Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The new Mr. Rogers documentary -- My review

Full disclosure: I was not a fan of MR. ROGERS NEIGHBORHOOD when it aired. My kids watched it, but I found it oddly creepy. Fred Rogers seemed hypnotized. If felt more like MR. STEPFORD'S NEIGHBORHOOD.  So I can honestly say I went into WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? – the documentary on Mr. Rogers without an ounce of nostalgia. I went because a number of people I respect recommended it. And what else was I going to watch? SUPERFLY? (How could it POSSIBLY be better than the original?)

I am now one of those people recommending WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

What a wonderful and touching profile of a man who it turns out was absolutely genuine and sincere. His love of children and their well-being is so poignant. And unlike Walt Disney, he didn’t parlay his relationship with children into a multi-billion dollar monolith. Fred Rogers never got rich on merchandise and his “neighborhood” never became an amusement park in Florida. You never saw five-year-olds wearing Mr. Rogers sweaters to school.

What you did see was a broadcast pioneer. His show was unlike any children’s show before it and he himself was an original. No funny hats, no clown suits, no garish costumes. Just a kind soul communicating one-to-one to children who need all the love and attention and support they can receive.

I still would have a tough time watching one of his shows all the way through, but I sure appreciate them more now. I also appreciate that he tackled serious subjects. He dealt with the Robert Kennedy assassination the first week he was on the air. Later he dealt with race issues, death, divorce, self-esteem – not exactly Bozo the Clown introducing Popeye cartoons.

The documentary also delves with the insane push-back he received from certain quarters. There are those who blame him for Millennial behavior because he had the audacity of telling every child he was special. And even at his funeral we see horrifying protests that looking back are the seeds of hate and stupidity that we now call Trump supporters.

Especially in light of children being separated from their families and detained, this documentary is even more heartbreaking. Can you imagine if Fred Rogers were still alive to witness this? How he would weep.

I hope this movie is playing in your neighborhood. Go see it. And hug your child.


Matt said...

I loved Mr. rogers as a child. My favorite show. In college I tried to watch it again. Totally unwatchable. It is purely written for children.

slgc said...

Agreed. My husband and I were already in elementary school when Mr. Rogers Neighborhood made its debut, so we were never into the show. But the documentary was wonderful - not only did it tell a story, but it provided a heartfelt and meaningful tribute to a unique individual.

Mike Barer said...

I may watch this now because of this review and a clip that I saw on facebook earlier this year of Mr Rogers testifying before congress. Before I saw that clip, I felt the same way that you did.

John in NE Ohio said...

FYI - There is a Mr Rogers portion of a theme park outside Pittsburgh. It's one of those childrens amusement parks without any "real" rides.

Also, bit of trivia, Michael Keaton did something on the show briefly in his early 20's. I don't know if it was in front of the camera or gofer or what.

I like you never really enjoyed MRN, but I still respect the hell out of him.

Andrew said...

There's a great "remixed" video of Mr. Rogers here, called Garden of Your Mind:

Also, his speech at Dartmouth is one of the best commencement speeches ever:

Roger Owen Green said...

It's on my list!

E. Yarber said...

The main thing I couldn't stand about script submissions for children was seeing how unsuited the writers were for the audience. Everything was aimed "to entertain the parents," as though adults didn't have their own movies. These scripters had absolutely no idea of child psychology and wrote as though kids were either total passive blobs or cynical hipsters who were watching R-rated movies on cable every moment they weren't in pre-school. I couldn't imagine them having the patience to get into the mind of a one-year-old who had just discovered what it's like to hold your hand in running water and was going to stay by the faucet for ten or twenty minutes checking it out.

Likewise, Rogers was speaking to a child alone by the television, which always seemed to annoy adults who felt he should be speaking to THEM.

Jeannie said...

Agreed! We drove 45 minutes to find a theater that was running it. In today's climate, my soul gravitates to people who are genuinely good and kind. The children who watched his show sensed and loved him for that. I do, too...even if the cat puppet that said "Meow" constantly made me want to drink rat poison.

Unknown said...

I haven't seen the film yet, though I certainly want to.

But I have have to respectfully disagree with you, Ken, as it relates to Mr. Rogers. I can't stand the whininess of most Millennials but I can't lay that at his feet.

I was a Gen X kid and the first generation to grow up on Mr. Rogers...and I'm eternally grateful I did.

Let's suffice to say things weren't always easy growing up in my house. But I loved Mr Rogers more than I could say. Every day he showed he cared. I grew up wishing Mr Rogers was my dad. I doubt I was the only one who felt this way.

