that what we saw and heard on the screens was part of what we became. With that in mind, rather than preach and teach from the pulpit, Fred McFeely Rogers felt that his calling was reaching the hearts and minds of the nation’s children through positive reinforcement on television.
As the film expresses, Rogers believed that the feelings of a child were every bit as important as the feelings of an adult. “He was always trying to get a message across in every show,” actor Joe Negri (Handyman Negri) explains. Thus on June 7, 1968 in a special black and white episode of the show, after Robert F. Kennedy was killed, the glove-puppet, Daniel Striped Tiger asks Lady Aberlin (Betty Aberlin), “What does assassination mean?” “Have you heard the word a lot today?” she responded.
It’s possible that several of the clips are scenes you’ve seen before. There’s the famous moment in 1969 (recreated in 1993) when, on a hot day, Rogers is in his backyard in the neighborhood soaking his feet in a small pool of cold water. Police Officer Clemmons (Francois Clemmons) enters and is invited to join him. The officer points out that even though he’d love to soak his feet with Mister Rogers and cool down, he didn’t have a towel. “That’s okay,” said Mister Rogers, and offers up the towel resting over his right shoulder. “You can use mine.” What’s important about that moment was that Officer Clemmons was black. At a time when segregation was still rampant in some parts of the country, and repulsive images of African-American children being forcibly evicted from a whites-only swimming pool was all over the news, Fred Rogers wanted to show children that sharing water and even a towel with someone else, white or black, should never be an issue.
Perhaps the best, and maybe the one moment when audiences watching the documentary will find themselves wearing the broadest of smiles, comes with archival footage of what happened when Rogers appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications. President Nixon wanted the funding for PBS cut. After two days of hearing carefully prepared testimony from various public television supporters, lawyer and politician John O. Pastore, who chaired the subcommittee, was getting impatient. Basically he’d had enough and was ready to yank all PBS funding at the first opportunity. “Alright, Rogers,” Pastore announced from the bench with a somewhat dismissive tone to his gruff voice, “You got the floor.”
Instead of reading from his prepared testimony, arguing that shows like his own on PBS were invaluable when encouraging children to grow and to become good citizens, he put the speech aside and recited the lyrics to one of his songs from the show. Pastore listened, and was moved. When Rogers concluded, without missing a beat, Pastore surprised everyone by suddenly announcing, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”
Although they are not mentioned by name, when Fred Rogers died of cancer in 2003, at his funeral, members of the Westboro Baptist Church stood across the road holding banners proclaiming that Fred Rogers would burn in hell. With twisted logic, their reasoning was that the TV host taught that everyone was special, including gays, which for them was justification for eternal damnation. Plus, in a clip from Fox Cable News, the three morning hosts of Fox & Friends stated that Mister Rogers was evil – no joke, they actually called him “evil” – insisting that he ruined a generation of children by telling them they were special. But when he was alive, as though holding a mirror in front of those three knuckleheads, Fred Rogers had his own definition of the word. “Someone who tries to make you less than you are is the greatest evil.”
Once the film is done and you reflect back, it’s not so much the documentary you’ll admire, it’s the man himself. Artistically, director Neville’s documentary breaks no new ground. The interviews that praise the man with accompanying clips are as you would want, and expect. It’s the subject matter that makes Won’t You Be My Neighbor special.
As the documentary states, the universal question is this: Was Fred Rogers really like that in real life? The answer is the same as my son replied when the TV host asked his audience in ‘93 whether it was time to feed the fish.
MPAA Rating: (Not rated) Length: 93 Minutes Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)