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'Won't You Be My Neighbor?': A Welcome Invitation Back Into The World Of Fred Rogers

Focus Features
Fred Rogers in "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

If you grew up watching public television, the sound of a piano's ascending chords and the ding of a trolley bell may take you back to the land of "Make Believe" and into the television home of Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood began in 1968 and continuously aired first-run shows for more than 30 years.

You wouldn’t expect that a program with a soft-spoken and gentle man in a zip up cardigan playing with puppets would have touched so many people, but generations came to know Mr. Rogers as an essential part of their lives, early education, and childhood.

"To me, looking at him, he was already anachranistic looking in 1968 when he debuted," recalls film contributor Dave Luhrssen. "It seems unlikely, but somehow it worked maybe because of the genuineness, the auroa of integrity that surrounded his presentation."

A new documentary by award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville gives audiences an in-depth look at Fred Rogers.  Won’t You be My Neighbor? examines the life and legacy of the children’s TV host in a flattering, but complex way. 


"I think (the film is) extremely timely and sad, really," says Luhrssen. "I left the screening of the film feeling kind of warm and sad if that makes any sense."

Luhrssen notes that Won't You Be My Neighbor? is "brilliantly done" with "never a dull moment" between the animation sequences, archival footage, and well-chosen interviews with surviving family and associates.

"The purpose of a good documentary is to teach people something in an engaging, entertaining way - and I think that the documentary does that," he says. "I think it's certainly Academy Award nomination worthy, and may very well win."

The documentary also displays the subversive character of Rogers' early work as he responded to world events, such as protests against desegregation, the Vietnam War, and assassination. Rogers inherently felt that children needed to understand what was happening around them and be met with love and understanding.

"You don't need to preach and make a sermon out of it, it was just showing an ideal way that people could live together," says Luhrssen. In doing this, the film highlights Rogers' "startling emotional vulnerability."

"Sometimes he did this through his alter-ego sock puppet Daniel the Tiger, but sometimes it was just him... And I don't think that very many people, certainly nowadays, would want to put themselves in such a position of vulnerability in public," he says.

Luhrssen continues, "Nice guys like him aren't as common as they once were... I think that what we might be lacking right now is television with the kind of humane values that Fred Rogers tried to put across."

While Won't You Be My Neighbor? will certainly make audiences feel nostalgic, vulnerable, and perhaps a little melancholy, it was also remind them that they're special - just the way they are.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
David Luhrssen is arts and entertainment editor of the Shepherd Express, co-founder of the Milwaukee International Film Festival and co-author of A Time of Paradox: America Since 1890. He is the winner of the Pace Setter Award for contributions to Milwaukee's film community from the Milwaukee Independent Film Society. David Luhrssen has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and Milwaukee Area Technical College.