Thursday, December 28, 2006

Meeting People Is Easy

Sometimes you chase a potential interview. Other times they drop right in your lap.

I received this email a few days ago:

    How strange that tonight I was at the piano noodling around with some old tunes from Mister Rogers Neighborhood - then quite by accident discovered your site! All of the wonderful recollections struck a deep chord. I met Fred in 1977 - at the start of my graduate degree in - children's TV... and we became fast friends. He would often sign his letters and emails "your forever friend." So you can imagine how I appreciated reading about your project! I feel as if the FCI family - David Newell, Sam Newberry, Hedda Sharapan, and of course Bill Isler and Elaine Lynch - are lifelong friends as well!

    I never did break into children's TV - and now run a non-profit advocacy org. in DC - while producing educational videos on occasion.

    A few months back I wrote a chapter for a book on friendship about Fred and told about Fred and the baby pacifier. If we should ever meet I would love to share it with you. And you may be interested to hear about how his favorite number reached me the day he died...

    And dang it all - I was in NY yesterday. Next time I'm in the city (which is about once every month or so) - I will try and make one of your shows. I would love to meet you.

    Anyway I just wanted to touch base with you and wish you well on the project - and to say I can't wait to see it!

    Vince Isner
    Charlottesville, VA

Everyone tells me how Fred loved bringing people together...

We'll see...

Friday, December 15, 2006

Slipping Into Deeper Lives

The thing that makes me nuts about this blog (and this film, for that matter) is my need to both demonstrate and feel that we're moving forward. On the surface, it would seem not; I haven't postd in days. In fact, though, we are. Not just literally (we're on Linda Ellerbee's calendar in January, and still working on Bill Moyers, though. There's more to this project than who we interview and what they say.

The entire undertaking reflects a desire, an ambition, a need to (as I sang in "Snapshot Summertime" way back in 1994) slip into a deeper life. To that end, then, and filtered through a "deep and simple" lens, every day has its reward.

Earlier this week, I received a rigurously considered and thoroughly thoughtful email from one of my oldest and most beloved friends, Kristan Flynn. Kristan, and her husband Jeff, are amongst my closest and favorite friends. Though distance (they live in Princeton) precludes spending a ton of time together, there's never a shortage of substantive conversation when we do snag a minute. Her email runs nearly 1300 words and covers everything from childhood obesity to Catholicism.

In considering what forces oppose that which is deep and simple, Kristan's thesis -- like Bo Lozoff's -- is that consumerism -- you are what you buy -- is largely responsible. She writes:

    We have ceded ground to the notion that our identities and contribution to the wider social context is in the most primal way determined by what we purchase and how we behave as consumers. This has been going on for quite some time, but now it seems some of the controls and safety nets in place have been removed. The fish has rotted at the head (adults - corporate scandals, congress, an illegal war) and now is reaching the tail (children). While I am more aware of this issue as it relates to food due to my studies I think it is applicable to so many arenas.

    The moment that this struck me the most was after September 11, at a time that should have been an opportunity for introspection and leadership we were told to return to normal and "normal" was defined as shopping. It made me realize, the powerful parties that had the ear of the President were communicating their greatest fears, which was "We can’t have this kill 4th quarter profits."

    We were at a point when there was an almost universal openenss to a broader challenge. A willingness to contribute, sacrifice and connect. In response we were told, there is nothing to see here and the best thing you can do is provide us your power by proxy. We'll make the big decisions, you just get out there and spend money.

I laugh every time I remember my brother saying, "What is the conflict in our movie? Every story needs a conflict." Because we couldn't be levelling responsibility any higher up the cultural org chart.

Sometimes I feel hopeless against it. All week long I've been watching Spike Lee's "When The Levees Broke" (see "With Your Feet In The Air And Your Head On The Ground" at my other web site). And all week long I've been asking myself, "Where are our priorities? How are we failing each other so miserably?" And I wonder what more I can do. Sure, I record my benefit records, and donated to The Red Cross. Sure, I speak out online and to whomever will listen. And sure, I'm working on this film. But what does it take to turn the tide against a power base that characterizes the largest single-day anti-war protest in history a "focus group"?

I'm not sure. But I sure am glad there are at least a few people, like Kristan, willing to ask the tough questions, and consider the difficult answers.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Cough, Cough

Following a brief and hope-filled respite, I am sick again.

Holly at Lucky Duck Productions has kindly accepted our apologies on behalf of Linda Ellerbee. We're postponing our interview until January.

Meanwhile, Chris has been cutting "select reels" to DVD for screening. He likes to call periodically to tease me with monologues like the following.

"I just cut a select for Stamberg. You spend, like, five minutes asking the first question, then she goes, 'You mean, Why do I work for NPR.'"

Brotherhood, indeed.

Cough, Cough.

Friday, December 01, 2006

And So It Is: Linda Ellerbee Signs On

And so it is: We're interviewing Linda Ellerbee in her office on Thursday (December 7) at 11:15.

From the Museum of Broadcast Communications:
    Linda Ellerbee, respected and outspoken broadcast journalist, has functioned as a network news correspondent, anchor, writer, producer, and is currently president of her own production company, Lucky Duck Productions. Gaining fame in the 1970s and 1980s for her stints as an NBC News Washington correspondent, Weekend co-anchor, reporter, and co-anchor of NBC News Overnight, Linda Ellerbee became a symbol for a different type of reporter: literate, funny, irreverent, and never condescending.

    Her television production company, Lucky Duck Productions, has a reputation as a supplier of outstanding children's programming. Founded with partner Rolfe Tessem in 1987 the company has won three CableAces, two Peabodys, a duPont, and an Emmy. Each week Ellerbee writes and hosts Nick News for children and young people.

Upon Fred's passing, Ms. Ellerbee told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

    "His legacy will be that he made millions of children feel safe and comforted in a time when so much of the bombardment of the media is overwhelming. For everything that we all agree is bad about television and children, he was the good of it. Nothing is as bad as he was good."

At The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences 2003 tribute to Mister Rogers, she said:

    He spoke from the heart to the heart. He gave kids comfort. He gave kids ideas and knowledge. He gave them self-confidence. He gave them permission to just be kids. And he never ever talked down to them.

    He understood that kids were human beings, only younger and shorter. It’s amazing how rare that attitude is in children’s television. However, 12 years ago, when we began "Nick News," even though our audience would be older than that of Fred Rogers, I was determined to do the one thing Fred Rogers did best: I would show respect for kids.

    Why? Because they deserve it, and because it works. And sometimes I would say to myself, I wonder if Mister Rogers has seen our show? Am I doing him proud?

    And then one day, we both attended a conference at the White House on children’s television. Most people there were thrilled to be seated at the same table with the President of the United States. I thought the President of the United States ought to be thrilled to be seated at the same table with Mister Rogers. I know I was, and I introduced myself to Mister Rogers and I asked him what advice he had for "Nick News."

    He said, "Just keep it on the air. That’s the hard part."

She recently conceded that:

    She treasures a note she received from Fred Rogers, who wrote that hers was the best news show not only for kids, but also for adults. In the Mister Rogers mold, she believes "we've got to get to know one another."

To be honest with you, I'm not sure what my exact line of questioning will be. It's just so obvious that she is fighting the good fight, and walking the walk, and advocating -- whether wittingly or not -- for that which is "deep and simple." On a certain level, I'd like to float the premise, and see where the conversation goes. But then, this is a woman who anchored NBC News. I'll do some homework.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Insight At The Intersection Of Faith & Reason

I called Bill Moyers today.

I've been a fan of his since watching his groundbreaking interviews with Joseph Campbell, "The Power of Myth," in college. Anyone who can connect the dots between "Star Wars" and Odysseus, between modernity and myth, is good with me.

Moyers studied journalism at North Texas University. He interned for Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, and, when LBJ took office after JFK's assisination, acted as his special assistant. He was an International Fellow at University of Edinburgh, and received a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. He was ordained two years later. He's been working journalist at PBS since 1971, hosting "Now," "Bill Moyers Reports," and "Faith & Reason," amongst others. He has received 30 Emmy awards over the course of his 25 year career, including a Lifetime Emmy Award in September.

As I pointed our rented Taurus down Bo Lozoff's driveway, I turned to Chris and said, "We have to get Bill Moyers." Bo had staggered us with his explanation of "deep and simple," its foundation in the world's great religions, and its inherent opposition to our modern, accelrated culture. If anyone could help us make sense of faith and God and sex and children's prgramming, it was Bill Moyers.

Well, his assistant, Karen, wasn't quite sold. "He's in production and not making any further committments," she said. "And he told me he didn't know Mister Rogers that well anyway."

That Chris and I aren't endeavoring to make a film about Mister Rogers, per se, is the challenge of this entire undertaking. In exploring what is "deep and simple," we are hiking a trail blazed by Mister Rogers, yes. But we're not making a biography. We're exploring the man, and what he stood for, and why we need it now more than ever. Hence our interest in Bill Moyers.

"If you just give me a second to explain," I said.

"Actually, I have three people one hold. Why don't you email me." So I did.

    In short, Fred Rogers really was my neighbor. In conversation, Fred (a sage, public television icon) and I (a young, idealistic MTV News producer) constantly explored his belief that -- in life, and on television -- "deep and simple is for more essential than shallow and complex." The summer prior to his death, he urged me to "spread the message," which I am endeavoring to do via my documentary, "Mister Rogers & Me."

