Sunday, December 30, 2007

Mister Rogers & Me: The Outline

I've been scripting segments all weekend. Bo, Amy and Tim are done. I'm on Susan Stamberg now. After that, I have four to go, plus making sense of the whole Pittsburgh trip and our visit to 826NYC.

Basically, the process entails transcribing each interview, and then pruning the conversation to its most essential elements. Not a huge challenge for a fifteen minute interview like Tim Russert's, but pretty daunting when you spent an afternoon with someone as we did Bo Lozoff.

When I'm done scripting, I send to Chris who's doing rough cuts of each segment. Next we'll identify still images, b-roll and footage we'll need to licence, borrow, or otherwise procure. In some cases this'll be a simple financial transaction, like dropping a few hundred bucks to licence, say, a photo of Mister Rogers receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush. In other cases we're going to need to get in touch with folks we've already interviewed, like Tim Russert who will hopefully share photos of his family on Nantucket. In all, I imagine we're going to need to acquire at least 100 pieces of additional media. Yunno, in our copious free time.

Sometime in the middle of all that, I'm going to write VOs (voice overs) for each which somehow summarizes the last interview while setting up the next.

I expect to confirm another (big!) interview or two, but here's a rough outline of the film as it exists right now. Let me rephrase that: here's a rough outline of the film as it exists in my mind right now, because it doesn't really exist anywhere else.

That said, at the very least, a rough cut of the film needs to exist by March 1, which ought to be just about time for the Nantucket Film Festival submission deadline. I figure it's out best shot at a festival, being that March 20, 2008 would be Mister Rogers' eightieth birthday, and the film's all about Nantucket. Plus, as I said to Chris, we can't be working on this thing forever, and I like deadlines.

Anyway, the film's much more interesting than this, but this is what we've got.

1. Open (NYC)
- Walking to work
- My Bio
2. Backstory (Nantucket)
- How we met
- What we discussed
- Why I decided to make the film
3. Smithsonian (DC)
4. Bo Lozoff MOS (SC)
- Driving VO (1:00)
- How They Met: Book orders, silent support
- Deep & Simple 101
- Walk and Talk
5. Amy Hollingsworth (VA)
- Driving VO (1:00)
- How They Met: CBN Shoot
- What She Learned: silence and song
- Letter: seeking connection
6. Tim Russert DC)
- Driving VO (1:00)
- How They Met: Nantucket
- What He Learned: Respect
- How Manifests: DC
7. Susan Stamberg (DC)
- Driving VO (1:00)
- How They Met: TV show
- What She Learned: Community
- How Manifests: On-air
8. Tim Madigan (NYC)
- How They Met: TX interview
- What He Learned: Death and spirituality
- How Manifests
9. Linda Ellerbee (NYC)
- Driving VO (1:00)
- How They Met: TV
- What She Learned: Four Rules
- How Manifests: Nick News
10. Marc Brown (NYC)
- Walking in (:30)
- How They Met: Arthur
- What He Learned: Advertising
- How Manifests: Arthur
11. Davy Rothbart (Pittsburgh)
- Driving (1:00)
- How They Met: Nantucket, This American Life
- What He Learned
- How Manifests: Found
12. Pittsburgh
- Statue
- WQED
- Children's Museum tour
- Latrobe
13. 826NYC
- Tour
- Volunteering
14. Conclusion (Nantucket)
- Recap
- Now what?
15. Credits
16. Epilogue(s)

With any luck, this ought to constitute some 75 or more minutes of film. I'm sure the rough cut'll come in much longer. Heck, Bo, Amy, Tim and Susan already clock in at twenty minutes, and that's without any set up, b-roll, etc.

Anyway, it won't be "Mission: Impossible," but it'll be good. Slow, steady, deep and simple.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Opening Scene


Despite the fact that the first person objective pronoun, "me," in the title of our film, I'm not terribly comfortable on camera.

This was made abundantly apparent to me again just now as Chris and shot the opening scene of the doc.

I've spent more than a few dozen mornings listening to David Byrne's "Glass, Concrete & Stone" while walking to the office or -- more often still -- heading to the airport for business. The song sounds like 5 a.m. in a sterile terminal waiting on a flight feels: spaced-out, disconnected, and kinda' depressing. The lyrics reinforce this urban disconnect.

I'm wakin' at the crack of dawn
To send a little money home
From here to the moon
Is risin' like a discotheque
And now my bags are down and packed for traveling

Lookin' at happiness
Keepin' my flavor fresh
Nobody knows I guess
How far I'll go, I know

So, as I've mentioned, I've asked my colleague, Rich Sancho, to record an instrumental version that I'm going to sing over. That song, partnered images from my walk to work -- the jagged skyline, dirty streets, and clumps of pedestrians -- and intercut with credit slates (yunno, "Wagner Bros. Films Present") will constitute the first two minutes or so of "Mister Rogers & Me."

The idea is to set the tone (slow, steady, visually metaphorical) while demonstrating the disparate nature of Nantucket and New York City, Mister Rogers and me, deep and simple and shallow and complex (though I don't think of myself as shallow and complex, in the film, I am a proxy for culture's predominant shallow and complex tendencies).

I have no idea whether we achieved any of the above in the three uncomfortable hours that just elapsed, but we tried. I stoically (and rather grumpily) walked down the street while Chris raced around me setting up shots. New Yorkers -- incapable of being flummoxed by anything, watched out of the corner of their eyes and wondered, "Do I know him?"

No, you don't.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Mister Rogers On "Deep & Simple"


As I mentioned, I'm in the process of re-launching Benjamin Wagner Dot Com, and in doing so have been re-reading and editing some five years and nearly 1300 posts. I just came across an entry dated February 27, 2003 -- the day Mister Rogers died.

I spent all day at work crafting my remembrance of him, then all night emailing it to The New York Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nantucket Mirror, etc. The next morning, a half dozen emails thanked me for my efforts, empathized with my loss, but suggested that they had already published secured their reportage. (The Times, for example, tapped my now-pal, Davy Rothbart for a piece entitled "A Friend In The Neighborhood"). I remember wanting to blame my day job at MTV for missing a deadline that didn't actually exist.

None of which is my point.

Re-reading that post just now prompted me to find the The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from which I quoted Mister Roger' on "deep and simple."

After production of the program ceased, Mr. Rogers devoted his time to working on the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" Web site, writing books and fulfilling long-booked speaking engagements. Even then Mr. Rogers often spent his mornings at his "writing office" away from the hustle and bustle of his Family Communications office. The older he got, the more he cherished silence, he said in spring 2001.

"You're able to be much more mindful of what is deep and simple and how essential that is, in order to keep on growing," he said. "And whatever our expression of care might be, whether it be television or the Internet or all of these books that the people want us to write -- whatever that expression is -- it must come out of the depth of understanding that we continue to nourish.

"Otherwise, you know it could get superficial. That's not going to happen with us."

A lot of things about this short passage interest me.

For starters, I often wonder if I dreampt the whole thing up. I mean, I know I met Mister Rogers; I have the photos and subsequent letters to prove it. But sometimes I wonder if he really said what he said. Or what, exactly, he meant.

The above quote, though, not only confirms that depth and simplicity was on Mister Rogers' mind, but also suggests it was very much in his thoughts at that time. The quote is from Spring 2001. I met him just a few months later.

Moreover, the quote suggestst that he himself was exploring deep and simple in a way that he hadn't before; the "cherished silence" of his retirement allowed it.

It's also worth noting that when I Googled part of his quote ("deep and simple and how essential that is"), I ended up with a page full of results on spirituality, democracy, meditation, breathing -- in short, all of the subjects we've tackled in "Mister Rogers & Me" (including, as it ends up, this very website).

