When I walked in to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Mister Fred Rogers and his work in children’s television, directed by Morgan Neville, I didn’t have any expectations. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran from 1968 to 2001 and I just missed it watching it. I only had vague memories of different colored sweaters and was curious to learn more.
And learn I did! The documentary covers the majority of Rogers’ work on television. In the 1950s and 1960s, Rogers worked as a puppeteer on a show in Philadelphia called The Children’s Corner. This show used pre-recorded tapes as entertainment, and often the tapes would fail, cutting back to the woman who introduced the tapes, panicking because nothing else was planned. Rogers got into the habit of poking a tiger puppet through a hole in the wall and having conversations with the woman. Rogers apparently hated television but still felt that it could be improved, especially in regards to educating children. Enter: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Running for over 30 years, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was edutainment for preschool-age children; that is to say, it was meant to educate and entertain. The episodes were generally divided into a real segment and a make-believe segment, with completely different characters for each. Rogers wrote, composed, and did many of the voices for the extensive cast of puppets that the show eventually had.
Something that was surprising to learn was how timely the show was. Though wrapped up in make-believe scenarios, Rogers wrote scripts that corresponded to current events, political and social. Though mainly focused on emotional issues, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood also tackled racism and assassination, for example.
Though it doesn’t linger on his personal life, the documentary used interviews with personal friends, as well as his widow and two sons, which helped balance out the ratio of work and his personal life. In addition to interviews, the documentary used footage from the show, as well as its precursor The Children’s Corner.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary. Coming at it from an outsider's perspective as I did, I learned a lot about the show’s history and about Mister Rogers himself. He truly did care about children and making sure that their emotional lives were stable. It was relaxing to watch a piece about a beloved figure who improved so many people’s lives. I would recommend it to adults who grew up watching the show, as well as adults who didn't, because they would fully learn the significance of this man's work.
This evening, settle down to Won't You Be My Neighbor?10
This documentary really shows how Mister Rogers wanted to educate children about their emotional health.