New Mister Rogers Documentary Hopes to Reignite the Spirit of Kindness

Children's television takes on many forms. From education fare like Sesame Street to cartoons that are advertisements for toys like Transformers, children's programming is vast.

However, one unassuming man named Fred from Latrobe, Pennsylvania believed the power of television could be used to better the lives of all kids. He didn’t spend his half-hour program, which ran nationally for 905 episodes over more than three decades, teaching kids about numbers or letters. No, he spent his time on television talking to kids about their feelings and demystifying things both scary and tragic. This man was Mister Rogers, and a new documentary about his life, Won’t You Be My Neighborpremieres nationally today. 

Directed by Morgan Neville, the film is the first such retrospective of Mister Rogers undertaken with the direct involvement of his family and those who knew him best. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Mister Rogers Neighborhood was more than a television show. To Fred it was his ministry. Almost never overtly religious on the program, Mister Rogers instead promoted kindness, tolerance, and most importantly, love. That’s the great thing about Mister Rogers. His message, his ministry, is not just for kids or the religious, but for everyone.

Who Is Fred Rogers?

Fred Rogers grew up in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a rural community east of the city of Pittsburgh. A chubby kid prone to illness, he spent much of his time alone. His peers bullied him, calling him “Fat Freddy.” So, he spent a lot of time playing make-believe by himself. He went to seminary school and studied music.

During this time, television appeared, and when he saw it, he was both awed and outraged. He believed it to be a powerful communication device, but disliked the violent and shallow programming. This prompted him to do something about it, and thus he went to work for NBC in New York City.

mister rogers

Credit: The Children's Museum of Pittsburgh

After a few years, he left New York and returned to Pittsburgh to work for public television station WQED in 1954. His job at the time was as a puppeteer on the local program The Children’s Corner hosted by the late Josie Carey. About ten years later, he took on his own show by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called Misterrogers. It ran for a year, and then Mister Rogers returned home to Pittsburgh.

After eventually securing the rights for the show and the characters he created, he brought the show to WQED. It ran on a few public stations across the country. Finally, in 1968, the Public Broadcasting Service bought the show and began to air it nationally. By the time Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ended it’s 30-plus-year run in 2001, he became a genuine cultural icon. While the show no longer airs on PBS, the animated Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is the modern successor to the show. 

What Was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood Like?

The show had a simple format. First Mister Rogers entered the set, designed to look like a house, singing the song which shares a title with the new documentary. He would change out his suit coat for a cardigan sweater, most of them knitted by his mother. He would then remove his shoes and change into sneakers.

Then he’d directly address the audience about the theme of the episode, usually incorporating one of his “neighbors,” a cast of characters. The most famous of those characters, Mr. McFeely (played by David Newell) delivered films showing how things like pianos or crayons are made. Sometimes, these films would feature Mister Rogers going somewhere like on a hot air balloon ride or to the set of the television show The Incredible Hulk.

The second half of the program would be in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, featuring puppets all voiced by Mister Rogers. This was not vanity, but rather because when kids play with toys, they often have to do all the “voices” themselves. There were other actors, some who played human characters and others who wore costumes. These little dramas would often underscore the theme of the episode, usually children’s feelings about things like fear of the dark, anger at friends, and even divorce.

The music for each episode was provided live, improvised by the late Johnny Costa and his band. Costa was a jazz pianist who, despite making his living on children’s show, was revered by jazz greats like Art Tatum. They also periodically featured musical episodes, like little Broadway shows, with opera star John Reardon.

So, What Makes Mister Rogers So Special?

Mister Rogers wanted to use his show to help kids understand their feelings, but he also wanted to remind children that they were worthy of love. He ended every program by telling his audience that they make “each day a special day, just by being you. I like you just the way you are.”

Castmember Francois Clemmons is a trained operatic singer who played “Officer Clemmons” on the show. In an interview, he said that during an episode Mister Rogers delivered that classic line looking straight at him. Clemmons asked Mister Rogers if he had been talking to him. Mister Rogers replied that he’s always talking to him, Clemmons just heard him that day.

In a profile for Esquire, writer Tom Junod, details more of this sort of thing. He recounts one anecdote where Mister Rogers saw a young boy holding a sword. Mister Rogers commented on it, but the shy boy didn’t recognize him. His mother, embarrassed, told the boy to give Mister Rogers a hug. He didn’t want to. Instead, Mister Rogers whispered something into his ear and the kid’s entire expression changed.

Later, Mister Rogers told Junod what he’d said. “Oh, I just knew that whenever you see a little boy carrying something like that, it means that he wants to show people that he's strong on the outside. I just wanted to let him know that he was strong on the inside, too. And so that's what I told him. I said, 'Do you know that you're strong on the inside, too?' Maybe it was something he needed to hear.”

Yeah, But It Was All an Act Right?

In today’s world, we’re growing used to hearing that artists and public figures we admire had terrible dark sides and weren’t the people we thought they were. Mister Rogers, however, is not one of those people. Almost everyone from Pittsburgh has some kind of Mister Rogers story. Anthony Breznican, a writer for Entertainment Weekly, has one. He recounted a time when he was at the University of Pittsburgh, and he ran into Mister Rogers on the campus. Going through a tough time, Mister Rogers actually sat down to talk with him. He didn’t try to fix Breznican’s problems for him, just listened and sympathized. Sometimes, that’s all people need.

Your humble correspondent also has a Mister Rogers story, but the one worth telling is the interaction my mother had with the man. In 1999, I deployed to Bosnia with the U.S. Army. Even though it was no longer truly an active warzone, she worried for me. After I boarded my plane, she made her way out of the airport and saw Mister Rogers. She grew up watching him on The Children’s Corner, and I also watched his show as a child. For whatever reason, she said hello to him. He asked her if she had been one of his “neighbors,” his word for the folks who watched his show. He noticed she’d been crying, and even though he was rushing for his own flight, he took the time to talk with and comfort her. Mister Rogers was the real deal.

Okay, But How Did Mister Rogers Affect People Not From Pittsburgh?

The legacy of Mister Rogers is complex and interesting. First, without him, there likely wouldn’t be any public television. Mister Rogers went to the Senate in 1969 to personally appeal for a $20 million grant from the government the Nixon Administration did not want to part with. Addressing former New Jersey Sen. John Pastore, a hard-nosed legislator with a tough reputation, Mister Rogers explained his philosophy and recited the lyrics of his song “What do you do with the mad that you feel?”

You can actually see Pastore shift from an impatient person, when he snidely tells Mister Rogers he can read his written statement if he wants despite the time constraint, to when he asks to see a copy of the show, and to how he listens to the song lyrics. “I think you just earned the 20 million dollars,” he said when Mister Rogers finished.

Mister Rogers also used his show to address troubling political situations. When racists were fighting to keep black Americans out of public pools, he featured a segment with Officer Clemmons where the two cooled their feet in a wading pool. Not only did Mister Rogers share the water with Clemmons, he also shared his towel, something that surely made racists’ head explode.

He was never explicit about his social causes, but rather just stayed true to his core interpretation of Christian theology: love everyone. When other Presbyterian ministers wanted him to denounce a group of LGBT activists, he instead made a statement that he, like God, loved them just as they are.

No One is a Saint, Mister Rogers Wasn’t Perfect Was He?

Mister Rogers

Credit: Dr. Paul, Twitter

The lone bad review of Won’t You Be My Neighbor comes because the reviewer felt that Neville ignored the flaws in Mister Rogers’ character. For example, despite being lauded for hiring Clemmons, he convinced him to not live openly as a gay man. Mister Rogers even went so far as to encourage him to marry a woman, for fear that if the world knew Clemmons is gay, he’d lose the show.

In fact, he was fiercely protective of the show, threatening legal action if people parodied him in ways he feared harmed children. In the early days, he also limited the other work the actors on his show could take. Aberlin, on the show from the beginning until the end, was offered a role in Night of the Living Dead, the first real zombie movie. Mister Rogers would not allow her to take the role, despite the fact that its director, George Romero, used to work for the Neighborhood.

Still, he didn’t stay that way. Clemmons said that Mister Rogers later apologized to him. Even though Clemmons never got to be “out” on the show, he said that he loved Mister Rogers like a father. In later years, he also relaxed his rules on his on-set neighbors taking other work. Aberlin has appeared in a number of Kevin Smith movies, including Dogma where she played a nun who loses faith. Castmembers Fred Aber and Don Brockett also appeared in the Silence of the Lambs, a movie about a cannibal.

As Dark Sides Go, That’s Not All That Dark…

Mister Rogers is one of the few truly authentic people in media and culture, and those who knew him best have far more good to say about the man than bad. No one is perfect, of course, but Mister Rogers did his best to live his philosophy, whether in front of cameras or not. His true legacy, however, is whether or not the neighbors who grew up watching him live that philosophy, too. Mister Rogers said that love, or the lack of it, is at the root of humanity. Mister Rogers just tried to put a little more love into the world, and he’d want us to do the same every chance we get.

What do you think? Do you have any favorite Mister Rogers stories or memories? Share them below in the comments and the article online, so your friends can get in on the conversation.

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