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June 19, 2012
Shark Bite Theatre
Mister Rogers and Me: Everybody's Favorite Neighbor
by Andrew E. Lindsay

Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers and Me

Benjamin Wagner and his brother, Christofer, grew up, like so much of America, watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." When Benjamin was 30 years old, he vacationed on Nantucket, Massachusetts, where his mother had rented a cottage for the summer. As luck would have it, this cottage happened to be next door to Mister Rogers' summer cottage. Yes, the Mister Rogers was actually his neighbor.

Meeting and getting to know Mister Rogers was a life-altering experience for this young man who worked as a producer for MTV News, and it would eventually lead him and his brother to produce a wonderful documentary tribute to the soft-spoken, sweatered-but-dignified father figure who invited everyone to be his neighbor.

Fred McFeely Rogers was born March 20, 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, just 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. He died from stomach cancer on February 27, 2003, less than a month before his 75th birthday, with his wife of fifty years at his side. Ironically, Mister Rogers confessed that he "went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there was some way of using this fabulous instrument of nurture to those who would watch and listen."

His first job with NBC in New York City lasted three years, producing a music-centered program, "NBC Opera Theater," as well as working on Gabby Hayes' show for children. He became frustrated with the reliance on advertising and merchandising and left to find a venue where his ability to educate and enrich the lives of young people would be unfettered.

He began working as a puppeteer on a local children's show in Pittsburgh, "The Children's Corner," and it was there that he developed a number of characters who would become well-known to later generations of viewers, including King Friday XIII, Daniel Striped Tiger, Curious X the Owl, and Lady Elaine Fairchild.

He also started wearing his now-trademark sneakers instead of work shoes because he found them to be much quieter on the set.

During his eight years at WQED Pittsburgh, he spent his lunch breaks studying theology at the nearby Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, ultimately becoming an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. After a few years in Toronto, Canada, developing a children's show for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (which also put him in front of the camera for the first time), he returned to Pittsburgh and put in motion the ideas that would soon become "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

The show debuted in 1968 and ran 895 episodes, the last of which were filmed in December of 2000. For more than 30 years, Mister Rogers patiently zipped up his cardigan sweater and tied his sneakers nearly 900 times, all while cheerfully singing his standing invitation for us to be his neighbor.

What Wagner reveals in Mister Rogers and Me, filled with interviews of people who knew Fred Rogers personally, is that Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers were one and the same person. "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was no act, and the only make-believe on the show was clearly labeled as "Neighborhood of Make-Believe," complete with a toy trolley that transported us from Mister Rogers' living room to King Friday's puppet-filled palace.

Mister Rogers was the same warm, genuine teacher to people he met on the street that he was to the millions of children (and their children) who watched him in their homes every day. In interview after interview with celebrities, industry insiders, and people on the street, this commonality consistently came to the surface: Mister Rogers meant what he said when he asked you to be his neighbor, because that's how he saw everyone he ever met.

When Mister Rogers said he was proud of you, the straightforward sincerity of his statement sank deep into the marrow of your bones. "I like you just the way you are" was not some casual catch-phrase created by writers; it was the heartfelt offering of a man who had been bullied as a child (because he was a little overweight, shy, and didn't fit in with the crowd) and never wanted others to believe their worth as human beings was conditional.

One of the core principles of his life and his life's work he expressed to Wagner at their first meeting in Nantucket was this: "Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex." Later, Rogers told Wagner, "Spread the message, Benjamin."

This documentary is just that, a loving legacy to a man who learned to harness the power of television to accomplish an extraordinarily deep and simple thing for decades, creating a powerful dialogue with children about real issues that weigh heavily on young minds. And as those children grew up, they continued to turn to Mister Rogers for comfort, counsel, and reassurance in an increasingly turbulent and unsettled world.

NPR's Susan Stamberg produced numerous television specials with Mister Rogers, and frequently would have him on the air to provide insight to parents about how to talk with their children after such traumatizing events as the 9-11 attacks. Somehow, just the sound of his soothing voice was like comfort food to adults who longed for a simpler time in their lives when their own parents were the adults and they were free from the bigger burdens of life.

One of the reasons "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was so effective for so long seems to defy conventional wisdom: the formula never changed. Mister Rogers would arrive at his house, singing happily, and change into a cardigan sweater (every one handmade by his mother) and put on his sneakers. He smiled, warmly, as he spoke through the camera in such a way that he seemed to come right into your living room. He fed his fish.

He was always polite and sociable with Mr. McFeely, the deliveryman. Friends stopped in, and he also went to visit people and places that were interesting. He wrote every song ever performed on the show. He weighed and measured every word, never ad libbing, believing that he owed it to the children to make sure everything was thought out.

He tackled tough subjects like disease and divorce, he explored fun things like animals and imagination, and he discovered how bulldozers work and how stamps are made. He never spoke down to children, and yet he somehow made grownups feel like children again. He proved over and over again his own adage, "The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self."

Let's face it. Life is hard, and living a good life is even harder. Even the very best of us struggle to consistently live a life consistent with the teachings of Jesus. It is refreshing and hopeful to remember that Mister Rogers figured out how to see other people in a way that motivated every choice, every action, on camera and off.

Christ was once asked to clarify who, exactly, is our neighbor. Mister Rogers needed no clarification. He said, "I believe that appreciation is a holy thing - that when we look for what's best in a person we happen to be with at the moment, we're doing what God does all the time. So in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we're participating in something sacred."

Mister Rogers and Me is a film worth seeing, and Fred Rogers' is a life worth remembering. We all lived in his neighborhood, and somehow that made the world a better place.



"It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?...

It's a neighborly day in this beauty wood,
A neighborly day for a beauty.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?...

I've always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.
I've always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.

So, let's make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we're together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won't you be my neighbor?

Won't you please,
Won't you please?
Please won't you be my neighbor?"

Copyright © 2019 by Andrew E. Lindsay Printed from NauvooTimes.com