And, yes, Mr Rogers told all children they were special. But he was constantly teaching children what it meant to be kind and thoughtful and considerate to others.

I cannot think of a better role model.

Although he has passed away, we are fortunate so many of his episodes live on, on YouTube. Our 8-year-daughter loves to sit with us and watch the old episodes and I am still grateful to this wonderful may.

E. Yarber said...

Today's post links to yesterday's, in that they both honor broadcasters who knew how to create an intimate bond with their audience. That's a very special ability.

Rashad Khan said...

If Fred Rogers were still alive, he would have traveled to those concentration camps and spent time with the kids, letting each of them know that their parents still loved them and missed them, even if they were far away. I have no doubt about that.

charlotte said...

What Rashad said. Absolutely. No question.

suesea7 said...

I was a teenager when Mr Rogers was first on the air, and having been raised on Rocky and Bullwinkle, I found him too goody-goody. I grew up near Pittsburgh, though, so I knew some of the supporting cast from other things (although I hate the Pittsburgh accent). My son loved the show, when he was the right age, in the 80s. He would watch it even when he got "too old" for it. I knew a lot about Mr Rogers, that he was as nice in real life as he was on the show (please, no metoo stories!). And I loved that he stood up for PBS. Will have to make sure I see the movie.

Sue in Seattle

Bryan said...

Last night I watched a YT clip of him on Dave Letterman's Late Show. It was only like the 11th episode of the show. It was funny and endearing at the same time. And a whole different side of Dave before the curmudgeon took over.

Baylink said...

I don't think entitled Millennials are his fault either, that particular collection of entitlement happens much later in life, 12 13 years old probably. For my part, though, the entertainment at this stage in my life lies in listening to music director Gianni Kosta play the opening theme music - live and differently - all 864 times. Really. Go listen to a few on YouTube.

Y. Knott said...

I know I'm in the minority here, but I didn't like his show at all as a kid. (And I was the exact right age for it.) My parents would try to interest me in it, but I'd just leave the room. I found it boring and slightly creepy, and the puppets were terrible. I mean, even as a three or four year old, I thought they were *embarrassingly* poorly done.

However, Mr. Dressup -- the Canadian kids show developed by Rogers' friend Ernie Coombs -- I enjoyed thoroughly.

Haven't looked at either show in decades. I have zero interest in the Rogers documentary, but a Mr. Dressup retrospective? I'd most likely check that out....

Mike said...

I wonder if anyone watched Romper Room in the sixties? I watched the British franchise hosted by Miss Rosalind. And had my own cardboard box car - my favourite toy.
I suggest that Dr Benjamin Spock is more to blame for children's behaviour. That and consumerism.

Janet Ybarra said...

Fred Rogers insisted on maintaining the African American performer Francois Clemons as part of his Neighborhood. Today that seems like no big deal but in the the late '60s to present Clemons as a friend and equal every day was a very big deal.

And it was a powerful message to children.

Janet Ybarra said...

Y. Knott, The puppetry, etc., was never meant to be slick. It was meant to be a jumping off point for children to use their own imaginations. Kids today could use more of that, honestly.

E. Yarber said...

This really has me on a morning jag thinking of kinder, simpler children's television. My local station had a seasonal program which consisted of nothing but Santa Claus sitting in a chair reading mail from kids. I remember my first shock of authorship when he read a note from 5-year-old me. Maybe I should check with the WGA to see if I have any residuals from it.

Anonymous said...

A man deeply respected in the City of Pittsburgh and a great many other places for what he did and how he did it. Numerous urban legends grew up about him, perhaps because cynics could not accept him at face value.

One that I would love to believe is true, is that thieves stole his car, and upon learning to whom it belonged, promptly returned it with a note of apology.

Greg Ehrbar said...

One of the things Fred Rogers showed children was media discernment. He had Bill Bixby on the show along with Lou Ferrigno to explain that these were two separate people who pretend on television. There was no need for children to be afraid. It was make believe, just as King Friday was.

The unfortunate, misguided individuals are of all ages who never learned that, whether it was from Misterogers, as it was spelled on the show. Or they were not lucky enough to have parents, teachers or other caregivers to show them that the barrage of media that has hit them since the baby boom had its place, but it must be put in perspective and not always believed to the letter. Today we have more media sources than ever but more people seem to seek their entertainment and information from narrower services.

Children's entertainment is for children. It's not always all about us. Old MacDonald isn't The Grateful Dead. Mother Goose isn't Beyonce. E Yarber has a very valid point. It's great when Sesame Street works on two levels--which it was designed to do at least initially (it skews younger now). Nothing wrong with that. But adults should sit back and allow kids to listen to and watch things that they themselves might not enjoy themselves. Now we either reject it or seek our own targeted content. It's helped separate us.