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Mister Rogers, Superheros & Me

Chris and I spent Friday afternoon at 826NYC, that nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills you hear my talking about so much.

We pulled up to the Fifth Avenue storefront just before noon. Executive Director Scott Seeley, Development Director Jen Snow and volunteers, Emily and Anthony, were busy restocking the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store which front the tutoring center with products like Secret Identity Kits, Liquid Courage, and Powdered Muscles.

Jen gave us a tour of the shop and the tutoring space. Then we did one-on-one interviews with her and Scott exploring the center's mission, as well as what inspired them to be a part of this great organization.

Chris checks the one-on-one show (during which I typically sit in for the interviewee)

Jen Snow shows Chris 826NYC student's work

Jen and I in our Brooklyn Superhero Supply Secret Identity Glasses

The entire operation -- from it's great publications and whimsical products to its Cape Tester and secret bookcase entrance-- demonstrates a playfullness reminiscent of the Land of Make Believe. They make learning fun, and -- by publishing beautifully-bound books, running mini-film festivals -- do an amazing job reinforcing the value of kids creativity to the kids themselves.

It was a different sort of shoot than, say, Linda Ellerbee or Susan Stamberg, one I figured I could wing. Which explains why, just a few blocks away (as I raced back to MTV for a 4pm meeting), I thought of a few things I should have asked and shots we should have gotten. In fact, I may pop by again in the coming weeks.

In general, though, 826 -- like thousands of other non-profits -- was a great place to answer the question, "So what can I do.

They're doing it every day.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Free (At First)

I found this great quote from my creative writing professor as I was pouring over some old posts from my other blog, "The Daily Journal" (which I'm relaunching in a few weeks):

"It isn't just for the product of the story or the novel, but it's actually for the experience of that bliss that you sometimes do have when you write, as you're somehow transported or elevated. So that's what keeps you going back. It comes to you free, at first, and then you have to work for it."

Like everything else I've ever done, this film has been about the experience -- the process -- as much as the outcome. In fact, the process is most of the story.

Chris is beginning to edit the film on Monday, so I was prepping some materials for him as I'll be working much of the time. I emailed him thusly:

    The general conflict is that I am a PBS mind in an MTV world. This movie is road trip (or mythic journey a la Ulysses). As a proxy for our ADD audience, I try and figure out what Fred meant by "deep and simple is far more essential..." and how to apply it and manifest in my life.

    To that end, I'd encourage you to do cut downs based in the attached outline arc assuming that each vignette endeavors to:

    a) Flow like a conversation (when possible)
    b) Establish person's relationship with Mister Rogers
    c) Discern take-away message or lesson that person learned from/in relation to Mister Rogers

The bookings, the ideas -- everything came free at first. Now we're starting to work for it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Mister Rogers, Someone Awesome & Me


Just spoke with my pal Jen Snow over at 826NYC: Game On!

Friday morning Chris and I are going to shoot city exteriors: basically me walking to work, traffic, pedestrian chaos, etc. These shots will comprise the open to the film and establish a binary for the vibe of Nantucket.

Then we'll head over to Brooklyn where Jen's going to give us a tour of the place, explain it's ethos, introduce us to a volunteer, and talk about her own connection to Mister Rogers. Should be cool, and should be our chance to demonstrate how one can manifest depth and simplicity in their own life.

Oh, and I'll be handing over a thousand dollar check on behalf of "A Family Holiday" Benefit!

Also: I'm working on booking one last interview with someone I love and admire but haven't written about here. He's a huge hero of mine. He's an amazing deep and simple storyteller. And we've exchanged a few emails.

So... my fingers are crossed we'll get to talk with him, but I'd say it's 50/50 for now. Either way, I'll have at least one great story for the blog once I hear back from him.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Mister Rogers, Bono & Me



We released "A Family Holiday" Wednesday night.

It was definately a success. The Delancey was packed. The performances were excellent (Jeff Jacobson, Flying Machines and Chris Abad were standouts). And most importantly, CD sales are already in the black. I expect to hand off a check when Chris and I visit 826NYC on Friday (more on that shoot later).

Of course, Chris was there shooting the whole thing from the front row. I'm not sure whether we'll weave a brief vignette into the film or not. The "Family Holiday" project was certainly inspired by Mister Rogers, and my attempt to find ways to manifest deep and simple in my own life.

The real question will be whether the footage is any good. I'm sure what Chris shot is gold. I'm just not sure we can cut around some of the disappointing components of the night, like that some performers embraced the "Do They Know It's Christmas" finale more than others. That is, a few of us were singing and playing our hearts out. Others were just milling about cracking jokes with one another. I have a theory about this.

I think it takes courage to demonstrate enthusiasm. It makes one vulnerable to emphatically state, through words or deeds, "I like this!" or "I believe in this!"

I think that's one of the reasons Bono takes so much guff. He stands up and stands behind for his beliefs, regardless of how uncool they are.

"These days," he says, "Everyone wants John Lennon's sunglasses, accent and swagger, but no one is prepared to take their clothes off and stand naked."

Of course, Mister Rogers was the same way, I mean, metaphorically. Heck, I'm not even sure it occurred to him whether his beliefs were cool or not. He just was. That inspired me when I met him, and continues to inspire me today.

Still, there are those who just don't feel comfortable belting out 80s pop songs (or whatever). And some of them were on stage with me Wednesday night. (Heck, some of them outright avoided the gig.) They're the same types who worry about things like credebility and cool. Which, believe me, I understand. I have to fight the impulse to worry about appearences and perceptions every day.

I decided to embraced the spirit of the occasion, though. I lept up and down, flopped around on the floor, coaxed the audience to sing along, and danced with the front row. I sang like I'd never sing again. And smiled. A lot.

I say, if you wanna sing out, sing out.

PS - If you haven't purchased the record, please do.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Mister Rogers, Jim Wallis & Me


Saturday morning found me in the kitchen well before dawn. Abbi and I had a 15k to run, so I was firing up the coffee maker and -- like so many Saturday morning's before -- listening to American Public Radio's Speaking Of Faith.

This week's guest was Reverend Jim Wallis, an Evangelical Christian writer, political activist, and founder and editor of Sojourners Magazine. He spoke with host Krista Tippet in low, patient tones. Still, standing there in the dark, I was moved by the depth and simplicity of his rousing, hushed sermon.

My hunch is that many consider his bold assertions -- like that inventing deliberately falsifying evidence to drive a nation to war should "not be forgiven" -- a bit much. I happen to think he's right on.

None of it's a surprise, though, given that he was President of Students for a Democratic Society at Michigan State. Inspired, like so many of his generation, by Ghandi and MLK, he writes, lectures and lobbies on behalf of social equity.

"How we treat the other -- the vulnerable, the poor, the enemy -- the one who's not at the table is the one we're going to be judged by."

"I want my kids to be raised in a country that values [that]" he said, "Not just the survival of the fittest."

"I love that Isaiah text where it says that your healing is tied up in your response to those who've been left out and left behind. This nation needs to be healed of it's division our deep inequality we don't know each other and we're diminished by that."

    Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
    when you see the naked, to clothe him,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

    Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
    then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lordwill be your rear guard.

    If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
    then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.

"The big choice for us today is between hope and cynicism. Hope is not a feeling or a personality type. It's a decision. Whenever change has come it's because a people believed in that possibility before it came to be so. Hope is a decision that makes change possible. So I believe hope is the most responsible contribution the faith community can offer the world. Things can change. They have, and they will."

Of course, I immediately wanted to interview him for the film. And I may just yet.

In addition to inspiring me, though, finding Jim Wallis (who is, no doubt, huge within his circles; the guy got Edwards, Obama and Hillary on stage in June to discuss faith, values, and social justice) so serendipitously -- right place, right time -- reminded me of something I'd been thinking a few days prior.

