Growing up in the 1970s, I was fortunate enough to have been exposed to some exceptional children’s television programs. My memories of Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Dressup and Vegetable Soup are as vivid now as they were then.
But there will always be a special place for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister turned unlikely TV star, created a groundbreaking educational program between 1968 and 2001 that championed the growth and development of children.
He used language, music and puppets to communicate directly with his young, curious audience and made them feel special. He emphasized their unique personalities and intriguing differences, including them as members of a community that included a real neighbourhood and one purely of make-believe.
Which brings me to Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville’s recently-released, profound, wonderful and moving documentary about the late, great children’s entertainer. I watched it recently with my wife, and was struck by how much I learned about a man and show that I already knew so well.
The documentary examined part of Rogers’ early career at the Pittsburgh-based public television channel WQED and his first show, The Children’s Corner (1954 to 1961).
Regrettably, there was no discussion of his 15-minute CBC children’s show, Misterogers (1961 to 1964), and the fact that some iconic pieces, including the original Trolley and King Friday XIII’s castle, were created north of the border. (It’s also worth mentioning that Rogers brought his friend and understudy, Ernie “Mr. Dressup” Coombs, to work on this show – and he stayed in Canada for good.)
When Rogers acquired the show rights from CBC in 1966, he went back to Pittsburgh to work on Misterogers’ Neighborhood. It was cancelled a year later but quickly found funding through the Sears-Roebuck Foundation and ran on NET from 1968 to 1970. When PBS replaced NET, the show’s title was adjusted to the more familiar Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
It was a show like no other then – or since.
As the documentary shows, Rogers built and designed it in a particular fashion. There were no flashy sets, loud music, wild colours or bright lights. Rather, it functioned in a slow-paced environment with occasional moments of silence (which the host treasured). He took his time putting on his various cardigans and comfortable sneakers, and talked directly to his young viewers while listening to their every word and reacting to the permanent smiles on their faces.
Nevertheless, he didn’t shy away from tackling controversial topics like marriage, divorce, death, violence, war and racism. Rogers challenged societal norms by inviting Officer Clemons, a black man, to bathe his feet next to his in a wading pool on a hot day. He used national tragedies like Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 assassination and the space shuttle Challenger’s 1986 explosion as vital teaching moments for quizzical young minds.
There was also a short clip from a 1968 episode showing King Friday XIII temporarily ordering a barbed-wire fence be placed around his castle and installing border guards, until he realized his mistake. It’s an eerily similar scenario to U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico.
While there’s no question that Rogers was a gentle, kind-hearted soul, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? proves his personality was surprisingly multi-faceted.
He had a strong religious faith and Christian values, but never pushed them down people’s throats. He didn’t yell and barely raised his voice, based on his family upbringing. Words like “will,” “modulation” and “feelings” became critical tools to reaching young children and their parents.
He had real insecurities, based on the cruel teasing of childhood classmates who called him “Fat Freddy,” which continued to haunt him as an adult.
Rogers was even a “lifelong Republican,” according to reliable sources like his wife Joanne, and that probably floored several rows of his left-leaning fans.
What an extraordinary life and career.
After watching this documentary, National Post columnist Marni Soupcoff wrote on her Facebook page on July 16, “Is there a Fred Rogers cult, because if there is, I’m ready to join it.”
Me too, Marni. Where do we sign up?
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.
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