    Much of Mister Rogers' "deep and simple" ethos -- a phrase he plucked from author/activist/mystic (and friend) Bo Lozoff's book, "Deep & Simple" -- was based on his unique perspective a Presbyterian minister, and as a participant, observer and activist within our accelerated media culture. Thus far, we've interviewed Susan Stamberg, Tim Russert, Marc Brown, and Mr. Lozoff to that end.

    My co-director (and brother) and I interviewed Mr. Lozoff at his North Carolina commune. He (and his devotees) live by three tenants derived from world religions: live simply (wary of material), contribute to the greater good, and practice spirituality daily. These were Fred's core values as well. And these, as it ends up, fly in the face of contemporary values: we have more things but less satisfaction; we have more need for altruism, but less engagement; and we have more distraction, and less tranquility. And so, as we drove away from Mr. Lozoff's commune, I said to my brother, "We need Bill Moyers to help us make sense of all this."

    Whether through his work with Joseph Campbell, immediately after September 11, or "Faith & Reason," Mr. Moyers has been a constant source of insight and inspiration in at the intersection between the gravitas of spirituality, and the frivolity of an accelerated culture. To that end, we seek Mr. Moyers answers to questions such as: "Has American culture become shallow and complex?" "How does media and consumer culture conspire against depth and simplicity?" And "To whom does culture look for deep and simple inspiration?"

    Our request, then, is for just twenty minutes of Mr. Moyers time. We are a small, nimble, enthused crew of two shooting HDDV with a small light kit. We will be in and out in under an hour. And we will be so grateful for the wisdom and insight that only Mr. Moyers can provide; there is no one else as deep, or who communicates with such clarity, and simplicity.

It's a complicated transition: from Fred Rogers, to "deep and simple," to the basic tenants of world religions, to contemporary culture. Fred explained it to me in one sentence. But, according to Chris (who has been making select reels of all of our interviews), it took me six minutes to explain to Marc Brown.

So... that's the latest. I also have letters into Teresa Heinz Kerry (who also summers on Nantucket, and sits on the Family Communications board), and Linda Ellerbee (who's "Nick News" is the longest running children's news program on television). That ought to get us into 2007. Then it's off to Pittsburgh, back to Nantucket, and onward to the big screen...

Monday, November 20, 2006

Arthur And The Tribeca Grand Gesture

As telling as it was that "Arthur" creator Marc Brown invited Chris and me into his Tribeca loft on a Sunday evening, it was the end of our interview that was the most revealing of his character.

Our original objective was to shoot Mr. Brown's presentation at the 92d Street Y, but the union buyout fee was to steep for our budget (as there is no budget). Still, I wanted to see the man in action. So Abbi and I -- conspicuous as the only to non-parents in the auditorium -- smiled our way through Marc's sweet and simple presentation.

The auditorium was filled with six-year-olds, but I was struck by how adult his presentation was. Though he spoke in simple sentences, much of his speech -- like the fact that he works with both Barbara and Laura Bush as a literacy advocate despite having not voted for either of their husbands -- was a wink and a nod to the parents. Similarly, he made a pitch for his crusade against child obesity with some staggering numbers: junk food advertisers spend $10B a year targeting young people.

His presentation was brief, and sweet. He showed photos from his childhood, of his home and studio in Hingham, MA, and even of Mister Rogers (as he promised). The event was something like an autobiography crossed with a book signing crossed with a reading. And when Marc Brown read, the room fell silent.

He revealed that he did't like being a kid, and thought other kids were "kind of odd." As an adult, though, he considers kids his bosses, and finds them interesting, and their parent's odd.

A few hours later, Marc welcomed Chris and me into his home. He couldn't have been more gracious and open, even going so far as to re-arrange furniture and lighting for the shoot. His loft was open and spacious, with just a few large, modern canvases on the wall. A giant, stuffed Arthur rested near a crib. His granddaughter, Sky, sat nearby at her computer, skeptically watching us preps her grandfather.

I settled into a deep, cream-colored couch and fell silent as he told me stories about meeting and working with Fred Rogers.

Though Marc had long trusted "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" as one of only a few sources of quality programming for his eldest son, Tolon (for whom he spun the first Arthur yard as a bedtime story), it wasn't until well into Arthur's PBS run that he met Mister Rogers in person. He told me of that meeting with a sense of child-like wonder, joy, and gratitude.

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" later visited Marc's Hingham, MA, studio. Soon thereafter, Marc drew Mister Rogers into "Arthur." What intrigued me, though, was the fact that the two had been discussing collaborating on a project just prior to Fred's death.

Both Fred Rogers and Marc Brown, I've come to learn, were self-described "chubby kids." Both built careers reassuring kids that they were unique, and special, and one-of-a-kind. The project they discussed was about a giraffe that didn't feel like he belonged.

It was difficult not to seize on the point, as one of the things that most endeared me to Mister Rogers himself was that he cherished each individual's uniqueness, even if that uniqueness (a handicap, a big nose, a stutter) made them feel broken or un-whole inside. Marc, like Susan Stamberg before him, described Fred's ability to find what's missing in a person, and address it. For all three of us, it seemed -- nay, for all of us -- what's missing was a sense of belonging.

Therein lies one of the challenges of these interviews, though. With notables like Tim Russert, Susan Stamberg and Marc Brown, my window is narrow. Though all three were generous with their time, energy, and emotional availability, it's difficult for me to really go deep with them. More succinctly, there is a part of me that wants to belong to them, that wants to be friends with them, that is needy in some way that Mister Rogers identified all those years ago. That is, of course, impossible. And not the mission of the film. But an interesting lesson.

I could hear his family stirring upstairs as Marc and I chatted. Soon, his daughter-in-law, Christine, was at the door. "I'll meet you at the restaurant in a few minutes," he told her. Suddenly aware of the time, I looked down to my notes to pick my favorite remaining questions. I asked them, asked that he sign a few copies of "Arthur's Nose" (for Ethan and Edward) and "Arthur Writes A Story" (for me), then called it a wrap.

"I hate to hold you up from dinner," I said. "But these lights will take a few minutes to cool down."

"Oh, that's fine," he said. "You guys can just show yourselves out whenever you're ready. No hurry."

And with that, "Arthur" creator Marc Brown smiled, wished us luck, gave us hugs, and left us -- two strange men he wouldn't have known from Adam just two hours prior -- alone in his home with all the trust and every confidence in the world.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Blessings

Chris and I were standing outside of NPR's Studio 3A listening to South-African singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela perform on "Talk of the Nation." Moments prior, we had interviewed the incomparable Susan Stamberg, and hours before that, "Meet The Press" host, Tim Russert.

As Vusi, to whom we had just been introduced by our gracious NPR hostess Gemma Hooley, broke into the plaintive, spine-tingling chorus of "Silang Mabele" ("The Beauty of Our Land"), I steadied myself against the glass and thought, "Mine is a blessed life."

Our day of "Mister Rogers & Me" interviews was long, but so meaningful. It began with with a six o'clock wake up call. Of course, I had been lying in bed for hours, rolling questions over and over in my head. For me, the questions were all about connections. How did they come to know Fred Rogers? How did they feel their life work overlapped?

As an interviewer, your job is to immediately establish rapport, contextualize your interview, demonstrate that you've done your homework, all while keeping the conversation on target. Fortunately, with pros like Tim Russert and Susan Stamberg, it's an easy job.

Kind of. Collectively, Tim and Susan have interviewed thousands of the world's most influential, creative, and important people: Rosa Parks, Bill Clinton, Hamid Karzai, Condoleezza Rice, Dave Brubeck, Pervez Musharraf, and Luciano Pavarotti to name just a few. The pressure motivates a guy to do his homework, and (as one Newhouse professor used to say upon handing out blank blue books), dazzle.

We interviewed Tim in a generic conference room at NBC's Washington bureau. Chris scrambled to light it, and create a compelling shot, while I paced the room reading my questions over and over. Five minutes before Tim was scheduled to join us, Chris hadn't gotten the mics to work. "Dude, run out to the truck and get me the shotgun mic, will ya'?" By the time I returned from my brisk, anxious walk through the damp morning, he'd remedied the problem. Tim walked in a few minutes later.

"When I told friends and colleagues that I would be interviewing you," I said, "They all suggested I impress you with some Buffalo Bills trivia."

"Go Bills!" he replied, almost Pavlovianly.

"But since I know nothing about football, I brought you some H & H bagels from your old neighborhood."

Rapport: established.

The interview breezed by. I drew connections between his father (about whom, Tim's written the memoir, "Big Russ & Me") and Fred Rogers, as well as "Meet The Press" (American's longest running network program) and "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" (America's longest running public television program). Like I said, he's a pro. Ask the question, and you get a perfectly formed sound bite in return. (As Chris said later, "Everything Tim said is usable.") I expected him to be articulate, though. What I didn't expect was his warmth, and his authenticity. What I didn't expect was that his eyes would absolutely sparkle.

Afterwards, after we'd established that we were his colleagues nephews ("Oh, so your Iowa boys, huh? Corn fed and cow licked!"), after we'd snapped a quick photo, and agreed to send him a copy of the film, and invite him to the premiere, Chris and I just looked at each other, smiled, then began packing for the next shoot.

I have long been a fan and supporter of National Public Radio. On long stretches of interstate, and lonesome nights alike, Susan Stamberg, Noah Adams, and Bob Edwards have been constant, steadfast companions. To tour their facilities, then, is a fan boy thrill. To interview "The Founding Mother of Public Radio" was better still.