Much as I try to wrap this whole thing -- depth and simplicity and all of the values Mister Rogers stood for and aspired to -- up in a nice 90-minute bow, this film is just the beginning. This journey will take a lifetime.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Monday, November 19, 2007

Mister Rogers, Jack & Me


Ask anyone. I'm not a huge fan of The Grateful Dead.

At the moment, though -- traveling seventy miles-per-hour on the Pennsylvania Turnpike some 37 miles west of Harrisburg -- "Truckin'" is kinda' doin' it for me.

Earlier, I remarked to my brother -- who is a huge Deadhead, so huge that the only CDs he brought on this trip are The Dead -- that, while Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir can clearly sing, there's something grating about their voices. And I'm not about to retract that.

But cruising through the Allegheny Mountains in the dark after a long weekend of standing in the cold looking through a camera's viewfinder, eating sporadically and sleeping even more so, Jerry and Bob's well-worn, time-tested harmonies seem just about right.
    Sometimes the lights all shinin' on me
    Other times I can barely see
    Lately it's occurred to me
    What a long strange trip it's been

I remain surprised and amazed at the journey that Mister Rogers (inadvertently) began by (inadvertently, presumably) initiating this "Mister Rogers & Me" project.

This morning found Chris and I wandering the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh with its Marketing Director, Bill Schlageter.

The Museum has been home to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" exhibit since 1998. Developed in partnership with FCI, it replicates the show's set -- it's all there: King Friday's castle, X the Owl's tree -- but in a hands-on way. Kids can be on or behind the camera, drive trolley, put on their own puppet show, or play Mister Rogers' piano.

Picture Picture's there too. We watched a video on the making of the exhibit narrated by David Newell. There was Mister Rogers wearing an overcoat and glasses, standing next to Bill Isler and smiling.

Mister Rogers' spirit was everywhere. And smiling.

Still -- and I've felt this way numerous times throughout the making of this film -- his absence was palpable too.

Puppets from The Land of Make Believe stood in glass cases in the hallway next to the exhibit. And while it was exciting and even moving to see the real Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday, it made me sad to see them staring back at me all glassy-eyed, lifeless and dusty.

I miss Mister Rogers, and often wish he was here to help Chris and me. I think he would have let us shoot him in Nantucket as I'd originally wished. You may recall that I'd been scribbling "Write Mister Rogers" on my daily To Do list for weeks prior to his death. If I'd only been half as confident or assertive then, we may have captured some of the magic I experienced first hand that September afternoon in 2001.

That's not how it unfolded, though. Or, I believe, how it was intended to unfold.

Instead, Chris and I -- and David Newell, Bill Isler, Amy Hollingsworth and all of the people he inspired in some small way -- are left to carry the message.

Heck, I shouldn't even put us amongst that list. We're not building a library or a museum, but, in some small way, we're trying to do our part on behalf of his legacy.

I'm still unsure of how it will manifest for us. I felt a tingle of excitement standing outside of WQED yesterday, but I also felt to outside of it all.

Likewise this afternoon as Chris and I drove past the Fred Rogers Center for Childhood Learning at St. Vincent's College just outside of his hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The building is still under construction, but I didn't want to blow our chances of being invited back to interview archivist Brother David Kelly because of an unauthorized shoot.

Still, we soldier on as, I believe, Mister Rogers would have us do.

We drove on to Latrobe, nestled there in the golden-brown Alleghenies, and searched in vein for a scenic overlook from which to shoot the valley. The city was sleepy and gray, and felt almost out of time. Main Street was an empty collection of storefronts, though it wasn't impossible to imagine its great granite buildings in their mid-fifties glory.

We finally arrived on the hospital's parking garage whose five stories towered over the old Rolling Rock Brewery. We climbed the ramps and looked out over it all. The nearby gas station and strip mall made it difficult to visualize a bucolic childhood, but a distant train passing over an arch stone trestle helped.

I stood there next to Chris shivering in the waning afternoon and wondered what the heck we were doing three hundred miles away from our wives, jobs, and homes.

It felt like Latrobe was a bust. We got a few scenics, but the Chamber of Commerce didn't even know where to send us.

As we headed out of town, Chris said, "Why don't you take a left and see if there's a view up there."

We drove around a hillside neighborhood for a few blocks, but were under whelmed. As we turned down the hill to leave town, though, Chris spotted St. Vincent's on the top of the hill across the valley. I parked, and he set up the tripod in the middle of the street.

As we stood there shooting, a teenage wearing jeans and a black Transformers t-shirt walked up the hill and through the shot, all the while staring at us quizzically.

"Whassup, dude?" I said.

"Hey," he responded. "Nice camera."

The kid's name, it ends up, is Jack Denny.

We talked a while. I asked him why there was no sign of Mister Rogers in Latrobe ("Because this town kinda sucks."). And he asked me about our film.

"Who's is it?" he asked.

"Ours," I answered.

"Where's it for?" He followed.

"Theatres," I said.

Jack, it ends up, is an aspiring filmmaker.

"What I really want to do is direct."

We stood there quietly overlooking Latrobe as the sun broke through a tiny hole in the slate gray clouds and shone on Saint Vincent's twin steeples.

We shook hands, then turned to go.

"There are a thousand stories in this town, Jack," I said. "And you've got a camera and a computer. Go tell 'em."

As we wound our way through the mountains towards home, I thought about the quote on the top of this blog:

"There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person."

Suddenly, eight DV tapes of footage or not, even the 350 miles of dark, snowy highway ahead of us seemed well worth the trip.

Pittsburgh Day III: Children's Museum









Sunday, November 18, 2007

Pittsburgh Day II: B-Roll & Bridges

After a chaotic Saturday driving clear across Pennsylania, checking into out hotel, rushing off to meet and shoot Davy Rothbart's "There Goes The Neighborhood" show at Pittsburgh's Future Tenant, then interviewing him back at the hotel 'til 2:30 in the morning, Chris and I had a relatively quiet Sunday grabbing b-roll of exteriors and scenics.

Looking east towards Pittsburgh from the West End Bridge over the Ohio River, one can see Heinz Field on Pittsburgh's North Shore to left, downtown mid-frame, and the South Shore on the right.

Looking west towards Johnstown from the West End Bridge. Six trains passed on three seperate tracks in the twenty minutes we were shooting there. Ethan would have loved it. Heck, his dad and I sure did!

Chris shoots the Fort Pitt Bridge from the West End Bridge insulated against the dull-gray, 30 degree day by "the finest GoreTex money can buy!"

The remains of the Manchester Bridge just south of Heinz Field will soon become "A Tribute to Children" featuring a fifteen foot high statue of Mister Rogers. Now, though, this bridge foundation serves to motivate Steeler fans (who, best as I can tell, don't need much motivation). Chris and I might hire Industrial Light & Magic to remove the banner.

Chris shoots exteriors at WQED Pittsbugh, home of FCI Communications and "Mister Rogers Neighborhood," not to mention the first community television station in America.


Chris and I both had a bit of a tingle as we approached WQED.

"This is where the set was?" Chris asked.

"This is it!" I said.

There wasn't much evidence of Mister Rogers' presence, save for a dinosaur wearing a red cardigan out front, presumably the remainder of one of those civic art initiatives.

I walked around the building and noticed that a stage door was ajar in the back. I poked my head in, hoping for some sign of the Neighborhood set, but saw nothing. Still, it was difficult not to imagine Mister Rogers lighting up the place.

Pittsburgh Day I: Lost & Found




The Found Magazine guys -- Davy and Peter Rothbart, plus their sidekick Andrew Cohen -- have learned a thing or two performing some 180 shows over the course the last three years.

They know how to find every Subway sandwhich shop within three miles of any given highway.

And they know how to put on one hell of a show. Equal parts literary reading, fund drive, lost and found, show and tell, stand-up and rock performance, it's and hour and a half of substance and form.

Moreover, they've applied the kind of top-notch, added-value salesmanship that Madonna and The Eagles honed years ago.

The VIP Ticket.

For four times the cost of a normal ticket, Found Magazine devotees can hang backstage sharing pizza and PBRs while the guys sign the contents of their shiny red gift bag: Peter's CD, the latest issue of Found (the "Crime" issue), a poster, some buttons, and -- I love these guys -- a bright yellow poster encouraging you to spread the good word about Found Magazine.

Marketing geniuses, these guys.

Which explains how the sold out New York's Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater last month, their hometown Michigan Theater last night, two shows here at Pittsburgh's Future Tenant, and -- assuming the trend holds -- 25 more venues before year's end.

And here's the best part: it's all for charity. Tonight's shows benefit Mister Rogers company, Family Communications. Which explains why I"m in Pittsburgh on a rainy Saturday night..

Davy, who's a regular contributor to "This American Life," has been compiling his hilarious and heartbreaking collection of found notes, receipts, and emails online and in Found Magazine for a few years. His tours consist primarily of him reading a fistful of found items, turning over the stage to his brother to sing a few songs based on found items, circulating an email list, pitching the merch table, then reading a few more. Thing is, it's completely cool, and completely compelling.

Did I mention hilarious?

One found item is a grocery list consisting of the following items:
    Rahman Noodles
    Rahman Noodles
    Rahman Noodles
    Rahman Noodles
    Lubricated Condems
    Rahman Noodles
On this pre-Thanksgiving leg of the tour, Post Secret founder/editor Frank Warren ("The Most Trusted Man In America") is sharing the bill. Frank's conceit is similar: he posts anonymously contributed secrets to his website every week, and as collected the best and most-poignant ones into a few books.

"We all have a choice," Frank says. "We can lock our secrets away in a box and bury it deep inside, or we can find it, bring it out and share it."

Afterwards, I tell Frank that his mission reminds me of my favorite Mister Rogers' quotes: "That which is mentionable is manageable."

Which is why I'm here: community, and communications.

Well after the second show, when the chairs are stacked, the volunteers are gone, and the last fan has left the building, Chris, Davy and I headed back to the hotel to squeeze in a quick interview before Davy, Peter and Andy point their rented mini-van towards Columbus. We order room service, clip on our lav mics, and settle in beneath the bright lights.

It's late, we're tired, and deep into our PBRs. The edges of Davy's eyes are red, though his iris shines bright green like his Eastern Michigan jersey. We do our best to piece together a conversation -- he tells me about meeting Mister Rogers as a four-year-old, then visiting him again as an adult, and tries to draw some parallels between Mister Rogers' work and his. But it's late, though, and we're tired. Moreover, his posse's getting wrestles. And so, some forty-five minutes later, we fold his room service cheeseburger into a napkin, send him on his way to Columbus, and then collapse into deep, dreamless sleep.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

"Mister Rogers & Me" Pittsburgh Shoot Schedule


I've spent the last three days juggling the day job, the the benefit cd, and the documentary. It's been an interesting flirtation with schizophrenia.

Not really. I'm kidding, of course.

Some of this weekend's Pittsburgh plans have fallen through, but here's the deal for now.

SATURDAY:
1) Davy Rothbart's "There Goes The Neighborhood" performance (Future Tenant, Pittsburgh)

SUNDAY:
1) Davy Rothbart interview
2) Pittsburgh & Latrobe b-roll
3) Fred Rogers Center exteriors

MONDAY:
1) Children's Museum of Pittsburgh "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" exhibit

It's a busy weekend. I'm psyched.

Moreover, it looks like I might have a minute to enjoy an Iron City Beer and catch up with with my brother, which, much as he'll miss Jennifer, Ethan and Edward, and I'll miss Abbigail, was probably part of Mister Rogers' plan too.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mister Rogers, Music & Me


Fred Rogers was, perhaps above all, a musician.

My mother was seeking her MA in theology when she met Mister Rogers. She was sitting on the bay reading Martin Buber. He passed by en route to his daily swim. Conversation, and friendship arose.

My mother is nothing if not proud of her sons, and at some point, I assume, mentioned that her youngest (me) was a singer-songwriter who worked for MTV News.

Music and television (or, Music Television), then, brought us together.

It's little wonder that my acoustic guitar was slung over my shoulder as I headed towards the Crooked House for that first afternoon we spent together in September 2001. Just a few moments after arriving, I sat in front of The Rogers' great bay window in their otherwise cool and shadowed back room and performed "Summer's Gone" from my then-forthcoming CD, "Crash Site."

And so, as Christofer and I approach our final shoots and consider the start of editing, I am beginning to develop a sense of the soundtrack.

The opening (yet-to-be-shot) scene of me rushing through through Times Square will be set my cover of David Byrne's "Glass, Concrete & Stone." The song is a delicate, almost ambient one chronicling (to my ear, anyway) corporate life in our accelerated culture.

    I'm puttin' on aftershave
    Nothin' is out of place
    Gonna be on my way
    Try to pretend, it's not only
    Glass and concrete and stone
    That it's just a house, not a home

My colleague, Rich Sancho, is producing the track. I'll sing it.

There's a lot of driving to voice over in the film, so -- while I don't know which track I'll use where -- I do know some of the tracks I want to use.

Rich is recording a cover of Air's "Mike Mills." This instrumental electronic track is one of my favorites. I sounds like forward motions feels, and is one of the most-played songs in my iTunes collection.

I've asked Amy Hollingsworth's son, Jonathan, if I can use on of his original composition's, "October's Farewell (Matthew's Song)." It's a beautiful instrumental acoustic song that sounds just like it's titled. It's a gorgeous recording from a great kid who's still in high school.

I fully expect, of course, to dip into my songbook. In addition to "Summer's Gone" (which, budget and timing notwithstanding, I hope to re-record), we've already used "Hollywood Arms" and "Dark Blue" on the trailer.

As I've said before, Mister Rogers influenced my songwriting by helping me feel more comfortable with my sincerity, earnestness, and simplicity. I stopped censoring myself, or trying to write "cool" songs. Neither "Stay," "Promise", nor my most recent song, "Breathe In" could have been written without him. So I'm sure they'll be included somehow.

My bassist, Tony Maceli, has offered to help score some tracks. I'm sure I'll tap my pal, singer-songwriter Chris Abad, as well.

And while I haven't broached licensing yet, I hope to tap my mother (herself an accomplished pianist) to re-record some of Mister Rogers (and his longtime musical companion, Johnny Costa's) songs.

I know, of course, just how the final scene unfolds (though I'm not going to tell you), and exactly how I want to leave the audience as they watch the credits and leave the theater: inspired. I've considered a few songs to that end, including covers of Aimee Mann's "It's Not Safe" ("All you wanna do is something good") and Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground." We'll see.

No matter what, we'll leave you singing.

How could a film about Mister Rogers do anything less?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Mister Rogers, "A Family Holiday" Benefit CD & Me

This weekend's 826NYC shoot, regretably, fell through. We are endeavoring to re-book a visit to the Brooklyn chapter of the youth literacy non-profit with founder David Eggers and volunteer/supporter Sarah Vowell sometime in the first few days of December.

Relatedly, though, the "Family Holiday" Benefit CD I've been compiling with my pal Wes Verhoeve has a release date and venue, as well as track listing. Proceeds from sales of the CD will be donated to 826NYC.