Teletubbies was weird, but I wouldn't trade those hours of watching with my young kids for the world.

McAlvie said...

It's nice to hear affirmation that he really was that nice of a person. Like many other commenters, I was older than the demographic, so I wasn't watching myself. But it was on when family youngsters were around, so I do know something of the show. I think I was just young enough to remember being that young.

Anyway, I don't believe Ken was blaming MR for the allegedly behavior of millennials (for the record, those I know are no more or less self absorbed than any of us were at that age). Most who grew up with the show are older than that in any case. Those who do blame millennials for being self absorbed might, wrongly, lump Mr. Rogers together with helicopter parents. Every child is special in that they are unique individuals, and a kid who doesn't feel special once in a while might instead feel left out. Heck, we all still want to believe we are important to someone, don't we?

DBenson said...

I remember the version coming out of KTVU Oakland. A source of annoyance was frequent audience participation bits that required official Romper Room stuff from a specific non-local department store (I was in San Jose). To practice posture you were supposed to walk around with a little plastic basket on your head, and guess where you buy the basket?

Inexplicably exciting was the Magic Mirror. The nice lady would look into the camera through a glassless hand mirror and say, "I see Bobby, and Susie, and Tommy, and Pam ..." Even as a kid, you knew it was a gimmick but really wanted to hear your own name. Years later, I had a parody version: "I see Bobby, and Susie, and Tommy -- Tommy, you're going to go blind doing that! -- and Pam ..."

John Nixon said...

I remember going to my sister's house and her kids were watching Mister Rogers. I changed the channel. They both started crying hysterically until I changed it back.

What I've always liked best about Mister Rogers is the comedic parody that Christopher Guest and Bill Murray did on a National Lampoon album. It was really funny!

You can watch it by going here.... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSMGUaxKb4E

DBenson said...

I remember being more of a Captain Kangaroo fan in my formative years. He had cartoons, puppets, odd musical numbers, and a lot of stuff in general. But even so, he kept the show pretty mellow -- even the cartoons were laid back. While Bob Keeshan was definitely a commercial network guy, he fought the good fight and his show was far less toxic than other network fare. After playing Clarabelle Clown on "Howdy Doody", he saw a need for something less raucous.

At some point after I stopped watching kidvid (except for cartoons, of course), the good Captain and Mister Rogers made appearances on each other's shows. The thinking was that their overlapping audiences might be reassured to know they were friendly neighbors.

If memory serves, Fred Rogers was fine with Eddie Murphy's "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood" sketches. It was satire playing to adults. He was less cheerful about "PeeWee's Playhouse", which he viewed as adult comedy inappropriately marketed to children (While the creators and cast of that show did try to entertain kids, it WAS packed with grownup jokes and references).

Rogers turned up on a bloopers show. The clip showed him trying unsuccessfully to assemble a small tent, remaining calm and making small talk as the simple mechanics of it defeated him. In the end he just laughed, where most of us would have ripped the damn tent into pieces.

Andrew said...

@Rashad and charlotte: And then, perhaps, Mr. Rogers would have gently chided the parents for taking their children on such a long and dangerous journey. And he would have thanked the Border Patrol for rescuing children who were about to perish, like this one:

Eric J said...

I couldn't stand to watch Mr. Rogers. But I realized, he wasn't talking to me. He was talking to kids. He talked to them on their level. He never talked down to them. My kids loved him. They weren't indifferent to him. I haven't seen the documentary. I will. But I learned long ago who he really was from my kids.

Janet Ybarra said...

Mr Rogers also had actress Margaret Hamilton on. She had played the Wicked Witch of the West. The two had a nice talk how it was all pretend and all. Even got the trivia tidbit that she had to be fed her lunch on set, lest the green paint get all over.

Janet Ybarra said...

I'm not sure about others' thoughts, but as an adult I appreciate watching Mr Rogers. Not to say I would binge watch... but there is something, even as an adul, spending time with such an obviously kind soul.

goodman.dl said...

Below is a link to Fred Rogers' testimony before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications to advocate for Public Television funding. He's tremendously effective.


Mike said...

@Donald Benson: I'm glad someone else remembers Romper Room. My parents made the car - a big cardboard box with a car drawn on the sides and me inside, pushing.
No Kangaroo, but we did have the Banana Splits. Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper & Snork.

