What Would Mister Rogers Say?

Special Edition: Documentary Review

By Amy Nicole Tangel

With the recent Pandemic and nationwide protests at hand, I have often been thinking about the children all around us and asking myself how can we protect them, teach them and keep showing them love when we are all trying to make sense for ourselves?  I thought back about big moments in history when I was a child and I put myself in those shoes to wonder, how kids are taking this all in.  It was in that moment where I asked myself, ‘What would Mister Rogers say?’

I turned to Mister Rogers and thought about the time while I was growing up, and how he taught me about being kind to everyone, and demonstrated love and unity while tackling the most difficult conversations with children.  He was not just an actor on a show, but a man who lived what he taught.  Fred Rogers made a mission of his life teaching kindness and acceptance. 

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired from 1968 to 2001, spanning more than three decades, and in 2018 a documentary of Rogers’ life and show, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was released.  The film begins with footage of Rogers speaking about his feelings on what love means and leads you into the depth of his heart and soul from his childhood, throughout his entire life, sharing how he used those experiences to teach children through his work.

“Love is at the root of everything.  All learning, all parenting, all relationships; Love or the lack of it,” he said.

Although it has been almost twenty years since the show ended, the positive lessons Rogers taught are of lasting effect and live on through the documentary.  The simple way discussions were held between Mr. Rogers and the children he spoke to are an example families could benefit from today.  The documentary is something for those of us who grew up watching the show to reminisce about in the scenes of zipping sweaters, changing shoes, feeding the fish and the childlike wonderment of answering the door to see who was there each week.  You can go on your own little trip down memory lane, but you can also be enlightened or be reminded as a parent, of new ways to help teach young children about life.

At first sight, people may feel taken back by the endless kindness Rogers exuded and his intense passion for what he believed in, but when you really listen to his words and look at how he opened doors, crossed barriers and communicated with so many, it is an example for us all.  I originally watched the documentary last year, but in light of this past week, I went back and watched it again. 

As I began to dive into the film, I was quickly reminded how children are miraculously resilient and was heart-warmed by Rogers’ mission to focus on the importance of simply listening to them.  The documentary is filled with nostalgic clips of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and its beloved puppets; a reflection of how Rogers used his imagination in the creation of the show as a way to talk to children about their feelings.  Throughout the film, you are given flashes of episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood showing how the show was defined by the transition from reality to fantasy when “Trolley” rang it’s bell and headed around the track, bringing children to an imaginative and emotionally-safe place to talk about what was going on in the world through their eyes.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was beloved to many for its way of tackling difficult topics of conversation with children and for Rogers’ quiet, calm and meaningful ability to communicate in happy and troubled times.  He spoke with children about tragic events, such as 9/11, the Challenger Disaster and the assassination of Robert Kennedy; Rogers said he felt he had to talk to the families in our country about grief.  When a child jumped out of a window thinking he could fly like Superman, Rogers created an episode to focus on superheroes to help teach children what pretending means.  Conversations on the show spanned from death to divorce to when pets die and war, but don’t be mistaken to think he was gloom and doom.  Children and adults loved Mister Rogers, and he spread joy to them.  He visited Washington, D.C., and spoke regularly on behalf of causes he believed in and seemingly brought people together everywhere he went.

One of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood longtime characters, “Officer Clemmons,” became a regular part of the show according to the documentary, initially as a statement by Rogers to stand against segregation in public swimming pools.  Actor and musician François Clemmons came onto the show during a time in 1968 when he faced not only racism as an African American, but he was oppressed by keeping his sexuality as a gay man a secret.  Last month, Clemmons released his own memoir of his life and time on the show, Officer Clemmons.  In the documentary, Clemmons speaks of his relationship with Rogers and exemplifies how their friendship broke barriers.  Clemmons was the first African American actor to have a recurring role on a children’s program.  In a poignant moment, François shared how Rogers always said on the show, “I love you just the way you are,” and one day he asked Fred if he was talking to him.

“He looked at me and he said, ‘Yes, I have been talking to you for two years, and you finally heard me today,’ and I just collapsed into his arms.  I started crying.  That’s when I knew I loved him,” said Clemmons.

Family and former colleagues share stories throughout the hour and a half documentary about Rogers and his love for all people.  His wife said she believed, because Fred had a difficult time making friends as a child and was bullied it created the man he became who dedicated his life to protecting children.  Rogers said he thought those who would make you feel less than you are was the greatest evil.

In the end, Rogers’ legacy is captured through the eyes of all who loved him.  Through the children he worked with, to his fellow actors, to hearing from his wife and children, watching the documentary will leave you remembering how Mister Rogers taught us all about love.

Wont’ You Be My Neighbor? is available on Prime Video for $9.99 and DVD.  Officer Clemmons can be purchased through Amazon.

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