Liberated Matter & Hot Rocks Present:
"A Family Holiday" CD Release
Wednesday, December 5th 8-12pm
The Delancy (168 Delancey Street)

All: "Do They Know It's Christmas"
The Undisputed Heavyweights: "Baby, It's Cold Outside"
El Jezel: "Workin' On Christmas"
Misty Boyce: "The River"
Seth Kallen: "The Dradle Song"
Tarrah Reynolds: "What Child Is This"
Jeff Jacobson: "Frosty The Snowman"
Casey Shea: "My Holiday Song"
Flying Machines: "Right Around Christmas"
Wynn Walent: "Little Drummer Boy"
Chris Abad: "Feliz Navidad"
Wakey Wakey: "Oi! To The World"
Benjamin Wagner: "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"

Next Saturday, Christofer and I head to Pittsburgh to interview Davy Rothbart, shoot his Found Magazine: There Goes The Neighborhood show, visit Mister Rogers' birthplace in nearby Latrobe, and -- if all goes to plan -- visit the Mister Rogers' Neighbohood exibit at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Mister Rogers, 826 NYC & Me


There's a bit of a nail biter going on here in "Mister Rogers & Me" land.

Chris and I have a bunch of shoots in pencil approaching very quickly on our schedule. Which is a good thing. Problem is: they're in pencil.

I may have told you about the lovely and talented Jennifer Snow, 826NYC's Director of Development. We've been exchanging email like mad (including more than one sent from my wedding and one from my honeymoon -- the show must go on!), though we've yet to nail down any specifics.

    826 NYC (and The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. Our services are structured around our belief that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success. With this in mind we provide drop-in tutoring, field trips, after-school workshops, in-schools tutoring, help for English language learners, and assistance with student publications. All of our free programs are challenging and enjoyable, and ultimately strengthen each student's power to express ideas effectively, creatively, confidently, and in his or her individual voice.

Awesome, right?

Author David Eggers ("A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius") founded 826. There are now seven chapters around the country. It's exactly the sort of grass roots, hyper-local good work to which I endeavor. And exactly the kind of place my pal Kristan Flynn was talking about when she asked, "Is there somewhere closer to home or someone who's not a celebrity that can profile?"

Well, we're trying to split the difference. (David is working with director Spike Jonze on a live-action adaptation of one of my all-time favorite books, Maurice Sendak's "Where The Wild Things Are.")

If we're lucky, author, "This American Life" contributor (spot a trend here?), 826 volunteer and supporter Sarah Vowell is going to give us the tour there. If we can move the shoot from the "pencil" to "ink" column.

There's also another cool idea afoot with 826. Here's the email I sent Jen:

    This one came to me one sleepless night in the Maldives (ideas are why I don't sleep): A youth songwriting program!

    Me, my singer/songwriter friends, and maybe even more prominent artists would review songwriting history from Cole Porter to the Brill Building to The Beatles and Bob Dylan, then facilitate kids' writing and recording of their own songs! They'd end the term with their own single!!!

Jen was enthused, and it seemed like it'll come to pass. Which is kind of awesome. And, I think, exactly the path Mister Rogers intended to set me on.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Mister Rogers, Bo Lozoff, Abbigail & Me

Like the top of this site says, "There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person." And you may never really know what it is.

In the case of meeting Mister Rogers, the ripple affect has been massive. I like to think of it as a 1° change in trajectory. Over time and through space, even a one degree creates a significant angle over a flat line.

Moreover, though, he unwittingly (or was it conscious? I often wonder) connected me a whole constellation of people I might not have ever met or known: Linda Ellerbee, Amy Hollingsworth, Davy Rothbart, and Bo Lozoff.

My very first conversation with Mister Rogers, there on the back porch of The Crooked House, involved a man he called "my friend Bo." Today, I am going to be bold and call him the same.

More than a friend, though, Bo has come to be something of a mentor or advisor. We exchanged dozens of emails prior to his presiding at Abbigail and my wedding covering everything from songwriting to solitude. Prior to his arrival in South Carolina, I told Abbi I was more nervous about Bo than almost anything else. I hold him in very high regard. He is a deep, thoughtful, wise man. I feel very young and silly standing next to him.

Fortunately, then, one of my fondest memories of that wonderful weekend is sitting across from him on the front porch of my cottage just a few hours before our wedding ceremony. Here's what I wrote on benjaminwagner.com:


In just three hours Abbi and I were to exchange vows beneath a three hundred-year-old live oak on the edge of the Pocotaligo River.

I was driving myself to lunch through a full-on monsoon. My Jeep was kicking up a speedboat's wake through the pond-sized puddles. The windshield wipers were completely overwhelmed by the downpour.

'This,' I thought, 'sucks.'

Three hours later, I was locked inside the front bathroom at The Inn at Brays Island reciting my vows aloud to the mirror.
"I promise..."

Christofer and Sibby were queued just outside the door. James -- who'd facilitated all three of our conversions from a rookie half- to the more classic full-Windsor, stood alongside Bo Lozoff, our officiant.

"It's gonna be fine, dude," my brother said.

I wasn't worried, really. Not about whether or not I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Abbi, or whether we'd nail the scripting, staging or blocking.

Still, I was wound like a top, all short breaths, nervous prattle and heavy palpitations. Like before a rock show. Which -- let's face it -- Abbi and my wedding was: three bands, two tents, open bar, a light show.

It's easy enough, one discovers, to be swept up in such things -- portraits, poses, place settings -- at such an affair. It's easy enough, one discovers, to focus on the celebration but miss the ceremony. And while everything and everyone unwittingly conspired to that end, Abbi and I were aided and abetted by our self-described "Depth Protector," Bo.

***

My cell phone began chirping at 8:16. Sibby was sawing logs in the adjacent twin bed as I tried in vain to rest (sleep, I'd decided after an hour of tossing and turning, was a lost cause). I read Bo's name on the display and began worrying (more succinctly, I was already worrying; I just began worrying about something new).

Was he pulling out? Had he fallen ill? Food poisoning? Fever? Ethical dilemma?

I left the call unanswered and went for a walk along the edge of the property. The tide was out, leaving narrow, muddy shallows through the deep green reeds. On the lawn beneath the great tree that would act as our alter, a flock of white egrets picked at the soil.

I walked through the thicket to the dock as Abbi and I had two nights prior when -- in a moment of rare and wondrous synchronicity -- a pod of dolphins swam past. I sat there on the edge of the dock a while taking in the river's slow bend through South Carolina Low Country.

The sky was bruised purple and deep blue. The river was gray like lead. I reminded myself that my worrying would not affect the weather, and then continued worrying about it.

It's difficult even now with nearly three week's distance, to characterize what I was feeling, but I'll try.

I felt serious. Grave. Pensive. I was trying to slow down time, to take in every glance, wink and smile, plus every note of soil, sand and salt on the air. I was trying to let this most massive transition settle in, to understand the spiritual ramifications of the day. Moreover, I was discerning -- more tangibly than ever -- what the rest of my life might feel like.

Walking back towards my cottage, I spotted Abbi's father racing off to his tee time. I heard women's laughter, then turned to see Abbi -- from whom I'd been quarantined the night prior -- and her girlfriends trot off on their "Bride's 10k." I smiled for the first time all morning, went back to my room, and listened to my voicemail.

"Benjamin," Bo said in his raspy, Johnny Cash baritone, "I've been up since 430 thinking about you, and Abbi, and the ceremony, and I realized that we just didn't spend enough time together yesterday. There are a few more things I think are important to discuss without anyone around."

I called him back, expressed my enthusiasm for his intent (wisely deferring to my wife-to-be for the timing), and then pulled on my running shoes.