The organizations mission is painted in silver letters on an ivory wall just inside the front door of NPR's Massachusetts Avenue lobby.

    The mission of NPR is to work in partnership with member stations to create a more informed public -- one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures. To accomplish our mission, we produce, acquire, and distribute programming that meets the highest standards of public service in journalism and cultural expression; we represent our members in matters of their mutual interest; and we provide satellite interconnection for the entire public radio system.

I was barely inside the door, and already Mister Rogers' "deep and simple" ethos was affirmed. I was barely inside the door, and already Mister Rogers challenge to me had born fruit.

A half an hour later, as Chris and I set up Studio 5C under the watchful eye of Press Relations Intern Kyle Loden, Ms. Stamberg swooped gracefully through the door.

"Hello, gentleman," she said her familiar, raspy voice.

Ms. Stamberg was gracious, humble, warm, and lit from within. She smiled the whole time (as any longtime listener might imagine by the sound of her voice). She was engaged, and engaging, and patiently regaled us with stories about the two PBS programs she hosted with Fred, as well as the numerous times she called on him on air to contextualize world events for children. She even brought a photo of she and Fred. "I always love to look at his hands," she said. "He told me that 'Television is a medium of small gestures,' and I always remembered that."

Afterwards, Gemma joined us as we broke down our equipment. Then she gave us the grand a tour (Corey Flintoff in the elevator! David Kestenbaum in the newsroom!), introduced us to Vusi, and sat us down just outside the control room.

"The world is shrinking now," Vusi told Lynn Neary. "Your neighbor's problem is also your problem."

I smiled, and felt a rush of warmth inside. The hours of driving, the lack of sleep, the anxiety and uncertainty and ambiguity of it all slipped away as I realized how fortunate I am to have this inheritance, to have these friends, these experiences, and these opportunities. Then Vusi finished his thought.

"How much do you want to belong?"

Friday, November 10, 2006


I find myself moved to near-tears more and more often these days as I experience mini-epiphanies in the strangest places at the strangest times.

Example: This morning, I'm riding the 4 train downtown. I'm finishing up Tim Russert's book, "Big Russ & Me," in preparation for Monday's interview. Over and over I notice an overlap between Tim's upbringing and my own: Middle American childhood (Tim in Buffalo, me in Chicago), the positive influence of the faith (he attended a Jesuit high school and college, I was an alter boy), and an appreciation of simplicity.

And it struck me this morning, somewhere between 57th and 42d Streets, that our documentary is really an exploration of these themes: values, faith, simplicity, and the men and women who espouse them -- like Tim Russert, Bo Lozoff, Marc Brown, and Susan Stamberg.

But that's not what moves me. What moves me is when I connect the great loss in my life, and the first conversation that really bonded Fred and me -- his gentle inquiry into my parent's divorce -- with this project.

What moves me is when it occurs to me that Mister Rogers was, in his own way, leading me down a path towards healing, towards becoming a better man.

What moves me is when it occurs to me that -- intuitively or consciously -- Fred knew that I needed elder role models.

Intuitively or consciously, in saying "Spread the message," Fred set me on a path towards a deeper, more meaningful, more adult life. He was helping me fill an empty spot: the spot where my grandfathers never were, and where -- despite his best efforts -- my father couldn't be; geography prohibited it.

In doing so, he is helping me right myself for my children, and, if this film sees the light of day, or the inside of a theater, other people's children.

Pretty amazing stuff. Could make a guy tear up behind his sunglasses and iPod.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Marc Brown Adventure

How can you not love Marc Brown? He writes:

    Okay, Benjamin. I will pretend not to notice you shooting the Y event. I will mention Fred in my talk and use a slide of him in my powerpoint. Then we can meet at [my apartment] around 6pm after I do my autographing duties and get back to the house. My son and his wife will be at the house if you need to get in to set upbefore I return.

    I look forward to our adventure and remembering Fred.


Monday, October 30, 2006

More On DC, NPR, And "Helpers"

My friend Gemma sent me this Broadcasting & Cable article on Tim Russert last week. I printed it out, and read it on my flight to Florida for my father's sixtieth birthday celebration.

    Meet the Press moderator and NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert does his homework, which is one of the reasons he is at the head of his class among Sunday-morning political talk shows and is recognized as one of the best—if not the best—interviewers in TV.

Initially, I wasn't entirely sure what Gemma's subtext was in sending the piece to me. Was she providing background? Reminding me to do my homework? Trying to throw a scare into me by reminding me that I am interviewing a great interviewer? It wasn't until the following passage that I got it:

    Says Russert, a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan, “When I am watching a football game and John Madden is explaining things in layman’s language—'There they are on the line … watch out for that linebacker’—that’s what I try to do with Washington: explain it to people in an understandable and meaningful way. And I think that is important work.”

Russert, it would appear, is a fellow traveller. In addition to his friendship with The Rogers (or, perhaps in part, because of it), he understands the value of deep and simple. He is, as Fred would say (and Tim would remind me), a "helper."

So, I've come to discover, is Gemma.

I met Gemma, like so many of my friends, online. She found my site via my pals, The Nadas, and has been a steady correspondent since. Gemma works for NPR, one of the best sources of deep and simple around. Not surprisingly, then, we tend to gravitate towards conversations on Big Media, music, and the documentary. So her email on Tim Russert made sense. Funny thing happened, though, as we discussed Tim, and my impending travel to Washington, DC.

"If you do end up having an epic day in D.C.," she write, "And want to cap it by watching All Things Considered go out live from NPR, let me know."

As background, you have to know how much I love public radio. Since college, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, in specific, have been my primary sources of information. NPR was my sole companion in the summer of 1991 when I drove 8553 miles from Philadelphia to San Diego and back. I've woken up to Morning Edition every morning since. I learned of Mister Roger's death from Robert Siegel. Which promted this exchange:

    Thanks, Gemma! I'd LOVE to come by. Anyone there that might have sage commentary for the doc? Come to think of it -- DUH! I'm SURE Susan Stamberg -- who moderated three Mister Rogers specials -- would have valuable insight. Fred touched so many lives, and his world overlapped so thoroughly with yours. How would you suggest I go about speaking with one of them?

Gemma shared my "duh," then hooked me up with the head of NPR Press Relations. And so it is that on Monday afternoon, Chris and I will stroll into the headquarters of what I consider to be one of the nation's finest news organizations to interview one of the nations finest broadcasters, Susan Stamberg.

Everyone that knew Fred says the same thing: he loved to bring people together. While this project -- which, by the way, I consider barely begun -- has been the largest, most challenging undertaking in my life, I know that it is unfolding as it should, or, more succinctly, just as Fred had intended it to. And the best part is the people we're meeting, and the inspiration they provide.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Meeting The Man Behind "Meet The Press"

Weeks go by when I feel like I'm no making progress at all on "Mister Rogers & Me." Sometimes it feels like some sort of fantasy, or delusion, as I try and find time to write letters and make calls on behalf of the film. Today, though, we take one major step forward.

I just emailed Tim Russert's assistant, Lisa, the following:

    Great news! Thanks so much, Lisa. Monday, November 13th at 10am is perfect. While the crew is small (my cameraman/brother, Christofer), we will need a few minutes to set up (DV on tripod, small light) prior to speaking with Tim. Please let me know when and where you'd like us.

    Looking forward, Benjamin

So it's on! In less than a month, Chris and I will be strolling into NBC News' Washington, DC, bureau and interviewing one of television's best, most-substantive and spin-free interviewers. From Mr. Russert's bio:

    Tim Russert is the Managing Editor and Moderator of Meet the Press and political analyst for NBC Nightly News and the Today Program. He anchors The Tim Russert Show, a weekly interview program on CNBC and is a contributing anchor for MSNBC. Russert also serves as senior vice president and Washington bureau chief of NBC News.

    His two books -- "Big Russ and Me" (2004) and "Wisdom of Our Fathers" (2006) -- were both New York Times #1 bestsellers.

    He has received forty-three honorary doctorate degrees from American colleges and universities and has lectured at the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan Presidential Libraries.

Yikes, right? The guy's interviewed every major head of state for the last twenty years. More importantly, he done so with a sense of fairness, balance and integrity reserved for only a few major news figures: Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather. He's one of the best, one of the good guys, one -- as Fred would say -- of the "helpers."

Now we have to confirm Senator Tom Harkin, and we have ourselves a major, major day in DC.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


I've been multi-tasking like crazy. As I write to you from my office (on my MacBook Pro), I am also typing a letter (on my Dell) to my Uncle Bill who I am hoping is our gateway to Tim Russert. The only news I have to report is that I received an email from Marc Brown yesterday. We're on, and working out an interview date. Likewise Senator Tom Harkin.

My day job is undergoing terrific upheavel (just Google "MTV" and read all the bad press). Meanwhile, my health is in shambles (I've been to four doctors in the last week), I'm training for the NYC Marathon, preparing for three rock shows, writing songs for my next album, and, of course, working on "Mister Rogers & Me." Plus, you know, things like eating, sleeping, laundry, going to the drug store...

I call FCI CEO Bill Isler roughly three times a week: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesdays. He is out of the office (at The Fred Rogers Center) on Thursdays and Fridays. I email him weekly as well. In six months of calls, emails, and letters, we've spoken twice for a total of three minutes. I would say it's dicouraging if I didn't know that he is a busy, busy man, and that Mister Rogers is with me 110%.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Step By Step

I waited by my phone all day Saturday. Heck, I even took it with me on my thirteen mile marathon training run. Bill Isler never called. When I came into the office yesterday morning, there was a message from him. He didn't have my cell number with him. So I've called twice since yesterday morning. No dice.

