Documentary Takes Us Back to Our Favorite Neighborhood

by Mark McConville

I’m always a little skittish when approaching the biography of an icon. I keep waiting for the usual unleashing of clay-footed skeletons from the closet. It’s difficult for me to watch, let alone enjoy old movies starring Joan Crawford or Bing Crosby after reading the tell-all tattles from their children. That’s why my unspoken prayer as I regarded Tremolo Productions’ Won’t You Be My Neighbor was, “Please don’t let it turn out that Fred Rogers was really somebody awful.” I can report with relief that Mr. Rogers seems to have really been as nice as I remembered him from his show, and a good deal more complicated and profound than I noticed at the time.

Niles Discovery Church and the San Jose Peace & Justice Center will present this delightful documentary on Saturday, November 9, at 1:30 p.m. at the church, 36600 Niles Blvd., Fremont. The screening is free and will be followed by a discussion.

The documentary isn’t delightful because director Morgan Neville pulls punches.  Neville interviews many dozens of people who worked with Rogers, starting with his earliest foray into children’s programming – The Children’s Corner at WQED Pittsburgh, the nation’s first community-sponsored educational television station. Here Rogers acquired a long-term friendship with a child psychologist who ended up collaborating with him, developed his laid back and curious-about-everything performing style, and learned an appreciation for puppets (Daniel Striped Tiger was the first) and storytelling. By the time Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted in 1966 (it went national two years later), it had become what it remained: a happy and comfortable place that generations of children visited as often as they could.

Unlike Sesame Street, which focused on cognitive development, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about feeling, developing a sense of the value of one’s self, and ethics. Rogers was something of a radical for his time. When civil rights activists took on the issue of “whites-only” swimming pools, Rogers responded to the controversy with a skit in which he cools his feet in a wading pool on a hot day and invites “Officer Clemmons,” the Neighborhood’s African American police officer, to join him. When Clemmons demurs because he didn’t bring a towel, Rogers says, “You can use mine,” and ends up drying Clemmons’ feet for him.

A colleague remembers Rogers as “not just talking about problems, but looking to see how he might be of help.” He similarly addressed sensitive topics like divorce, death, adjusting to new siblings, leaving friends when you move away, sadness, anger – all with frank acknowledgement of the dark areas of childhood, and also with gentleness, age appropriateness, encouragement, and warm acceptance. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he lived his faith rather than talking about it. His trademark assurance to kids, “I like you just the way you are,” is something one might hope to hear from God one day.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood had recently gone off the air when 9/11 happened. Rogers returned for several specials to help kids understand and deal with this scariness. When asked how to cope with the terror, he said, “Look for the helpers.” always convinced that even in the darkest times, there are people who want to make things better, and these are the role models. He closed the final special with something of a benediction, “Thank you to all the people who try to bring joy, light, hope, faith, pardon, and love.” Back at you, Fred.

This screening is part of the Second Saturday Documentary Series, a program co-sponsored by the Niles Discovery Church and the San Jose Peace and Justice Center. Learn more about the series at bit.ly/nilesssds.

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