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Revisiting ‘Mr. Rogers’ United ‘Neighborhood’ of kindness

Published July 11. 2018 11:08AM

The question, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” has an implicit assumption.

It’s not “Please be my neighbor.”

it’s not “Will you be my neighbor?”

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” implies that the decision is up to the individual being asked. It’s a straightforward request. And it indicates a willingness on the part of the person asking, to be your neighbor.

It’s how Fred Rogers (1928-2003), creator and host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (1968-2001 on PBS), put it.

I was not one of those who tuned in to watch “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” When its telecast began, I was a senior in high school. By the time my son was born in 1993, we were watching “Thomas the Tank Engine” on television.

Several friends who grew up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” accompanied me to a recent screening. Here are some of their reactions during a discussion afterward at a neighborhood ice-cream parlor.

“I grew up on it,” said Michael Gontkosky of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

“It brought back a lot of memories,” Gontkosky said of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

“I never realized how diverse his subject matter was,” said Jill Parker. “In my house, it gave me a real good sense of what was right.”

“I did watch it with my daughter,” said Ella Vaysman. “I’ll tell her to definitely see it.”

“I watched it,” Nancy D’Annibale West said of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” “I thought it (the documentary film) was an excellent summation of his shows. My whole life philosophy is to pray about what is the right thing to do. He was way ahead of his time in being open and loving toward everyone. His moral was that love is the greatest healer. He was humility personified.”

“I really like the movie,” said Jane Landis. “I never knew about the public broadcast funding hearing. He used gentleness, kindness and love, just the way he interacted with the children, with the chairman of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communication to get the $20 million.”

The documentary film, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” not only revisits the television show with clips from show telecasts and archive footage of the era when the television show was broadcast, but takes us behind the scenes with interviews with those who were on the show, those who helped produce the show, and with Fred Rogers and his wife, Joanne Rogers, and their two sons. There are also media pundits, including Susan Stamberg of NPR fame, and television critic David Bianculli. Classical music cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who performed on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” performs a Bach cello piece.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a fascinating glimpse into the genesis and making of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the sociological influences of the show, and the personality of Fred Rogers, the lifelong Republican and Presbyterian minister who turned a television show into a television ministry, with not-so-veiled parables that recall biblical teachings, including Jesus’ washing of feet as Fred Rogers did with Francois Clemmons, who played officer Clemmons on the TV show, starting in 1968, the first African-American man to be a regular on a children’s television show.

The documentary film traces Rogers’ interest in the ministry and in television, dating to the early days of public television. Rogers, a Latrobe, Westmoreland County, native, retained the droll, soft-spoken, kindly presence throughout his career, on his television show, and in public speaking engagements.

The film is touching, emotionally moving and funny. You can’t believe that anyone could be as nice, considerate and thoughtful as Fred Rogers, but, apparently he was, whether putting on his cardigan sweater, tying the laces of his sneakers, playing the piano and singing, or talking with, and listening to, the young guests on his television show.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is directed by Morgan Neville, who received a documentary feature Oscar for the superb “20 Feet From Stardom,” 2014, and directed “Keith Richards: Under the Influence,” 2015; “The Music of Strangers,” 2015; “Best of Enemies: Gore Versus Vidal,” 2015: “Troubadours,” 2011, and “Johnny Cash’s America,” 2008.

Look for a documentary feature Oscar nomination for “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” which will likely be up against another front-runner, “RBG,” the documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Don’t miss visiting, or revisiting, “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” by seeing the fine documentary film, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” MPAA Rated PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. Parents are urged to be cautious. Some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers.) for some thematic elements and language; Genre: Documentary, Biography; Run Time: 1 hr. 34 mins. Distributed by Focus Features.

Credit Readers Anonymous: In “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Fred Rogers says he maintained his weight at 143 pounds, which represents the numbers of the letters in “I Love You.”

Box Office, July 6: “Ant-Man And The Wasp” stung the competition, opening at No. 1, with $76 million. “Incredibles 2” stayed at No. 2 to become the first animated feature film to top $500 million at the domestic box office, with a still-solid $29 million, $504.3 million, four weeks. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” dropped two slots, from No. 2 to No. 3 with a stellar an also still-solid $28.5 million, $333.3 million, two weeks. “The First Purge” opened at No. 4, with $17.1 million for the weekend and $31 million since opening July 4.

5. “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” dropped two slots with $7.3 million, $35.3 million, two weeks. 6. “Uncle Drew” dropped two slots, with $6.6 million, $29.9 million, two weeks. 7. “Ocean’s Eight” sank two slots with $5.2 million, $126.7 million, five weeks. 8. “Tag” was it for a two-slot drop, $3.1 million, $48.3 million, four weeks. 9. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” moved up one slot to become the biggest-grossing documentary of the year so far, with $2.6 million, $12.3 million, five weeks. 10. “Deadpool 2” slipped three spots, $1.6 million, $314.5 million, eight weeks.

Unreel, July 13:

“Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation,” PG: Genndy Tartakovsky directs the voice talents of Mel Brooks, Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez and Andy Samberg in the animated feature film fantasy comedy. Mavis surprises Dracula with a family cruise on, what else, the Monster Cruise Ship.

“Skyscraper,” PG-13: Rawson Marshall Thurber directs Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Pablo Schreiber, and Noah Taylor in the action drama feature film. FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader and war veteran Will Sawyer, played by Johnson, a Freedom High School, Bethlehem Area School District, graduate, is a security consultant about skyscraper safety. A Hong Kong skyscraper is ablaze. Sawyer’s suspected of starting the fire. He must rescue a family trapped in the building.

“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” R: Gus Van Sant directs Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, and Jack Black in the comedy drama feature film. A recovering alcoholic finds inspiration as a cartoonist.

“Eighth Grade,” R: Bo Burnham directs Josh Hamilton, Daniel Zolghadri, Elsie Fisher and Emily Robinson in the feature comedy. A teen girl in her last week of school before starting high school.

“Yellow Submarine,” G: George Dunning directs the voice talents of The Beatles’ Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon in the animated fantasy feature musical. The rerelease of the landmark 1968 animated film was inspired by the Beatles’ hit and includes other popular Beatles songs.

Four popcorn boxes out of five popcorn boxes.

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