If I can claim no other legacy than this, I am a proud member of the demographic for which Mister Rogers built his neighborhood and changed children’s television.
I thought I was perfectly happy with “Romper Room,” Yogi Bear, “Captain Kangaroo” and, locally, “Professor Kool’s Fun School” (and later “Captain Chesapeake”), until this guy opened his front door, slipped into something a little more comfortable (presumably on his lunch hour because he changed back into work clothes when he left) and rocked my world.
I sat mesmerized while Rogers gently encouraged us to speak truth, explore our feelings, consider those of others and enjoy simple things, all while making me part of an audience that television suddenly took seriously in ways other than Easy-Bake Oven marketing.
“Sesame Street,” which premiered a few years after “Mister Rogers” came to us via the Eastern Educational Network, which later became American Public Television, may not have taught me to read, but it tried to teach me to share; two years after that, “The Electric Company” made us all feel very cool and streetwise while “Schoolhouse Rock” created a generation for whom the Preamble to the Constitution can only be sung.
I wept my way through last year’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and was prepared to weep some more during “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers? Absurdly perfect. An adaptation of Tom Junod’s Esquire piece in which a sardonic journalist, played by Matthew Rhys, is granted spiritual grace by a subject most assumed he would be roasting? Yes, please.
I laughed, I cried, I wished Hanks would run for president (and not for the first time.) It was a lovely movie. Of course, it completely missed the point of Mister Rogers, at least Mister Rogers as I, and most of the world, experienced him, but then how could it not? It was a movie, and Mister Rogers was a master of television.
The miracle was not that, as a perceptive and stubbornly caring man, he was able to bring grace and illumination to the people he met. It was that he was able to bring grace and illumination to those he hadn’t. The wonder was not that he changed these people’s lives by making them value themselves a little more and fear other people a little less; it’s that he was able to do this through television.
Mister Rogers never tried to make life seem like a movie; he made television seem like life.
Way back in the “boob tube” days, long before even the first Golden Age had begun, Fred Rogers chose to put off his ordination as a minister because he felt called to work in television.
He believed in, worried over, evangelized about and harnessed the power of the medium in a way few have before or since. Against all conventional wisdom — “wisdom” that still reigns today — he valued repetition, simplicity (often to the point of shabbiness) and silence. Mister Rogers spoke softly, calmly, and he paused almost as much as he spoke, often for a long time.
But those pauses were not filled with empty air; they were filled with space. Mister Rogers was giving his viewers time to think and feel, to commune with him and the rest of the audience in thought and emotion. You knew other kids were thinking the same things that you were, and you felt connected to something bigger than yourself, if only for a moment. (And absolutely without Twitter.)
(Can you imagine Mister Rogers’ face if you said “hashtag” or told him, as so many makers of television are told today, that he had to “grab more eyeballs?” Can you say “horrified?”)
It is virtually impossible to show the impact of such a thing in a film. Which is why it makes perfect sense that director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue chose to show the restorative nature of Mister Rogers through his impact on a single person. Junod’s piece was a far more layered exploration of what Rogers did and how he did it. But because Junod had experienced Mister Rogers only as an adult, it also struggled with capturing what made Mister Rogers special, relying on highly emotional interactions with specific children, some of whom are depicted in the film, and with Rogers’ impact on Junod himself. As an adult.
I’m sure Rogers was happy to help Junod out, and apparently they remained friends, which is wonderful, but adults were not Fred Rogers’ first language — children were.
So “Beautiful Day” is a film about an adult discovering things he once knew, or should have learned as a child. It is told in an adult, which is to say traditional, way: There’s a beginning, middle and end, a conflict, a climax, a transformation and a denouement in which everything is neatly tied up in a fairly happy way.
But Mister Rogers was a very nontraditional storyteller. Mister Rogers never tried to convince you that problems could be solved neatly or in a definitive way. He didn’t try to tell you, for example, that going to school was nothing to be afraid of; he acknowledged that some things were scary, that being afraid made life hard sometimes, but there were things you could do to feel a bit better.
Like many, my brother and I watched “Mister Rogers” long after we left the 2-5 target audience. Oh, we made fun of him as we grew older; for those of us who equated maturity with snark and mockery, Mister Rogers provided loads of material. The gentle voice, the patient pauses, the simple puppets, those damn blue tennis shoes. When Eddie Murphy debuted “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood” on “Saturday Night Live” in 1981, no one laughed harder than those of us in the original “Mister Rogers” audience.
And Fred Rogers laughed too. Though slight and a bit stooped, his shoulders proved broad — he took most of the jokes in stride, seeing them for what they were: proof that we loved him still, and always.
We all may have longed for “Romper Room’s” Miss Sally (and before her, Miss Nancy) to glimpse us through her magic mirror, but Mister Rogers didn’t need to draw names out of a barrel to convince us we were seen. Individually. Completely. He spoke to us, not en masse but directly, year after year after year.
How do you show that in a film? You can’t. I have spent years studying television, watching it contract and expand and become, in many ways, something completely different than what it was, and I still have no idea how he did it, how this guy in a sweater sat in some studio in Pittsburgh, looked into a camera and talked directly to me.
Fred Rogers was good and kind, resolute, rigorous and more than a little obsessive (the weight thing is just plain weird) and “A Beautiful Day” captures all that. But Fred Rogers was also magic, plain and simple, and to understand that, well, you really had to be there.