Remembering Mister Rogers’ Timeless Gift to Children
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
“Ignore all the elements that make good television and you have ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’” a critic once declared.
Debuting in 1968 in the middle of the Vietnam War, the groundbreaking children’s show featured rudimentary camerawork and an unabashedly sentimental message — all done on a threadbare budget. And yet it worked because it was saying something profound and eternal that the world needed to hear: “Love is at the root of everything. All learning. All parenting. All relationships. Love or the lack of it,” said Fred Rogers. “And what we see and hear on the television screen is part of who we become.”
All set to go to seminary after his undergraduate studies at Rollins College in Florida, Rogers went home for a vacation and instead saw his future in the family living room.
“My parents had bought a television set and I saw people throwing pies in each other’s faces and I thought this could be a wonderful tool. Why is it being used this way?” recalled Rogers. “I told my parents I don’t think I’ll go to seminary just yet. I think I’ll go into television.” Left speechless by their son’s change of heart, his parents could only wonder what would become of his quixotic life.
In reality, Rogers was in the right place at the right time. Something novel called educational television was blossoming and a new station in Pittsburgh called WQED was looking for content that it could broadcast on the cheap.
“Nobody wanted to do children’s programming so I said I’ll produce it and play some music in the background.” When unexpected calamities broke out during the live broadcasts, Rogers would step in and improvise using puppets and whatever he could find to fill in the empty spaces. “So much of it was necessity being the mother of that invention,” recalled Rogers.
Initially called “The Children’s Corner,” his show succeeded immediately because it celebrated his unique voice and insight from the very start.
“I had every imaginable childhood disease, even scarlet fever. I was in bed a lot and I would pull up my knees and they would be mountains. I would have all these little figures moving around and I’d make them talk,” remembered Rogers. “I made up a lot of my own fun.”
Capturing what made Rogers different became the mission of 51-year-old Academy Award-winning director Morgan Neville when he set out in 2016 to create a film that explored Rogers’ life. Neville, who gave us such transcendent work as “20 Feet from Stardom” in 2013 and “The Best of Enemies” in 2015, was able to acquire unfettered access to Rogers’ family and has produced an evocative, tender and unadorned film that gets to the very heart of Rogers’ philosophy. Premiered in January of 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” has earned $22 million and is the highest-grossing biographical documentary of all time.
Neville’s film follows the standard documentary template, complete with the usual Greek chorus of family interviews, intimate anecdotes and co-worker asides, interrupted by vintage excerpts of Rogers’ television show. What makes “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” work is the tautness and clarity of Neville’s writing and direction. There is no slack in the movie’s narrative, and every turn in the film’s plot line is natural, seamless and organic. Ultimately, what grounds the movie is the fact that Neville is uninterested in idealizing Rogers. Instead, he is intent on exploring the full expanse of the man and the complex landscape that lay beneath his placid exterior.
Growing up in a wealthy Latrobe, Penn., family, Rogers endured a strict childhood where anger was considered a character flaw. “Music became my first language because I was scared to use words. I didn’t want to be a bad boy. I didn’t want to tell people that I was angry, but I could show it through how I played the piano. I could literally laugh and cry and be angry through the ends of my fingers.”
Rogers also endured a painful phase when he gained weight and was nicknamed “Fat Freddy” by his playmates. Because of that, he empathized with the bullied, the vulnerable and the weak throughout his life. “People who have had a lot of struggle in their lives,” said Rogers, “are the people that really impress me.” Rogers never forgot being marginalized as a child and he used that pain to help children cope with their inner struggles for the rest of his life.
From the start, Rogers was influenced by the remarkable body of work by such early childhood researchers as Benjamin Spock, Berry Brazelton, Erik Erikson and Margaret McFarland, all of whom firmly believed that the feelings of a young child were profoundly important and infinitely valuable.
“I learned that I didn’t need to put on a funny hat or jump through a hoop to have a relationship with a child,” concluded Rogers. Ultimately, the would-be seminarian combined the three rivers of his television career, his devotional walk and the child development revelations that were emerging at the time to create something totally original. The result was “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which became a daily afternoon sanctuary where children could find refuge and wisdom if they felt overwhelmed by the world around them.
But Rogers’ ambitions went far beyond the borders of a local children’s television show. He saw in the narrow portal of the small screen an opportunity to elevate, enlighten and ennoble the human spirit. In Rogers’ mind, his program was more than just a place to escape to, but a forum for honest conversations and differing opinions about difficult subjects. From the very first week of production, Rogers used simple parables and gentle fables to teach enduring lessons of caring and compassion. Actors were not allowed to improvise on any word in the script because he was always trying to speak directly to his young audience.
Rogers always ended the show with a gentle homily that emphasized his unconditional love for children. Oftentimes, he would put his words into song. “Children need to hear that they are accepted exactly as they are or else they cannot grow,” reminded Rogers. Without that untethered love, he believed, children would never find their real selves in the bigger world.
For all his confidence in his message, Rogers was haunted by insecurities about whether the broader public would ever understand what he was sharing. The values that Rogers modeled in his shows were grounded in a wide-open theism that accepted thinking from multiple springs of spirituality while never departing from the tenet of basic common decency. Throughout his career, Rogers’ pole star was the Golden Rule: Love thy neighbor and love yourself. “When I look at the camera I think of one person. Not one individual person, but the space between the TV screen and whomever happens to be receiving it,” said Rogers. “I consider that to be very holy ground. A lot happens there.”
Ironically, for someone who became a television icon, Rogers hated the medium and what it was doing to children. “In this country the child is appreciated for what he will be,” said Rogers, ruefully. “And what he will be is a great consumer one day, and the quicker we can get them to go out and buy the better.”
In response, Rogers became a tireless and uncompromising advocate for quality children’s programming, testifying in Congress for federal funding of public television and bringing attention to the growing epidemic of commercialization and violence in children’s entertainment.
“Television could care less about what that cartoon is saying about human dignity or the value of an individual,” Rogers said. “I would hope that anyone who sets out to produce mass programming for children would understand that it’s not all clowns and balloons. We need to help our children learn that what is essential in life is invisible to the eye.”
As the rhythm of children’s programming accelerated in the ’70s, Rogers marched to the downbeat of a different drummer, producing shows that were more contemplative and thoughtful rather than adrenalized and slapstick. Silence was Rogers’ palette and he filled his canvas with calm spaces and gentle reminders of mindfulness and reflection that painted the world in a different light. When he interviewed guests, his questions were often coupled with unhurried pauses, enticing his subjects to answer more fully because he would remain quiet in his response.
“Silence is one of the greatest gifts we have,” said Rogers. “If you really want to communicate, the most important thing you can do is listen.”
The “Neighborhood” shows included the most pertinent of contemporary topics, such as segregation and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. And till the very end, he never shied away from exploring subjects that secretly worried children, unbeknownst to their parents.
“My plea to parents is to not leave the children isolated and prey to their own fantasies of loss and destruction,” said Rogers. “Children have very deep feelings, just the way everyone does. Our striving to understand those feelings and to better respond to them is the most important task in our world.”
After taking a short foray into prime time adult programming in the ’70s, Rogers returned to the subject of children when he realized there was so much more to say. He began producing powerful weeklong thematic shows that focused on radical and controversial topics such as divorce and death that helped the very young make sense of the unexplainable and unpredictable events in their lives. As Rogers ventured deeper into the mystery of the human experience, he became a lightning rod for intense criticism that blamed him for the softening of American youth and the liberalization of social mores. Wild rumors began to spread about his past and his sexuality that attempted to undermine his credibility and legitimacy as a public figure and a spokesperson for children.
As he grew older, Rogers’ old fear that people misunderstood his message fueled his determination to become even more outspoken. The man who started out being more comfortable behind the scenes grew more insistent and earnest because he realized his time was growing short.
“Let’s take up the gauntlet and make goodness attractive in the next millennium. That’s the real job that we have,” said Rogers. “I’m not talking Pollyannaish stuff. I’m talking down to earth actual goodness. People caring for each other in a myriad of ways rather than knocking each other off all the time.”
In 2001, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” ended its 33-year run after broadcasting over 900 episodes. The show won eight Emmys and became a shining example of what television could achieve if it aspired to go beyond the slick surface of mass entertainment. Rogers himself was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, just months before he died of stomach cancer. In his last days, Rogers often contemplated whether he had made any impact at all on the consciousness of the American public. In his darkest hours, he wondered if the forces of cynicism and materialism that he had devoted his entire life to fighting were simply too pervasive and seductive for most people to resist.
Neville ends his beautiful film with an offering of optimism that he hopes will inspire others to take up the cross of Rogers’ life.
Fred Rogers died in February of 2003 at the age of 74 while planning new ways to reach children, this time using cyberspace to carry his message. In a modern era of rampant loneliness, unrepentant tribalism and social isolation, Rogers’ legacy of kindness remains an unwavering beacon of healing and inclusivity that is still very much needed today.
“The greatest thing we can do is to let someone know that they are loved and are capable of loving others,” concluded Mister Rogers in one of his last interviews. “In the end, that’s the only thing that matters and the only thing that has ever changed the world for the better.”
Last year marked 50 years since the debut of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” PBS, including PBS Hawai‘i, will broadcast Morgan Neville’s film, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” in its “Independent Lens” series on Saturday, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m.
Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.