April 24, 2018
By Diana Hart
Why are we still talking about Fred Rogers, better known as Mr. Rogers? Because his show Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood was about more than puppets, charming songs and the joy of make-believe; it helped pioneer a genre of quality children’s programming.
From the show’s run from 1963 to 2001 (two years before Rogers died), Rogers taught his young American and Canadian viewers valuable lessons, like believing in themselves, treating others with respect and how to cope with difficult moments like parents getting divorced.
Rogers is the subject of a new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, making its Canadian premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. The film will be part of the Big Ideas series, presented by Scotia Wealth Management, with a special panel featuring the doc’s director Morgan Neville and Dr. Junlei Li, the co-director of the Fred Rogers Center on April 28.
So why should you love this treasured American children’s entertainer? Here’s our top 5 reasons.
1) He basically saved public television in its early days. In 1969, President Richard Nixon’s government was planning a substantial cut to public television funding. Then an unknown (his show had only launched a year earlier), Rogers went to Washington to give testimony to the Senate on how children’s programing can change kids’ lives, helping them gain confidence and learn how to resolve conflicts. His hopeful, charming speech turned the sternest politicians around. Instead of cutting funding, the U.S. government raised funding for public TV to approximately $22 million (USD).
2) His neighbourliness was international. In 1987, Mr. Rogers traveled to then Soviet Union to appear on the kid’s show Spokoynoy Nochi, Malyshi (Good Night, Little Ones). He was the long running show’s first foreign guest.
3) Every one of his iconic cardigans that he wore on the show was knit by his mother. You can visit one of his sweaters in the Smithsonian Institution.
4) If you got a letter from Rogers, you weren’t getting a form letter. He personally responded to fan mail. He genuinely cared about his young fans and their concerns. After getting a letter from a young blind girl who was concerned about whether or not he was feeding his fish, Rogers began mentioning aloud whenever he was putting food in their tank.
5) He helped launch the career of your other pretend grandfather, Ernie Combs a.k.a. Mr. Dressup. When Rogers was offered the chance to host a children’s show on the CBC, he brought his friend Combs, a puppeteer, with him as his understudy. When Rogers started his show in the States, Combs stayed in Canada, creating his own very popular CBC show.
The documentary will be airing three times during the festival on April 28, April 29 and May 6. For tickets to this documentary and more, visit hotdocs.ca.