Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

If you have heard good things about the documentary about Fred Rogers, the Mister Rogers of the long-running TV show, then let me assure you, the film is a delight.

Before heading out to the cinema, I thought: “A documentary on Mr. Rogers—who will come early on a Thursday night?” Even though I arrived 15 minutes before the trailers started, I had to slip into one of the last open seats way up front.

Nostalgia is definitely a big part of the attraction of the film. When songs taken from the TV show played in the packed theater, almost everyone around me sang along.

The film’s main attraction, however, is the character and vision of Fred Rogers. To prove that point, I could quote a dozen memorable passages from the documentary, but will stick to these lines taken from an interview with Rogers: “Love is at the root of everything—all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.”

As a Presbyterian seminary student in the 1950s, Rogers immediately recognized the power of television. He saw how TV could be exploited to sell stuff through mindless programming. He also saw how thoughtful programming could be used to provide a friendly—or neighborly—place where children had room to grow.

During the 60s, Rogers alternated between producing his first TV shows for children and completing his theological studies. Once ordained, he never took on a church but made Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood his lifelong calling. Indeed, his pastoral vocation was to use TV to show God’s love for children, whoever and whatever they might be.

Director Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) provides a well-rounded documentary, particularly through thoughtful interviews with Rogers’ wife and sons, coworkers, and favorite guests, such as the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The interviews are mixed with footage of Rogers and clips from the show itself, allowing viewers to appreciate how daring the show could be. From the show’s beginning in 1968, Rogers addressed the troubles of the day, such as Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and continued segregation. Although Rogers wanted to provide a safe and calm place for children, he didn’t shy away from life’s problems or contentious social issues.

As an ordained Presbyterian minister and a lifelong Republican who wore cardigans with running shoes, Rogers cut the figure of a “square” in the psychedelic late 60s and tumultuous 70s. The film gives several clips showing how late-night TV stars such as Eddie Murphy and Johnny Carson would crudely yet accurately parody Rogers’ fussy manners.

And yet, Rogers was perhaps the most “with-it” person on TV. He was inclusive before the term became popular, because he saw the image of God in everyone. He preached without being preachy. Such clear-eyed goodness is inspirational—and also explains the film’s current popularity in our all too divisive times.

Even if Rogers was saintly in his dedication to children, the film makes clear he was not otherworldly. He could laugh when his crew pulled a crass joke on him (hence the film’s PG-13 rating). Different interviews also point out the limits to his inclusiveness as well as to his patience.

Rogers was also wracked by self-doubt, which he sometimes expressed through the voices of his puppets. It was, ironically, Rogers’ considerable will and creative discipline that allowed him to produce hundreds of shows and connect with millions of children over the years.

Although I was of the perfect viewing age when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood became popular in the early 1970s, I must admit that I rarely watched the show. Maybe it’s because we couldn’t get the Buffalo PBS station very well in Hamilton, Ont. Or maybe I was only allowed to watch similar Canadian fare, such as Mr. Dressup and The Friendly Giant. In that regard, it is unfortunate that the film doesn’t explain clearly how Rogers developed the prototype for his show while working in Toronto for the CBC.

That Canadian quibble aside, I regretted that I didn’t know the show well enough to sing along to a Mr. Rogers song as the documentary’s credits rolled. But even if you didn’t grow up with Mister Rogers, don’t worry. Like me, it’s very likely you will be wiping a tear from your eye as he and the rest of the audience sings to you: “It's such a good feeling/To know you're alive.” (Focus)

About the Author

Otto Selles teaches French at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., and attends Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.

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