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Fred Rogers
America's Favorite Neighbor

Fred Rogers, America's Favorite Neighbor
Family Communications
2003 / Color / 1:37 anamorphic 16:9 / +/- 180 min. / Street Date September 28, 2004 / 19.95
Starring Fred Rogers, Michael Keaton
Film Editor Kevin Conrad
Written by Rick Sebak
Produced by Margaret Whitmer, Joseph J. Kennedy IV, Rick Sebak. Jocelyn Hough, Bill Isler, Robert Petrilli
Director of Content/Product Sales Patty Walker

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

An adult seeing Mister Rogers' Neigborhood for the first time goes through some predictable gear changes. At first Rogers seems almost sinister. Too direct, too calm, too ... sincere. Then the realization comes that he's probably communicating beautifully with preschool and early school kids who are eager for personal attention and receptive to adults who really seem to care about their problems. Finally, when we realize that this man is not putting on an act, that he's a compassionate and caring man below the television image, we start to question how we relate to each other, and our culture of intimidation. So much of personal interaction has become sarcasm, snide remarks, and casual bullying masquerading as assertiveness that we're unused to people who simply tell you the truth of what they're feeling. We're so inured to real communication that we initially think Fred Rogers is a Pod Person, when the opposite is true: our emotions are real, but that part of ourselves we're comfortable showing to the world, is often just a pretense of emotion.

There's an undeniably obvious benefit to children from Fred Rogers' consistently reassuring presence on their television screens; what makes him a hit with intelligent adults is his almost chivalric belief in the principle of decency in human relationships. When he remarks to a rowdy Tonight Show audience that there's nothing wrong with being sincere, they hush into attentiveness. He charms the pushy Joan Rivers the way Christopher Reeves' Superman dazzles Lois Lane - our own forgotten values coming back at us with a chill of recognition. People cheered Superman's straight statement that he never lies, that he stands for Truth, Justice and the American way. Fred Rogers' disarming directness is just as powerful.

Fred Rogers, America's Favorite Neighbor is a commemorative disc celebrating the life of the late television personality who worked for 50 years on television, 30 of them on PBS. He defined quality children's programming and was so good, nobody (that I'm aware of) even tried to imitate him . The show covers his career and features highlights from appearances outside his television 'neighborhood.'

After a flurry of 'corporate sponsor messages' (not ads, this is public TV and doesn't have advertising, you know) Michael Keaton does host duty. He was one of Rogers' cast members on broadcasts in the early 70s, and we see him in old clips as a circus peformer, etc. But good interviews with Rogers set up the man's early life, which seems unremarkable until 1952 when he was bitten by the TV bug after college and abandoned plans to enter a seminary. Rogers remembers looking at what was on TV at the time, calling it "horrible" (it's a shock just hearing him say such an extreme word!) and going to NBC in New York to learn the craft. Instead of moving up there, he relocated to Pittsburgh to get a new community-sponsored television station going. Soon he and a talented secretary were putting on a daily children's show. She was the on-screen talent and he manipulated a series of simple puppets, the same characters that persisted through almost 50 years of shows.

It appears that a lot of his philosophy about what little kids needed to see on TV was intuitive, but when Rogers moved to Canadian television he picked up child psychologists and honed his style. Clever asides and other attempts at humor were dropped and the show became dedicated to the social development of small fry, tending to their fears, concerns and emotional well-being. He was like an extra family member for any tiny kid. He was open to kids in emotionally cold households, and those in unstable home environments might feel less anxious knowing that there was a caring person telling them that they are important and, by extension, that there's love to be found in the world.

The show explains all the basic mysteries of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood - the sweaters, the sneakers, the origin of Mr. McFeeley - and the variety of material covered on the show, especially Rogers' music and songwriting gifts and his musical collaborator Johnny Costa. It doesn't reach for nostalgia or lean on sentiment; we're shown pianist Costa at work but not told that he worked with Rogers from the beginning in 1968 until he died in 1996. We see Rogers testifying before a senate subcommittee when Nixon wanted to slash the PBS budget in half (which was of course effectively done in the 90s).

The show gets lumpy at the end with two uncut appearances on the Tonight show, which are terrific but should probably have been saved as extras. Other added material are Rogers' entire senate speech and some earlier docus focusing on his style with kids. The footage of him interacting with real children is practically inspirational. Especially telling is praise from a producer of the Sesame Street series. She's surrounded by marketed toys and products launched by her show. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was so sincere, it didn't aspire to entertain kids as much as befriend them.

Fred Rogers, America's Favorite Neighbor looks fine on DVD and has passages that will raise a tear. The quality is fine, even the old kinescopes of Rogers' first live TV appearances complete with flubs and unscheduled hysterics. The modest packaging announces that proceeds will benefit the Fred Rogers Fund and children's programming.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Fred Rogers, America's Favorite Neighbor rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: TV docus on Rogers, his uncut senate testimony
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 9, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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