By WILL DIGRAVIO
This article originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 19, 2018. It can be found online, here.
Gallons of tears have been shed watching Fred Rogers on the big screen, including those of this reporter.
“I think I spent half of the film choking up with tears,” said Chris Dorman, the host of “Mister Chris and Friends” on Vermont PBS.
The film in question is “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the new documentary about the man and his long-running PBS show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Similar stories can be found in movie theaters around the country, where the film has become the highest grossing documentary of the year fewer than two months after its release. It is already one of the top-25 highest grossing documentaries of all-time.
“We have this nostalgia for ‘Mister Rogers’,” said Jason Mittell, a media studies professor at Middlebury College whose expertise includes children’s television.
“Especially people of my generation, Gen X, who have kids now, look back and think, ‘Wow, things were so much more innocent and calm.”
Liz Thompson, a manager and projectionist at Merrill’s Roxy Cinemas in Burlington, said viewers typically cry three to four times while watching.
“After each screening, several customers speak to us about how great the film is and how they were truly moved,” she said.
While watching the film, François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show, and Holly Groschner, the CEO of Vermont PBS, cried too.
The entire staff of Vermont PBS went and saw the film together, making for what Groschner called a “magical” 94 minutes.
When I told a friend I cried, she replied, “I sobbed just watching the trailer.”
The moment in the film that moistened my eyes came after Rogers gave a commencement speech some years ago. He talks with a graduate afterwards who tells him a disability prevented her from going to preschool.
“You were my preschool,” she says, holding back tears.
“They felt like they knew him,” Clemmons said of children who watched the show. “He had the ability to hug you without touching you.”
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is directed by Academy-award winner Morgan Neville and examines the cultural legacy and impact of Rogers, who ended the show in 2001 and died two years later. It currently boasts a 99 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, an online review aggregator.
“It has been our most popular film this week (more popular than ‘Antman,’ etc),” Thompson wrote in a Facebook message to the Free Press last Monday.
Mister Rogers is, of course, a major cultural figure. TV Guide named him one of the fifty greatest stars in television in history in 1996. And 15 years after his death, his face still adorns PBS membership drives and programming.
In an interview last month with the Burlington Free Press, Clemmons said fans of the show still approach him seeking some sort of connection to Rogers.
“The love they felt for Fred, they’re transferring to me in the best sense of the word,” he said.
Between high box office numbers, love anecdotes and tears, it is clear Rogers, ever the unlikely star, is what the people want.
Why people are watching and weeping
“Who else but the Man in the Goldenrod Sweater understands what we’re going through right now?” asked Rob Sheffield in a recent Rolling Stone column.
Children of that time lived through the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. They grew up in a country defined by war and racism. The generation after witnessed Watergate and its erosion of the public trust. The next would witness the explosion of the Challenger.
The constant throughout those moments of national grief and — for a child, confusion — was Fred Rogers, who used his show to guide children through turbulent times in serious, soft terms.
“It’s the polar opposite to the more cynical or commercial approach to childhood that a lot of television takes,” Mittell said.
Rogers built trust with his audience by way of honesty, by addressing societal problems head-on, whether they be political, family, or personal. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” taught children it was OK to be sad and scared, to be different and oneself.
Just like the woman for whom Rogers served as a surrogate preschool teacher, he was a paternal figure in the lives of millions of children, affording them the time and care many parents did not.
“We should give them the time, attention, and understanding they needed if they were going to grow up and be healthy,” Clemmons said of the show’s philosophy.
Those who watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” decades ago as children are now turning to Fred Rogers in adulthood. He is, as Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly writes, “a balm of kindness and empathy in these troubled, divisive times.”
A byproduct of his trademark kindness and empathy is the trust and safety his audience felt being with him. That trust has helped built the PBS brand: Go to the Vermont PBS website, and you will find a picture of Rogers next to a button that says, “Donate.”
“People come to public television because they trust it,” Groschner said. “That trust was built by people like Fred Rogers.”
He is the antithesis of the overstated, hyper-partisan, loud media that surrounds us today. Or, as Mittell called him, a “throwback.”
“It is a time when we as Americans need to know that we can come together and have a sense of credibility, authenticity and security with the media we receive,” Groschner said.
The reserved, caring, quiet man in the sweater, as evidenced by the success of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” may just be the temporary antidote we need.
“The fact that he was willing, at that time, to not be ‘cool’ sort of validates a lot of his overall message,” Mittell said. “His uncoolness feels kind of cool.”