By Norbert Rug
It’s a beautiful day to talk about Mister Rogers. Fifteen years after the legendary host of a children’s TV program passed away, the entertainment world is being swept up in Fred Rogers revivalism. I know Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood was written for preschoolers but I liked this much more than any of the children’s shows airing now days that are frequently just thinly veiled sales pitches. I actually enjoyed watching Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood with my grandchildren.
First, there was director Morgan Neville’s filmed documentary called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Those who have watched it feel obligated to caution people who haven’t seen it to bring a box of tissues because there will be tears. Neville wasn’t trying to keep viewers crying from start to finish, blame the documentary’s subject, who’s so kind that his very presence effects even the most cynical viewers.
But the documentary isn’t the only tribute to Fred Rogers making the rounds. Not long after “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” debuted at the Sundance film festival, TriStar Pictures declared plans to film a biopic, with Tom Hanks playing Rogers that is based on Tom Junod’s classic 1998 Esquire article about his friendship with the TV host.
PBS, home of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from 1968 until 2000, aired the 50th anniversary tribute to Fred Rogers, hosted by Michael Keaton, “It’s You I Like” On March 20 which was Rogers’ 90th birthday. Twitch, a live streaming video platform owned by Twitch Interactive, a subsidiary of Amazon, teamed with PBS to launch a marathon of 90 of the most well-liked episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. This was followed by a complete run of the series. For those still into cds, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: It’s A Beautiful Day” collection collects over 900 minutes of classic episodes and moments. It arrived in stores on March 27.
I think that vintage Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is as relevant now as it once was. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was created for preschoolers. There are obvious differences concerning what toddlers and older children need to see on TV.
When Fred Rogers felt a calling to work in television instead of as an ordained Presbyterian minister. His goal was to make something more tranquil than what young children were watching when their parents set them down to watch TV. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood doesn’t over stimulate children. He speaks slowly and softly in simple sentences and even during the times that the show goes to the palace of King Friday XIII, populated by puppets, the stories are muted in tone, without violence, and deliver lessons about proper behavior. This is a far cry from “The Roadrunner” cartoons that I used to watch as a child.
So why is everybody so in love with Mister Rogers? It’s partly nostalgia. I’ve long felt that our desire to return to the shows we grew up with has to do with the belief that those were the good old days. Our memories of the past are so imprecise sometimes. Revisiting popular culture of the past can help clarify memories that we’ve forgotten.
What stands out about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is the general calmness and simplicity. Rogers understood that occasionally adults assume too much about what kids comprehend, or that they are too rushed to talk to children about the basics of life. So he would explain everything from the functioning of the human body to the reason some real-world events upset grown-ups. His primary message was that everyone feels helpless, overwhelmed, ignorant, or even angry sometimes. That emotions are part of being alive and that being alive is great.
Rogers’ persona and ideals were under attack just before he died. Right-wing talk radio hosts, columnists, and TV commentators accused the “softness” and “entitlement” of Generation X on the immorality of Mister Rogers, who told kids they were special, no matter what. Their disagreement with Fred Rogers’ life’s work is that it persuaded children they didn’t need to achieve anything.
That criticism isn’t totally wrong. But it’s more than a little wrong. It’s usually coming from commentators who identify themselves as conservative Christians. Rogers’ view of the world was connected to his theology, and to the Christian theory of “grace.” This idea is that we are all broken, but that we are loved and matter to God. That’s a fundamental belief held by many Christians.
It’s not a position or perspective we see coming from a TV personality very often. That is also a part of the charm of Fred Rogers. To try and make Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood political is just wrong. Fred Rogers used this show to promote inclusion for people of all backgrounds, races, and capabilities.
I read an unverified story once about Mr. Rogers. It is alleged that one day his car was stolen while parked on a street in Pittsburgh. The evening news reported that Mr. Rogers’ car had been stolen that night. The next day, it was back in the same spot with a note that said, “Sorry, we didn’t know it was yours.” Whether the story is true or not, that is part of the way Fred Rodgers made us feel. He gave us the impression that we were part of his family.