A review of a new documentary on Fred Rogers. There are a number of sharp vignettes from “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the documentary of the life and work of Mr. Fred Rogers, the genial host of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, which ran on public television for more than 30 years. (The first show screened in the tumultuous year of 1968 and the series ended in 2001, 2 years before Roger’s death.)
Anyone who watched episodes, with or without children, will have their favorites, perhaps a scene in which Rogers listened intently to Yo-Yo Ma playing his cello or engaged a wheel-chair bound boy facing a delicate surgery in the following week, or consoling children after the Challenger explosion and the death of teacher-astronaut Krista McAuliffe. Perhaps it would be a memory of one of the hosts more routine acts like feeding the fish or changing into a vibrant sweater at the start of the episode.
The ones that I treasured are ones that could just as easily have been left out, and I wonder whether documentarian Morgan Neville thought twice about including them, given the wealth of videotape material available to him and the opportunities to interview members of the cast and crew and child psychologists who were strong advocates for the program. Despite the fact that I spent many hours watching Rogers with my two young sons in the 80s, many of these were new to me.
Given the recent death of the gorilla Koko who mastered rudimentary sign language, the show in which Koko was a “guest” is a revelation. We see unfazed Rogers cradled in the gorilla’s arms before he begins to breathe on and in turn to be breathed on by the animal as a form of inter-species ice-breaker. And then, guided by Koko’s handler, he crosses his arms in front of his torso in imitation of his new friend. We imagine that Rogers, looking deeply into Koko’s eyes, has achieved a kind of recognition and mutual interest that he found in the encounters with the thousands of others of his own species. The scene seems to ask the question: “If with patience I can have an I-Thou encounter with this rough beast, why can’t I do the same with one of my fellow human beings?” The scene is reminiscent of 19th century Quaker minister and landscape painter Edward Hick’s Peaceable Kingdom series which depicts the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the beasts of the earth would exist in harmony with members of the human community.
One of the cast members that gets more screen time than others is Francois Clemmons, a black singer who Rogers recruited to be the neighborhood policeman. While on his beat one hot day, Clemmons is invited by Rogers to take off his shoes and put his feet in the kiddie pool in which Rogers is sprinkling his own toes and gently talking about the rapturous watery sensation. This at a time when the segregation of public swimming pools was in the not too distant past. Rogers, an aspiring minister who turned down the seminary in order to do “God’s work” on the new communications medium, the set up must have been inspired by Jesus washing the feet of his apostles. Even though the religious/spiritual messages were never heavy handed, we’re almost always lead to wonder when faced with a difficult human choice WWFD (What Would Fred Do)?
A sidebar to the Clemmons-Rogers relationship: Rogers urged Clemmons a gay man not to frequent a Pittsburg gay night club lest it lead to guilt by association. Rogers even urged Clemmons to marry, which he did, unsatisfactorily. It’s Clemmons, still smarting from Rogers political cowardice, who tries to put to rest the rumor that the gentle Rogers was gay. Claiming an infallible gay-dar, Clemmon vouches for Rogers straightness. Interestingly, one of the attacks on Rogers and his show came from right wing zealots, some fundamentalists, who believed that watching Rogers could turn young boys into wimps and could turn all child viewers into narcissists hungry for the kind of constant affirmation that was Rogers stock-in-trade. Rogers joined Dr. Spock on the list of cultural figures responsible for the miseducation of America’s youth and for the decline in national vigor.
One of the things that Fred did do was to instruct King Friday, the monarch in “The Land of Make Believe,” that the idea of building a wall and entering into an arms race with a neighboring king was not a very neighborly thing to do. Many scenes were designed to show the increasingly hot-headed king how he could control his anger. Rogers, the child psychologist, endeavored to help his young viewers to acknowledge their anger (yes, the were many things to be angry about) but to suppress and channel that anger, working to defuse the situation and to restore order and kindness. Neville highlights Rogers espousing the Hebrew principle of “tikkun olam,” the command to “repair the world.”
One scene, not in his neighborhood house but in the house of Congress, shows how disarming his gospel of love and kindness delivered gently could be. In the early days of the Nixon administration, the new president and some of his Congressional allies, wanted to trim or even eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. A number of PBS administrators and performers were called before the committee headed by the tough Democratic senator from Connecticut, John Pastore. Speaking ex tempore rather than from notes he had prepared, Rogers spoke passionately about the need to support children and to provide them with cleansing alternatives to typical children TV fare designed to turn viewers into compliant consumers and to give them a high capacity for acts of violence. Pastore easily caved to Roger’s persuasion and instantly announced that the budget would not be slashed. Did Rogers single-handedly save public television?
No doubt this well-crafted documentary has achieved its enthusiastic response (#1 rating of summer movies on Rotten Tomatoes) in part because of its release 1/3rd of the way through the first term of the current occupant of the White House. His way of being in the world stands in stark contrast to the toxic masculinity, the divisiveness, the lack of curiosity, and the attention deficit disorder of Donald J. Trump. Trump undoubtedly would like to rezone Rogers neighborhood, drive out the undesirables, and create luxury condominiums for the monied class. He’d encourage King Friday in his autocratic impulses and stoke his hostility toward his neighbors. Saturday Night Live offered a gentle spoof of Rogers in “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” with Eddie Murphy, as Robinson, playing a poor occupant of a tenement apartment while still maintaining a sense of Rogers-like optimism. I’d like to see Alec Baldwin (as Trump) visit the neighborhood and get a lesson in humanity from Daniel Stripped Tiger, one of Rogers most popular puppets and a frequent mouthpiece for the Rogers’ world view.