Oh How We Could Use Mr. Rogers Today

Summer time is movie blockbuster time, but for those who are searching for a film that doesn’t depict the end of the universe (like any Marvel offering), try “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the documentary about Fred Rogers, the creator of the long-running “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” children’s show which aired for more than 30 years on PBS from 1968-2001.

How refreshing to see a portrait of a public figure that doesn’t tear apart the image of the person being examined.

Spoiler alert:   It turns out that Mr. Rogers the TV personality was identical to Mr. Rogers the human being.

While I was too old to watch “Mister Rogers” when it first aired, I had a perception of him as a benevolent TV personality who oversaw a little show done with inexpensive sets and sock puppets.  This documentary reveals the thoughtfulness behind his mindset.

Before conceiving his show, Rogers is shown in an old black and white clip talking directly to the camera, musing out loud while on a piano about what he would like to do for children and how he would approach such an endeavor.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” will make you feel guilty for not appreciating or realizing that Fred Rogers, an ordained minister and amateur child psychologist, was quite talented, writing 900 shows and 300 songs.  He took his job seriously and made it clear that others should likewise be responsible in developing tasteful television shows for children in a comforting and nurturing way; he disapproved of most children’s programming which focused on frenetic and insulting rather than calm and uplifting material.

In a tightly compacted 90 minutes, which includes new interviews with his widow and grown sons, a sense of “wow, what a good man he was” overwhelms you. Through a television screen, he made a direct connection to youngsters by emphasizing their uniqueness at the same time acknowledging their universal fears.  Rogers did not shy away from confronting mature issues such as racism, war, and death.

When observing him interact with kids in personal appearances, he always gives his full attention to what they have to say, something few adults do.  Too many parents ignore their children instead of interact with them, leaving them alone to their own devices, literally.

To hear him speak so eloquently and extemporaneously in front of a U.S. senate committee on funding for Public Broadcasting in 1969 is remarkable.  Mr. Rogers was on a mission to ensure there would be at least one decent TV show for kids on the air.

There are many moments in the film when a viewer’s eyes will fill with tears.  The most poignant one comes near the end when you hear Fred Rogers’ voice asking the audience to take a minute “to think about those who have helped you become who you are today.  Some of them may be here right now.  Some may be far away.  Some may even be in Heaven.  But wherever they are, if they’ve loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside yourself.”

To ask such a profound question, and to grant permission to have a minute of silence to think of that person encapsulates the soul of Fred Rogers, a humanitarian for all of us.

However, the saddest part of seeing the movie is that you are overcome with a sense of loss that there is no Mr. Rogers for children anymore.  The positive response to this documentary is proof that people crave someone like him especially in these fractured times.  Who is the savior today in the realm of children’s programming?  The void is heartbreaking.


The Not so Great American Read

Ask professional basketball fans to name the best player ever and chances are LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan would appear at the top of that list.  Meanwhile, Wilt Chamberlain, who put basketball on the map, recedes further into oblivion.  People who remember him playing are dying off; footage of him playing is usually in blurry black and white film clips.

Too often people don’t consider history before they were born.  This pitfall can be seen with PBS’s The Great American Read, an eight-part series which encourages viewers to vote for their favorite book of all time based on a pre-selected list of 100 books.

Last week in the opening episode, host Meredith Vieira informed the audience that the list was based on a survey by YouGov that accounted for “gender, ethnicity, age, and region.”

It is that pre-selected list that is problem-some.

Here are some eye-openers about the Yelp-ized list.

While 16 out of the 100 books were published before the 20th century, 18 were published in the 21st century, seven in the past nine years (one from 2016).

Many recent titles were made into movies including the Twilight and Hunger Games series.   So, did those who listed these books actually read them or did they just see the films?

The most dubious selection:  Fifty Shades of Gray.

Surely, the producers could have set some ground rules for the list such as a book has to have been published at least 50 years ago to ensure the title has lasting power.

While Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer made the list, the more adult The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn did not, though it is often referred to as the greatest American novel ever written.

One could argue that as long as people read, it doesn’t matter what the book is.  But it actually does.

If all we wanted was to get people reading, they already do that via tweets, Yahoo headlines, and Facebook posts.   However, the physical act of looking at words is not the same as reading well written books that require concentration and often re-reading, works whose authors took time to craft.

The Pew Research Center survey in January revealed that 24% of all U.S. adults did not read a book in any format in the past year.

Usually the only opportunity for people to read classic books is when a teacher assigns one for a class.  And even then, too many young people bypass the actual text for websites which provide short summaries of chapters.

On the show, many people interviewed said that a book meant something special to them because a character or situation mirrored their lives. Women gravitated towards books written by women about women.

However, one does not have to find a book that is an exact replication of one’s life in order to find it relatable.

When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, I connected with Atticus Finch even though I was 15 years old, not a father and not from the South.  It was his moral core that resonated with me.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I was with Maya Angelou emotionally when she described the pain she felt when a dentist refused to treat her because she was black even though I am not African-American, female, and have not felt the indignities of racism.

If we all just choose to read books written by people with the same race, religion, and age, we are just like those who only watch and hear programs that espouse their own political views.

Not long ago, Angelenos participated in a Big Read of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  Such a city-wide undertaking united people in the goal of reading the one book.

And that is truly the power of a writer when you can see yourself in an Oliver Twist or a Ma Joad, a person unlike you who is human like you.