By now I'm sure you're aware that 2018 is the 50th anniversary of "Mister Rogers Neighborhood," broadcast nationally by PBS. The milestone has received a great deal of media coverage, a documentary on PBS - hosted by Michael Keaton, who actually worked on the show, a theatrical documentary that came out in June and Tom Hanks announcement that he will star as Fred Rogers in a feature film to be released later this year.
The show concept started out as a local 15 minute program that aired only in the Pittsburgh market. For a short period of time Fred left the states to create a children's program for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) that helped him develop his craft of producing children's programming that not only educated the kids about a plethora of subjects but showed them why they each were unique in their own special way.
Fred didn't use a lot of gimmicks. He did employ puppets that he did the voices for, a piano for musical numbers, many that he composed and a very slow but deliberate way of speaking to children. When asked by WGN's renowned Roy Leonard why he spoke so slowly, Fred replied, "Because I'm talking directly to children and I want them to hear and get the meaning of every word I use." Fred was very deliberate about the words he used both in his scripts and the lyrics of his songs. In Fred's opinion, "Words matter."
Morgan Neville's documentary, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" recently released in theaters nationwide, uses behind the scene clips of Fred working with his crew as well as commentary and sound bites from co-workers, friends, family, and even Senator Pastore who was so impressed by the man that he authorized via his committee, funding up for consideration for public television that President Nixon wanted nixed (sorry - couldn't help it).
What you see over and over again within the framework of Neville's expose is the kindness the man had for children. One anecdotal tale shows Fred with a child plagued with cerebal palsy and confined to a wheel chair. The boy's parents wrote to Fred about their child and Fred invited them to bring their son to the show so he could talk about disability in a straight truthful fact of the matter. There was no attempt to somehow sugar coat the challenges the young man faced. If anything, Fred asked the youngster to demonstrate how he controlled his wheel chair movement and what his aspirations were for his life. It was great television at its best because it was so honest.
Fred told Senator Pastore that he liked to talk directly into the camera as if he were talking to each child watching him - sort of one-on-one. I know he had that effect on my daughter who was a huge fan.
Due to my work for WTTW, I had a chance to spend 3 days with Fred and David Newell who you might remember as Mr. McFeeley, a.k.a. Mr. Speedy Delivery. During those three days with Fred and David, I coordinated a publicity tour that promoted four upcoming shows that Rogers performed with his puppets at the Auditorium Theater. All of the proceeds benefited WTTW and children's television programming. In between shows, Fred was scheduled to have a break but instead spent most of his time talking to children with disabilities (some 250 each show) that he insisted be provided complimentary tickets to the attraction. He also employed a one-on-one conversation method with each child and to my amazement I actually saw (for the first time ever in my life) an aura that surrounded the man filled with a rainbow of colors. I have never witnessed anything like it since and that may be why I found the man so special as did millions of others. Fred even spent a bit of time with my daughter back stage, a moment she and I cherish to this day.
Fred Rogers believed that children mattered, no matter their creed, color, age, heritage or the state of their health. He viewed each child as precious and most found this attitude refreshing with the exception of FOX NEWS who believe it or not criticized the man for feeling that way. There are actual clips in the Morgan Neville documentary that attest to the critical reviews held by various FOX NEWS commentators who thought Fred's emphasis on why every child was "special," produced kids who would not assimilate well in the harsh reality of life in America. However one need not be naive about the critics. A great teacher by the name of Jesus was also rebuked by his own disciples when people kept bringing babies to him for a blessing. His response, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these."
Whether you believe in God or not, I think it's safe to say that the future of our world belongs to the children. And unfortunately FOX NEWS perception years ago when it came to children isn't all that different today. When the Parkland, Florida massacre happened, FOX NEWS went after the kids - so much so that one commentator, Laura Ingraham had to apologize after losing numerous sponsors.
I'm with Fred and everybody like him who sees the goodness of every child because in my life I've been blessed with the gift of children. Let's treat children with the respect they deserve. We'll all feel a lot better for it and maybe just maybe they'll go on to GO DO GOOD on behalf of all of us and our world!
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