Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Written by Edwin L. Carpenter on . Posted in Local

mrrogersHe was unique. Tall and thin, with a gentle and distinctive voice, Fred Rogers was the television host for children for many years, as a pioneer of television in the fifties and stretching into the 2-K century. His long-running and award-winning TV show, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, ran for 31 seasons--during the years 1968 to 2001. Now, his story is told in this new documentary.

The film opens with black and white scenes of Mr. Rogers from 1967. He begins by talking about modifications and how that the children will have to go through modifications in life. He sits at the piano, tickling the keys, and mentions that it is difficult to go from the key of C to the key of F on the piano, and that his young viewers will face times in their lives that will require modifications that will be difficult. He was, from the outset, a teacher.

The film is biographical and features several interviews with his wife, Joanne Rogers, his sons—John and James, and his co-workers. One of his co-workers, an African-American man, admits to being gay and says Mr. Rogers didn't know it when he was hired--until it was revealed he had visited a gay bar. He was told not to go there again but Rogers kept him on the staff and remained his friend. "He was the only male figure that ever told me he loved me," he says. "My father never did. He was like a surrogate father to me."
This was Mr. Rogers' approach—he taught Christian principles but believed that everyone had value, and his love for children was genuine and strong. "You are special" he would always tell the kids. "No one is just like you."

The movie is powerful, showing how that Fred Rogers spoke to children via TV about death, after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. He even mentions the word "assassination" in the program. Near the end of his life, he did promos for PBS following the events of 9-11.
Perhaps one of his greatest victories is poignantly showcased in the movie. Whether or not funds, 20 million dollars, should be delegated for public television was being hotly debated and Fred Rogers showed up to share his views with the Senate Subcommittee. One senator, John O. Pastore, was strongly opposed. After Rogers spoke to the senate, including Pastore, and mentioned, in his mild-mannered and slow-talking way, how the programming helped children to "manage feelings" and to cope with hope, Pastore replied, "I think it's wonderful. It looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars!" Rogers was persuasive in a simple, honest, and straightforward fashion. And he secured 20 million dollars in six minutes! His nice-guy approach appealed to adults as well as children.

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The movie features humorous moments too. For example, in one "blooper" scene, Mr. Rogers would quite often put his shoes on while on camera. His crew had changed the pair to a smaller pair and as he struggled to pull them on they burst out with laughter. He joined them.

This nice man who often changed his jacket to a sweater and his dress shoes to tennis shoes had an amazing impact on a generation of children. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister but his ministry was focused on the kids. In fact, one young man, a ten-year-old named Jeffrey Engler, in 1980 visited the neighborhood. He was a quadriplegic and was facing surgery for a brain tumor. He wanted to meet Mr. Rogers. Engler charmed Mr. Rogers, showing him his electric wheelchair and how it operated. Cut to 1999 and in a TV special Rogers is being honored, about to be inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. And Jeffrey Engler shows up for a remarkable reunion. He also attended Rogers' memorial service in 2003.

From a faith-based and family perspective, the film is rated PG-13 and does include a few moments definitely not recommended for kids. One man uses the word "a*s" several times. In another scene a man tells how that he played a joke on Rogers by taking a photo of his bare behind and the photo is briefly shown for a couple of seconds. Yet there is a lot to love in this documentary—a rare behind-the-scenes look at a man that impacted many lives, both children and adults. It's the story of a man that lived his Christian beliefs by his actions, not just by words. One person in the film comments that Fred Rogers was just what he seemed to be. How rare—and how we need another like him on children's TV today. This film is well worth seeing, ages 13 and above.
Author Information
Edwin L. Carpenter
Edwin L. Carpenter is a pastor and long-time film reviewer for Dove.org He has a bachelors degree in Writing from Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Mich. He was raised in Brighton, Mich., by Christian grandparents and has a twin brother, Bill, who is also an ordained minister. Ed and his wife Jackie have one child, Daniel, who is newly married to Kristen and loves sports.

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