It only takes a few familiar notes of the introductory theme song to whisk me back into my childhood when I would watch the legendary Mr. Rogers on our TV that had three channels (plus public programming, of course) and a rabbit ear antenna. Considering the show aired for 31 seasons, I’m pretty certain that at least half of those reading this will remember the show well enough to sing the song. You know, the one that asks, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” The recent documentary about Fred Rogers’ life reveals some fascinating information about the man whose gentle spirit validated every child who stepped into his world. His plain-spoken nature, kindness, and compassion were the qualities that possibly made him the most well-respected, trusted personality on American TV.
Fred Rogers had made up his mind to attend seminary and become a minister when he returned home during his senior year to discover something called television. He thought it was a wonderful tool with much potential but could not understand why the people on it were throwing pies in each others’ faces. What a waste! He decided to postpone seminary and get into the TV industry, particularly children’s programming. He did eventually return to seminary to become an ordained minister, but Fred had a heart for children and wanted to pursue a career that fulfilled his calling.
He vividly remembered the difficulties of being a child. He grew up in a home where it was unacceptable to express an emotion other than contentment; therefore, music was his language, a safe haven for his feelings. As an adult, he aimed to acknowledge every child’s emotions and teach them that it was acceptable to be sad, mad, scared, and confused. His goal was to connect with kids on a level they would not only enjoy but also one that would acknowledge the reality of their feelings, not dismiss them as many adults did. After a brief program called “The Children’s Corner,” Fred knew he wanted the show to be “more” and went on to create the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that we know and love. The show premiered on PBS in February 1968—the same time our nation was at war with Vietnam.
This docu-movie is a unique glimpse into the career of Fred Rogers, his character behind the scenes, and the millions of lives he impacted. The majority of the show was showered with the simplicity of daily life and the joy of experiencing the world in reality and make-believe. The trolley into the realm of make-believe led us to discover new things, some that were lighthearted and others more serious than most kids were accustomed to seeing on TV. There were moments when the gravity of world tragedy weighed heavily on the star, and he felt that he must address it publicly. Mr. Rogers did just that with the utmost tact and delicacy. He considered the space between the TV and whoever was watching it “holy ground.” He tackled some monumental topics that were typically not geared towards children.
War (Vietnam), divorce (when it wasn’t the norm), racial inequality (before complete desegregation), assassination (Bobby Kennedy), and befriending the disabled were all subjects that Fred felt compelled to discuss. Regardless of age, children weren’t blind to these things, and he felt a great responsibility to positively shape their perception of difficult life events. Trusting the adults in their lives to simply take care of them was what Mr. Rogers knew they needed. He expressed the love and solidarity necessary to comfort children, which earned him a beloved status in the hearts of parents and children alike. The movie is also interspersed with the comedic flavor of the crew, whose shenanigans never stopped Fred from his work, although he enjoyed a prank just as much as the rest. His crew members share great memories in the film, stating that Mr. Rogers was a man who “was as kind on the screen as he was off the screen.” We certainly don’t hear that about our media personalities often enough.
As Mr. Rogers’ legacy continues to affect millions some fifteen years after his death, I dare say that the consequences of his philosophy—in his own words—would change the world if put into action on a daily basis: “Love is at the root of everything.” Hmmm. I believe we have heard that concept before coming from our Savior’s lips. No doubt Fred Rogers’ relationship with Jesus was a driving factor in his life’s work, and it reminds me that one person can and did make a difference. He never advertised himself as a minister, but then again, he didn’t have to because love spoke loud and clear. We can all learn something from Fred, and maybe, just maybe, our love will resonate throughout future generations in the same simple way.
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