Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
Through the lens of an encourager (which is my calling, bottom line, no matter what I do; it’s my heart for him, her, them, you), I offer this reflection on the movie about Fred Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is just now wrapping up its first-run showing at theaters. My friends and I saw it the last night it played locally.
The movie was entertaining, insightful, and encouraging, as was the children’s television series itself; as was its star, Fred Rogers.
The movie highlights Rogers as both the personality and the person. It is based on his interaction with, and influence on, a hardened magazine reporter, Ron Junod, assigned to interview Rogers for an article on “heroes” written for Esquire in 1998.
According to a review of the movie, the article “turned into a therapy session for Junod,” renamed Lloyd Vogel in the movie. The review features a link to the original article.
But I am otherwise familiar with Fred Rogers, the man, as well as Mr. Rogers, the personality he became famous for in his television program. They were, in fact, I eventually realized, one and the same.
Rogers, besides being the brain (and the heart) behind the hugely successful program in which he found his own life’s calling, to, as he put it, “…look through the camera into the eyes of a single child” to encourage and teach him or her, was not only the program’s presenter, actor, puppeteer, singer, music composer, and producer, he was also an author, educator, and a Presbyterian Minister.
I believe he worked very well in all callings–but especially, as a minister. And his voice reaches listeners and “hearts” in that capacity even today. Just saying, have tissues on hand when viewing.
Mr. Rogers, the Children’s TV Celebrity
I first became familiar with Rogers and his show in my coursework in special education back in the late sixties when the program was new. This was also about the time Sesame Street emerged and, not long after, Electric Company , also on Public Broadcasting stations, both of which also quickly became successful with their brand of child-geared, high energy, highly entertaining and fast-paced lessons in many subjects.
Anybody remember, for example, the tunes that began, “One of these things is not like the others” from Street, and “Conjunction junction what’s your function?” from Company? (Throughout my teaching career, especially in high school and college classes, those and other songs from the programs occasionally came up, making an otherwise dull subject a little bit fun.)
Neighborhood, however, was very different in format and style.
Crafted around the personality of its star, it was slower-paced, about the pace of a small child with developing awareness, featuring topics and themes interesting to all ages (even, later on, to moms like me when I watched it with my own children in the early-mid seventies).
It was also pared down to the simple language of young children, particularly when Rogers presented the occasional weighty subject such as divorce, death, bullies, and various special needs topics.
You know, the kind of stuff very young children often experience but for which they don’t yet have the words or the connections to the attendant feelings–and how to deal with those feelings–that Fred Rogers provided through his puppets in the “Neighborhood of Make Believe,” and/or through guests, some of whom were children themselves.
And always presented in his calm, gentle way of communicating through that camera, there, pausing occasionally so that the child on the other side could comprehend…
However, in my education coursework, analyzing the brand new show in the context of how his style might affect the growth and development of children, the jury was mixed.
Many of us, in our late teens and early twenties at that time, grew up on Disney’s The Mickey Mourse Club, the Howdy-Doody show, and Captain Kangaroo which also featured very talented, entertaining personalities and touched on a few sensitive issues as well.
Neighborhood was, nevertheless, clearly a genre of its own then, and, I would argue, since.
The other, contemporaneous, programs got the kids (my kids as well, later on) dancing and singing and excited (while learning)–and looking for all the related merchandise at the stores–but Rogers’ calm, thoughtful, and fun features got little ones sitting closer to the television and quieting down as they listened to him discuss the theme of the day, along with, of course, help from the puppets and regular neighborhood visitors as well as theme-specific guests.
But mostly it was Fred.
Who made the show.
And, as Junod found out, Rogers “made the show” not only for the children but also for grown ups who, eventually, realized, they were also “safe,” as it were, with Fred. No cynicism needed to cloud the experience.
In short, this guy was for real.
Slightly odd, perhaps, for an older crowd seasoned and often hardened by the jabs and barbs of life.
Rogers, whose wife assured the reporter “was not perfect,” nevertheless in his profession–and through his ministry on stage, as it were–always displayed a heart of understanding and compassion for kids that shone through, though the bells and whistles in the Neighborhood were not maybe as attention-getting as they were on the other shows.
And most importantly, he also had the same heart for everybody, on stage and in real life, which Junod found out when Rogers operated in his ministery, a calling, in my view, that spoke to the needs of whoever happened to enter his life just as significantly as did the lessons crafted for the little ones.
And Rogers’ words and ways reach all with “ears–as well as minds and hearts–to hear” today who also need the lessons of the wisdom and understanding he offered then.
Mr. Rogers the Minister
As that young college student when first I “met” Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood in the context of my coursework, I shared the “coming of age” cynicism regarding the world at large that is common to all young college students.
Yeah. Rogers was, ah, really different.
I watched an episode or two of the show, completed my homework assignment, and went on my way.
As a young mom, however, and beginning to glean lessons from real life, I paid more attention to this gentle, pied piper of pre-schoolers, wise educator of the new generation of youngsters, “Gen-Xers,” in this case. I appreciated his wisdom more as time went on.
I watched with different eyes as my own little ones ignored their whistlers, bouncers, rattlers, and wind-up toys for a while, toddled a little closer to the television screen (but not TOO close, of course), and listened to Mr. Rogers. I listened, and learned, too.
All of us gleaned valuable lessons, although from very different ends of life’s spectrum.
I recall one of my lessons to this day.
Mr. Rogers had taken his viewers to a dentist’s office. I was absolutely amazed at the modern comforts of such a place! The reclining chair, the friendly hygienist, the calm, nice dentist!
As it just so happened, I was facing my first serious visit to the dentist in years, and I was a bit tense.
My last visit to the dentist was many years prior when I was 9 or 10. I had to get two very stubborn, very infected back molars removed (in our big family, going to the dentist was for emergencies only).
It was an experience fraught with a mean, old dentist (the only one in our little town in Upper Michigan) who hollered at kids who dared cry, and who barked at you to get up in the hard, rigid, cold chair, NOW, put your head back, and HOLD STILL! She wasn’t gentle with the needle, either.
Of course, hyperbole and time may have embellished the tale a bit. But the fear was real!
Needless to say, Mr. Rogers calmed some of my apparent residual concerns, lingering still, with his presentation…
I confess, however, some shows later, to saying, out loud, “REALLY, Fred?” the day he went into a mocked-up bathroom on the set, sat down on the (closed) toilet seat, pointed to the bathtub and, after a little reassuring intro concerning the day’s topic, sang, “You’ll never go down the drain…”
My children, however, scooted a little closer to the TV…
Of course, when I learned that he was not only a professional educator but also held a BA in Music from Rollins College, and later obtained an MDiv degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary after which he became a Presbytyrian Minister, I understood a little bit more. A little bit better. He also worked closely with child psychologists during the development of his programs.
Yet, in interviews on talk shows, comedy shows, and in documentaries, many of which I’ve viewed over the years, he only discussed his educational background if asked.
As you can likely now understand, he tended more to look directly into the eyes of the host, comedian, or reporter and begin, or continue, with a few of his own, gentle questions. Pausing. For an answer. Which was sometimes maybe even a little tiny bit challenging for the other to answer…
Fred was patient, however.
The audience, who might have come in with a mite bit of cynicism themselves, soon quieted as well.
He didn’t even seem to notice that some of them might have started out laughing that nervous kind of laugh when you’re not really SURE about this somewhat odd personality who worked in a profession that soon turned many into world class cynics… He just kept smiling. And paying attention.
I remember once watching him in a live interview on the David Susskind Show back in the eighties. Susskind had that similar look of mild incredulity after the first few questions and answers. I will never forget, however, one question in particular–and Rogers’ answer.
Susskind (as close to verbatim as I can recall): “Mr Rogers (note: everybody always ended up calling him ‘Mr. Rogers,’ not ‘Fred’), when you were working as a floor manager in TV studios and writing music and attending the seminary, did you ever imagine you would one day end up on NPR doing a children’s puppet show?”
Rogers (this I remember virtually verbatim): “Well, David (Rogers paused, smiled, and kept looking directly into Susskind’s eyes), you know, it’s very interesting what can happen when you allow yourself to be led.”
I saw and heard what he did there.
Because led he was–both on the set and “in the heart,” you might put it.
(That bit of wisdom I have long since remembered as a kind of “directive” for my own life’s work.)
And led, we can be, too, no matter our age or status.
Because Mr.Rogers knew, as we also can, there is oh, so much more to talk about…and to feel…and to think all the way through…not only in the neighborhood of make-believe but in the real world of me and of you…
(Don’t you think so, too?)
For fans, young and old, here’s a recording of both the first and the last time Mr. Rogers welcomed us into his neighborhood in the national program which debuted in the U.S. in 1968, and ran until 2001: