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Jeff Simon: Mister, we could use a man like Fred Rogers again

Jeff Simon

I didn't "get" Fred Rogers. Thank God I didn't.

Because everything I didn't "get" about Fred Rogers is what was so good about him. That's how wrong I was.

He was right and so were his fans, which is why Morgan Neville's film about him, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is being met with so much audience and critical love around the country (it is playing currently at Dipson's Amherst and Eastern Hills Mall theaters).

Rogers' show moved to PBS right about the time my daughter was born. She, quite literally, grew up with it, just as she grew up with "Sesame Street" and the fondly remembered "Electric Company" (both of which came a bit later). Those latter two shows are the ones I used to watch with her frequently when she was little. We both loved them; in the case of "Electric", in fact, I might have loved it even more than she did. I delighted in watching the slyness that both Rita Moreno and Morgan Freeman brought to their roles to juice up the show.

But that's the whole point. What I loved watching of children's TV is what I grew up loving and what I still love in blockbuster movies meant to be "family movies," i.e. show biz, good old-fashioned showbiz.

And that is exactly what Fred Rogers was trying not to be.

Fred Rogers died in 2003. My grown daughter now has an 8-year-old of her own. I honestly didn't remember her watching Fred Rogers; certainly I never watched "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" with her.

I do remember well watching "Sesame" and "Electric" with her and delighting in both. What we adults loved so much about those shows on PBS was not only their intelligence in educating kids in literacy and the complex world of human feelings. What they also did, above all, was teach us adults how to, in turn, teach those things to our own kids. No adult who watched "The Electric Company" could ever be completely at sea teaching their own kids how to read. The show taught you ways to do that very thing.

Fred Rogers was doing something else entirely. He wasn't talking to us adults.

So what my daughter writes to me now about Rogers is, "I loved how gentle he was. I loved how slow the show was. I loved the focus on imagination. I don't think I watched it with anyone. It wasn't that kind of show."

Exactly. It wasn't really show business at all. It was something else entirely.

In one of the greatest archetypal contretemps in the history of American culture, Fred Rogers testified May 1, 1969, to the Senatorial sub-committee dealing with the question of funding PBS. Its chairman was Sen. John Pastore of Rhode Island, a typical senatorial tough guy who had inveighed often against the cynical bombardment of TV's usual kid's programming, but who hated, even more, the possibility he'd be taken for a sucker by some squishy showbiz operator.

You can see the confrontation in Morgan Neville's movie in town now. I recommend the full 7 1/2 minutes on YouTube to everyone. It's a truly extraordinary moment in American life. Historic too -- PBS got its money. Pastore and Rogers were friends ever afterward.

"All right, Rogers" Pastore snarls impatiently. "You've got the floor."

He was warning Rogers he had heard a lot of squishy testimony before and he'd had his fill of it. Rogers -- a former minister -- very gently and patiently told Pastore that he trusted Pastore would read the "philosophical" statement he provided to explain what he did on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and what PBS was all about.

Then Rogers told his story -- that his first children's program 30 years before had a budget of $30. "Now our program has a budget of $6,000. $6,000 pays for two minutes of [children's] cartoons."

What Rogers was doing was fundamentally different from what all those glorious Warner Brothers "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies" were doing when I grew up on them.

"We don't have to bump somebody on the head to make drama on the screen," Rogers said. "We deal with such things as getting a haircut. Or the feelings about brothers and sisters. Or the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations. And we speak it constructively. ... This is what I give. I give an expression of care, every day, to each child."

Bingo. Each child. Every day. All my life, I had seen children's programming that intended to be show business. Some of it was sublime show business -- those great Warner Brothers cartoon masterpieces by Chuck Jones and Tex Avery (see the brilliant critic Hugh Kenner's little book about Jones). Some of it was crude, crass, condescending and grossly exploitative.

Rogers didn't make his show for an "audience." He was speaking as gently and slowly and tenderly as possible to one kid at a time. That's all. Just one kid at a time.

In the click-crazy era we live in, Rogers seems like either a madman or a saint. Critic, writer and filmmaker Rod Lurie ("The Contender," the remake of "Straw Dogs") said recently our current president seemed to him less like the Bond villain others saw than a Disney villain. Why? Says Lurie, "He targets children," in his political manipulations.

Rogers didn't know what it meant to "target" children, plural, in any way at all. He spoke to individual kids -- about things, including trauma and everyday feelings and resentments, they'd need to deal with all through their lives.

I'm never going to apologize for my love of those contemporary "family movies" that adults can take even more subversive pleasure in than kids can -- movies like "Shrek," "Up," "Wall-E," "Aladdin" and "Toy Story 3."

My grandson and I love watching vintage "Bugs Bunny" and "Daffy Duck" together -- so much so that he, at the age of 8, was able to introduce me to the joys of watching "Animaniacs," which is what happened when Steven Spielberg realized the time was right for some talented current movie animators to get into the Chuck Jones/Tex Avery business.

I don't know that here, in 2018, there is anyone like Fred Rogers any more or even whether one is possible. If there were, I'm sure many would feel the way I did about the original -- that there was something a wee bit amateurish about a national TV show whose production values weren't much more than that great "grandfather" station WBEN's were when they'd broadcast Mike Mearian and his puppet Buttons or Virgil Booth on "Fun to Learn."

But now that I know better, I'd know that if there really were a new and pure and fully committed broadcaster for kids like Fred Rogers, he could be trusted to talk to my grandson alone, any time.

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