13 December 2008

A Return to the Neighborhood

One of the happiest moments of my research into the life of Madeline Kahn has been the discovery that, in the mid-1960s, she appeared in a revue with Betty Aberlin; shortly thereafter, Aberlin became the leading light in the little repertory company of human beings on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, where I first became acquainted with her work. She and I are now engaged in a lively e-correspondence, and I’m looking forward to meeting her. Every line of our exchanges has been a pleasure for me — with one exception.

Betty Aberlin informs me that, as of September, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is no longer part of the regular PBS programming. Individual stations continue to have the option to carry the program, but many won’t; others may run only one episode per week, demolishing the carefully constructed developmental lessons that are the heart and soul of the show. When PBS’s change of policy was announced, a website, savemisterrogers.com, was set up to link “neighbors” and to coordinate whatever efforts may be possible; though the policy has gone into effect, all hope is not lost. If you’re in the States, you’re urged to let your local station know your views — especially if you’re a parent with small children.

Prior to September, the website solicited testimonials from those parents, and other former children. Learning of the emergency too late to do much good, I’d like to tell you why Mister Rogers is important to me — to this day, despite the fact that I’m grown, and that the youngest of my godchildren are now older than the target audience. The value of Mister Rogers is enduring and universal, if only one has access to it. To restrict or to seal off that access would be a waste, a crime, quite possibly a catastrophe.

From the beginning, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was like nothing else on television for children. It was quiet. It was still. Though it hardly seems possible, children’s television has gotten only noisier and more violent since my boyhood, to the point that nowadays, when I visit my godchildren (I’m not singling out anyone, mind you), I have to retreat, sometimes for days, to some quiet spot, just to recover. I can see that such kids might be perplexed, at first, by the tranquility of the Neighborhood.

Each episode begins with Fred Rogers’ arrival at the house — which is not his home, and not ours, but a space reserved for us, with no other purpose than to learn and to share. Rogers observes a series of rituals that reinforce this idea of specialness: he sings “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” he hangs up his jacket and puts on a sweater, he changes from loafers to sneakers, he feeds the fish, he speaks to us.

There are no child actors in the studio, to stand in for the viewer, as there are in other shows, notably Sesame Street, which also uses Muppet characters such as Elmo and Big Bird to present childlike points of view: in the Neighborhood, the viewer is an essential member of the cast. Fred Rogers speaks to the camera, and in doing so, he speaks directly to the individual viewer. Our relationship is unfiltered, intimate, and ultimately sacrosanct. Mister Rogers wears no funny costumes; he doesn’t pretend to be an uncle, teacher, or anything but a neighbor. Everything that follows will be for us, a kind of conversation in which we “discuss” topics.

In the later series, these discussions are treated thematically, with each week dedicated to a particular topic. Though of course Fred Rogers can’t hear us (if we do answer him), he anticipates the questions a child might ask, then answers them: these are monologues, and yet they are interactive, long before the concept of interactive television was defined. Episode builds upon episode. The themes are dramatized, most often in the central segment of each episode, set in the Land of Make-Believe. If Fred Rogers is talking about how it feels to get a new baby brother or sister, then in Make-Believe King Friday XIII and his loyal subjects may act out those anxieties, when we learn that Queen Sarah Saturday is having a baby. Does that mean the queen will love Daniel Striped Tiger any less? The characters talk about their feelings.

Many of the characters are hand puppets, most of whom were operated and voiced by Rogers himself. Several “real people” actors appear, but they bear exalted titles (Betty Aberlin is “Lady Aberlin,” niece of King Friday) or wear fantastical costumes (Bob Trow becomes Bob Troll or Bob Dog). A toy trolley transports us to Make-Believe and back; like Fred Rogers’ sweater and sneakers at the beginning of each program, the Trolley underlines a kind of boundary. What happens in Make-Believe is distinct from what happens in Mister Rogers’ house, just as what happens in Mister Rogers’ house is distinct from what happens in the rest of the world. There’s no chance of a child’s acquiring the unrealistic expectation that, in her own life, the cat will begin to speak, or her toy boomerang will ever perform the tricks that Lady Elaine Fairchilde’s Boomerang Toomerang Zoomerang did. (Mine certainly didn’t.)

