Where do you start with Mister Rogers? For years, his neighborhood was a welcoming place for children all over the world. With his lasting messages of love, kindness, compassion, and strength in troubling times, Fred Rogers has remained a relevant and (some would say) desperately needed antidote to an ever-scarier world. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? sent hearts skipping and eyes watering when it was released earlier this year.
Sitting at the table today are:
Myself, Lindsay Stamhuis (Executive Editor)
Age 33, living in Edmonton, Alberta. I am a lifelong neighbour of Mister Rogers. My favourite episode is probably the one where Mister Rogers visits Brockett’s Bakery during the Sing-and-Sign event. One woman sang a song with her guitar and the woman beside her signed the words in ASL. I remember that being the first moment I knew I wanted to learn how to sign (something I did learn about ten years ago!)
Ashley Harris (Editor)
Age 29, living in Illinois. I have been visiting The Land of Make Believe since I was five years old. My favorite episode of Mister Rogers comes from the week in which Mister Rogers discussed Families. A stand-out episode showcases Mister Rogers visiting Brockett’s Bakery and learning about soy foods, and Mr. McFeely coming over with a video about the production of orange juice. When we visited the Land of Make Believe that day, Lady Aberlin shared orange juice with all the residents because she wanted everyone to share what came out of a single pitcher. As a tiny collectivist, this made a huge impact on me, that we can all be brought together by sharing something that can make each of us happy.
Josh Lami (Staff Writer)
Age 33, living in North Carolina. I’m a movie guy, as a kid I wasn’t into Mr. Rogers, but he’s a fascinating guy and I was very interested to see this documentary. My earliest memories of the show were simply changing the channel when the opening credits came on. I didn’t dislike Mr. Rogers, he just wasn’t my speed at the time. I’m here to be the more objective voice than the advocate. My thoughts on the film and the man himself come as a response solely to the material itself, so I’m not potentially blinded by nostalgia.
Premise: Filmmaker Morgan Neville examines the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, the beloved host of the popular children’s TV show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Cast: Joanne Rogers, McColm Cephas Jr., François Scarborough, Clemmons, Kailyn Davis, Yo-Yo Ma, Joe Negri, David Newell, Fred Rogers in archival recordings.
LS: First off, Mister Rogers: great children’s TV star or greatest children’s TV star? I’m kidding. But seriously, what are your memories of Mister Rogers from when you were a kid?
JL: My memory is pretty fuzzy, actually. I remember his series coming on, I remember the opening credits. It was never something I was into as a kid. I wanted Ninja Turtles. The channel got changed quick.
LS: I bet you were a Leonardo fan…
JL: Yes, Leo was my dude.
AH: #TeamDonnie, for the record, for me.
LS: I liked Donatello too, because I am and always will be attracted to the smartest guy in the room…
AH: I’m going to go with greatest [children’s TV star]! Mister Rogers represents a really special time in my life because I only watched it when my Great Aunt was babysitting me. It was really special to me to see someone else so happy and believed in the good in people and that validated each individual. I came out of the womb a humanist so it was comforting to know there was someone in the world like me. (I hope that answer doesn’t sound like a #humblebrag).
LS: That’s actually a really beautiful sentiment, Ashley. I feel the same way. Mister Rogers made me feel validated as a child. I watched him all the time growing up (along with Mr Dressup and Fred Penner, because it was on the CBC and that was one of the four channels we originally had on our PeasantVision TV package…). It just felt like he was always a presence in my life. Especially on sick days from school.
AH: When I was old enough to stay home by myself on sick days, I would sneak an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood; that’s still something I’ve never told my mother…
LS: Does she read the site??? (**waves to Ashley’s mom**)
AH: She does! So, the truth comes out!!
JL: I can’t talk about the things I didn’t tell my mother, but they don’t involve Fred Rogers, that’s for sure.
LS: That’s a Raphael answer, right there, Josh!
Honestly though, it seems like Mister Rogers was a pretty important part of a lot of kids’ lives, but he still seems like an unlikely subject for a documentary. I was surprised when I saw that one was being made about his life and work, to be honest. How did you feel about this doc when you saw the trailer or heard that it was being made?
JL: It’s weird, because I was not that surprised. I remember reading on Reddit a few years back this comment chain of people just praising Mister Rogers as being such a wonderful human being. I rolled my eyes pretty hard. Then a few weeks later, another comment chain. It kind of became a thing on Reddit for a while, so I was noticing a renewed interest in the guy. I still had no interest in watching his show, being in my late twenties at the time, but I did go look up the man himself, and I was kind of blown away by what an amazing person he was.
AH: I was stunned! Like you, Lindsay, I never expected him to be a documentary subject. I saw an early short trailer and was completely elated! I knew immediately that I would see it as soon as it came out. I think the timing is perfect, too. There is so much turmoil and tension between people right now that we need a reminder that there are good people out there willing to devote their lives to the sanctity of the individual. Something to remind us to “look for the helpers.”
LS: Was there a part of you that wanted to see it just in case there was some mega bombshell revealed about his life? Like the fact that Bob Ross was a drill sergeant — were you hoping that Mister Rogers had…I don’t know…a secret job as Sing Sing prison guard or something? He’s just so wholesome! I can’t imagine the guy ever being given a speeding ticket or anything!
JL: It might be a little odd, but I am often a bigger [fan of] fandoms than I am the actual thing they’re a fan of. I recognize Fred Rodgers was a deeply influential person, that he was very humanistic and a role model for many. And to that end I really take comfort in a lot of what I’ve read that he said. But I just never had any desire to watch the original show. I did, however, want to see the doc.
AH: Honestly, I wanted him to be exactly who I found out he was. No-one is perfect, of course, but it’s so hard for people to believe that individuals are generally good, and there are a lot of people (most) like that. It’s a nice change from the Hobbesian view of life that seems so prevalent.
JL: [Fight Club‘s] Tyler Durden too.
LS: Are you saying Tyler Durden and Mister Rogers are similar? That’s not a comparison I’ve ever heard made before! (But then again, I walked away from the film thinking “Man oh man, David Lynch and Mister Rogers sure do seem to come from the same place, don’t they?” so…)
AH: Same here, Lindsay! They could be cousins — Lynch and Mister Rogers.
JL: No, no not at all. Ashley was referring to Thomas Hobbes, there’s a parallel often drawn between Calvin and Hobbes. I was playing off that. Tyler Durden’s view is kinda prevalent too. Tyler Durden is Hobbes, Ed Norton’s character whose name I now forget is Calvin. Something like that. Sorry my movie references hinder my life.
LS: Oh, ha! See my mind went to Calvin and Hobbes too — all this talk about nostalgic feelings! — but Ashley, your point about the Hobbesian view of life and Mister Rogers’ defiant stand against it is quite important. He does seem to negate the idea that man is inherently evil and chaotic. Nothing nasty, brutish, and short about Mister Rogers!
Back to the screening of the documentary, what was your biggest impression after walking out of the theatre after you saw it?
JL: I grew up with a single mom and always said I didn’t care that I’d never had a father in my life. Walking out of the theater I realized I really did care.
LS: Oh Josh…you’re going to make me cry. Mister Rogers has such an effect on people, doesn’t he?
JL: Indeed. It’s one of those things, man. Some people just make you realize things. Some movies, I guess. There’s something to be said for him in that respect, though, because I feel mostly comfortable having come out and said that, about the father thing, and I think Fred Rogers fostered the environment where I felt like I could. So it’s really kind of full circle.
AH: That’s hard, Josh. I’m from a single mom household, too. What you say about different movies really making you feel and realize things really hits home with me.
My impression upon leaving the screening was to watch who I shared that experience and what really made my heart happy was that the demographic was across the board. There were high school students through seniors, couples, singles, men, women; everyone needs Mister Rogers message and everyone is receptive to it. Honestly, I thought, “What can I do in my life to try to reach people and offer hope and a positive view of the collective human experience, that clearly resonates with so many people.”
LS: Yes! In my screening there were teens and a few older couples…one couple who looked to be in their 80s…a few teachers like myself, in their thirties…and so much sniffling! (I brought a pack of Kleenex with me, no lie…)
AH: Same here, Lindsay! I went with a very dear friend of mine and told him where they were if he needed one too.
JL: I think it’s interesting he took his work home with him so much. I do the same thing, that really resonated with me. I once wrote a western, it was a short story. For days and days I spoke in this strange cadence and with obscure vocabulary. Finally my wife just looks at me and goes “are you just going to talk like a depressed cowboy for the rest of your life?” It’s a thing, when you get immersed in something. That he spoke in his puppet voices at home sometimes tells me a lot about him. I think the creative process is an extremely overwhelming thing sometimes.
AH: That’s so true, Josh! It’s difficult to let yourself go through your creative process while also having a separate life and other responsibilities. It’s definitely overwhelming, yet life without it unthinkable.
JL: It is, and in order to really get a show like that even off the ground just takes such a tremendous amount of dedication.
LS: Do you think that it went from work to home for Mister Rogers or was it a case of his home life (ie. his actual personality) becoming part of his work life?
JL: Personally, I think just about every artist… filmmakers, writers, painters, musicians… they have a persona. Even the ones you really love. David Lynch, Fred Rogers. There’s the man and there’s the guy you see. The guy you see in these cases is, I believe, more calculated and “planned” than people realize. I think he was truly a good person and wholesome, I think that was genuine. But his expression of Mister Rogers on television was a craft, something he worked at. So I do think he took work home.
I’m an angry, angry person. I wish I was more like Mister Rogers, but I am super not.
LS: I definitely strive to be like Fred Rogers. I don’t always succeed. And when I do snap at a kid in class or feel myself getting angry, I often feel so much shame because I think Mister Rogers would be disappointed in me. Kinda weird, now that I see it written out in black and white…
AH: I also really liked that he specifically used one voice when he was angry. I took that as a desire in himself to want to disassociate with the presence of anger and that was really powerful to me. It oddly resonated with me too, on a personal level, because I do the same thing when I get angry with my son. I hardly ever yell at him, but I have this hybrid accent that I use when I’m upset because I don’t like submitting to anger.
LS: The revelation that Daniel Striped Tiger was like his inner voice, a representation of his childlike innocence that wasn’t really allowed to exist when he was a child himself, or that he became more like King Friday on set and in real life as he got older, was startling and made me very…sad, I guess. I think we can all relate to that a little bit, in the ways you both mention.
AH: Same here! I was feeling all kinds of ways when that revelation was made. You try to understand because of the social conditioning of the time but it’s still hard. It made me happy, in a way, because I saw how genuine he was. He was a whole complete person, the good and the bad, and was committed to not stifling any emotion like he had his stifled.
It also made me think of his comment that everything is based in love or the lack of it, (I’m paraphrasing) and how much of what we do is in a direct response to things that were or were not done to/for us in our formative years. Fred Rogers’ emotional intelligence is fascinating.
JL: Agreed there. Storytelling, art in general, it’s all rooted in the emotion of love. Either you’re not getting enough of it, you’re giving too much of it, no-one is giving it, something. And I do think he was ultimately projecting that key principle of art as well or better than any other artist.
LS: Do you feel like you appreciate Mister Rogers more as an adult than you did as a kid? Or is your appreciation of him and his impact just different now that you’ve grown up?
AH: My appreciation of him is just different. When I was a child, it just mattered to me that he was there allowing people to feel like they were enough, and to a certain extent I knew he wasn’t like anyone else, but now that I have a better understanding of his worldwide impact and what he had to do to keep his show on the air, I appreciate him from that angle too.
LS: I feel the same way — I think I felt like he was accepting me as I was, and as an adult I see him as a role model for me as a teacher. He’s still teaching me things, and I think that’s amazing.
JL: I think I appreciate him definitely more as an adult. Especially that he was able to keep a lot of his personal proclivities to himself. For example, his being a pastor. You wouldn’t watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and assume Fred Rogers worshipped Satan or anything. But I personally wouldn’t suspect he was a pastor. But he was. It’s impressive to me when someone can separate their personal beliefs from their work. I have trouble in that area, for sure.
LS: I also remember being very shocked when I learned he was a deeply religious man! I think it’s because of the negativity I usually associate with religious people on TV, who seem to use the medium to promote a very skewed agenda, almost. Fred Rogers’ Christianity was more open than any version of Christianity I’ve ever seen. But in a way I think his personal beliefs were absolutely part-and-parcel of his work. He just had a wonderfully humanistic approach to the world.
JL: Religion is what people make of it. It’s like beer. There’s nothing wrong with it in and of itself, but it’s unhealthy as a steady diet.
AH: That’s a great point, Lindsay! Many religious people on TV are, in a sense, exploiting the faith of the people watching and creating something completely different. I never really saw him as separating anything, but instead repackaging in a way as to not ostracize those outside of his denomination.
LS: That’s kind of how I saw it too, Ashley. Exactly.
So I wanted to bring this up because I think it’s important to touch on, to relate this to the wider world we live in these days. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? probably wouldn’t exist as a film if it weren’t for the massive [marketing] push toward activating those nostalgia pleasure centers in our brains, and maybe we can touch on why we think that is? There’s a TED Talk I watched about nostalgia recently about research findings that suggest that inducing nostalgia in people who are depressed can increase their feelings of self-esteem and social belonging, encourage psychological growth, and make them act more charitably. I know that when I’m in a bad place mentally or emotionally, I watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and while it doesn’t fix the problem I do feel better. I watched this documentary during a particularly dark week for me, personally, as well. Is going to the Neighborhood a coping mechanism for adults? Is that a healthy thing? It’s something I’ve been wondering about generally. Just curious to see what you both think.
JL: Holy goodness, that’s a discussion to have right there. I feel like we could dedicate an entire series of roundtables to this.
LS: I think we could — and maybe we should!
JL: There’s a physical (chemical) component, an emotional one, even a primal fight/flight response associated with it almost. Nostalgia and brain pleasure center obsession is super complicated. I’d say…there’s something to the “grass is always greener” cliche. You know, as a kid you want to be able to eat ice cream for breakfast and drive 90 mph. Or I did. As an adult… actually never mind I love doing those things.
Just kidding, you realize how simple it is being a kid. And it’s attractive. Nostalgia pieces remind us of that simpler time.
LS: That’s a very good point, Josh. Nostalgia works on us in a way to bring us back to those simpler times. It literally means “longing for a homecoming” and what is more like “home” for most people than their childhoods? (It could also mean aching for home…somehow that feels more apropos maybe).
AH: There’s a lot to unpack there. I know for me, Mister Rogers represents the first time I felt safe after a national tragedy. I was in 7th grade in a new school on 9/11/01 and no-one knew how to talk to people my age about it because we weren’t young enough to divert attention but we weren’t old enough to fully understand the impact of the events either, so there was a lot of just not talking about it. The next year, though, when my teacher put on the recording Mister Rogers made in response, I actually felt like there wasn’t going to be this odd new “air” to life that I felt trapped within. On 9/12/01, I convinced my mom that I was sick so I could stay home when I really needed to process everything. The packed parking lot at the grocery store, the lines to get gas that went all the way into the street—it was all too much for me. Anyway, I watched both hours of his program that day because I needed to forget the new world I was living in. I really needed the time before that happened again. That’s why, for me, I was so touched when he did those recordings a year later because I needed him so much. I left the classroom and was crying in the bathroom when my teacher came in hugging me and she said “I know, I know, it’ll be ok.” But it wasn’t until seeing his message that I actually believed that.
LS: It’s such a powerful thing. I can’t help but cry when I think about stories like this, or moments when I felt the same because of his message. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is that makes his ability to deliver this message so potent but he’s really good at it. And his messages — all of them, from his first week of programming, when he talked about the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, to the 9/11 message, and everything in between — all feel very relevant to this day. I think it’s a combination of being in a world that feels less and less secure by the day and having access to YouTube and streaming services like Amazon Prime where his full episodes are available any time of the day or night…that accessibility coupled with the need we have for a good neighbour these days is what continues to keep him relevant. I don’t know, what do you think?
AH: I think a large part of that is his incredible ability to connect with people. “I’m going to tell you something I told you when you were much younger.” (From the post-9/11 recording) He was talking directly to me, and simultaneously, directly to each person in that room, including my teacher! Messages aren’t commonly that on point where they actually resonate on such an individual basis with everyone that watches. I’m not sure how he did that, but it’s incredible.
JL: Interesting story, getting literal for a moment, I once had a good neighbor. Dude I moved in next door to. Weird guy at first, I didn’t get him. After a while we were hanging out daily. It’s not something that happens now. Like EVER. I never feel ok getting to know someone I don’t get introduced to in some way. At least in real life. I miss that, but I don’t think it’s just me. Maybe in Canada that’s different, but here, particularly since 9/11 that neighborly thing is all but evaporated.
LS: We know all our neighbours in our building. We have keys to each others’ places and feed each others’ cats and dogs when we’re away on vacation. I didn’t think about it but maybe things are different in Canada.
JL: There’s a very “keep to yourself” mentality here, at least in my experience. I could just be antisocial. I don’t think we’re being the people Mister Rogers knows we can be.
LS: That’s what I loved about the documentary. The sentiment at the end — it’s not what would Mister Rogers do if he were around today, but what are YOU going to do? How are YOU going to make life better? He gave you tools you needed to be better — to connect to the world emotionally and with maturity but also with curiosity and openness. You can’t control what other people do but you can control what you do, and that’s a beautiful thing to realise.
Do you have a favourite story from the documentary? I think mine has to be the story of Officer Clemmons. I wonder about the way Mister Rogers approached Clemmons’ sexuality and whether he would do things differently today, but it was such a rebellious act to have Officer Clemmons’ feet in the same pool as his own. Astonishing to think about that simple act being so radical, but there it is. I love it.
AH: I immediately got chills and started crying at that story, so moving! I love all of the little ways he would inject whatever was going on socially at the time into the show. So many radical simple acts.
JL: I think my favorite — maybe not even story — just part, was the idea that Mad Magazine was like…something to the effect of “for kids who can’t keep up with the intricate plot of Sesame Street.”
AH: Seeing him lobby Congress was pretty special, too.
LS: Ashley, his Congress speech was amazing. I’d never seen it in context before or heard about how unyielding Sen. John Pastore was before Mister Rogers gave his speech. (was the full thing in the documentary or did I watch that on YouTube?)
JL: Yes the Congress lobby thing was amazing. And the whole idea of being strong in the face of adversity hits really close to home, like what you were discussing, Lindsay. I have had so many instances where like, I’m coming apart at the seams but… dude things have to be done, people are counting on me. I think the Congress speech was in both, wasn’t it?
AH: I’d only ever seen the speech before on YouTube, but as Lindsay noted, understanding the context and how fierce the opposition wasn’t something I knew about before the documentary.
LS: It might have been, Josh. Another part that really resonated with me was when it was revealed that the Westboro Baptist Church picketed Mister Rogers’ funeral and one of his crew members went over to talk to one of them, because he thought that was Mister Rogers would have done in the same position. That says something about him and his worldview, doesn’t it??
AH: Oh, definitely, Lindsay! And his impact!
I hate to be repetitive…what really hit me was the way he felt conflicted about the post-9/11/01 messages. It was relayed that he said something like he didn’t think he could make a difference. It’s hard to say definitively, but things may be a lot different for me today had he not gone through with that.
LS: That was tremendously powerful. I remember feeling so deflated, even as a Canadian, after the U.S. election in 2016, to the point where I didn’t want to go to work the next day. I was teaching a Grade 2/3 class at the time, and the class was full of kids from so many different backgrounds and religions, many of them immigrants, so I knew that the election rhetoric and divisiveness was going to hit them hard because kids are like sponges; they absorb everything. But I was so upset and felt so deflated, and my husband said to me “You have to go. You have to be strong for those kids.” And I thought about Mister Rogers and his message and I went to work and I read them stories about inclusion and love and we talked a lot about what it means to be a good citizen and a good friend, and I was exhausted at the end of that day but I know it was the right thing to do. Hard, but right.
AH: That hits my heart hard, Lindsay. I can only imagine what that must have been like for a teacher, especially of children so young. I’m so happy you were there for them. You probably made several lifelong memories.
LS: I don’t know about that, Ashley, but if I did that would make my heart very happy.
AH: That’s definitely a message for the ages, Josh, and I’m glad they went into that, too. Mister Rogers never bent, no matter what. He was so committed to his message and his principles that he stayed with them, despite how rapidly the medium was changing and not instilling the same sense of dignity in the other television offerings.
LS: Would you recommend this film to someone? Why or why not?
JL: I would definitely recommend it. It’s important to spread positive messages as far and wide as possible. May not be everyone’s bag, but I wouldn’t expect to be chastised for the recommendation either. Plus it’s interesting knowledge about an important figure. There’s nothing wrong with learning about history, however recent.
AH: I definitely would! I don’t think too many people exist that couldn’t benefit from a reminder that we’re all in this together and a small act of kindness and validation could go a long way in making our lives better. Mister Rogers was an inspirational figure, I think, whether you watched his show while growing up or not, and there’s a lot of hope and happiness in the documentary and his life story. Everyone should see it!
LS: 100% agree. I can’t believe it doesn’t have a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score. Honestly…
Okay, last question, but maybe the hardest one of all: One of the moments in the documentary that got everyone (at least everyone in my screening) a-crying was when they talked about Mister Rogers accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Emmys. In his speech that night, he told the audience: “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are…” So I wanted to ask you to do the same. Who is someone special in your life who loved you into being?
JL: We’ve had some strikes and gutter balls, ups and downs, as The Dude would say. Breakups, divorce, reconciliation and we’re still not perfect, but my significant other Alisha has ultimately stuck by my side through some of the worst things I can describe and I would probably not be alive if it weren’t for her. Let alone a writer. She’s my best friend and she motivated me more than I can describe. Hopefully one day I can return the favor.
AH: You probably already have returned the favor, Josh.
JL: I sure hope.
AH: That sentiment was so beautiful, I’m glad you highlighted it. There are many people that could fit here. I’m going to go with a professor I had in college. There was never an ounce of pretense in our interactions and he saw something in me that I didn’t know I possessed. He, like Mister Rogers, made me feel like I didn’t have a defective mind like I always thought I did and just because you see things differently doesn’t mean you’re weird or that something is wrong with you. He accepted me just as I am and gave me all the tools I needed to go after every opportunity I’ve had since then and I owe a great deal to him. He helped me transition to veganism which was something I always wanted to do that I didn’t think I could. He helped me *be* a writer when that was all I’d ever wanted to do but was crippled by self-doubt. He pushed me to learn and explore and go after things past the point where I would have stopped, which would have been short. He was the first person in my adult life that saw a potential in me and communicated that to me in a way that my low self-esteem would accept. He also helped me to accept certain things about myself that I had always thought of as handicaps and made me realize if I changed any of those things it would change my whole make-up including anything I perceived as gifts. I’m really sensitive and I’ve been told my whole life to develop thicker skin etc and he was the first person that made me feel as though being sensitive wasn’t something to be ashamed of. I could go on, but I’ve said enough. I’ve never had someone care so much and make themselves so open to their students as RGO did and I’m incredibly grateful for him. And he did that for everyone, so he had that same ability to connect with someone on an individual level like that while also connecting with many other students on an individual level like Mister Rogers. These people have a gift!
LS: My heart!!! These are beautiful! Aside from family, my special person would have to be Ms Irwin, my Grade 7 Language Arts teacher. She was the first teacher I had who recognised that I enjoyed writing and encouraged me to continue it. She was just this beautiful, wholesome soul. Junior high is a really tough time for anyone, and she made things so much more pleasant. Even when she wasn’t my L.A. teacher anymore, she still mentored me and a group of my friends at this lunchtime club where we would meet, every Friday, for homemade soup and chit-chat. At the end of Grade 9 when we all left for high school, she bought us each a mala bead bracelet and a book of inspirational sayings and quotations to help us continue our thoughtful journeys into adulthood. It was just little things like that which made her so special. If I could see her again, it would make me the happiest person on the planet.
AH: That’s beautiful! Teachers make a world of difference in so many little ways over and over again, it’s so special. Thank you both for sharing your stories of who loved you into being!
LS: Yes, thank you too! This has been a truly wholesome discussion. I think Mister Rogers would have liked it very much!
AH: He definitely would!