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.