So, we move forward...

Looks like we'll be interviewing Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, on/around Monday, November 13. You'll recall that the Good Senator won the first Fred Rogers Integrity Award for his introduction of the HeLP America bill. The bill addressed numerous national health and wellness issues, but specifically tackled wanton marketing to children. My friend (and fellow Hawkeye) Tricia Martin suggested the senator, and put me in touch with the his press secretary, Maureen Knightly.

I don't think we're going to make it to Boston to interview Raffi (recipient of the second Fred Rogers Integrity Award) on October 26th, as I get in from Los Angeles that morning, and we leave for Fort Myers on the 27th. We'll be missing a really excellent conference on "Commerical Free Childhood" that weekend as well.

I did email Marc Brown and asked to interview him in his Hingham, Massachusetts, studio, on a weekend in in late November or early December. It's a bit of a pipe dream that we'll work out a weekend shoot, but with day jobs and kids to consider, it's worth asking. Either way, I'm really looking forward to meeting him. Hingham is nestled in the bays and inlets just south of Boston. He lives by a park called World's End. I love that.

Also, we have asks in to Tim Russert, and Katie Couric.

It is beginning to feel less and less likely that we'll be able to shoot everything while there are still leaves on the trees. I'd really like some continuity. In a perfect world, the film would begin in spring, and end in the fall. Not sure that's gonna work out. And it begins to feel less and less likely that we'll hit our August 2007 Sundance Film Festival deadline.

My mother recently complimented me on my ability to manage the ambiguity of this undertaking. I appreciated the compliment, though it never occurred to me that I had any choice. Mister Rogers told me to spread the message. It was an assignment. It was an inheritance.

It has been difficult -- perhaps one of my most challenging creative endeavors -- primarily because so much of it is out of my control. Making records is easy: write, record, mix, master, package, sell. Especially in this age of home recording, very little of the process relies on others. This film, though, is completely reliant on other's participation and support. And time. And time is the main comodity, isn't it?

Worse, though, I don't know what will become of the whole thing. I don't know, for example, if Bill Moyers will participate -- or Joanne Rogers for that matter. I don't know if we'll tell the story we want to tell, or if we'll do Mister Rogers' legacy any justice. I don't know if it will get into Sundance, or Tribeca, or even Nantucket. And even if everything else does work out, I don't know that people will go to see it. Everything is ambiguous. Everything is uncertain.

All I really know to do, then, is to keep moving forward, step, by step, by step. Which I believe is what they call a "leap of faith." I'm sure it's precisely the path Mister Rogers intended me to walk.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Marc Brown

A few months ago, I told my dear friend, Associated Press reporter Samantha Critchell, about "Mister Rogers & Me."

"You should interview Marc Brown," she said. "I did a piece on him a few months ago. He said Mister Rogers was a huge influence and mentor."

Marc Brown (as most parents know) is the creator of "Arthur," that adorable aardvark. From Mr. Brown's website:

    We are in the business of trying to make children successful. If art truly reflects life, perhaps the same can be said for Arthur and the world of children. We are always on the lookout for issues and problems that are important to children and families and presenting them through books and television, in ways that are helpful, instructive, entertaining and fun.

    Arthur is also something of an overachiever. In the past eight years alone he's sold over 50 million books in the United States. His television show is seen by children in more than 60 countries. Successful publishing programs have been established in many of these countries. We are proud that the Arthur books and television series have won numerous awards including The New York Times Bestseller list, several Emmys and The George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting.

    In our on-going effort to keep the TV show fresh we add 20 new TV stories each year tackling such issues as dyslexia, asthma, laryngitis, the end of the world and being a good sport. Our publishing program continues to grow on all fronts with new Arthur and D.W. titles from Little Brown, Random House, Bendon, The Learning Company, Fisher-Price, and Publications International. in addition, the very successful Arthur licensing program managed by United Media focuses on products that are helpful to children and families.

I emailed Mr. Brown on Wednesday night. "The integrity with which you've shared Arthur with the world, and the positive message that action -- an he -- so ably delivers," I wrote, "is exactly the deep and simple intention Mister Rogers espoused and demonstrated through example. I hope you'll consider speaking to us for the film."

He wrote back last night.

    Dear Ben,

    I would love to talk with you and help honor Fred's legacy.

    Let me know how I can help.


Yeeeaaah! The helpers are out there...

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Madaket Moment

I watched "Fred Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor" again last night, and noticed an oil painting of The Crooked House just over Fred's shoulder. It was reassuring to see evidence of his love for the place, as it isn't often mentioned in articles or interviews.

The painting (as you can see) is precisely the place I know and love, though it seems to be painted (or imagined) from a time before the actual neighborhood that has sprung up on Smith's Point.

The DVD (hosted by Michael Keaton, whose manager's name and number I snagged from a colleague on Monday) contains the 1967 documentary, "Creative Person: Fred Rogers." It's a remarkable piece of film, more François Truffaut than Ken Burns. The film ends with black and white footage of Fred and his two sons walking through the grassy dunes behind The Crooked House.

Inspired this morning, I called The Nantucket Inquirer-Mirror. The paper is so small, and so under-staffed, that the managing editor recognized my name. "Didn't we quote you in his obit?" he asked.

He was a swell guy, but he wasn't much help. Ends up the Inquirer-Mirror has no research department, or archives. Instead, he suggested I contact the public library (known in Nantucket as The Atheneum), and the Nantucket Historical Society.

I can't wait to learn more about how Mister Rogers came to Nantucket (I know that he told me, but I can't piece it together through the fog of time), and what it meant to him.

I know it meant a lot, as it does to me. He was a reflective soul, certainly the most reflective andmeditativee I've ever met). I think the quiet of the place, and the sweeping, panoramic views of the ever-changing sky, brought him great and lasting peace.

I can't wait to go back there. And I can't wait for you to see.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Meeting The Man

It's been a difficult few weeks in terms of moving "Mister Rogers & Me" forward. After four successful shoots, I felt strongly that we needed a clearer agreement from from Family Communications' CEO, Bill Isler (above right from Fred Rogers Center ground breaking in May), prior to booking Yo-Yo Ma, Katie Couric, Tim Russert, Bill Moyers, et all.

As you know, Mrs. Rogers has granted her blessing, and Mr. Isler has said, "We're going to do this." Still, I've been calling FCI twice a week since April. I've emailed Mr. Isler a dozen times, and sent as many letters. And, as you know, he's a super-busy man who is difficult to a) get on the phone and b) difficult to get a specific with.

For me, the absence of information creates the presence of anxiety. 'What if I misunderstood him when he said, 'We're going to do this?'' I wondered. 'What if he says no? What if all of this is for naught? What if I fail Mister Rogers?'

See, though I don't write about this project every day, I think about it every day, and work towards it in a thousand little ways: emails, phone calls, cover letters, ideas... and lots of worry.

So when I got a message last Monday night from Bill's assistant, Elaine Lynch, reporting that Bill was going to be in New York on Tuesday and wanted to meet, well, I was beside myself with excitement. I cleared my entire schedule, and kept my cell phone in my front pocket. Tuesday passed without a call.

I've been flirting with flying to Pittsburgh and waiting outside Bill's office, and wanted to get Elaine's temperature on the idea. So I left two more messages on Wednesday and Thursday, and one more Monday morning.

Typically, I call Bill's extension first, and then Elaine's. Usually, I leave a message for Bill, and speak with Elaine for a few minutes, making small talk but generally making very little progress.

This morning, though, a surprise.

"Bill Isler."

"Well, miracle of miracles! Hello Bill Isler, this is Benjamin Wagner."

"I think I know this guy," he joked. "Benjamin Wagner of MTV."

"Yessir. Sorry we missed one another last week."

"Me too. Listen. I'll be in town for just a few hours on Saturday. We can grab a cup of coffee. Do you live in Manhattan or outside?"

"I live on the Upper West Side, though I'd be happy to meet you at LaGuardia if you like."

"Oh perfect. I'll be in Columbus Circle. Let me work out my schedule, and I'll call you."

"Excellent. I'll cross my fingers and look forward."

And that was that.

Now, we'll see what happens.

The Helpers

While I wouldn't necessarily call what I'm feeling these days despair, I would say that I have been despairing. Splitting hairs? Maybe. Either way, these are difficult times. So I sought the advice of Tim Madigan...

    Tim, here's where I turn to you for advice. And it's not on Mister Rogers, or our documentary project (right now, anyway).

    I look at you and I think, "Here's a guy to model myself after: husband, father, journalist, author, good man." And I think I'm on track for most of the above. But here's the thing that worries me...

    I'm 35-year-old, which is far too young to be convinced that nothing is real, everything's for sale, the government is not to be trusted, and the End of Empire is near. A bunch of broad statements, to be sure. Let me try to be clearer.

    When I walk down the sidewalk, or drive down the street, or ride on the subway, I am saddened -- nay, angered -- by other's insensitivity. When I watch the news, I am overwhelmed by this administration's apparent insistence on alienating and angering the world around us. And when the commercials come on (or I see them in the subway, or on my coffee sleeve, or built into the programming itself), I lose hope. Nothing is real. And everything is for sale.

    I'm still probably not making any sense. I guess what I'm saying is that it feels like Mister Rogers left just in time: just before September 11th's goodwill faded, just before the Iraq War, just before Internet 2.0, just before Mass Media fell apart, just before commercials were everywhere all the time.

