My kids weren’t interested in the nerdy television personality of Fred Rogers when they were growing up, maybe because, as the Academy Award winning documentarian Morgan Neville put it, introducing his new movie, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? at a special screening at MoMA this week, as a cultural figure, he was a two-dimensional. That’s an odd way to describe this former Protestant minister and gifted composer from Pittsburgh. Recognizing television as the ultimate pulpit, Fred Rogers was so committed to the emotional lives of children that he created an imaginary world, a Neighborhood of Make-Believe, for them and encouraged them to just be themselves. When Neville made his documentary about Yo Yo Ma, he was struck by the cellist’s friendship with Fred Rogers. Born in 1967, Neville was the right demographic to remember and admire the man who entered the room, removing a formal jacket, and putting on a comfy cardigan on television beginning in 1968. And now, with this treasure of a film, we can all appreciate just how radical his vision was.
At MoMA, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Was it mere nostalgia? Would he know what to say, we all asked at a post-screening reception at Il Gattopardo, about the suffering and dislocation of today’s children.