@Greg Ehrbar: Teletubbies ran without problem in Britain. Other than being accused of dumbing down the audience with baby talk. It transferred to America and, within days, Tinky Winky was outed.

@E Yarber: Jackanory was one of the most successful children's programmes, running for 31 years. It was just an actor reading a book to camera, doing all the voices. Actors loved it.

Janet Ybarra said...

This isn't about Mr. Rogers, but I do observe a real difference between Millennials and the generations that came before.

On the one hand, Millennials are generally more comfortable with technology.

On the other, I notice a much shorter attention span and the ones I've seen don't tend to do as well in the face of adversity. Obviously, Millennials in the military buck this particular trend. But I'm speaking of non-military Millennials.

They also, as a cohort, don't tend to value things like an historical perspective.

And they seem to believe all the answers are just a Google click away. God help them if them actually ever needed the Dewey Decimal system.

Try this thought experiment: try to imagine dropping the Millennials you know in the midst of World War II. Imagine what would happen.

I will end on one truly positive note.... Millennials do seem to be, as a cohort, the most socially progressive generation. So that is another real good positive plus.

Janet Ybarra said...

Bit of trivia: The only time Fred Rogers portrayed someone other than himself was a 1996 episode of DR QUINN MEDICINE WOMAN. He played a preacher.

Andy Rose said...

@Donald Benson: I haven't seen that blooper, but there was an episode of Candid Camera where they set up a sting in a hotel where most of the guests were there for a TV broadcasting convention. The gag was that the hotel room didn't have a television set, which was supposed to make someone who worked in broadcasting furious at the bellman. Their random mark ended up being Mr. Rogers, who of course didn't care whether there was a TV to begin with, but was incapable of being ruffled anyway. Finally Peter Funt came out to expose the trick, and said even though Rogers didn't do what they were expecting, they really appreciated his kindness. Fred had a very friendly reaction, even though Candid Camera was not the kind of TV show he enjoyed.

My favorite TV moment with Mr. Rogers was on an award show where he was being honored, and the producers brought out a wheelchair-bound young man who had been on Rogers' show as a child. Of course, they expected Fred to simply smile from his seat as the man on stage read a speech honoring him. Instead, when he recognized the man, Rogers immediately jumped on stage, gave him a hug, and told him how good it was to see him. With a dozen cameras and thousands of people in the hall there to honor him, Mr. Rogers' only thought in that moment was gratitude at seeing his friend.

E. Yarber said...

Paying Your Dues Department: Barry White started out writing music for the Banana Splits, and it didn't sound very different from his later stuff.

"Doin' it, Doin' it, Doin' it... Doin' the Banana SPLIT, YEAAHHHH!!!!"

I've spent quite a bit of time in recent years listening to elder relatives talk about growing up in WWII. Back then the only form of electronic home entertainment was a radio, and lots of homes in their area didn't have electricity until after the War. You had to run the receiver on a battery, and those were impossible to buy after a while. Once your battery died, that was it until V-J day. One uncle had managed to scrounge a battery from God knows where, so the family would walk a mile and back in the dark every Saturday to visit him and listen to music for an hour. Not exactly streaming media on demand.

There were still Saturday matinees, though. I'm currently 51 films into the Hopalong Cassidy box set, doing my best to keep up with my ancestors' memories.

Y. Knott said...

Janet Ybarra: It encouraged me to use my imagination by leaving the room and doing something else!

I have no doubt of Fred Rogers' sincerity, and recognize that many enjoyed his show. But it held no interest for me as a kid at all. My sister, a few years younger than me, was exactly the same way when she was very young. We'd watch a range of great age-appropriate educational programming -- Mr. Dressup, Vision On, Don't Ask Me, The Friendly Giant -- all of which had a deliberate pace, and encouraged imaginative play. But when Mr. Rogers came on, we would simply turn off the TV or leave the room. We didn't hate the show; we just found it dull and unimaginative, and were more interested in doing something -- anything -- else than watching it. Whatever was supposed to appeal to us about his show ... just didn't.

Anthony said...

Hi Ken, a quick Friday Question. I was wondering if you'd had a chance to see Nanette on Netflix yet. I found her comments about the structure of jokes and the third act fascinating. While it's different comedy to what you do I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

Doug said...

I'm planning on seeing this Friday. I've had to wait, it takes awhile for this type of film to make it out to the hinterlands; if ever. PBS has started airing during their near constant pledge drives a brand new documentary about the show called "Its You I Like" and hosted by Michael Keaton. I highly recommend it. To clarify about Keaton, he worked for the Pittsburgh PBS station, not Rodgers's show. The station was so small back then, the staff wound up doing a little of everything. Keaton mostly did stagehand work, but one of his first on camera jobs was on "Mr Rogers's Neighborhood" and is included in that documentary. George Romero also did some of his early work for Mr Rogers. He did a lot of the early "factory" films that were used occasionally into the early 80s. Those are the ones Fred narrated, but didn't appear in; except for one. One day, Mr Rogers's doctor informed him that his tonsils had to come out. He had Romero film the entire hospital experience and the surgery. After Romero edited it, the film was shown on the show to make the hospital seem less scary to its young audience.

Anonymous said...

Earl B writes:

John - Michael Keaton (still Michael Douglas at the time) was basically a PA, actually operating Picture Picture on occasion. And he popped up on screen at least once, as one of a group of royal soldiers passing through the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Greg - I remember the Bixby/Ferrigno show. If memory serves, Rogers had the camera pull back and show the kids that he himself was doing a show - that he was on a set, that the Neighborhood was actually a model, etc.

Bonus trivia: George A Romero's first professional film (according to Romero himself) was 'Mr Rogers Gets A Tomcilectomy', one of the many shorts Rogers played on the show.

scottmc said...

This was one of the few movies in a long time that I made a point of seeing as soon as it opened.(I even bought the commemorative Mister Rogers stamp when it came out earlier this year.) Since it doesn't scream box office like the latest sequel(s) I was worried that it might disappear from theaters too soon. I believe that it was directed by the guy who directed '20 Feet from Stardom'. As you write, it's sad that those who 'promote' family values protested him and remain silent today about families being wrecked by the creation of these 'Trump Hotels'. I also loved seeing the scene where he testifies in front of Congress in 1970.He doesn't play to the camera or the room. He sincerely wants to convince the senator-or was it a congressman-as to the benefits of the aid for PBS. He talked about his role in the show and how he felt about the current state of children's television circa 1970. And he ends up convincing the guy. His genuine humanity came through.

Mike Barer said...

To answer Mike's question, yes, my sister and I watched Romper Room and we made "Thank you, Becky for holding the flag" a catchphrase that we used.

Mark said...

I grew up watching his show. I found the show to be too sweet at times, yet I still watched.

Fred Rogers seemed like a genuinely nice, gentle soul. We’d be better off with more people like that instead of the Donald Trumps, Maxine Waters, Sean Hannitys, and Samantha Bees of the world.

Mike Doran said...


I saw a syndicated column in today's Chicago Sun-Times which focuses on the fact that Fred Rogers was a Republican.
The tone of the column was incredulity: how could this be?
Fred Rogers was hardly the right-wing dream that so many of us now associate with the GOP.
The guy who wrote this noted that Fred Rogers took a number of stands that clearly were at odds with the current Right, going as far back as the Reagan years.
Apparently this guy (I didn't buy the paper, so I don't recall his name; apologies) has little real knowledge of political history.
He wasn't aware that in the '50s and '60s, the Republican Party was the party of Eisenhower, Rockefeller, Scranton, Earl Warren, and many other center-to-right types who were the despair of the nascent farRight.
(He committed one real howler by IDing Sen. John Pastore as a Republican from New Jersey; that senator was actually a Democrat from Rhode Island - but that's another story …)
I suppose that you could call Fred Rogers a "small 'c' conservative" in a '50s-'60s context: Pennsylvania, then as now, was a swing state. Any speculation on how he would react to Mr. Trump is just that - speculation.
But look at what's happening now, when George Will is leading a conservative charge against Mr. Trump - and that's just one major guy.
I still recall how, in his later years, Barry Goldwater was sharply - and publicly - critical of his own party for how shrill its farRight had become.
These are definitely not the best of times.

Roger Owen Green said...

Just saw Won't You Be My Neighbor? See it, for reasons Ken mentioned. It's GREAT.
I wasn't a fan of the show (too old) but I wasn't the audience. And the kids he connected with, and that Congressperson he swayed in 1970, and the way he dealt with RFK's assassination in the first month...
And the rubbish that he somehow ruined millennials is horse hockey.

VincentS said...

Not only would Mr. Rogers have wept over what went on at the border he would have DONE SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

Bryan Thomas said...

I went to college in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon which was a couple blocks from the PBS station where his show taped. One day, I was walking across campus and there he was, just strolling away from the tennis courts after a game. Nicest guy. Exactly just like he was on TV, like I’d imagined he’d be growing up with him as my “friend.” And I always treasured that. I’ve met a lot of celebrities, and only a handful turned out to be as nice or decent as they were on TV. Or as decent. He was the genuine article.