    And me? I feel like I'm here in Times Square stuck in the middle of all of that is shallow and complex. I've been counting on this documentary to not only save those who watch it, but save me, but the whole thing is moving soooo sloooowly (getting Bill on the phone? Finding time to go to L.A. to shoot? Forget it.).

    So, the advice part: how do you manage all of the cultural imperatives towards shallow and complex? How do you keep you life meaningful when it feels like everything is conspiring against it?

    Or you could just say, "Hang in there," and send me on my way...

    Hope that you're well.

    :}, Benjamin

Tim responded:

    The advice thing: I know how you feel. But I tend to fall back on something a black man, a dean at the Harvard Business School, told me when we were discussing the racism that is still so rampant in this country. How did he keep from giving in to despair, wondered. He said, something to the effect of, "You just have to look around you and see all the good people who are trying to make a difference." I think that's true. They're not hard to find. They are everywhere, the helpers, as Fred would say. You're one of them. So feel good about that, and keep the faith. Thanks for trusting me. Another Fredism, "your trusting confirms my trustworthiness." Indeed.



Friday, September 08, 2006

Bedtime, Raffi, And Integrity

Abbi and I were sitting by the fire in our Nantucket cottage last Sunday night when Chris ran in from Ethan's makeshift bedroom. A few hundred miles from his own bed with a new little brother on his mom's hip, and hurricane blowing outside, E was being extra difficult.

"Have you seen his Raffi CD?"

I'm an uncle, not a father. I don't know much about children's toys or programming. I don't know from Dan Zanes. But I know Raffi, and I know how much he means to Ethan's bedtime.

That was Sunday. Today is Friday. In my periodic Googling of all things Mister Rogers, I just found this:

    The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is proud to announce that this year's winner of the Fred Rogers Integrity Award is Raffi Cavoukian, the beloved children's troubadour. The award, named in honor of the host of the award winning PBS children’s program, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, will be given each year by CCFC to the public figure whose efforts to protect children from harmful marketing best embody Fred Rogers' long-standing commitment to nurturing the health and well-being of America's children.

    Raffi Cavoukian is a renaissance man known to millions simply as Raffi: a renowned Canadian troubadour, record producer, systems thinker, author, entrepreneur and ecology advocate, once called “the most popular children’s entertainer in the western world” (Washington Post). President of Troubadour Music, among the most successful independent record labels, Raffi was a pioneer in music for children and families: his CDs, tapes, videos, and DVDs have sold over 14 million copies in Canada and the US, and his books, more than 3 million copies. A generation saw him in concert and grew up singing Down by the Bay and Raffi’s signature song Baby Beluga. “Beluga “grads” often tell him they’re now raising their own kids with his songs.

    In his 3 decade career, Raffi has refused all commercial endorsement offers, and his triple-bottom-line company has never directly advertised or marketed to children. He is a passionate advocate for a child’s right to live free of commercial exploitation. Recently, he sent an open letter to Rogers Wireless urging they stop marketing cellphones to kids, and turned down a Baby Beluga film proposal whose funding depended on direct advertising to children.

Guess we're going to Boston.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

(Some Sort Of A) Homecoming

In addition to everything his wife, three-year-old and five-week-old needed for a long weekend at the beach, Christofer lugged the Sony HDDV and sticks from New York to Nantucket this weekend. It couldn't have been easy -- baby seats, diapers, onesies, raincoats -- but it certainly demonstrated his commitment to Mister Rogers, and -- for that matter -- me.

Labor Day marked the five year anniversary of my first conversation with Mister Rogers. His spirit loomed over my entire weekend. It wasn't that we spoke of him (we did, often), or visited his family (The Crooked House had occupants, but I didn't feel comfortable knocking), or remembered him (we did, in the form of The Fourth Annual Mister Rogers Memorial Triathlon). It was worse than that. I felt a sense of weight, of responsibility, of almost-overwhelming distraction. All I could think is, "How are we going to pull this off?"

We shot a few hours of b-roll: Madaket Bay from Eel Point, Town Harbor from Brandt Point. But mostly, I just sat by the fire, and worried.

There was a sliver of serendipity tucked into the hurricane-soaked weekend. Inside a green file folder high a bookshelf strew with best sellers, my mom spotted a clipping from The Nantucket Inquirer-Mirror. It was a page of letters to the editor from the days following Mister Rogers death. Mine was included.

The letters helped me flesh out a few more people with whom to speak. "Meet The Press" anchor, Tim Russert, rented a cottage on Madaket and spent at least one Thanksgiving with The Rogers. Nantucket Director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, Ernest Steinauer, presided over The Rogers' 25 acre donation to support the survival of the endangered piping plovers. And island residents George and Elaine Pappageorge, who also knew Mister Rogers.

I count on Madaket to provide some sort of palette cleansing from the frenzy of my day-to-day life in New York, and my day job at MTV News. It's quiet there on the edge of the island, even in a hurricane. I put my cell phone away, and leave my computer at home. I take long walks on Smith's Point, and discern how the sands have shifted from the year prior.

This year, though, lacked that tranquility. Perhaps it was the hurricane. Perhaps I was too invested in the place's calming affects. Perhaps the pace of my life is beyond repair. I don't know.

This I know: Chris and I will return. We will sit quietly in Mister Rogers study, and stare out to the sea. We owe him that much.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Bronze

In spare moments around the office, I like to Google "Mister Rogers" and other variations just to see what pops up. A few weeks ago a found seven hours of interviews with him. And few days ago, the following result was returned from The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

    A bronze statue of Fred Rogers, the late icon of children's television, is nearly finished but doesn't have a neighborhood to call home.

    The statue is being sculpted by Long Island artist Robert Berks. It is based on a photo of Mister Rogers, in his trademark sweater, sitting and putting on a sneaker, said his widow, Joanne Rogers, 78, of Oakland. The project is being paid for by an anonymous donor.

    "The statue, as far as I know, is almost done," Joanne Rogers said. "But they have not located it in any spot yet."

I asked Mister Rogers' former assistant, Elain Lynch, about the dedication ceremony yesterday in my bi-weekly call to Family Communications. She said it wasn't happening anytime soon.

"It's become veeeeeee-ry political."

"Everybody wants a piece of him, huh?" I asked.


I imagine that this is part of the reason I'm having such a tough time getting FCI's official (ie: written, not just verbal) approval. Everybody wants a piece of his legacy, or at least that's how it seems. My persistence, then, demonstrates some sort of intent. My follow-through seperates me from the wingnuts. I hope.

Yes, I want to be a filmmaker. But this project is not about hitching my star to Mister Rogers. If he hadn't leaned in and whispered, "Spread the message, Benjamin," then this whole story would be just that -- a story on my website. But he gave me an assignment, he left me an inheritance. It's my responsibility to follow through.

Regarding the statue, well, I have mixed feelings. For starters, I'm not crazy about how it looks. It's rough and jagged, not soft like the Mister Rogers I knew. The whole thing also makes me sad, for some reason. I guess because is really drives home the point that the man himself is gone.

But he loved Richard S. Caliguiri's work. And he should be remembered in as many ways as possible: paintings, books, songs, and documentaries.

To that end, Chris and I will attend the ceremony -- whenever it is.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Dawn (And All Its Honesty)

"I think we're going to be friends," Tim said, looking up his signature.

"I think we are," I replied.

He rose from the small, walnut-laminate desk tucked in the back of Barnes & Noble, and smiled.

"Time for that hug shot," I said?

"Time for that hug shot."

Camera and all, Chris got a big bear hug too.

* * *

I left the office at 4:20. Under false pretenses, no less. "I'm Proud Of You" author Tim Madigan (and his Gotham Books publicist, Beth Parker) was due for his "Mister Rogers & Me" interview at Christofer's apartment at five o'clock. I had to cover forty blocks in forty minutes. And I hadn't so much as eaten lunch. The 2/3 couldn't move fast enough. The woman at H&H couldn't hand me a cinnamon raisin bagel (my poor substitute for lunch) quickly enough. Pedestrians couldn't get out of my way speedily enough. Steam was rising from my ears. I tried deep breathing, and counting. I looked at my watch...

Tim's eyes are like sapphires. They twinkle like bright stars. His handshake is firm. His hug, solid. His vulnerability, his sheer sense of submission to that which is greater than him -- the Loving Mystery of the Universe -- is as apparent as the nose on his face. Here's a Midwestern-born, Texas-based newspaperman that embodies all that I hope to: humble, honest, expressive, courageous.

We sat together in Chris' apartment (recast in full-on film lighting -- so much so that Chris was worried we'd blow a fuse, and conveniently located one block from the Barnes & Noble at which Tim was reading) for well over an hour. And though I had ripped voraciously through his book, and prepared a notepad full of questions, and though I was playing The Journalist (interviewing, ironically, a journalist), and we were on camera, we had a wonderful, meaningful, candid conversation about (literally) truth, beauty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Tim's book chronicles his friendship with Mister Rogers within the context of his own personal trials. Mister Rogers unconditional love provided the foundation upon which Tim found himself able to manage life's great challenges: difficulties in his marriage, with his father, and with the loss of his younger brother.

What I loved most about my time with Tim, perhaps, was his absolute concession that the whole thing -- why Mr. Rogers had befriended him, why he had a deep and meaningful friendship with one of history's great men -- was a complete mystery. Likewise that Mister Rogers had brought us together as if by some great design. Here we were, two journalists from the Midwest with ten years and two-thousand miles between us, brought together by the shared friendship of a great man.

