Keeping Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Beautiful

Lisa Tate

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As the roar quiets from San Diego Comic-Con with its parade of trailers, another movie trailer premiered this week: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers.

Inspired by the article “Can You Say…Hero?” by Tom Junod, the movie centers around a friendship that grows between Rogers and Lloyd Vogel (a journalist based on Junod and portrayed by Matthew Rhys) when he was assigned to profile the beloved children's television icon.

It isn't too clear in the trailer, but Vogel likely possesses the cynical attitude of some journalists, who just know behind every decent individual there had to be a dark side ready to be exposed. However, Rogers, who had already won the rest of the world over, is winning him over as well.

I highly recommend reading Junod’s article, which ran originally in 1998, and was rerun in Esquire in 2017. Although it is a lengthy read, and filled with its share of F-Bombs (no, none of them were uttered by Fred Rogers), it is thoughtfully written and you will already see a few elements from the article used in the film’s trailer.

The scene where he is on the subway, and children begin singing to him…according the article, that really happened.

My biggest concern, as always with major releases, is doing the subject matter proud, and Mister Rogers is one person who deserves a good portrayal.

I was a kid in the 1970s when children’s shows on PBS were plentiful. Even as a kid I didn't like most of those hosts. The 1970s were peak “stranger danger” time. We learned it in school, from parents, and anywhere else kids would gather to learn to fear the potential predator. Be it local Bozo the Clown representatives or Romper Room ladies, I got a creepy vibe from all of them.

Except for Mister Rogers. He was a good guy, not one of these weirdos in a blue van saying, “Hey kid, hop in! I know your mom and have candy.” You could trust Mister Rogers. There is a pureness in the twinkle in his eye, and a gentleness in his soul that just wasn’t common in children’s programming that wanted to grab your attention with loud music, flashing light and screechy voices.

I was allotted three shows to watch in those days: Sesame Street, Mister Rogers Neighborhood and Electric Company. Sesame Street and Electric Company included the hip, pop culture references and humor to keep us kids interested in learning the alphabet and numbers. I’m not complaining. It was Electric Company that gave us the first live action Spider-Man, and introduced a generation to acting great, Morgan Freeman.

Sandwiched between these two, loud, colorful, music-filled sensory bombardments on the afternoon schedule, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood seemed so quiet and low-key. Yet, he also seemed genuine. If Mister Rogers told me it was okay to cry when I’m sad, laugh when I’m happy, be nice to every single person I meet, or use my imagination all the time, then by golly I would. His call for empathy and kindness was timeless, and every value he expressed is still vital today.

Fred Rogers was a decent individual, in a world that wasn’t always decent.

You can’t pin him down as representing “one side” of anything. Politically, I read he was life-long Republican, but he was kind and happy to meet with presidents of both main parties. In the Esquire article there are images of him just as happy to be bringing out the child in both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, because he knew they were both children themselves. How many of us can feel just at home talking to representatives from the party we don’t normally vote for, no matter which party it is? Mister Rogers saw each person with individual value, not a representative for a certain ideology, and that was a beautiful thing.

Rogers was a man of faith, and many people know he was also ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Like many kids, he faced being bullied, and felt lonely much of the time. Instead of becoming a lifelong victim, he turned his imagination and feelings towards helping other children feel less isolated and lonely. He loved his parents, and elements of his show came from his real life family. His father was president of McFeely Brick Company, and in the show we meet our friend, Mr. McFeely. His adopted sister was Elaine. Remember the puppet, Lady Elaine?

Mister Rogers had a talent for bringing his own world and childhood memories into lessons and stories for the entire world to embrace. It’s hard to try and corrupt that.

Okay, no it wasn’t.

When I was a teen in the 1980s, Saturday Night Live was still hilarious, and Eddie Murphy was the king. He created Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood, an inner city parody of Mister Rogers that we all memorized bits from in high school.

“It feels real good to walk streets again, after being in jail doing 7 to 10…I wish you was my neighbor!”

However, even as we cracked up on Murphy’s politically incorrect comic genius, we all knew Mister Rogers was awesome. When Murphy was at his peak, one interviewer asked him if he ever met any of the subjects of his parodies and impressions. He said he received a call from Mister Rogers, who was very nice to him.

Hanks’ movie comes soon after the 2018 indie documentary on Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? which showed how ground breaking and “radical” Rogers’ simple message of kindness and acceptance was.

I only hope Hollywood does a good job celebrating that message. They have a talent for twisting and corrupting a simple message, and making it political. Hanks is really the only one I trust in this role, although he might not nail every mannerism, he seems to really want to do the legacy of Mister Rogers proud. I mean, he's already been Walt Disney, why not give him Mister Rogers, too?

Time will tell once the movie hits theaters, but in the meantime, we can all try everyday to live up to Mister Rogers’ idea of a better world; a kind world. We will, of course, fail, but that’s okay, too. As long as we try and keep our goals simple each day.

Mister Rogers did. Even in the prayers he taught others it is sometimes best to just say, “Thank you, God.”

Yes, thank you, God. Thank you for letting me grow up in a time when Mister Rogers was living, and for getting to live in a time when people are finally taking notice of his importance.

The trailer even includes a Facebook group link for Mister Rogers Helpers to help “spread kindness.”

Thank you, too, Mister Rogers. I’m glad you were our neighbor, and I look forward to you and Mister Hanks inviting us all in again to relearn what you taught us.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood comes out on Nov. 22, just in time for the Thanksgiving.

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