No matter how poorly they hold up, you always have an affection for the shows you watched as a kid, specifically in the morning hours of getting ready for school or going to the local babysitter during the summer. I do remember Sesame Street for sure, but I still have vivid memories of the Spanish station being on and sitting through the sitcoms “El Chavo” and “El Chapulín Colorado” which were funny even if I didn’t speak the language. But it was worth it because I knew by the time it was over and I was done eating my breakfast tacos, I got to watch “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”. Years later I would watch some of the reruns of this man and his little model neighborhood and wonder why I liked this show so much. Nothing much ever really happened. Guy came in and put on a sweater, changed into his blue sneakers, sang that song over and over again and would let that trolley go into the land of Make-Believe he never went into himself. Then years later after that, I completely understood why I was fascinated with this simple little 30 min, show. Mr. Rogers talked to me. He looked at me. He just simply wanted to teach me. I watched then, and I see now. I was learning something, something very important.
Fred Rogers was a minister in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who did not like the way children were being played to on the still early days of television. He decided to go to the local station WQED in 1968 and create a kids show that didn’t talk down to kids or treat them like eventual consumers but as actual children, who were full of curiosity and imagination. “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” would become a success in the late sixties all the way into the eighties as he continued to keep his simple show with its basic sets and simple, yet important format all the way till its eventual end weeks before the events of 9/11. The documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a fantastic look at this soft-spoken man who had a powerful message that he delivered to children on a weekly basis for decades. We see how he informed us about the world around us while not preaching but showing and explaining in easy to understand lessons. He covered racism, divorce, death, and the most important thing for a small child’s mind: self-doubt. He used the characters he created like Daniel Striped Tiger, Prince Tuesday, and King Friday the XIII to explain feelings and relationships, as much as his human characters did like Lady Aberlin (Betty Aberlin), Mr. McFeely (David Newell), and Officer Clemmons (François Clemmons). He also covered different kinds of music, jobs, and how things worked or were made. His show became a staple of PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) as much as “Sesame Street” was in its prime.
Director Morgan Neville who has won both an Emmy and an Oscar for his documentaries about politics and music brings something special here. He delves into the world of Fred Rogers as he navigated the world and how he changed it in so many ways. With talking heads from his family to people from the show we get to see that he was almost exactly like he was on his show. Soft-spoken, intelligent, caring and a real listener, his way of paying attention made you do the same as you watched. To discover after all these years that he was not a phony and that he genuinely cared for children and the educating of them is tremendous in the age he navigated with so many obstacles around him. He did have his faults but that only made him more endearing. This film should be required viewing for everyone before they are ever allowed access to the internet. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” serves as a reminder that kindness costs nothing. But can be everything. Time devoted to children is never wasteful, and being who you are is truly the most special of things, whether you create something or just use that something in your everyday life, we all matter. Thank you for your film Mr. Neville. And thank you, Mr. Rogers. For everything.