Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
a documentary film by Morgan Neville
by Maxwell King
Abrams, 405 pp., $30.00
In his own remembrances, Fred Rogers’s childhood was a little sad, with a loving but overprotective mother and a father whose life was devoted to the manufacturing business he hoped his son would take over. Born in 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, an industrial suburb of Pittsburgh, and raised in a cocoon of wealth, the creator of the television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was often confined indoors due to asthma or fever. “I had to make up a lot of my own fun,” Rogers says in an interview included in Morgan Neville’s recent documentary film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? When he was ten, his grandmother bought him the Steinway concert grand piano that he would play his entire life. “Music was my first language,” he says. He found that he could express his emotions with notes: “I could literally laugh or cry or be very angry through the ends of my fingers.”
Following two years at Dartmouth, Rogers transferred to Rollins College in Florida to study music, after which he planned to become a Presbyterian minister. But in 1951, while home during his senior year, he experienced “this new thing called television.” As he recalls in the film, “I saw people throwing pies in each other’s faces and I thought, ‘This could be a wonderful tool. Why is it being used this way?’” Thanks to stock the family held in RCA, which owned NBC, Rogers’s father got him a job in New York, working variously with Kate Smith and Arturo Toscanini. Two years later, his father lured him back to Pittsburgh, where a family friend was starting up a public TV station.
Public broadcasting appealed to the minister in Rogers: he was concerned that profit-driven networks like NBC diluted arts programming, and he envisioned programming for young people with less slapstick, more meaning. By 1954, Rogers was producing The Children’s Corner, writing music and songs with his co-host, Josie Carey, and interspersing their performances with free educational films. One day, when a brittle reel broke on live television, Rogers poked a puppet through a backdrop and created the soft-spoken character of Daniel Striped Tiger, who through his own expressions of self-doubt gave voice to children’s fears. Daniel became a central fixture of that early show and the ones that followed.
Over time, Rogers became impatient with the casualness of The Children’s Corner. His family’s wealth allowed him to quit in 1961 and go full-time to the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He returned to TV in 1963, to the Canadian Broadcasting Company in Toronto, where he developed the prototype of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which moved back to Pittsburgh and public broadcasting in 1968. “It seems to me that there are different themes in life,” he says at the start of Neville’s film, “and one of my main jobs…is…through the mass media for children, to help children through some of the difficult modulations of life.”
Now, fifty years after the first episode aired, we are still modulating through versions of Fred Rogers. Children of a certain age know him as the guy in the suit who switched into a cardigan at each show’s start, singing, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Off-screen Rogers was hard to know, or difficult to categorize. He was a lifelong teetotaler who owned a stake in Vegetarian Times and used salty language with his own kids, though only in the puppet voice of Lady Elaine Fairchilde. Coworkers remember Rogers as both zany—dancing across the set with an inflatable sex doll they had hid in his closet—and imperious, as when he reprimanded an actor who kindly suggested to Henrietta Pussycat that she not cry, something Rogers would never suggest to a child.
Neville’s film avoids much biographical detail, trading rigor for nostalgia and hagiography. Meanwhile, a new book, Maxwell King’s The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, offers the almost wacky details of his life (King reports, for example, that the family chauffeur taught him to fly as a teen) but only hints at the tension within Rogers, both the dutiful son of an industrialist and a sensitive composer devoted to the idea that the world children live in is fundamentally different from the world inhabited by adults. He controlled every aspect of his show in the mold of an iron-willed CEO but managed simultaneously to orchestrate a theater company–like TV neighborhood full of actors and musicians that was a progressive and collaborative operation, open to anything, assuming Rogers approved.
Both film and book cite Rogers as a children’s television original, but the book aims higher, repeatedly likening Rogers to a well-known first-century Jewish preacher and religious leader. This complicated comparison is likely rooted in the fact that, while in seminary, Rogers proposed his half-hour TV program as a ministry, his young viewers the congregants. It was a tough pill for the seminary’s Presbyterian elders to swallow, but when they relented, they pointed him to Margaret McFarland, a psychologist who ran the University of Pittsburgh’s Arsenal Family and Children’s Center and was at the core of a Pittsburgh-based group of childhood developmental researchers, including Benjamin Spock, T. Berry Brazelton, and Erik Erikson. She was a pioneer in describing the rich complexity of a child’s interior life, and in seeing children’s development against the background of their relationships with others, especially parents.
Rogers and McFarland shared what King calls “a sensitivity to the feelings of other people.” When Rogers spent time with children in McFarland’s preschool classes, the children saw a soul mate, as did McFarland. “There was a little girl at the Arsenal whose bird died,” McFarland said. “And when Fred came with his puppets, and she told Fred about the death of the bird…she found it urgent to tell each of the puppets about the death of the canary.” Rogers saw McFarland’s thinking as a perfect foundation for his own creativity, and ministry. Together they developed programs around, for instance, a child’s fear of controlling bodily fluids, with Rogers showing films of waterfalls and streams being dammed. Until she died in 1988, Rogers met with McFarland weekly, telephoned her daily, and even stopped scenes mid-shot to consult her.
The program he created had two neighborhoods: one lifelike, including the stage-set home into which he welcomed his TV visitors, the other a make-believe kingdom, a place for imaginative play. The transition between the two was realized by a trolley that spoke not with words but with music, notes from a celesta that were understood as language. “I really feel that [in] the opening reality of the program we deal with the stuff that dreams are made of,” Rogers said. “And then in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, we deal with it as if it were a dream. And then when it comes back to me (at the end), we deal with a simple interpretation of the dream…. Anything can happen in make-believe, and we can talk about anything in reality. Margaret used to say, ‘Whatever is mentionable is manageable.’”
Each episode’s seemingly disparate threads—a visit to a store, a story told while feeding fish, or a conflict between King Friday and the people—came together to make resonant points, with the characters in both Make-Believe and the real-life neighborhood performing acts of kindness and empathy. Rogers himself, in songs such as “It’s You I Like,” repeatedly stressed his viewers’ value as individuals and their relationship to others. “It’s such a good feeling,” he sang in another song, “to know you’re in tune.”
Each episode had an almost liturgical outline: opening greeting, invocations of friends and family, followed by a physical movement through the set’s spaces. In the kitchen, Rogers might eat a banana or draw stars, or learn from a friend how to make paper hats. He concluded where he started, changing back into street clothes and singing a dismissal, with a last spoken note on the value of caring for others, followed by a song: “I’ll think of you when I’m not here, ’cause thinking of people makes them seem near.” He saw Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a faithful companion to young people and even a daily seminar for parents, who often have to be reminded that parenting isn’t really about them.
All those famed factory visits—to see how bread or crayons or dolls get made—often showed the cardigan-wearing scion of factory owners marveling at the machines and workers around him, connecting work to the feelings of the people doing it. “That’s a wonderful thought,” Rogers says to a woman who describes recalling her grandmother’s baking each time she walks through the football-field-sized baking room in Nabisco’s graham cracker factory, in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. “Somebody who really fed you, and here you are making millions of things for people to eat.” The point was not what was being made, but the way that Rogers encountered it, and the care with which the worker made it. Rogers’s physical approach in these settings—his pose and posture seem to enact concentration—often recalled McFarland’s directions to a sculptor who visited her preschool class: “I don’t want you to teach sculpting. All I want you to do is love clay in front of the children.”
Both Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and The Good Neighbor focus on Rogers’s 1969 testimony to Congress on behalf of public television. In Neville’s film, it is laid out as a nail-biting surprise: a humble kid’s TV show host versus a powerful Senate committee chairman, John Pastore, looking to budget-cut and censor. In King’s book, though, we learn that the PBS executives knowingly put forth their lead player: Rogers had already hard-knuckled his way into his PBS slot with inventive public-private financing, and his public appearances at PBS affiliates necessitated crowd control.
“I’m very much concerned, as I know you are, about what’s being delivered to our children in this country,” Rogers told Pastore. A lifelong registered Republican, Rogers knew his adversary—a socially conservative Democrat who pushed for nuclear test bans and campaign finance reform and was himself a famously deft orator—and merely made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “For fifteen years I’ve tried, in this country, and Canada, to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care,” Rogers testified. In footage from the hearing, the senator visibly relaxes his guard, saying, “Well, I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goosebumps for the last two days.” PBS is saved.
Both the book and the film work hard to adjust the notion that Rogers was, as Neville put it in a promotional interview, “a two-dimensional milquetoast who spoke in warm bromides.” In this endeavor King seems obsessed with Rogers’s sexuality—though to be fair, a lot of people are, with the apparent exception of his wife, Joanne, to whom he was married for fifty years. King seems to almost reluctantly settle on “androgynous” when he might have just left it with what Rogers told a friend: “Well, you know, I must be right smack in the middle. Because I have found women attractive, and I have found men attractive.” This would satisfy a preschooler but is too loose for King, who treats his subject’s sex life as if he were conducting a police investigation: “There was no double life. And without exception, close associates concluded that Fred Rogers was absolutely faithful to his marriage vows.”
The film likewise insists he lived as a straight man, even though it seems odd to so rigorously affirm Rogers’s straightness when we are talking about a show whose host sang, “I like you as you are.” How great, in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, for a young child to hear Lady Aberlin tell Mr. Skunk that he is OK no matter how he smells, or to hear her tell Daniel, who worries he is too tame, that he is not too tame at all? Yet in Neville’s film, François Clemmons, the opera singer who played Officer Clemmons on the show, testifies that, as a gay man, he would have known if Fred Rogers was gay: “I spent enough time with him that if there was a gay vibe I would have picked it up.”
This statement turns out to be complicated by the fact that Rogers initially asked Clemmons to hide his sexuality for fear of scaring sponsors, and encouraged him to marry (which he did). Clemmons says that he bears no grudge and appreciated his chance to be a role model for African-American children. He and Rogers sat together with their feet in a child-sized swimming pool twice on the show, once in 1969, amid the racial unrest of the era, when Rogers dried Clemmons’s feet—a reference to Christ washing the feet of his apostles, likely not lost on PBS viewers in the South. The second time was more than twenty years later, in 1993, long after Clemmons had divorced his wife and founded, with Rogers’s support, the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble and the American Negro Spiritual Research Foundation, both dedicated to “preserving and performing the American Negro Spiritual in its original form.”
The second pool scene—shown but not discussed in the film—was Clemmons’s last appearance on the program. He enters the pool after Mister Rogers plays a short film showing children spending time with friends, parents, and grandparents and ending with a mother sitting quietly with her newborn, watching her baby sleep. “I’m thinking about many different ways of saying I love you,” Rogers tells Clemmons in the episode. “You’ll find many ways to understand what love is,” Clemmons sings. Rogers then notes the way memories are called up by actions, like being in a pool. At the show’s close, Clemmons returns to sing a spiritual, with Rogers beaming. “I’m so proud of you, François!” Rogers says at one point. It’s hard not to see it as an apology.
The neighborhood itself is missing from both The Good Neighbor and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Pittsburgh, with its combination of industrial prowess and philanthropic largesse, was the perfect place for a factory owner’s boy to do good. But as Rogers came of age, the Steel City’s industrial base collapsed, along with America’s. In the course of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s three-decade run, real-life music shops, bakeries, and repair stores were closed or replaced by chains. The graham cracker factory that Rogers visited in 1983 was closed by 1998, the work moved to Mexico; the building itself has recently been converted into condos, and local businesses continue to close.
Rogers was part of this collapse as chairman of the board of the Latrobe Die Casting Company, one of his father’s investments. In 1977 he played what King calls “an unwilling and unhappy role in a major labor strike,” sending a mailer to striking workers saying that his father had willed the profits of the company to charity, which wasn’t exactly right, and avoiding mention of his own position on the board. Two years later, Rogers was featured in a Wall Street Journal profile under the headline “Loved by Kids for His TV ‘Neighborhood,’ Mr. Rogers is a Hit in Boardrooms, Too.” Rogers declined to discuss the strike but criticized the union’s existence. “There never was a union while my dad was alive,” Rogers said. “Differences of opinion were settled under the apple tree.”
Though his show modeled patience and humility, he wasn’t a saint, in other words. And yet the film evades complications by concentrating on the most extreme critique, Fox News’s attacks on Rogers as the ultimate lenient liberal parent. “Let me ask you something,” says Brian Kilmeade to a guest. “Mister Rogers and the narcissistic society that he gave birth to because he told every kid that they were important—do you believe his philosophy destroyed a generation?”
Reading between the lines of King’s biography, one is struck by the ways in which Rogers’s creation was a reaction to severe restrictions and disconnections in his childhood, the ways that his parents’ philanthropic work (they bought shoes for his classmates, for instance) set him apart from the kids on the playground. Almost in response to his own wealth, Rogers was arming kids with models of self-generated joy and wonderment, rehearsing them for disappointments, and consistently treating love less as a noun than a verb, with which one makes space for neighbors, and acknowledges their stories and feelings.
The aspect of Rogers’s program that ought to have terrified Fox News was the radically collaborative Neighborhood of Make-Believe. In dreamlike Make-Believe women do stereotypically male work, and vice versa. Lady Elaine Fairchilde was a feminist icon who flew to space before NASA sent Sally Ride, one consistently opposed to the maddening patriarch, King Friday. Mayor Maggie, a black woman, runs the neighboring town, a white man her assistant. Most astonishingly, when Make-Believe is faced with intractable problems, the adults ask the young people for advice and heed them, with the solutions often delivered by Lady Aberlin, a mediator in Make-Believe, playing the part of parent to Rogers’s childlike Daniel.
Betty Aberlin, as she is known in real life, is suspiciously absent from both the film and the book. Neville and King make Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood sound like a one-man show, while cast members recall it having been a team effort. About Aberlin’s contributions, Michael Horton, who did puppet voices, told King:
Betty Aberlin is a brilliant person; the program would not have worked without her. There were a couple of times when Betty felt that she knew Fred enough to say, “This might be offensive to handicapped people,” “This might be offensive to women,” “This might be offensive to gay people.”
Aberlin especially loved the operas, which were developmentally sensitive but expansive and silly, and in which problems in the community were worked out in remarkable ways, like when a hummingbird (Lady Elaine) used the tremendous power of her tiny wings to save Bubbleland from a bubble-busting windstorm, brought on by greed. When the TV curtain fell, Rogers said, “They all found out that friends are far more important than things.”
In a series of tweets a few weeks after the film grossed $20 million—the highest-earning biographical documentary of all time—Aberlin listed the reasons she chose not to participate, chief among them a refusal first, she says, by Rogers and then by his production company after his death to allow the actors to continue with what Aberlin refers to as the Fred Rogers “ministry,” Neighborhood-derived performances intended to reach children in meaningful ways, by staging the operas, for example. Recently, the Fred Rogers Company, renamed for him after his death, sold the rights to one of his songs to be used in Google’s new Pixel 3 phone commercial, and a biopic starring Tom Hanks is now being filmed. “Fred was a genius, and he was also a miser,” Aberlin wrote on Twitter. In her view, “Those who made the documentary, wrote the biography, & those now making the Tom Hanks film are adorning themselves with the virtues of the program PBS took off the air, and making their own art out of our life-work.” She prefers, she writes, to be remembered in Make-Believe rather than “participating in hagiography for a man who began as a colleague.”
King argues that Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, an animated PBS Kids show created in 2012, “captures the spirit of Rogers and advances his legacy.” It’s understandable that the Fred Rogers Company would now want to promote his legacy, as they develop shows like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Peg + Cat, and Odd Squad along with related apps. But the film and book blur the distinction between art and commerce, and the new shows are born of the mercantilism of the Fred Rogers Company, not the art of its original artistic director. It’s not hard to imagine what Margaret McFarland would say about the difference between watching a narrative television program and playing with the Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood app, which feels less like an emotional exchange than a distraction. Their biography-oriented marketing seems to go against what Rogers was saying, especially in his later years, when he bemoaned how the increasing noise in American society hampered our ability to merely be present with one another.
In December 2002 Rogers was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and he died the following February. In his final days he read the Bible, which he had often read along with the work of his great friend Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest who wrote that being in a community was like being in a mosaic of stones, no single stone able to tell the group’s story. After receiving his diagnosis, Rogers had managed to give his last commencement speech, at Dartmouth. Still the preacher, he recited the lyrics to his song “It’s You I Like,” and commented on the text, reminding the crowd not just how far he had taken TV from pie-throwing but how thoroughly he had illustrated the drama in the seemingly ordinary, the stage on which most of our adult lives are set:
And what that ultimately means, of course, is that you don’t ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see, or hear, or touch. That deep part of you, that allows you to stand for those things, without which humankind cannot survive.