It feels like not long ago at all that I was a young lad, sitting in front of the tube, absolutely mesmerized by Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.
Perhaps unlike many fellow fans of my age, I was actually vastly more enchanted with Fred Rogers himself than the puppeteering of his Neighborhood of Make-Believe. During those latter segments, I mostly zoned out, whereas I was downright entranced by Mr. Rogers and his direct, honest and affectionate rapport with me, the viewer. (In my area, PBS aired the program right after CBS did The Price Is Right, so I guess you could say my formative years were spent idolizing Mr. Rogers and Bob Barker.)
Fives decades since the premiere of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, and falling the same year Rogers would have celebrated his 90th birthday, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the latest picture from Morgan Neville (whose Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal and the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom are among the best documentaries from recent years), wholeheartedly does the TV legend justice. It's an absorbing, entertaining and deeply affecting look at a man whose kindness and empathy are sorely missed in this trainwreck of times.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? traces Rogers' entry into the modest world of children's television in the 1950s. While trained and ordained as a minster, Rogers is perplexed by the limited and lackluster small screen offerings for kids, programs that generally consist of lame slapstick comedy, pies thrown in faces, clowns haphazardly dancing before the camera, etc. He partakes as a puppeteer in The Children's Corner, a new local children's television program in Pittsburgh, and, though he sticks with the show for several years, ultimately finds the proceedings don't quite live up to the superior vision he has in mind.
So, Rogers develops a new program, which, over the 1960s, slowly but surely generates attention and acclaim, not just in Pittsburgh but nationally. Unlike most of the garbage infiltrating the airwaves and directed at children, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood is a thoughtful, warmhearted program that never for a second dumbs itself down for its audience. It also delicately touches upon issues that countless parents undoubtedly haven't a clue how to discuss with their kids.
Among the most striking moments of Won't You Be My Neighbor? is Rogers' testimony before the United States Senate in 1969. President Nixon has proposed deep budget cuts, including toward funding for PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Rogers speaks before the Senate committee, his comments particularly directed at the chairman, Senator John Pastore. Pastore, at this point unmoved by pleas for retain such funding, is ultimately completely won over by Rogers, who speaks to the important of social and emotional education through public television. He even recites lyrics to one of his songs from the show. Pastore's reponse? "Looks like you just earned the $20 million."
Such is among countless moments to treasure in this documentary. His friendship with Francois Clemmons, the African-American vocalist who for more than two decades portrayed Officer Clemmons on the program - one of the first black performers to have a recurring role on a children's television series - is fascinating and we're also treated to a plethora of insightful interviews with Rogers' cast and crew, plus his delightful wife Joanne.
I suspect Rogers himself would have been quite pleased with this project. It's a perceptive and compelling picture, never mawkish, yet immensely poignant. Watching this film and spending an hour and a half with the man, it's hard not to feel some sense of sadness that Rogers isn't around right now, in times sorely lacking his gentleness and understanding. While I'm not exactly attune to today's offerings, I suspect the bulk of current children's television doesn't quite operate on the same level as Rogers' efforts.
More now than ever, we need a little Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood in our lives.