"Fred loved bringing people together," Tim said.

Bo Lozoff might call it a glimpse of the Divine. Amy might call it one of those "impossible to explain away things." It was just another Great Mystery.

Tim and I covered a wide spectrum of subjects, all of which were deep, simple, and meaningful. Three anecdotes stand out.

In one of their first conversations, Mister Rogers said to Tim, "Do you know what the most important thing in the world is to me right now? Talking with Tim Madigan."


Tim and Mister Rogers were at church together. The congregation had a sharing time at the end of mass. After a few short announcements, an elderly woman stood and began speaking about The Gulf War, hammering away at the current administrations, military hierarchy, soldiers, and the supportive populace. People were rolling their eyes, shifting in their seats, and whispering amongst themselves. But Mister Rogers leaned towards Tim and said, "You can be sure that at some point in her past, she suffered a great personal loss because of war."


Tim and Mister Rogers corresponded frequently. At one point, Tim decided that he needed to be completely honest with Mister Rogers, to bare his darkest secrets, and deepest doubts. He wrote Mister Rogers a letter explaining that his insides were a mess. He was filled with self-doubt, self-loathing and shame. He asked Mister Rogers if he could still love someone who was so messed up inside. Mister Rogers responded, "I will never forsake you."

Unconditional love.

What is a friendship, then? How can we be our best? How can we best serve one another?

We can be present with whoever we are in relationship at any given moment. We can practice empathy. And we can love them no matter what.

No small thing.

Towards the end of our conversation, Tim said something about Mister Rogers' legacy and how it was bearing out in these chaotic times. For an instant, I wasn't sure whether he thought that virtue, kindness, and empathy were losing the battle with amorality, insensitivity, and narcissism, or that hope, love, and intimacy would prevail over despair, hate, and isolation.

I'm not sure what he said, or how he said it -- maybe it was the hug. By the time Chris finished shooting, and we all finally tumbled out of the bookstore -- these disparate lives brought together by the one, great, loving man -- I knew where Tim stood on the whole thing. And I know where I stand.

Chris and I initially discussed shooting Tim and I strolling up 82d Street towards Barnes & Noble. Filmmakers call it the "walk and talk." At the last minute, though, I decided it was too contrived. Though Tim, Chris and I were likely to make a connection, and develop repoire, feigning a deep friendship within the first hour of meeting one another might be a bit much. Which I told Tim. "So you don't want the hug shot at the end?" he joked.

"Only if it's real," I said.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Mrs. Rogers (And Me)

I emailed Mrs. Rogers on Monday. I asked her if she'd be in Nantucket over Labor day weekend, and if she'd join us for a slice of birthday cake. She wrote back last night.

Fred McFeely Rogers met Sara Joanne Byrd in the spring of 1948 at the Orlando train station. She was one of a handful of students who took him on a tour of Rollins College's campus. Mister Rogers transferred from Yale that fall. After graduating in 1951, the couple moved to New York City where they were married on July 9, 1952.

Mrs. Rogers seems to have managed her marriage to one of television's most-beloved elders really well. She is a classically trained concert pianist with a master's degree, and -- in contrast to many of her generation -- an independent woman. Where many women might defer to their husband's success, Mrs. Rogers had her own.

"I always thought it was better to let him do his job, and I would do mine," she said.

As a keeper of Mister Rogers' legacy (she looks to FCI for primary stewardship, while making appearances on behalf of his posthumously-released books, major events, etc), though, she is saddled with a very public job in the face of what I assume is a very private grief.

It's with some awkwardness, then, that I've contacted Mrs. Rogers in these years since Mister Rogers' death. I don't want to minimize her loss, or create the impression that I'm some sort of circling vulture. My motives really are as pure as any I've ever had. But I do want to be sure this project happens, and is done as well as possible. So sometimes my transition from the personal to the professional read a bit awkwardly.

She wrote me back last night and told me that she won't be in Nantucket over Labor Day. Instead, she'll be performing with her longtime performing partner, Jeannine Morrison, in Atlanta. Further, it doesn't sound like she spends much time there any more, or plans to. Which isn't surprising to me. I'm not sure whether The Crooked House was ever the refuge to her that it was to Mister Rogers. They spent a lifetime of summer's there together. I saw the evidence with my own eyes. Scratched into the kitchen wall, lines, dates and names mark the growth of their sons, John and James. Without Mister Rogers or her sons there, I imagine that it's a lonesome place.

I responded to her with a long email -- possibly too long. In it, I told her we'd miss her, updated her on Chris and my progress, then transitioned (for some reason) to the following:

    It occurs to me, Mrs. Rogers, that it may seem to you as if my enthusiasm for the documentary project is disproportionate to the duration of our time together in Nantucket. You must know that the simple act of opening your home, and your hearts to me that summer afternoon in 2001 was transformative. When Mr. Rogers said to me, "I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex," well, it forced me to take a good, hard look at my job (MTV News), and the world around me. As importantly, though, the memories of that afternoon, and the sun-kissed, wide-eyed smiles in the living room of The Crooked House, never fail to brighten even my darkest moments. For that, I am forever grateful to you both.

It's true. I hope she knows that. And I hope to see her soon.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Pretty Persuasion

Much as I'd like to update this blog every day, there's not always alot of progress to report. In fact, while we're not quite at a standstill right now, we are moving very, very slowly.

As you know, Chris and I are working on "Mister Rogers & Me" concurrent to our day jobs (Sony and MTV, respectively). Chris is currently on paternity leave at his in-laws in Stone Harbor, NJ -- though he did take his Mac laptop and a drive full of media so he can cut some selects. And I'm currently in full-on Video Music Award mode. The VMAs are MTV's tentpole event, a huge, multi-departmental initiative. It's like going into battle: onair, online, on demand, simulcast, podcast, radio, etc. It's massive. So I don't have a lot of free time.

That said, we're in a bit of a holding pattern until Family Communications gives us their official thumbs up. Let me explain.

I emailed Mrs. Rogers the pitch for this documentary over two years ago. She granted me her blessing, but explained that I need FCI's approval. Chris and I began seeking said approval via a cover letter and teaser trailer in April. I have been sending letters, packages, and emails, and making phone calls a few times a week ever since. In the intervening four months, I've spoken with FCI's president (who is also president of the Pittsburgh School Board, and Executive Director of St. Vincent's College's Fred Rogers Center) in person exactly once. He was, predictably, and fairly, quite busy.

"Listen, Benjamin," he said. "I've got everything on my desk here, and we're gonna do this. But I really wanna spend time discussing this with you, and be sure I don't commit to anything I can't deliver. So let's try this call again next week?"

We rescheduled, but haven't spoken since. That was June.

"We're gonna do this."

That's what Chris and I are going on. Roughly $4000 dollars into this project, that's all we have. That and Mrs. Rogers blessing. That and Mister Rogers assignment ("Spread the message, Benjamin"). Which, come to think of it, is enough.

Chris is coming home from the beach on Monday prior to the rest of his new family to shoot our interview with "I'm Proud of You" author Tim Madigan. As I mentioned before, one of Tim's three book tour stops is at the Barnes & Noble on 82d and Broadway -- exactly halfway between Chris and my apartments. So Tim (and, no doubt, his PR entourage) are coming over to Chris' place for the interview. Then we'll shoot the two of us walking up the block (as if we're old friends), as well as his B&N reading.

After that? Well, after a few days in Nantucket (during which time I hope to see Mrs. Rogers), I've suggested to FCI's Powers That Be that we meet in Pittsburgh on September 7, 8, or 11.

So far, I haven't heard anything. But I'm hopeful.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Some days, it's difficult to remember any of the wisdom or insight Mister Rogers provided me. Today is one of those days.

I had a terrible argument with a loved one this morning. Mister Rogers always said he swam a little bit harder when he was angry. All I could think to do was as many push ups as possible. It didn't help very much.

The whole way to work, I tried to imagine how Mister Rogers would advise me to proceed, to manage the conflict, and to resolve it. I though of him, of my conversations with him, and all that I've learned since, but I couldn't hear his voice over the torrent of blood pumping through my head.

That's the real trick, I think: to not only find those voices within ourselves, but to act through them, like muscle memory -- even when the chips are down. In a moment of rage, though, when I feel beat up, bludgeoned, and betrayed, all I want to do is lash out.

Mister Rogers might suggest that I start with saying that I'm angry, or using phrases like, "I feel angry when..." or "It hurts my feelings when..." But those advices don't seem to apply to complicated, adult, messy conflicts.

When I feel this way, when I can't manage depth and simplicity in my own life, I feel incapable of executing Mister Rogers' challenge.

I know that the answers will come. But I wish I could just call him and ask.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Smithsonian Shoot

Chris and I spent nearly two sweltering, sun-stroked hours on the front steps of The Smithsonian's American History Museum yesterday, randomly stopping strangers and engaging them.

"'Scuse me folks. My name is Benjamin Wagner, and this is my brother, Christofer. We're making a documentary about Mister Rogers..."

Some scurried by, sheepishly whispering, "No thank you" (as if we were selling something) or "We're in a hurry" (who goes to a museum in a hurry?). Most, though, stopped, smiled, and chatted a while.

A punky, blue-haired woman from Nashville, Tennessee remembered Picture Picture. A six-year-old from Alexandria, Virginia liked the puppets. A grandmother from Darien, Connecticut trusted his parenting-by-proxy implicitly. A young community activist from New York City sang "It's A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood."