While the ladies kept to the road, I set off along the river. Everything around me was green and gray, wet with a light morning fog. A hawk circled overhead. A blue heron stood motionless in the shallows. Tiny stone crabs scurried clear of the muddy path before me. In the absence of my iPod's raucous report, I listened to my breath, my heartbeat, and the thump of my feet on the earth.

I hadn't planned to run alone; I'd hoped to run with my groomsmen. This was not to be, though, so I relished the solitude and reflection.

Later, as Bo and I sat on the front porch facing one another in rocking chairs, I was grateful for the quiet in my soul.

"I was reflecting on Abbi and your vows," Bo said, "And I'm not sure they're explicit enough about your commitment to one another."

"Yours are beautiful and lofty and poetic and very personal, which is great. But Ben, as I just told Abbi, love is not always beautiful and poetic. It can be querulous and difficult and you may want to give up on it."

I watched Bo closely weighing his every word.

"In our culture, there are plenty of voices that might say, 'Do what's best for you.'

He paused.

"But we don't wear a ring on our finger to show our commitment to. A job, or to a place, or to anything except our commitment to one another."

I looked to my vows, some 300, oft-edited, well-pruned words. They began with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet ("There is nothing happier than work. And love, because it is the extreme happiness, can be nothing else but work.") -- my attempt to reflect my understanding of the work a life-long commitment might demand. Save for the phrases, "for all time" and "all of the days of our lives" though, they lacked the explicit language of foreverness.

"Yunno, Bo, the bulk of my spiritual and psychological work -- and the reason I waited so long and weighed this committment so thoroughly -- has been all about work and commitment and longevity. I want to be explicit," I said, "100%."

"This is "'Til death do us part' stuff, for sure."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Off To See The Wizard...

I'm not entirely sure anyone out there is following the progress of this film as it unfolds, but I like to think that someday -- when it's all shot, edited, scored, released, and lauded -- a whole bunch of people will find all of the things I wrote here and rediscover it in retrospect.

So... welcome! Here's the latest.

I'm getting married in South Carolina in nine days, then disappearing for two weeks to a series of atolls in the Indian Ocean. Bo Lozoff -- of who I learned on the back porch of The Rogers' Nantucket home -- is presiding, which is pretty awesome. And I hope that he'll be asking everyone to spend a minute remembering everyone that "loved them into being,"just as Mister Rogers used to.

Prior to departing, though, I have some producing to do. Because Chris is taking the first half of December off to begin editing. We're aiming to have the film cut and scored for the Nantucket Film Festival's March deadline. prior to our December edit, we're planing on two more shoots.

1) 826 Brooklyn: Months ago, my friend Kristan Flynn suggested I change my focus from Garrison Keillor and Bill Moyers to more loca, more approachable examples of "deep and simple." Enter 826, David Eggers' youth literacy organization. There we hope to interview 826 publicist and Mister Rogers fan, Jen Snow, organizer Sarah Vowell, as well as some kids and volunteers.

2) Pittsburgh: Davy Rothbart, Nicki Gottlieb, and I are road tripping to Pittsburgh in November to meet Mr. McFeely and tour the "Mister Rogers Neighborhhod" exhibit at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. There, we'll interview all of the above, and stop through Latrobe, Mister Rogers' birth place.

I like to think of it as some sort of "Wizard of Oz" ending to this great journey. Except -- I'm pretty sure about this one -- there is no Wizard. The Wizard is us.

None of it's definite, yet, but confidence is high; I'm pretty sure that we we have help from above.

Monday, September 24, 2007

It's Christmas Time (There's No Need To Be Afraid)

Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas" was the right song at the right time.

I was a newly-minted teenager when Bob Geldof and Ultravox's Midge Ure rounded up Paul Young, Phil Collins, Sting, Bono et all to record the first-and-definitive benefit single on behalf of African famine relief.

MTV was a nascent entity then too. It amplified and super-saturated my already Rolling Stone-distorted perception of rocknroll. Here was an awkward and flawed (they all did, after all, spend sufficient time on the couch -- allbeit at The Ritz in Ibiza -- smoking cigarettes and discussing their childhoods) group of singers being celebrated for the flaws and their singing! I had flaws. And I sang!

Moreover, my worldview was changing. At thirteen, I was allowed to take the bus to King of Prussia Mall or the train to Ardmore Square.

It was at a record store there that -- lulled into blissful consumer submission by the all-star music video played on near-repeat -- that I joyfully laid down my allowance for the vinyl 45.

As a song, Ure's four minute Anglo-centric plea for empathy is an odd one. There is no refrain, per say, just a galloping synth beat adorned with tubular bells building towards a rousing, repetative finish.

Didn't matter to me; I held constant vigile for the video, scampering into our mustard-colored TV room as soon as I heard those clanging bells.

Fast forward: December 23, 2006. I'm in my home studio brainstorming my annual online holiday single. 'Hmm,' I thought, '"Do They Know It's Christmas" made for a genius encore at The Nadas' Silent Night benefit concert in last year. Maybe I should call all of my New York City friends to record a version of our own.'

My watch read 11:23 pm. Christmas was mere hours away. Much as Casey, Chris or Jeff have my back,' I thought, 'There's no way I'll get 'em out on Christmas Eve.'

And so it is that I rallied some fifteen or so local singer/songwriters/musicians to record our version this weekend. The "Family Records Holiday" aggregates the idea behind "A Very Special Christmas" and "Do They Know It's Christmas." Fifteen local singer/songwriter/bands have contributed one holiday track each, and plus our version of the Band Aid single. A music video will do online pre-press for a December release and performance. The entire thing will benefit 826NYC, a youth literacy program.

Chris Abad, Casey Shea, Tony Maceli, Ryan Vaughn and I met up at Travis Harrison's Serious Business Studios in the heart of SoHo (Spring & Lafayette) as a hard rain began to fall Saturday morning. A few hours and many cups of coffee later, we had our basic track (drums, bass, acoustic guitar and scratch vocals). Langhorn Stoneburner Shea and Hot Rocks hostess Jenny Piston showed up with DV cams to begin shooting the music video. Casey -- due to depart for London with the rest of Sundown, laid down his vocal. "It's Christmas time," he sang perfectly in one take, "There's no need to be afraid."

And we were off.

Attorney's guitarist John Wlaysewski showed up with his bandmate William Ryan George and nailed a nuanced-but-powerful guitar part. The Wakey! Wakey! frontman Mike Grubbs showed up and -- between bites of veggie burger and fries -- nailed the now-famous, completely memorable hook. Less than six hours in, the basic recording was done. We left the studio two hours ahead of schedule as disk fell on Manhattan.

I spent the bulk of Sunday morning watching the video over and over on You Tube trying to assign the right parts to the right people (knowing already that a) Casey had already played the part of Paul Young, and I was laying claim to Bono's big line). Travis, Chris, and I re-assembled at noon. The chorus, as it were, began to trickle in one by one: Wynn Walent, Tarrah Reynolds, Kailen Garrity, Seth Kallen, Jeff Jacobson, Misty Boyce, William Ryan George and John Wlaysewski (The Attorneys), George & Jess Jezel (El Jezel), Wes Verhoeven (Undisputed Heavyweights), plus Mike and Gene Adam (Wakey! Wakey!). We rehearsed along with the track a half-dozen times, then began knocking out individual parts.

Later that afternoon, as we stood crowded around a single, omni-directional Neumann microphone drinking 20 ounce Budweisers, I laughed at Chris and Jenny (who have been staunch supporters from the start). "We did it!" I mouthed silently between "Feed the world!" and "Let them know it's Christmas time!!!"

We did it.

And it sounds totally freakin' bad ass.

Wait 'til you hear it.

Just like a thirteen-year-old in a dusty record store, you'll believe in blind optimism all over again.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

There Goes The Neighborhood



So Davy Rothbart's "There Goes The Neighborhood Tour" was in New York Friday Night. So Chris, Abbi and I met up after work, and headed down to the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater on 26th Street.

