Pure Heart, Big Voice

A review of Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Posted Oct 01, 2018

A pure heart, a big voice: A review of Won't You Be My Neighbor?

By Lloyd I Sederer, MD

On a snowy, wintry day in 1968, in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, an unpretentious and gifted young man began a national TV program, putting off going to the Seminary. Though his first show, live and with puppets, piano and song, debuted as The Children’s Corner over a decade earlier, the first nationally broadcast show of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was aired by the same local station, WQED, then National Education Television (the predecessor to the Public Television Service). The station soon had a tiger by the tail. To veteran TV professionals, the show stood no chance, with its Rube Goldberg sets, slow pace and unknown host. It became a sensation.

Fred Rogers was born in a small Pennsylvania town in 1928, and was for eleven years the only child in his family until his parents adopted a little girl. His hometown was a lot like the TV town he created. His family and community hewed to an ethos of hard work and faith, which became his credo for a lifetime. By late adolescence, he had become an accomplished musician and able student. For his adult life, he proudly weighed in at 143 pounds, taking regular, long swims at the local Y. The number 143, an auspicious collection of numbers, appeared on his program and was explained by King Friday the XIII (one of his puppet characters) to be one letter (I), four letters (love), and three letters (you).

Mr. Rogers wanted to reach children, to offer them a relationship (with him and his 10 puppets, including Daniel the striped tiger, said to be most like his own true, doubting nature). He wanted to impart the capacity for children to believe they were “fine just the way you are”, and to demonstrate, through the powerful medium of TV, his belief that nothing was more important to children than parents who cared for them and protected them.

His “neighborhood” shows took on topics like anger, sadness, death, assassination (at the time Bobby Kennedy was murdered), kindness, make-believe, feeling like a fake person or afraid, friendship, race, divorce and so much more. He was among the first to make a black person a show regular, as a police officer, Mr. Clemmons; the actor for that role was a gay man, who then still had to keep that out of the public eye. The enduringly memorable scenes where Mr. Rogers bathes his own feet, then those of Mr. Clemmons, which he dries with his towel, evokes Christ’s bathing the feet of peasants, lost souls and fellow Christians: If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. John 13:14–17

Fred Rogers did go to Seminary, after the show launched, and became a Presbyterian Minister. His pulpit was the ubiquitous television screen, which never became didactic or judgmental. That was not who he was. Is today’s Mr. Rogers anywhere to be found? A voice for youth, for adults, for a divided and angry nation?

There is one butt (exposed behind) joke, mixed into the narrative, perhaps to temper the risk of appearing pious on Fred Rogers’ part. He liked a good joke, even off-color, as long as no one was hurt, emotionally or physically, by it.

The show had the longest run of any children’s program, until Sesame Street (also PBS), which began in the same era, finally exceeded it - but that show was far more about cognitive than emotional development, back then.

Mr. Rogers is an illuminated presence in this film. He talks with children, Senators, grown-ups, puppets, and to each and every one of us, regardless of our age. He plays the piano artfully, writes and produces his own shows, and speaks in a quiet tone, but with the huge moral stick of decency powerfully behind it. He has a beatific quality and unceasing humility. He captures our hearts and shows us, not tells us, what is right. He was influenced by child development experts but we see, and learn, that his greatest knowledge came from his own early experience as a sickly, shy, overweight and bullied boy.

I felt, upon leaving the theatre, that I had just visited a man with purity of soul. He became trusted and beloved across this country during the dark days of the 60’s and for decades thereafter. Narrators in this film who take us closer to the man include his sons, his wife, his co-workers, journalists and his friends. To a person, they adored and admired him.

Fred Rogers died of gastric cancer in 2003, two years after his last show aired. True to his spirit, PBS then broadcast programming about how children could understand and accept his loss.

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Dr. Lloyd Sederer is a psychiatrist, public health doctor and medical journalist. His new book is The Addiction Solution: Treating Our Dependence on Opioids and Other Drugs (Scribner, 2018).