One sentiment was unanimous: Mister Rogers was a kind, moral man. His legacy, too, was consistently represented in our straw poll by the vox populi: Mister Rogers honored that which is unique in all of us.

Still, an hour into our reportage, I begged Chris to stop shooting.

"Do we have enough?" I asked. "This is really difficult. I'm a terrible reporter."

"Just one more," he'd repeat over and over.

When the string of abstainees grew long, and I felt defeated, he encouraged me.

"It's not you, man. People get afraid."

"It's so awkward," I said, "Apparently Mister Rogers knew I needed to work on my social phobia on top of everything else."

I've said it before: this film is a journey, and an exploration, not just of Mister Rogers, but of our culture, and ourselves. Invariably -- as the on-camera reporter voice behind the voice over -- it is also about me. It is an assignment he gave me. I can't help but think he knew what he was doing in sending me out to tell this story. He knew it would be difficult for me, full of twists, turns, and trials.

The sweater itself, hanging in a glass box alongside Howdy Doody, Betty Boop, and Oscar The Grouch, was something of a let down. I'd imagined I'd feel loss, or reverence, or nostalgia, or all of that together. Whether it was because I'd seen his cardigan hanging in his Madaket home, or because knowing the man himself rendered the object -- so vacant in his absence -- mute and lifeless, or just because I felt odd with the camera on me, I felt nothing. If anything, I felt annoyed that his entire legacy had been reduced to a dusty red sweater in a lightless, lifeless museum.

A little boy -- perhaps eleven-years-old -- approached the display with his mother as I stood there looking wistful for the camera.

"Is that Mister Rogers' sweater?" she asked nobody in particular.

"It is," I answered, surprising even myself with the sound of my voice. "His mother knitted him a new one every Christmas."

I wanted to go on, to tell them more, but the kid was restless. They shuffled off towards Fonzie's jacket and left me alone a moment more with my thoughts.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Sweater, The Senator, And The Vox Populi

The initial plan for the doc was to follow Mr. Rogers around his Crooked House, and reprise our "deep and simple" conversation. In fact, I scribbled "Call Mr. Rogers" on my "To Do" list for weeks. And then, on the morning of February 27, 2003, I heard a report on NPR that dashed those hopes. For a while there, I didn't know what I could do to "spread the message."

So I wrote an essay, "Mr. Rogers & Me," and I sent it to a bunch of newspapers. Each one of them -- The New York Times, USA Today, The Pittsburgh Gazette -- responded thoughtfully. Early the next morning, The Nantucket Mirror called. And then... silence.

I ruminated for months on how to make good on Mr. Rogers' challenge to me to "spread the message" in light of his absence. Finally, it dawned on me to use our conversation as the point of departure for a journey, a hero's epic, as Amy (and Joseph Campbell) would call it. Along the way, I would interview key players in media, spirituality, and pop culture: Katie Couric, Yo Yo Ma, Teresa Heinz. The essay, I decided, would constitute act one. They journey itself would be the bulk of the film. How, then, would I transition from my memories of Mr. Rogers and me in Nantucket to this road trip?

Mr. Rogers' red sweater has been on display in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History since 1984. Visiting the sweater on camera, it occurred to me, could signal the transition from the personal to the universal (after all, Mr. Rogers himself -- quoting Henri Nouwen -- said, "That which is most personal is most universal."). Showing his sweater there amongst the great artifacts of popular American culture, I reasoned, would immediately communicate that Mr. Rogers held an important space in the cultural canon. And so I set out to shoot at The Smithsonian -- the nation's largest, oldest, and most hallowed museums.

Meanwhile, as the wheels really began turning on this project, I got an email from a friend telling me that Iowa Senator Tom Harkin had recently won the inaugural Fred Rogers Integrity Award. You'll recall that I was born in Iowa City. More synchronicity? Definitely. So I set out to interview the senator in his office on Capitol Hill -- the nation's massive, marbleized, political heart.

While there, I decided, we'd grab some man on the street ("MOS") interviews on The Mall. We'd ask Jane Doe and John Smith what they remembered about Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, how they felt about the man, his mission, and his "deep and simple" ethos.

In one trip to Washington, D.C., then, we would capture academia, a politician, and the people's sense of Mr. Rogers' place in culture.

The coordination of this shoot has been, in short, complicated. First we find out The Smithsonian is closing for renovation on September 4. Then we learn that Senator Harkin's summer recess begins August 5. Oh, and Chris and Jen were due to deliver their second child on August 10.

I drafted dozens of emails, explaining and re-explaining our objectives. I made phone calls, sent faxes, and called in favors from high school friends. for the last two weeks, I have teetered on the edge of persistent and annoying. Here's the upshot.

Jen delivered on Monday night.

The Smithsonian confirmed on Tuesday night.

We leave on Thursday night.

And our finger's are crossed that Senator Harkin will find fifteen minutes for a pair of Iowa-born filmmaking brothers.

The journey continues...

Saturday, July 29, 2006

What's It Gonna Be?

I'm a bit of a trailer junkie. I tend to spend a minute or two every day checking Yahoo, Apple, Ain't It Cool -- the usual suspects -- for new movie trailers. Yesterday I saw the trailer for Russell Crowe's next film, "A Good Year."

Crowe plays Max Skinner, a ruthless, heartless Master of The Universe. His uncle, though -- a warm and meaningful man -- leaves Crowe his Italian villa, and all of the substantive, deep and simple childhood memories that come with it. In the closing scene, Crowe's uncle (played by Albert Finney) says, "So what it going to be? Your money or your life?"

No one asked Bo Lozoff's grandfather what he did for a living. He painted houses. What of it? How he earned money, Bo explained, didn't define him.

I was reading Wired Magazine's "How To" guide on the subway last week, and bumbled across this interesting passage:

    Once people have food, shelter, and clothing, their happiness curve flattens out. The extra effort to earn a six- or seven-figure salary has a low ROI.

You've probably noticed that Starbuck's sells CDs these days. I was there on Saturday morning, and noticed a display called, "The Essentials." They were promoting The Beatles "Rubber Soul," which is arguable essential. But it was the displays ad copy that really got my attention.

"Even the most comprehensive collection is incomplete without this one."

And that's it in a nutshell, isn't it? Culture does not discern who you are, how whole you are, or what you're worth by any substantive criteria. Instead, it's about what you do, what you consume, and what you own.

Are you counter-culture? You're Volkswagen says so. Are you a upwardly mobile? You must be; you're driving a Range Rover. Are you irreverent? Drink Zima! Are you traditional? Jack and Coke! Abercrombie and Fitch, Gray Goose, Talbots, Oldsmobile, Dell, Patron, Gap, Canon, Sony, Johnson & Johnson, Anheuser Bush, USAir, American Express, Victoria's Secret, Guinness, Ralph Lauren, Wonder, Exxon...

You are what you consume.

Abbi and I were floating on a diving platform in the middle of Leapord Lake, a tiny little lake down the street from my mom's house, earlier this afternoon. Locusts were droning in the trees. Birds were chirping in the branches. Dragonflies were skimming the shoreline. The water was still, flat like glass. We sat and sat, quietly tracing the miniscule changes in color and shape from moment to moment...

'Now this is it,' I thought.

Not brought to you by anyone, not sponsored, co-branded, co-signed, or co-opted. Neither virtual, nor simulated, nor fabricated. Not sold, bought, or processed. It just was what it was: a genuine, beautiful moment unique from all of the moments that have come prior, or will ever come again. All of the money in the world couldn't buy it, and all of the planning in the world couldn't schedule it. The moment just was: quiet, calm, tranquil, mysterious... and then gone.

So what it going to be? Your money or your life?

Thursday, July 27, 2006


You'll recall that Mr. Rogers and I discussed the shortage of "deep and simple" in popular culture on the very first day we met. He asked me about working for MTV News. "I love what I do," I told him. "I love talking about music, and serving information to fans, but it's not rocket science. It's not PBS." His response was measured, uncalculated, and spot on. It wasn't an indictment. It was an observation that became a challenge.

"So much television is shallow and complex," he said. "I feel so strongly that deep and simple are far, far more essential than shallow and complex."

The following summer, I told him that I thought about our "deep and simple" conversation nearly every day. He leaned in towards me and whispered, "Spread the message, Benjamin. Spread the message."

Even in that moment, I couldn't imagine why he would ask me to spread the message. He's the one with the longest running show on public television!

For almost two years, I told Chris, "We'll just shoot a bunch of interviews and cut them together." But the project has rapidly evolved from a lofty, ambitious abstraction to tangiable reality in the last few weeks. Our budget (anticipated budget, that is; we're still paying for it out of our pockets) has ballooned. We're meeting with lawyers, submitting location applications (and paying location fees) and grant forms. More importantly, though, the gravitas of the project has really begun to hit home. This is not an easy assignment. This is Big Stuff: God, Love, Peace. Frankly, the story touches on some of the 21st Century's greatest minds: Fred Rogers, Henri Nouwen, Bo Lozoff, The Dalai Lama. So still I wonder, why he would ask me to spread the message?

Amy Hollingsworth (who has become an excellent pen pal) and I have discussed it quite a bit. She has repeatedly assured me that Mr. Rogers "knew what he was doing." Still, I've wondered...

I got Tim Madigan's "I'm Proud Of You" on Tuesday afternoon, and finished it this morning. For some reason, it finally occurred to me why Mr. Rogers asked me to "spread the message."

