Won’t you be my neighbor? Mr. Rogers revisited in new film

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Fred Rogers with his songs, unforgettable songs, sweaters, and smiles taught kids pivotal life lessons about divorce, war, and even bereavement. His show reached millions of American children over its 33-year run.

With the new Tom Hanks biopic “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” hitting theaters, discussions about the TV icon that Hanks plays have been revitalized.

Someone who remembers the warmth of Fred Rogers is social worker Leanne Atwell. A life-long fan of the show, she described Mr. rogers easily in five words.

“Caring, love, happy, comforting, warmth,” Atwell said.

“Despite all of the cheese, his show was relaxing and informative. He wanted to change TV for the better, and he did so by helping us slow down with his show.” Atwell added.

Fred Rogers discovered television after his senior year of college and felt that this could be a great platform to speak to children. Rogers worked his way up the ranks, and eventually hosted his own TV show: “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” beginning in 1968.

The show introduced a colorful bunch of characters, including the bashful Daniel Tiger, the totalitarian ruler King Friday the 13th, and the show’s mother figure Lady Aberlin. It was an instant hit.

Rogers passed away in 2003 after a long battle with stomach cancer, but the crucial question still remains: do we need him more than ever?

After all, it’s still debated to this day even by those who knew him best, like Esquire journalist Tom Junod. Junod met Rogers in 1998 and the two struck up a close relationship. Junod is also the centerpiece of film albeit under a different name.

Junod said in an interview that “[Rogers] had a singular vision of kindness and love, and one thing that I still think about today is whether ornothisattempttopositivelyinfluence America today succeeded.”

One person who believes we need Fred Rogers again is Josh Runkle, the New Trier Aquatics Director. Runkle watched “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” when he was around the age of 6, and watching the Tom Hanks biopic brought back many memories.

“It might be a little bit of two things. We need him, and we need people like him; having someone like him while still keeping his message at heart.”

Mr. Rogers not only spoke to children in a nuanced and intelligent way, but he reached adults off-screen as well.

During the Nixon era, the government was strongly in favor of cutting federal funding to public TV.

Rhode Island Senator John Pastore was the key vote on this issue, and he set up hearings for people to testify in defense of public stations like PBS while still maintaining an anti-public TV sentiment.

After two days of testimony that Pastore found unmoving, Mr. Rogers gave an emotionally raw speech about why television can be a gift for younger viewers.

Afterward, a teary-eyed Pastore replied “It’s the first time I’ve had goosebumps in days. Looks like you just earned yourself 20 million dollars.”

In just five minutes, Rogers essentially saved public television as we know it.

In several ways, Fred Rogers was no different than the rest of us.

He made mistakes, got angry, and occasionally doubted whether or not he was making a difference. The people close to the TV star took note of these moments of self-doubt.

One of these people was Elizabeth Seamus, who played Mrs. McFeeley on “Mr Roger’s Neighborhood.” in the documentary.

“I think at some point Fred began to wonder if people would see him as something other than a klutzy TV clown like many of the public hosts at the time. I caught him thinking about whether or not he was making a difference,” Seamus said.

Since Mr. Rogers’s very last episode of his show debuted in 2000, many familiar with the show have wonder whether or not it will continue to speak to viewers 20 years later.

While the majority say “no,” their reasoning has little to do with the show itself.

For Charlotte McGee, a Winnetka resident and fan of Fred Rogers, she retains a fondness for his series, but she concedes that it wouldn’t really have the same societal impact today.

“I don’t think his show would really survive right now, and it’s mainly because it wouldn’t appeal to today’s kids,” said Mrs. McGee,

“They’re used to shows that move at a fast pace and ones that are edited to fit their shorter attention span, and Mr. Rogers didn’t do that with his series. He took his time and all episodes went at a very slow pace.”

Whatever your thoughts on the show or the man behind it may be, there’s no doubt that the question “Please, won’t you be my neighbor?” will echo in the hearts and minds of many for a very long time.