Carmen George

'You are special.' 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' movie brings lots of love to Fresno

Fred Rogers holds puppet Daniel Striped Tiger from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
Fred Rogers holds puppet Daniel Striped Tiger from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, never thought he'd go into television.

That changed the day he saw a show where people were throwing pies at each other. He thought TV should be put to better use.

So he made a show, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," to infuse the world with more humanity – a labor of love born out of a sense of moral responsibility.

His beloved children's program, watched by millions for over 30 years, is the subject of a new documentary movie, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" that opened Friday in Fresno. The film has been lovingly received since its June 8 debut.

It's a touching tribute to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and a deeply personal experience for fans like me who grew up watching the sweet-natured Rogers visit with us from his television home.

The film does a good job of emphasizing Rogers' main message: You are loveable, special, inherently good and capable of loving. Rogers, who died in 2003, brought this to his television neighborhood through compassionate dialogue, music and puppetry.

"Fred's theology was, 'Love your neighbor, love yourself,'" says one speaker in the movie, "and he saw that communication as the most deeply spiritual thing that he could be doing."

He helped children explore heavy emotions like grief and fear, and advocated for a more just world by doing things like inviting the show's African American policeman, Officer Clemmons, to cool off his bare feet beside him in a small pool at a time when blacks were unwelcome in some public swimming pools.

"Children have very deep feelings, just the way parents do, just the way everybody does," Rogers says in the film. "And our striving to understand those feelings and to better respond to them is what I feel is a most important task in our world."

His show didn't just speak to children. My mother, Helen George, was so comforted by Rogers' daily presence in our home as a young mother that she wrote him a letter. She thanked him for helping her through a difficult time, the years immediately following my parents' move from San Luis Obispo to Fresno. She had just given birth to me and didn't have any family or friends in the area.

"He used to look directly into the camera," my mom said. "It felt like he was talking directly to me."

Rogers responded to my mom's note with a beautiful, one-page letter in April 1995.

"As I read your letter, I couldn't help but think that in spite of the difficult times you had when your first child was born, you evidently had a great deal of inner strength," Rogers wrote, "to be able to hear positive messages in what we offer and in the caring support you've had from others – and to be able to use those messages in such a healthy way."

He ended it by telling her she is a special person and "we will remember with pleasure that your family is a part of our Neighborhood ... and that we're a part of yours."

Like the film says, the Rogers people saw on television was the same Rogers off camera.

As I exited the theater at Edwards Fresno Stadium 22 & IMAX after watching the movie Friday afternoon, I talked with a woman whose eyes were also red from tears. Heather Turner, 28, described the documentary as lovely, encouraging and hopeful.

"The message of the film about loving yourself and loving each other is something that I don't hear a lot," she said.

Turner also liked how the film explored a side of masculinity "that's approachable and tender."

She said she got especially emotional during the film when she thought of thousands of migrant children now being separated from their families and held in U.S. child detention centers.

"He (Rogers) cares so much about kids, as this kind of institutional figure, and our institutions do not care about those kids right now," Turner said. "So I think that was a kind of juxtaposition of how much institutionally we used to care, and now it's like we don't even not care, we're actively harmful and violent towards them."

Matt Gomes, 31, left the theater with this: "Right now, I think to me the question that sticks out is, 'What is the responsibility of a person to another person?'"

It's a good question.

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge