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Mr. Rogers’ Quiet Revolution

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood ran on television from 1968 to 2001. At first on the local Pittsburgh station where it originated and then for 30 years on PBS. I never liked it. Not for a second. I found it square. Boring. I thought Mr. Rogers was kind of weird. I hated his sweater, and I really hated his shoes. Seriously, they have to be the worst pair of tennis shoes I’ve ever seen in my life.

I was a weird kid, I think. I snuck downstairs when my parents were asleep to watch Scorsese’s Raging Bull at the age of 11. Right around 2 o’clock in the morning, after a couple of hours of taking in material I wasn’t really ready for, I went to bed myself. But not before checking the old school HBO guide you got every month in the mail to see when it would be on again.

The wholesome view of the world propagated by Fred Rogers held no appeal to me. So, it was to my genuine surprise that upon viewing the trailer for Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I thought, “I want to see that.” Now, I watch a lot of movies about subjects that on the surface don’t hold a lot of appeal to me. Part of it is pure curiosity. Maybe it’s something I don’t know much about and I want to learn that which I do not already know. Or, perhaps it’s a film about a significant historical figure and I’m interested in their impact on the times within which they lived. Maybe that’s why I wanted to see Morgan Neville’s documentary. Perhaps it was just because it was a really well-cut trailer. Maybe, like most things, it was a combination of multiple factors. I’m not sure.

What I do know it this, Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a remarkable film. I still don’t know that were I propelled back in time, the show itself would have been of interest to me. What I understand now that I didn’t then is how significant it was.

I still contend that Rogers was an odd guy. He was a life-long registered republican. He went to seminary. He was an ordained minister. His demeanor was unusual. When I was a kid, I thought his interest in children bordered on creepy. Something I’m not proud to admit. In many ways, he was everything I’m not. I am a commie-pinko-atheist-liberal. What I have discovered that I did not then, is the reason Rogers seemed odd is because there’s no one else to compare him to.

He was earnest. Kind. Thoughtful. To a degree that is outside of my own experience. Most remarkably, it appears to have been real. In his own way, he was also quite subversive. His show took on death, divorce, war, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy for chrissakes. He chose a black man, Francois Clemmons to play the neighborhood police officer. At a time when black people were having bleach poured on them at public pools, he held an episode where he and Clemmons cooled their feet together with a hose in a kiddie pool. When Clemmons says, “I don’t have a towel”, Rogers replies, “That’s okay, you can use mine.”

It sounds quaint, but looking at their feet next to each other, in that thin pool of water, and sharing that towel, when placed in the context of the time, it was incredibly bold. Maybe even more so for its casualness. Later, Rogers would learn in the 70s that Clemmons was gay. While he did not encourage him to come out, he kept him on the show for 25 years. Clemmons felt so close to him that he considered him a surrogate father.

I found an unexpected relevance to the show that still attaches itself to current day. One of Rogers’ puppet characters, King Friday, who ruled over the land of Make Believe, decides during one episode that he does not like change. And that it must be stopped. He even puts up a wall. The parallels to current events made me gasp in my seat.

Despite being a Republican, he took on President Richard Nixon when he attempted to defund PBS to help pay for the Vietnam War. This mild-mannered man testified before congress. He was steadfast and true. In explaining to the senate why they should continue to keep PBS afloat, he expressed his desire to help children understand that they are worthy just as they are. He even read the lyrics to a song he wrote to the panel. He charmed them out of their boots and saved public television. All by his self.

His impact at the time is hard to measure. I simply don’t know how you quantify his accomplishment. He created a show about love and kindness. Without a scintilla of irony. He composed the music. Wrote the lyrics and the script. Cast all the actors. And of course, hosted the show. He did this for over 30 years. It is staggering.

Early on in the film, one friend wonders aloud if Rogers succeeded in creating a better world. Living in modern times, it’s hard not to think that he failed. The days that we live in are full of coarseness, meanness, and downright vitriol. Rogers reputation has taken a hit too. In the latter portion of the film, a series of articles are shown that are critical of his contention that every child is special. That this has somehow created an entitled society. There is a clip of Brian Kilmeade of Fox News laying all of this at his feet. He’s even referred to as evil. I don’t mind telling you, I literally slapped my forehead at that moment.

This strange little man was nothing but human kindness. He endeavored to do but one thing. Make children believe that no matter their station in life that they were worthy of love and capable of loving. How could that possibly be divisive? Perhaps it’s because everything is. We spend so much time tearing each other apart that we can’t see what binds us. Or at least what should. The desire to care and be cared for. It’s the most basic starting point for a person in life. It’s as fundamental as drawing breath.

That’s all this man tried to do. Spread decency and kindness. Something that is so unrecognizable now that it felt positively alien to view it in that darkened theatre. While the movie played on, I heard sniffles in the crowd. At one point, spontaneous clapping broke out. You know what it felt like? It felt like a good place to start.

For portions of 5 decades, Mr. Rogers led a quiet revolution. One borne of an open hand. I didn’t recognize it then. I do now. In this time of the closed fist, I am convinced we need it at this moment. More than ever. I have no idea where we are going to find it.