I'd texted Davy earlier in the afternoon to call off the shoot. We were gonna' do a bot of meet and greet, but decided that -- since we're going to Pittsburgh together in November -- we could hold the thought 'til then.

The event was sold out. We were surrounded by thirtysomething literate-types as we waited in line near next to Gristede's.

"These are our people, man!" I told Chris. "If we can get these people in every town, we're golden!"

The venue was kinda' sketchy: dusty, black walls, exposed plumbing, rockity theater seats. I loved it. It felt vital, collegiate, like there was nothing to lose.

I coaxed Abbi and Chris into the front row. There was no stage, per say, just 3/4 of a rectanglular space without seats. So our feet were basically on stage. When the lights went down, we never fully faded into theatrical blackness; our reactions would be part of the show.

Davy walked in from the wings, unloaded a thicket of Xeroxed pages onto a pair of barstools, and began reading.

Davy and his brother, Peter, put on a hilarious show. It's basically a rock 'n roll reading that happens to be comedic. Found Magazine is, well, a magazine full of found objects: love letters, receipts, photos. Many of which are humorous, especially out of context. Peter brings the music, like his boy band send-up based on an actual love note, "Booty Don't Stop."

Davy also happens to be a marketing genius. He effortlessly weaves his mailing list and promotions for upcoming shows, back issues of the magazine, books, and CDs into his shtick. The amazing thing is that the whole thing feels so earnest and real, not commercial.

At the end of the show, as Davy was thanking a few people, he mentioned his buddy, "This American Life" producer Alex Bloomberg, and congratulated him on his recent marriage. Then he looked at me and said, "And thanks to Benjamin Wagner who's about to get married." That little gesture made me feel pretty special. Later, when someone told me that This American Life host Ira Glass seated behind Abbi, Chris and me, I exclaimed to Abbi, "Ira Glass knows my name." Which, as ridiculous as it sounds, is kinda' the beauty of this whole Mister Rogers-inspired journey of mine.

Later that night, I met Davy at The Park, a scene club on 18th & Tenth. I thought I was meeting him and a few friends. I walked into a table of twenty. Davy -- bless his heart -- introduced me as "The deepest guy I know." I pulled up a chair between a Pakistani journalist and Random House designer. I talked about God, Britney Spears, and "The Secret Lives of People in Love." Like I said to Chris, these are our people: the ones who burn for conversation, substance, solutions. The ones who want to change the world.

Well after midnight, I peeled off as Davy's friends tumbled out of the club towards its next destination. In the few minutes there as the party dispersed on the street, a fellow reveler told me, "Oh yeah, Mister Rogers used to come into the country store I worked at during summers."

"Bartlett Farms," I said.

"Yeah," she replied.

'He still up there connecting us,' I thought from the backseat, smiling all the way up Tenth Avenue.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Nantucket '07: Time After Time

I woke up just after sunrise this morning.

Stepping into the living room I was gob smacked by the sea shining through the picture window. The only sound in our cottage, Watcha Dune, was the ticking of the old novelty clock on the wall that reads, "Who Cares."

I grabbed the DV and began shooting right away. Soon enough, I was on the beach, the tripod wedged level in the sand. A seal was splashing around in the waves a few hundred feet off shore.

I turned the camera towards the waves zooming in on the slow-rolling water there before it crested and capped and broke. Then I turned northwest and shot the sunlight sparkling on the waves as they lapped onto the shore.

Everything around me had a pulse. Everything around me beat the rhythem of time. I stood there, my toes in the water, and thought to myself 'This is why Mister Rogers loved it here.'

Increments of time feel both more minute and more infinate here.

The island changes with each passing season: inlets deepen, sandbars grow and homes fall into the sea. Someday, perhaps, it will all wash away.

It is the steady march of time. Unlike Times Square, Copley Plaza or Piccadilly Circus, where the horns and the sirens and the lights and the crush of the hawkers, barkers and hustlers, is relentlessly distracting. Each wave, each soaring gull, each blade of grass blowing in the wind, actually means something.

Slow.

Down.

* * *

I am eatting bluberry pie for breakfast now. Because I can.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Nantucket '07: A Thousand Hues


Christofer pursuaded me to bring the HDDV to Nantucket this weekend to shoot b-roll for the film on account of the fact that he wouldn't be joining Abbi and me at my mother's.

He and Ethan came by my office Friday at noon as I scurried around tying up loose ends. MTV's Video Music Awards are next weekend. I'm flying to Las Vegas straight from Nantucket.

I walked Ethan around the floor, showing him off like a proud uncle.

In the newsroom, my colleague, Tim Kash was reading the news. He invited Ethan on set, and encouraged him to read Teleprompter. Ethan just smiled when he saw himself on the monitor.

He was quiet, except to tell me my office was too small ("I would need a bigger room," he said) and that we needed to find a bigger window through which to look at the river.

The car service called at 12:30. Chris and Ethan walked me downstairs and through Times Square. I gave him a hug, and headed off, waving to him through the crowd.

I pecked away at my Blackberry as we crept up Sixth Avenue towards Abbi's office, and I wondered to myself if all of this seemed normal to Ethan: working three hundred feet in the air in jeans, sneakers and a sport coat at a major media company, newsrooms, DV cams, Times Square, and car services.

As I wondered, I looked up and spotted my first boss in New York City, a guy named Brian Donlon who hired me to launch Lifetime Television's first web site was back in 1995. He did a double take, but I didn't say anything. I just smiled and thought, "Wow, you've come a long way."

Three hours later, our jet landed in Nantucket. Where New York City had been warm and sunny, ACK was cold and rainy.

Since then, the sky has cleared. The wind has picked up. And the ocean has changed a thousand hues.

I've left the strum and dirge of the city behind, and grabbed some beautiful b-roll of Madaket Harbor, Millie's Bridge, and the sunset over Smith's Point.

I feel blessed, and grateful, and wish Mister Rogers were here so I could tell him all about it.





Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Announcing"A Family Records Holiday"



I'm not sure I've told this story here.

I met Mister Rogers on my 30th birthday: September 4, 2001. The World Trade Center fell exactly one week later. I was just about to release a new CD,"Crash Site," but -- inspired in no small part by his ethos -- I repaired to the studio to record a benefit CD instead. I sent him a copy prior to the September 25th release, and invited him to come to the show. He didn't make it, but when I got home, there was a message on my answering machine from him saying that he'd tried to reach me at the Mercury Lounge, but I was already on stage.

Seven years later, I'm at it again. And once again, Mister Rogers is the inspiration.

I just sent a dozen emails to some of New York City's finest singer/songwriters and bands. It read (in part)

    I first met Mister Rogers in 2001. It's a long story. In short, he encouraged me to make the world the better place any way I knew how. Now, I don't have a ton of skills: I sing, I write, and I make records. Which is why I'm emailing you now.

    I'm gathering a group of NYC singer/songwriters and rock bands to put together a holiday benefit CD. My pal, Wes Verhoeve, will release the album on his Family Records imprint. "A Family Records Holiday" will collect a dozen holiday songs, and culminate with a cover of "Do They Know It's Christmas."

    Which is where you come in. We want you to record your favorite holiday song -- or write and record a new one -- and then donate the recording to this cause. Then, on September 22-23, we'll gather at Travis Harrison's Serious Business Studios in Brooklyn to record our own version of "Do They Know It's Christmas." We'll shoot and edit a video, and perform together at a righteous release party in December under the guidance of Mr. Verhoeve plus the assistance of our pal, Hot Rocks' Jenny Piston.

    The entire project will benefit New York Cares.

