In the intimate opening of the riveting Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Fred Rogers (circa 1967) is ruminating about musical modulation: Moving from the key of C to F is easy, but going from F to F sharp is more complicated, he says. That strikes a chord, in his mind as well as his piano: “We’d like to help children through some of the difficult modulations of life.”
Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville’s documentary is no syrupy hagiography but the potent portrait of a unique figure in TV history who forged a uniquely personal relationship with multiple generations of little viewers, thanks to his own unique combination of musical, ministerial and child development skills.
Nobody ever ruminated about modulation, or modulated his ruminations, the way Mr. Rogers did — for kids on TV and adults lucky enough to know him in real life. Permit me a reminiscence?
For 25 years, I had a little local Sunday mini show on classical WQED-FM that often crossed taping times with Fred’s mega show for national distribution on WQED-TV, which gave us many chances to schmooze while waiting around for technicians. I also had Ben, a problematic and hyperactive 4-year-old, who could rarely sit still but never missed Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Fred Rogers believed “silence is one of the greatest gifts we have.” He listened and waited before ever replying to anyone — brilliantly illustrated by his heroic defense of the Public Broadcasting System during Sen. John Pastore’s defunding hearings. Mr. R. single-handedly saved the day then for a crucial institution that’s under even worse attack today.
We also know that Mr. Rogers, a lifelong registered Republican, was also terrific on racial equality — washing the feet of wonderful Francois Clemmons, a black “Neighborhood” regular, in an amazingly powerful parallel to Jesus and the apostles at the peak of the civil rights movement.
On the other hand, he was no saint on LGBT issues. Having seen news reports of Mr. Clemmons frequenting homosexual nightclubs, Fred ordered him to stop doing so — or leave the show. It was too close to home for the times, and for an icon who was coy on the subject of his own sexuality. One of the documentary’s most fascinating moments is interviewer Tom Snyder’s hilariously awkward struggle to work up his nerve to essentially ask, Mr. Rogers, are you gay?
The answer to which — you’ll have to see, hear and decipher for yourself.
Director Neville’s 20 Feet from Stardom — about the predominantly black female backup singers’ dilemma in the shadow of predominantly white male rock ’n’ roll stars — won the 2014 Academy Award for best documentary. Even better, in my humble opinion, was his followup, Best of Enemies (2015), a tremendous doc of the 1968 debates and bitter feud between conservative William F. Buckley and liberal novelist Gore Vidal — America’s two greatest “public intellectuals” of the day.
I was a more elderly Pittsburgh baby nurtured not by Fred but by his mentor, sweet Josie Carey, a delightful pioneer in her own right, who never got over a certain bitterness that he turned into a superstar while her name faded into obscurity. Fred eliminated her slapstick (pies in the face) from the refinements of his neighborhood. But, oh, how I loved Soupy Sales and the Three Stooges — and regret that I always meant but failed to ask Fred about their delights.
Never mind. This doc’s well-written script and excellent editing of fab archival footage does the trick, coupled with interviews with the delightful Mrs. Rogers (aka Joanne), his sons and colleagues — Johnny Costa, Joe Negri, Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, Betty Aberlin. I only regret that my two personal favorites — Michael Horton, the voice of Betty Okanak Templeton-Jones, and Mary Rawson, the voice of Cousin Mary Owl — weren’t included.
But what is included is the essence of the man’s humanity, tolerance and kindness — a pastor who put his Christian values to work every day, without ever preaching them. It’s a bit overly sentimental, and there’s a more complex human being beneath the surface who might have been further plumbed. In Joe E. Brown’s immortal words at the end of Some Like It Hot, “Nobody’s perfect.”
But Mr. Rogers and this documentary are pretty damn close.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Barry Paris is film critic emeritus for the Post-Gazette.
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