Film discussion

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Just who is Mister Rogers?

We give British folk, who probably have no idea who this chap is, the full run down...

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?”

Written in 1967, this song – “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” – opened every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a show which has been the part of American childhood for generations. Mister Rogers would sing it as he changed into his familiar cardigan and sneakers, and welcomed children all across the country into his neighbourhood, a place where he’d help them to understand themselves and the world around them, talking directly to them throughout and treating them as intelligent individuals, never shying away from difficult or awkward topics, while always tackling such things with his characteristics avuncular sensitivity and complete respect for his young audience.

For over 30 years and more than 900 episodes, Mister Rogers would bring his viewers with him around his television neighbourhood, interacting with all the regular characters he’d meet along the way. Although Mister Rogers himself is no longer with us, and the last new episode was made back in 2001, his show is still transmitted in reruns to this day, and has become an ingrained part of Americana: affectionate tributes, homages and parodies of both the character and series have been seen in The Simpsons, Robot Chicken and Short Circuit 2.

In many ways, a sign of Mister Rogers having firmly cemented his place in popular culture was in 1981, when Saturday Night Live did a recurring segment called ‘Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood’, with Eddie Murphy playing the titular Mister Robinson, a character who tried to take advantage of his neighbours. In March 2018, a prime time special marking the show’s 50th anniversary was hosted by Michael Keaton, who got his break in TV on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in the mid 1970s.

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It seems curious that an institution of that magnitude should be so relatively little known outside the U.S., but that could all be about to change. Thursday November 9th sees the U.K. release of acclaimed documentary feature Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which focuses on the life of the man behind the character of Mister Rogers. Hot on the heels of this, 2019 will bring us Tom Hanks playing him in You Are My Friend, which is a movie about a reporter whose life is changed after he meets Rogers, but has been described by the director as not being a biopic.

Perhaps now, more than ever, is the ideal time for us to ask the question: who was the real Mister Rogers?

Fred McFeely Rogers was born on March 20th 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania to James and Nancy Rogers. He was an only child for many years, afflicted with shyness, and he suffered poor health, leading to him spending periods of time housebound while he recuperated. To make up for his relative loneliness, the young Fred had a ventriloquist dummy and stuffed animals, which he would use to create imaginary worlds in which he could lose himself; he also found a love of music, learning to play the piano at the age of five. Both of these were traits which would serve him well in later life, along with the colourful cardigans which his mother knitted for him.

His confidence grew as he got older, and took on many extracurricular activities in High School, before going to college and earning a BA in music composition. While at college, he met his future wife – Sara Joanne Byrd – with the pair marrying in 1952. They had two sons, and Fred went to study at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary after graduating from college, becoming an ordained minister of the United Presbyterian Church in 1963. However, Rogers saw the burgeoning medium of television as a way to help nurture and develop the audience, as he saw television’s reliance on advertising and product as something which stopped it from properly educating the young.

Won’t You Be My Neighbour?

Having initially taken a production job with NBC in New York, he moved into a role as a puppeteer on local show The Children’s Corner back in Pittsburgh for WQED, a public television station which was a precursor of the Pubic Broadcasting Service, PBS. Rogers worked for seven years in a live, unscripted environment with host Josie Carey, giving him chance to hone his skills and develop a range of different characters, some of which he continued to use in his later work. The show ended up being shown across the country by NBC, and Rogers found that he had no interest in preaching, wanting to instead carry on making programming for child audiences.

A major break came in 1963, when CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) asked Rogers to move to Toronto to develop a 15-minute show for children, which was called Misterogers (the two words being deliberately run together in order to make him seem less formal). The show lasted for three seasons, and gave Rogers the opportunity to devise many of the familiar elements that he would later come to use when he got the rights to the show in 1966, taking it with him back to WQED, launching it as Misterogers’ Neighborhood.

The show was cancelled the following year due to a lack of funding, but the public response was such that a new source was found, and Rogers’ show was aired across the country on National Education Television (NET), which later became the PBS network. He wrote all of the songs and scripts, and did most of the puppetry himself in the ‘Neighborhood Of Make-Believe’ segments in each episode, a fantasy kingdom to which Rogers would transport his audience both to and fro via a motorised miniature trolley car.

An early challenge came in 1969, when the PBS network was struggling to get funding from the U.S. Government, and he appeared before the Senate to testify that the $20 million payment which PBS received should not be cut. Although not anywhere as well known as he’d become over the coming decades, his impassioned speech secured the funding in just six minutes. It was important to Rogers that his show wasn’t used as a commercial opportunity to sell things to children, so he was keen to protect the integrity of the publicly-funded PBS.

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It wasn’t the only time he came to have influence in public causes, as his prior testimony in defence of the new video recorder (or ‘VCR’) came to be used in the U.S. Supreme Court in what was to later become known as the ‘Betamax case’ – it helped the Court rule in favour of the legality of recording TV broadcasts at home, which is something we take for granted today, but was a strongly contentious issue when the brand new technology first came into mainstream use in the 1970s. Rogers felt that it was a real service to families to be able to record children’s shows to watch at a time that was suitable for them.

The show’s original run ended in 1978, as after 590 episodes Rogers called time on the neighbourhood, and launched a new show for a more adult audience called Old Friends… New Friends. The series – where Rogers interviewed people in the public eye, like politicians, actors and sports stars – didn’t catch on, and ended after 20 episodes. Rogers was spurred to return to the neighbourhood again by, of all people, Superman: he became concerned at reports of children imitating the superhero – having seen the new movie with Christopher Reeve – by believing they could fly and harming themselves leaping off roofs, leading him to put on the familiar cardigan once more and provide the adult guidance he felt was lacking at the time, to warn kids about the dangers.

Over the course of its full run, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood covered all sorts of difficult topics for children that no-one else seemed to cover, such as disability, divorce, war, and – in one memorable and infamous show – the killing of Robert Kennedy, marking probably the most times the word “assassination” has ever been used in a children’s TV programme. Rogers finally called time on the show once and for all in 2001, having reached his goal of building a library of episodes which would be used to cover all of the major issues which would be faced during childhood.

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The show has continued being rerun by PBS stations across the county to this day, and Mister Rogers still plays a part in the experiences of growing up in the United States. For Fred Rogers, however, his life after the neighbourhood sadly proved to be short-lived, after being diagnosed with stomach cancer in December 2002. Despite having surgery, Rogers passed away at home on 27 February 2003 – just under a month shy of what would have been his 75th birthday – having been such a constant friend to the children of America throughout five decades.

His legacy lives on not just in repeats, but also with animated series Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which focuses on the son of the original show’s character Daniel Striped Tiger. Rogers has also influenced the new starring vehicle for Jim Carrey, Showtime’s 2018 series Kidding, which features Carrey as Mr Jeff Pickles, a Mister Rogers-esque host of a children’s TV show; after his personal life falls apart, Pickles finds that the puppet-inhabited fantasy world and his on-screen persona are the last safe space he has left.

On September 21st 2018, the Google Doodle for the day was a celebration of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, marking the 51st anniversary of the filming of the show’s first episode of its national run. PBS Digital Studios featured clips of the show in a remix called “Garden Of Your Mind“. There’s the Fred Rogers Center in his hometown of Latrobe. One of his famous cardigans even has pride of place in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which must surely be a sign of his place not just in immortality, but also in the lives of American children for many more generations to come.

Mister Rogers would sign off every one of his episodes by saying: “You make each day a special day. You know how; by just your being you. There’s only one person in this whole world like you. And people can like you exactly as you are.” In these troubled, turbulent times, it seems that Mister Rogers is needed more than ever, and those words still ring true. With the rest of the world finally about to find out about Mister Rogers for the very first time, perhaps we’ll all find ourselves wanting to be his neighbour. And that’s not at all a bad thing.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is released in UK cinemas today.

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