    The authentic spiritual life finds its basis in the human condition, which all people -- whether they are Christian or not -- have in common," [Mr. Rogers' friend, priest/author Henri] Nouwen wrote once. In another of his books, The Wounded Healer, Nouwen wrote that a minister's service "will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which he speaks... The great illusion of leadership is to think that others can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.

It occurred to me that the most effective ministering has a ripple affect. The most effective minister inspires devotes, like Jesus and the Apostles, or Moses and the Israelites. Amy Hollingsworth, Tim Madigan, Jeff Erlanger, Bill Isler (and hundreds of others, to be sure): we are all devotees. We are all Apostles. We are all Israelites. We each minister to our own audiences, our own devotees, through the lens of our own personal (and hence, universal) suffering. Mr. Rogers knew this. He knew we were wounded. (We all are.) He knew that goodness beget goodness. He knew that we were up for the challenge. (Now I just hope he was right.)

Monday, July 24, 2006


I wrote about a guy named Tim Madigan a few days ago. He's a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He befriended Mr. Rogers after interviewing him some years ago. He has a book coming out next month called, "I'm Proud of You." I read the first chapter (you can too right here) and was dazzled. I can't wait to read the whole book.

So I emailed his publicist this morning. She just wrote back:

    It is a mighty small world, isn't it. I immediately recognized your name after I read the first sentence of your email. My sister (Miriam Parker) was included in a collection of essays called "2 Do Before I Die" - which I believe you were included in, as well. I was at the reading in NYC last summer where you read. And I was absolutely touched by your story. (It was one of the factors that lead me to want to work on this book when I found out it was being published at my imprint -- and I found your essay online and passed it along to the editor of the book as well).

Crazy, huh? I mean, like, really crazy!?!

"2 Do" is a great little book compiled and edited by Michael Ogden and Chris Day . I hosted the New York book release party on my roof deck last June. Mike and Chris (and Ron Lieber, who suggested I submit) were the first non-familial audience to really respond to the essay I wrote when Mr. Rogers died (which constitutes the first act of the documentary). Their interest deepened my confidence. Their inclusion of my essay (which you can read here) emboldened this project. (Plus their edit rocked.)

So it ends up Tim will be in New York promoting his book next month. He'll be doing a reading at the Barnes & Noble on Broadway and 82d, exactly halfway between my brother and my apartment. Whether we interview Tim then or not, the wheels are in motion for another solid contribution to the film.

Mighty small, crazy world indeed.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Throwing Pies

I had a rough night on Thursday. I went to see an advance screening of a film my company produced. The narrative of consists solely of a series of comedic vignettes. I laughed heartily through the first twenty minutes. And then one of the characters took a bowel movement into a funnel connected to a tube that was connected to a respirator through which another character breathing. And then I heard a voice...

"I got into television because I saw people throwing pies at each other's faces and that, to me, was such demeaning behavior. And if ther's anything that bothers me, it's one person demeaning another. That really makes me mad.'"

In the next scene, one of the characters threatened to splash horse semen into another's face. And then I heard a voice...

"What we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become."

I sank further and further into my seat as the rest of the film unspooled, then raced to the elevator banks before any of the executives could grab me and ask, "Sooooo? What did you think?"

Stepping back into what I humorously call The Death Star on Friday morning was difficult. I didn't know whether I could tell my boss how I really fely about the film (morally bunkrupt, shallow and complex), and didn't know that I could keep quiet at a marketting meeting for said film late in the day. I decided to reach out To Amy and Bo in Fred's absence. Both were hugely empathic and helpful.

Amy, too, was wrestling with the remifications of being true to (what Mr. Rogers would call) her "honest self" in regards her forthcoming book. Bo understood the struggle as well.

    There does come a time when one questions whether he's compatible enough with his job and employer, and sometimes the answer is "no." That's why Josh (my son) left Hollywood after seven years of increasing success and fulltime work that was the envy of all his friends (like playing Karla's son on "Cheers" for the last four seasons of the show). He was in a "Jackass"-type movie called "Clueless" and it did him in. He said "If this is what I'm contributing to after seven years, I don't want to be doing it after twenty." And yet, there are many great people in Hollywood who figure out how to hang in there. And no doubt at MTV as well. It's a personal issue, not a categorical one. An honorable struggle.

An honorable struggle both Fred, Amy and Bo must have known would become increasingly challenging.

I love my job, and the people with whom I work. But I'm sure the executives at Smith & Wesson or Altria would say the same thing. So, for the moment, I'm not going anywhere. It would be financial suicide to just up and quit. And would reduce the value of the binary inherent to "Mr. Rogers & Me." But the time will come.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


Bo Lozoff and I have been exchanging emails. Ends up he's a singer/songwriter like me, which Mr. Rogers surely know when he set me on my "deep and simple" quest. (I'm firmly of the belief -- and the evidence is overwhelming -- that he knew exactly what he was doing when he leaned in and whispered, "Spread the message, Benjamin.")

Bo just finished recording his third CD last week. So we've been talking about recording, and songwriting, and sharing music. I gave him "Heartland," and suggested he listen to "Cry," which is a song I credit Mr. Rogers (and The Nadas) with giving me the courage to write. Bo performed a song on camera for Chris and I, one called "The Best Things In Life Are Free" (which has obvious overlap with the tenants of a "deep and simple" life). In fact, I turned to Chris as we were packing up and said, "Sweet! Bo's gonna be on the soundtrack!" He reminds me (and many, to be sure) of Johnny Cash. His voice is deep and raspy. His songs are straight forward, deep and (surprise) simple.

He emailed that he found "Cry" very "beautiful and haunting," which is probably apt for most of my songs. Many of them are haunting, because they're (I'm?) haunted by distant, painful memories (as we all are). And while I think that my songs reflect that (including, to be sure, the song I played for Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, "Summer's Gone"), I think they are all lined with hope.

I wrote back and told him -- again -- just how profound an experience Chris and I had at The Human Kindness Foundation.

    I must tell you that, perhaps not surprisingly, Chris and my time with you at The Foundation was nothing short of life changing. Words (to your point) don't begin to express just how meaningful the intensity, and substance of your sharing meant to me. Likewise, "Deep & Simple" has become a constant companion, a guidebook, if you will, on this great quest of ours. Thank you.

His response was pretty cool.
    Regarding your very sweet e-mail, Benjamin, what we're all shooting for is for EVERY event and day to be life-changing, so I'm happy for us to be good "practice" for you and Chris. I can't tell you how much we thoroughly enjoyed our time with you and especially to see two adult brothers with so much love and... well, brotherhood! What a refreshing thing for this day and age. Thank you both for visiting. We certainly hope to see you again. And next time we have to do some music together!

Like I said before, I feel like Mr. Rogers knew what he was doing in sending a young MTV executive on a quest to discover deeper and simpler meaning, and share his discoveries with the world. The connections I'm making -- Chris, Amy, Bo, Jonathan -- reinforce to me just how connected we all are. Even when I'm crowding myself on the subway, or stuck there beneath the concrete for a few hours, I can't help but feel that connection with everyone around me. Nothing could be deeper, or simpler.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Chris and I met at the 79th Street Station at 7:30. The sun was just cresting over Central Park. It was already 84º.

We had an 8:30 appointment with Kenyon & Kenyon partner Jonathan Reichman. This home grown little documentary of ours was suddenly getting kinda' serious.

My original thinking for this film was simple: we'll interview a bunch of people and cut it together. There was no budget as I figured all we'd have to pay for is travel to interviews; Chris and my time was "free." But it became immediately apparent to me that, at the minimum, we'd need to form a company (henceforth known as Wagner Bros., LLC), we'd need help with any contract negotiations (licensing, distribution, etc), and we'd need to work out media rights (clips from award shows, still photos, etc). All of a sudden our little project is into six digits.

Kenyon & Kenyon is a 125-year-old firm specializing in litigation, prosecution, licensing and counseling services relating to patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets and related matters. They're big, like Capital B Big. Which is kind of a mixed blessing. Chris and I love the independent nature of this project. But we also want it to be done right, and seen by as many people as possible. I'll do whatever it takes to make that happen, even if it means working with The Man.

Kenyon & Kenyon's New York offices are located at One Broadway. This is appealing to my symbolic sensibilities. Where better to start the long road to completion than at the beginning?

We were early, so we grabbed coffee and a muffin across the street at the Bowling Green green Market, and discussed our strategy. Now, Chris and I are creatives. We're not businessmen. Which we decided to own outright. We don't know much about the law, or retainers, or any of the stuff. So we decided to say so.

Jonathan ushered us into a massive, well-appointed conference room ten stories above Battery Park. The view was sweeping: from City Hall to the Statue of Liberty. It was impressive (as, Chris noted later, it should be).

The meeting began with my re-telling of the "Mr. Rogers & Me" story. Jonathan caught on quickly.

"So it's like a quest," he said. "You're looking for deep and simple."

The best part of the meeting was reading the enthusiasm on his face. It's been one of the best parts of this project. People relax and engage when they're talking about Mr. Rogers. They know that they're safe. Its pretty cool.

Chris and I plan on interviewing other potential attorneys. And expect to lean heavily on our cousin Bill, who's a partner at Lewis, Rice in St. Louis. We'd like to keep it home grown. But we also want it to be big. It's a big message, deep and simple. It deserves to be heard, whatever the cost.

Either way, it was fun to start at One. It's a pretty good place to start.