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...