Mister Rogers: gentle giant of children’s TV
For 33 years a quiet man in a cardigan brought a unique thoughtfulness to US TV. Now, a film about him is breaking records. Hadley Freeman explains its magic
All children’s TV shows sound bizarre when described. There is a street on which humans live alongside Muppets, including a biscuit-obsessed blue monster and a grump in a trash can. There are four brightly coloured aliens who live in a psychedelic magic land, communicate in baby talk and play with a vacuum cleaner. But none ever sounded as unlikely as the American classic Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Every episode was structured in exactly the same way: a skinny man who looked and sounded like a religious studies teacher walked into a house. While changing out of his jacket and leather shoes and into some trainers and a zip-up cardigan, he sang a song called Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood/A beautiful day for a neighbor/Would you be mine? Could you be mine?”
Once Fred Rogers – who hosted and wrote the script and music for more than 900 episodes of the show – finished his song, he continued to talk directly to the viewer, whom he always referred to as “friend” or “neighbour” in his homespun way. Every week, the show had, sermonlike, a theme – “Brave & Strong”, say, or “Families” – and Rogers would invite his friends to join him in an activity with an often tenuous relation to it. On Brave & Strong, for example, he went to the doctor to get a flu jab.
Then a toy trolley would arrive to carry us to the Neighbourhood of Make-Believe, where simple hand puppets, most of which were clearly voiced by Rogers, did more themed activities: learn a dance, for example, or talk about what a feeling is. Sometimes, if there had been a big scary news event, such as the Challenger disaster, they would talk about it because all children know what’s really scary is when adults don’t explain something properly.
After this, the trolley returned us to the house, where Mister Rogers was waiting with his eyes closed, because that’s how you visit the Neighborhood of Make-Believe – by imagining it. He then did another activity – feed his fish, make a snack – while talking to us about what we had learned that day. Then he put his jacket and smart shoes back on while singing It’s Such a Good Feeling (“It’s such a good feeling/ To know you’re alive/It’s such a happy feeling/You’re growing inside”) and walked out of the door. And that was that.
Margy Whitmer, the show’s producer, says in Morgan Neville’s wonderful documentary film about Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: “We had a director that once said to me, ‘If you take all the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite, you’d have Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.’ Yet it worked.”
The show did more than work. It ran for 33 years and while it is little known outside North America, there it is as seminal as Sesame Street. Any child who grew up in the US or Canada between 1968 and 2001 will have the trolley, the cardigans and Rogers himself embedded somewhere in their soul. One of his cardigans is in the Smithsonian Institution, a “treasure of American history”. If Jim Henson was the kids’ cool hippy uncle who taught them the joys of counting and cookies, Rogers was their godfather, who provided moral guidance.
I say “their godfather”, but, of course, I mean “my godfather”. From 1982 to 1986, my afternoon routine never varied: I would come home from nursery school and watch the unbeatable double-bill of Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In my mind, the two shows were inextricably linked, but in many ways Sesame Street, with its fast pacing and flashy colours, represented what Rogers was trying to defend children against.
The reason Rogers, an ordained minister, originally went into TV instead of the church was that he was outraged by the children’s TV shows he saw in the 60s: all the jazzy animation and pie-throwing, what he described as “bombardment”. This constant stimulation wasn’t just Clemmons disrespectful to viewers, he believed – it threatened the most important things in the world: gentleness, imagination and contemplation. He thought TV could provide all that. But in truth, only his show did, and none have done so since.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was released in US cinemas in June and is already the highest-grossing biographical documentary of all time, a testament to the love Americans still feel for Rogers, 15 years after he died at the age of 74. “I honestly had no expectations of how this movie would do, but I knew this was a story I had to tell,” says Neville, who also directed the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom.
Rogers knew his neighbourhood was hokey. That was the point. In 1969, he testified before a US senate subcommittee to argue against President Nixon’s proposed cuts to publicly funded TV. Realising that his show would never survive in the commercial marketplace, he made a passionate plea for its preservation: “We deal with such things as the inner drama of childhood. We don’t have to bop somebody over the head to make drama on the screen. We deal with such things as getting a haircut, or the feelings about brothers and sisters, and the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations … I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear