“Love is at the root of everything–all learning, all parenting, all relationships–love or the lack of it.”—Fred Rogers.
Love your neighbor. Love yourself. It sounds easy; but, as we all know, it isn’t. No one knew that better than Fred Rogers.
The sweater, the sneakers, the comforting voice and welcoming smile…it certainly never stopped being a beautiful day in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Even before he stepped out of the seminary as an ordained Presbyterian minister in 1963, he was convinced that television had the potential to reach and teach young children lessons of love, kindness and acceptance.
“What we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.”–Fred Rogers.
If you need a refresher course in the magic of Fred Rogers, on-air and off, you need look no further than Morgan Neville’s critically acclaimed new feature-length documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? A 2018 blockbuster in theatrical release, at film festivals and on the awards circuit (the film won the 2019 Producers Guild of America Award for Best Documentary and a boatload of other prestigious awards), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, February 9, 2019, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT. And in honor of Fred Rogers’ career-long commitment to public television, the film will also air concurrently tonight, Saturday, February 9, 2019, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT on the PBS series, Independent Lens. (Check listings for PBS air times in your region.)
Fred Rogers learned the ropes as a jack-of-all trades at WQED-TV, Pittsburgh, and eventually as co-producer/scriptwriter/puppeteer/musician on “The Children’s Corner” (1955-1961), a live, weekday afternoon program. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” also produced at WQED, debuted on February 19, 1968, on what was then called National Educational Television (NET). By the time the last new episode of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” aired on August 31, 2001 (less than two weeks before 911), it had quietly and positively impacted the lives of generations of children.
The format and content of each show were carefully paced and structured to build self-esteem by gently encouraging children to explore the world around them, master developmental tasks and cope with new and sometimes unsettling life experiences (parental divorce, assassination, bigotry, disabilities). As welcome guests in Rogers’ neighborhood, young children were safe to be themselves, to learn, laugh and, most of all, to love themselves and others without judgment or preconceived notions about disabilities or differences.
On February 21, 2001, as Fred Rogers approached the taping of his last episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” I was honored, as Director of the Christopher Awards, to spearhead the presentation of our 2001 Special Christopher Award to Fred Rogers for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a program that had, from its debut in 1968, gently celebrated the sanctity of childhood. It was the first Special Christopher Award ever presented to a children’s program in the Christopher Awards’ 52-year history.
Needless to say, we were thrilled and honored to have Fred Rogers and David Newell (aka Mr. McFeely) in attendance during our 52nd annual Christopher Awards’ event on February 22, 2001. As icy winds and snowdrifts whipped around the Time-Life Building in midtown Manhattan that evening, Rogers warmed everyone’s heart with his gracious manner and touching speech, that concluded with a startling request that I will never forget:
“Before I say ‘Good Night,’ would you take just a minute to think of someone who has nourished your spirit, someone who has cared for you, encouraged you to believe that you’re welcome in this life–someone who has loved you into being? Whether that person is here tonight or far away or even in heaven, let’s just have a silent minute to be grateful for those who have become such an important part of who we are. One minute–I’ll watch the time.”–Fred Rogers.
We sat in silence for one minute. Imagine Rogers’ soft voice and gentle but insistent delivery, and you will understand why there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when we rose en masse to give him a well-deserved standing ovation.
As you will see, if you watch Morgan Neville’s beautifully crafted documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Rogers closed many of his speeches with that same entreaty. It summed up the essence of the wonderful man whose company I enjoyed that snowy evening in February 2001 and via correspondence thereafter.
Two years later, on February 27, 2003, as we gathered at the Time-Life Building in Rockefeller Center for the 54th annual Christopher Awards gala, we suddenly learned and announced to our shocked audience that Fred Rogers had passed away earlier that day. More tears were shed, but this time for the loss of this great man who had hugged us with his presence, seemingly hale and hearty just two years before…who had made me and others that evening in February 2001 remember that we were special, that we were “loved and capable of loving.”
Now Academy Award®-winning director Morgan Neville honors Fred Rogers’ legacy with the exquisitely crafted and moving documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The film follows the trajectory of Rogers’ life and career–his boyhood challenges, his serious study of early child development and fascination with early television, and the road that melded those two passions with his media ministry. The pivotal themes, puppets, cast and crew are on-hand, as are Rogers’ widow Joanne, their sons John and Jim, and sister Elaine (aka Lady Elaine).
There are many delightful and surprising moments. Vintage clips underscore Fred’s impressive ability to individually engage shy young fans one-on-one; to share hugs and kisses with Koko, the gorilla; and convince old, cranky U.S. Senators with an ax to grind that funding children’s programming on public TV was a must.
A lovely animation, featuring Fred’s puppet Daniel Striped Tiger, threads throughout the film as quiet commentary on the challenges Rogers faced along the way. “Daniel was the real Fred,” remembers Joanne Rogers wistfully.
“The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.” –Fred Rogers.
Be sure to grab a box of tissues and watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor? when it debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, February 9, 2019, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT. The film will also air concurrently tonight, Saturday, February 9, 2019, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT on the PBS series, Independent Lens. (Check listings for PBS air times in your region and additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead, and the film’s availability on DVD, HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max.) –Judith Trojan