In Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville gives us the opportunity to reclaim a precious period from our past. “I wanted to make a film that would take people back to the space they were in when they were a child, to those fundamental ideas that unify us, in spite of our differences as adults.” In getting reacquainted with Fred Rogers and the remarkable world he created, viewers can’t help but remember that happy time. In The Hollywood Reporter, Daniel Fienberg joyfully admits that while watching Neville's documentary, “I found myself repeatedly flashing back to my childhood hours spent watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.”
With Won't You Be My Neighbor? in select theaters on June 8, we wanted to provide a quick reminder of why Mr. Rogers matters. Here are five memorable moments that remind us how Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a world that included all of us.
Sesame Street detours into Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
In Episode 1483 (which aired on June 3, 1981), the borders of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood expanded to include Sesame Street when Big Bird came to visit. Carol Spinney, the puppeteer inside Big Bird, came on the show, but only after a long discussion with Rogers about whether or not he should remove the costume’s head to show how such a big puppet works. In the end, Spinney decided to keep the mystery intact, remaining in costume and in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe during the show. Always upfront, Rogers used the visit as a learning moment about costumes, telling his audience, “When you see big make-believe creatures in parades or in plays or on television, you can know that the people inside are just pretending to be something else."
George Romero and Mr. Rogers’ tonsillectomy
Before shocking audiences with his zombie classic Night of the Living Dead, filmmaker George A. Romero worked on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Just out of college, Romero got his first big break creating several short documentary segments. “Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero remembers. Indeed the horror master jokes that his segment “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy” is “the scariest film I’ve ever made.” Fred Rogers, on the other hand, “was the sweetest man I ever knew,” adds Romero.
Mister Rogers broaches the subject of divorce
In a series of episodes in 1981, Mister Rogers started talked about divorce, a subject that made many adults, let alone children, uncomfortable. In Episode 1476 (February 16, 1981), Mr. McFeely, who was reminiscing about his wedding years ago, makes a quick exit when the d-word is raised. Never one to run from a difficult subject, Fred Rogers stayed and talked to his audience calmly and empathetically about what it means when parents separate. The topic was so important that Rogers authored several books on the topic. His 1998 Let’s Talk About It: Divorce—which is one in his series of “Let’s Talk About It” books—offers a wealth of photographs by Jim Judkis illustrating how people emotionally react to the topic. A few years later, Rogers penned another book with his friend and collaborator Clare O’Brien called Mr. Rogers Talks With Families About Divorce.
When Koko met Rogers
Over the years, many celebrities visited Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, including Julia Child, Tony Bennett, Yo-Yo Ma, and Michael Keaton. Perhaps the most memorable guest, however, was not a person at all, but a 280-pound female gorilla called Koko. On Episode 1727 (July 28, 1998), Fred Rogers visited the gorilla at her home with the Gorilla Foundation. The big ape, who was usually skittish about newcomers, embraced Mister Rogers as if he were an old friend. And in many ways, he was. Koko had been watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on TV for years. Before the episode ended, Koko, who’d learned to communicate through American Sign Language, told the TV figure that she loved him. To celebrate the episode, Gorilla Magazine featured the two embracing on its cover.
Mister Rogers celebrates all the colors of the rainbow
Over the years, Mister Rogers produced dozens of mini-documentaries taking children behind the scenes to show them how everything from pretzels to macaroni to erasers are made. Perhaps one of his most memorable, if not colorful, was Episode 1481 (June 1, 1981) that follows the manufacture of crayons from delivery train to factory to cardboard box. Afterwards Rogers takes to the easel with his crayons to sketch a rough drawing of the neighborhood, reminding kids it doesn’t matter how it looks. “It’s the fun of doing it. That’s important,” Rogers explains, adding, “The best thing is that each person’s would be different.”