As “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” gained a legion of viewers in the 1970s, I wasn’t among its fans. When the iconic children’s show made its national public television debut in 1968, I was 4 years old, presumably the ideal age to enjoy it.
But by the time I became aware of the show, I felt too old for it. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” lacked an action hero, something I thought necessary for a TV program a boy was supposed to like. Fred Rogers, the show’s host, didn’t seem to do anything. As far as I could tell, he was a grown man who spent his day puttering around the house, wearing fuddy-duddy clothes and feeding his fish. Mr. Rogers bored me.
All of this came to mind last weekend when my wife asked me to go see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a documentary about Rogers’ life and work that’s been playing at movie theaters across the country.
On the Saturday my wife made that suggestion, I had spent the day wearing fuddy-duddy clothes, puttering around the house and feeding my fish. A half a century after dismissing Mr. Rogers as an intolerable bore, it seemed I had become him.
In the deeper sense, of course, nobody was, or ever will be, quite like Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, a few years after he stopped producing new episodes of “Neighborhood.” His exceptional kindness, both on- and off-camera, is the subject of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a film that’s appeared at a time when national civility is at a low ebb.
That reality was made clear at the matinee I attended, when the management advanced the film with a screener for a movie about a drive-by shooting.
Rogers, were he still around, would have been disappointed by the gore on the screen, though not surprised. He often grieved about the way popular culture celebrated greed and violence, especially how it promoted those distorted values among children. In hundreds of episodes, he offered the soft-spoken generosity of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” as a rebuttal.
To do so required formidable strength — something not always associated with kindness, which is often misread, particularly in Washington, D.C., these days, as weakness.
At our matinee, audience members alternated between smiles and tears. The smiles came from being with Rogers again, and the tears expressed grief, I think, at how deeply his message of tolerance has been forgotten.
It would be a mistake, though, to think of Rogers’ philosophy as a thing of the past. When he made his national debut in 1968, he already looked like a nostalgia act — the sweater-clad square doing a perfect impression of a 1950s dad.
But Rogers’ prevailing message was that kindness and civility are a moral choice — one open to us in any day and age, regardless of popular fashion.
That’s not yesterday’s news. It is, in fact, more urgent than ever.