Before the era of 14 cable channels focused on attracting preschool aged children, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was one of the giants for little eyes. The show quickly founded a following with kids that also enjoyed Captain Kangaroo, Sesame Street and Romper Room. Mister Rogers stood out from the other three because of his show lacked slapstick and he was rather calm mild mannered. He wasn’t getting showered with ping pong balls, living in a garage or selling toys. He was a guy who wanted to talk directly to kids at home in a tone that let us know he was an adult who cared. He was a TV friend that wasn’t a character. The documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? perfectly distills the essence of the man, his mission, his impact and his legacy.
Contrary to your delusional grandfather and his prized email that claims Mister Rogers was a Navy Seal killing commies during the Vietnam War, Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who found himself working at Pittsburgh’s public television station. While working there, he found himself involved with the University of Pittsburgh’s program in Child Development and Child Care. Among the people involved was Dr. Benjamin Spock. Eventually Rogers developed the idea of a show geared towards kids that wasn’t infused with sugary cereal. He did have puppets, but they were there to illustrate the lessons from earlier in the show and not act as entertainment. The first visit to the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” had King Friday in a combat helmet and promising to build a giant wall on the border. That’s not a kid’s storyline, that’s a prediction of what’s to come in 50 years. A few months later, Daniel Tiger talks about his fear of assassination after the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Make-Believe didn’t mean the outside world was forgotten as Trolley went through the tunnel. Even now I can’t imagine a show on TV that would help a kid cope with the problems of today. You think SpongeBob SquarePants is going to break down a school shooting? Fred Rogers dared to talk about things that could be bothering a kid. He wasn’t there to just make you feel good and laugh as he gets goop poured over his head. He wanted kids to know that what they felt was real and didn’t need to be dismissed.
The one thing you need to be warned about before seeing Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is to be prepared for all the crying. This isn’t just the subjects being This was the most emotional I’ve ever seen an audience at Full Frame. Tears and sobbing came from all over the theater. Festival goers sat during the end credits to wipe their eyes and compose themselves. This wasn’t merely tears for the passing of Mister Rogers at the end. There are tears through out the film for a variety of moments. Parents relate how they had contacted Rogers about their son before he was getting a difficult operation. And Mr. Rogers had the kid visit his neighborhood during an episode and the two sang a song together. People were bawling at what Fred shared with the kid. I think of television today and who on the screen is capable of such a moment of pure comfort? I guess you could say Ty Pennington during Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. But ABC canceled that show. Who of our elected leaders can make such a compassionate moment? There’s probably more tears in the audience who realize that we’re allowed our culture to be dominated by jerks who get paid millions to mock, berate and dismiss humanity.
There’s a section in the film that addresses the time that the losers on Fox News went after Mister Rogers. Why? Because he had the nerve to tell kids that they were special. Somehow the screaming heads on the channels felt this was a horrific piece of heresy. And they gleefully went after Fred Rogers. There were a couple people humming “What do you do with the mad that you feel” as they wanted to take on a few pundits. They also address the chain email that my ex-grandfather-in-law embraced as truth about Rogers being a Navy Seal in Vietnam with his arms covered in tattoos. Why did the right have to lie about Mister Rogers? Why did they have to debase him? And what did they have to replace him with as a TV friend?
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is masterful portrait of Fred Rogers. Oscar winning director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) and his crew made a film that not only appeals to those of us who grew up watching the show, but allows others to understand the genius and heart of Fred Rogers. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood wasn’t just a mindless kid show with puppets. The film is a love letter to the man and a call for viewers to be a better person to yourself and others.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? opens in theaters on June 8 across the country. Remember to bring enough Kleenex for yourself and anyone in your row.
Joe Corey is the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.