Always a Lady: Betty Aberlin, in the Real World
Photos of Betty Aberlin courtesy of Ms. Aberlin

But the Land of Make-Believe gives us a chance to explore feelings, ideas and their consequences, without hurting anything real. At the end of each segment, the Trolley returns us to the Neighborhood house, where Mister Rogers, sometimes aided by other neighbors, reflects further on the theme of the week. By the end of the week, we have all absorbed the lessons.

Each episode ends with a song, either “Tomorrow” or “It’s Such a Good Feeling,” as Mister Rogers hangs up his sweater, puts on his loafers, and returns to the outside world — always with the reminder that, “You make each day special, just by being you.”

This is powerful stuff, every bit of it. Other educational programs are flashier, but Fred Rogers was a specialist. He was teaching his audience about feelings, not phonics or math, and he understood that his lessons would require a calmer, more sheltered environment, with minimal distractions. Some of this wisdom was born of necessity: when he started the program, his operating budget was $30. Yet some of it was sheer genius, and Rogers crafted and maintained his environment meticulously.

As a viewer gets older — as I did — certain aesthetic virtues in the program become more apparent. My friends at Opera News tout the importance of unforced, conversational singing, especially in song repertoire. Now I see that the perfect model of our ideal can be found in the baritone John Reardon, who made frequent visits to the Neighborhood. (Rogers wrote several short operas for the program, primarily to illustrate a developmental theme, but with the secondary result of giving many children, including me, a first exposure to the art form.) The other cast members sang much the same way, and a similar aesthetic turns up in their acting. In talking with puppets, Betty Aberlin demonstrates a centered naturalness and emotional transparency that my acting teachers tried (mostly in vain) to bring to our interpretations of Chekhov, for example. That she had me completely convinced that she was a high-school girl from Pittsburgh is but one measure of Aberlin’s talent.

As I grew older, I came to appreciate the grace and subtlety of Fred Rogers’ musical compositions. “Just for Once,” as I’ve mentioned, remains one of the most poignant love songs I’ve ever heard. The songs were arranged and played by the late Johnny Costa, a brilliant jazz pianist, and though I’ve traveled far, I’ve seldom heard anyone to rival Costa’s inspiration and technique. “Handyman” Joe Negri is an accomplished jazz guitarist, “Officer” François Clemmons a gifted operatic baritone and the founder of the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble. Offering musical art of this caliber to unsophisticated children may seem like squandering a precious gift, yet don’t children deserve to hear good music? And how will they ever learn to appreciate good music if they’re not exposed to it?

Ditto good acting and thoughtful writing. Fred Rogers was adamant — fierce — about the quality of his program. As you see, every aspect of it was carefully thought-out. Unfortunately, few among us have thought about the show with equal care.

It was never meant to be hip, not even in the 1960s, so naturally it isn’t hip now. There’s almost never any cartoon animation, of the kind on which other children’s programs rely; the colors aren’t garish and the sounds are quiet. In his own performance, Fred Rogers presents a gentle persona that strikes many people as fey, simply because it isn’t macho. But there’s method in his unaggressive manliness. When I began watching the program, the United States was at war, and violence among young people had risen to crisis levels. Fred Rogers presented an alternative: his puppet characters don’t bop each other, as other puppets and cartoons do; and his lessons focus on channeling or controlling anger and other feelings into non-violent expression. In his on-camera demeanor, he was equally a man of peace.

That was a revolutionary posture, in its time, and you would have trouble convincing me that it wouldn’t be so today — when the United States is at two wars, and violence among young people remains at crisis levels. We need Fred Rogers now.

Sadly, he became such an icon that his image fell into other hands, some of which have shaped it unrecognizably, with lasting effects. Somewhere, some standup comic came up with a simple, rather stupid riff — Wouldn’t it be funny if Mister Rogers were a child molester? The answer, of course, is no, yet people laughed anyway. That riff spun off into endless variations, in innumerable comedy routines, with the result that otherwise sensible people of my acquaintance now dismiss Fred Rogers as creepy. Look at the program, for Pete’s sake. He’s not creepy. He’s speaking to an audience of four-year-olds in a language they can understand, about issues of importance to them (and to the rest of us). Yeah, he’s got a distinctive speech pattern, and it’s easily imitated, and too easily mocked. But that shouldn’t prevent us from hearing what he actually said.

As a viewer, I came to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood early in the show’s history (it was still called Misterogers’ Neighborhood, and Betty Aberlin had yet to make her first appearance), but a bit late to make up part of the target audience. Nevertheless, as a first-grader I was still trying to cope with my feelings — and I still am. The lessons rang true. They still do.

It’s easy to see Fred Rogers’ influence in a couple of realms of my adult life. By writing fiction, exploring a theme within the parameters of an imaginary setting, am I not every day returning to the Land of Make-Believe? The first operas I ever heard (as opposed to discrete arias) were his; now opera is a cornerstone of my aesthetic and emotional life.

Another influence may be a little harder to see. I continued watching the show long after I was, officially, too old for it. As a kid in Texas, I was daily confronted with a violent machismo in direct and painful contrast with Fred Roger’s gentle peace. I found hope in him: that, yeah, you could go on to lead a productive life even if you weren’t a brute. At school, I was bullied without remorse: insulted, spat upon, and beat up, day after day. But in the afternoon, I could always rely on the fact that at least one person would tell me I was special — would like me, not abuse me, precisely because I was special.*

If that sounds pathetic, so be it. There are days of my junior-high existence that I might not have survived at all, if I hadn’t had Mister Rogers to come home to. People talk about the “soothing” quality of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, yet the word is too poor to describe the sustenance I found there.

Times change, tastes vary. Fred Rogers may ultimately become one of those great philosopher–teachers whose lessons we must learn to apply for ourselves, because he’s no longer around to do the job for us. My godchildren weren’t devoted followers of his program, but I was, and so I have tried to be as sensitive to them, as Fred Rogers was to his television friends: as patient, as caring, as wise.

It is a hard thing to be a good grownup to a child. There may be no task more difficult. And that task will be only more difficult if we don’t — if we can’t — from time to time consult Mister Rogers, and locate ourselves within his Neighborhood. He already did so much of the work for us, and it’s right there, waiting for us to make use of it.

Besides savemisterrogers.com, there are a few other good links, and the more we click on them, the more we may persuade the Powers That Be that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is still relevant and meaningful to us. So click away!

Family Communications is the organization Fred Rogers founded to help families get the most out of his television program, and to make parenting a little easier.

PBS’s official Mister Rogers site boasts lots of interactive features — and it’s the site whose counter the PBS programmers are most likely to notice.

*Within a few years, my girlfriend would begin referring to me as “her Special.” I don’t think she knew she was invoking Fred Rogers — that might well have been creepy, in this context.


Missy said...

I miss Mr. Rogers!
Save the Neighborhood!

Elizabeth A said...

When I watched with my son, who is now a young man, the lessons on the shows were still meaningful to me. It's one of the only shows I would let him watch as a young child.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written--i couldnt agree more. I am who I am because of The Neighborhood!! Btw, you can see it in Amazon. I started introducing it to my 2 year old a couple of months ago.

Lauren said...

PBS neeeeeds to bring back Mr. Rogers' neighborhood! I watched that show as a kid and I loved it! If only I could pass on the values from Mr Rogers that I had growing up. I want to show them how fun the show was to watch just as I had experienced. He made me feel not like I was watching but like I was part of the show apart of the Neighborhood' and it felt good made you feel special.