Until this morning, I had two weekends free between now and the New York City Marathon (November 4). Now I have one: the one before I get married. Which is just fine with me.

Like I just said to Wes: It feels good to do good.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Revenge Of The Bookeaters


826NYC's benefit, Revenge Of The Bookeaters, was Sunday night at The Beacon Theater.

I came to the event via Jen Snow who, in addition to having one of the great names of all time, is 826NYC's publicist. We've connected over email (in fact, she's one of the articulate supporters excerpted here) and, as I've mentioned, plan to work together on the doc.

It was a star-studded affair, in a literary, Brooklyn-esque kinda' way: Demitri Martin hosted; Broken Social Scene, Spoon's Britt Daniel, New Pornographer AC Newman, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, and Feist performed.

The entire night was kind of scrappy and lo-fi in an endearing way. The performances were mostly uneven, but well-intentioned, and well worth it. 826, founded in 2002 by memoirist David Eggers, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.

As a creative writing major and thus-far failed writer, applaud their efforts vigorously. Moreover, I hope to amplify those efforts in some small way.

Jim James, as it ends up, was terrific and inspiring. I've been listening to "Gideon" on repeat ever since.

The whole thing was pretty excellent, pretty impressive, and super inspiring.

One our way out, I turned to my buddy Wes and said, "I want our project to be this big."

More on that later...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"Today's Man" (Or, "Thank God For Mister Rogers")



Holy moly! I totally forgot to tell you this story, didn't I?

You'll recall that Davy Rothbart invited me to join him, David Newell (aka Mr. McFeely) and Mister Rogers' uber-fan (and subject of the documentary, "Today's Man") Nicky Gottlieb in Pittsburgh in November. Well, the plot thickens.

Well, my buddy Ron emailed me last week, and he CC'd his college dorm mate, "Today's Man" director Lizzie Gottlieb.

    Lizzie, meet my friend-made-on-the-internet, singer/songwriter, MTV-News-Online-executive, documentary-about-Mister Rogers-filmmaker, fellow Midwesterner, triathlete, about-to-be-newlywed, all around Renaissance Man, nicest man in NYC, Benjamin Wagner.

I'll tell you what, Mister Rogers is smiling down on this whole connected thing, huh?

Anyway, I ordered Lizzie's documentary just as soon as Davy emailed me about it, and it arrived tonight. I just finished watching it.

It's a terrific film: compassionate, intelligent, and empathic.

    Nicky Gottlieb is a young man struggling to leave the comfort and safety of his parents' home and find his place in the world. While he can calculate the square root of any number in the blink of an eye, he has trouble reading the simplest of facial expressions, making social interaction difficult. At the age of 21, he is diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. This loving portrait by his filmmaker sister is both a personal exploration of one family's journey and a broader effort to understand this mysterious disorder.

There's a point in the film when Nicky, who loves television and adores Mister Rogers, says, "The world would be a much crazier place without Mister Rogers." In fact, Lizzie told me she considered calling the doc, "Thank God For Mister Rogers."

The more I've learned about the whole thing, the more it feels fated. The film, as it ends up, premiered at the Nantucket Film Festival -- as Christofer and I hope to.

More than our connections, though, the film moved me because it's well done, and it's done with heart. It's a very personal story, one that sets the bar pretty high on our little project.

Summer's Gone: A Quick Story About Disappointment And Empathy


I was searching for a Mister Rogers quote just now when I traipsed across this one:

    When I was in college, I went to New York to talk to a songwriter I admired very much. I took him four or five songs I'd written and thought he'd introduce me to Tin Pan Alley and it would be the beginning of my career. After I played him my songs, he said, "You have very nice songs. Come back when you have a barrelfull."
    A barrelfull of songs! That would mean hundreds of songs. I can still remember the disappointment I felt as I traveled all that way back to college. Nevertheless, that man's counsel was more inspired than I'd realized. It took me years to understand that. And so, after the initial disappointment, I got to work; and through the years, one by one, I have written a barrelfull.

    In fact, the barrel's overflowing now, and I can tell you, the more I wrote, the better the songs became, and the more those songs revealed what was in me.
First, I love the image of Fred Rogers in college. It is often difficult to imagine him as anything less than fully-formed, or fully self-actualized.

Second, I never knew he dreamt of being an honest-to-goodness songwriter. I love that. I mean, I obviously know we shared music in common. That's why, on that first afternoon we spent together in Nantucket, I brought my guitar (which is in my hands in my favorite photo of us).

I played him "Summer's Gone," which was a new song of mine then, and is kind of a sad thing to play ("Summer's gone away / Everything left to decay / There is nothing you can say / To make it last") on Labor Day Weekend for a man who'd recently retired and (as it would end up) would be gone (physically, anyway) in a year and a half.

Later, in his study overlooking Madaket Sound, he played "It's A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," then sang "Happy Birthday" to me.

Still, I never knew Mister Rogers aspired to Tin Pan Alley, much as I moved to New York dreaming of a record deal. And I never knew he'd suffered any sort of disappointment (of course he did, but you know what I mean). I love that -- in retrospect -- his life's work seemed charted in advance. In the moment, though, he suffered the same uncertainty and discovery as we all do.

Moreover, though, I appreciate the empathy inherent to his story. Empathy -- the capacity to understand, be aware, and sensitive to the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another person without having the feelings, thoughts -- isn't in easy to come by in our culture. Nor is it easy to learn. Mister Rogers had it in spades. By sharing his own disappointment here, he demonstrates that he understands ours. I admire that. And aspire to it.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Trouble In "The Neighborhood"

A reader, Kris Jensen-Van Heste, emailed me recently with some pretty bad news: Philadelphia's WHYY-TV is relegating "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood" from Monday – Friday at 1pm to Sundays at 6am.

It's not a terribly surprising decision, but it is alarming.

In the absence of new shows (Mister Rogers taped his last show in 2001), or Mister Rogers himself (Mister Rogers passed away on February 27, 2003), I can understand (but not endorse) how the network might think they need to evolve with the times.

In the era of Teletubbies (sponsored by Langers Juice), Clifford (sponsored by Chuck E. Cheese), and Curious George (sponsored by Universal Studios), I imagine the honest-to-goodness non-profit Family Communications doesn't stand much of a chance. Likewise, all those bright colors, quick cuts, and nonsensical songs.

Of course, I don't agree with the decision. In fact, I'm afraid that the program's marginalization is just a step towards complete cancellation, which would be a huge loss for us all.

I've encouraged Kris to start her own website, and a petition. And I'd encourage you to send a letter, and email, or make a call to the station's program director. In fact, I've written it for you; just click here to download it, then sign it, stamp it, and send it. Or you can contact WHYY yourself:

Mr. Paul Rubinsohn
Program Director WHYY-TV
Independence Mall West
150 N. 6th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Tel: (215) 351-1200
Fax: (215) 351-0398
E-Mail: talkback@whyy.org

Whether we save the show from extinction or not, we raise or voices together in defense of our values: substance over form, patience over pace, and intimacy over anonymity.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Davy & My "Mister Rogers Day"


I'm so excited.

I just got off the phone with Davy Rothbart. I'm going to Chicago this weekend to cover Lollapalooza for MTV News, and wanted to see if -- by some long-shot -- he'd be there too. See, Davy lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. To guys like me (read: Easter-oriented corporate types sitting at a desk twenty-nine stories above Times Square), Ann Arbor and Chicago are close. They're actually 240 miles apart.

That Davy would be at Lollapalooza, though, isn't such a stretch. He started Found Magazine, a cool, boutique collection of, well, found objects: photographs, love notes, doodles. Somehow, the aesthetic of the magazine seems to fit with Lollapalooza.

Moreover, though, Davy is a contributor to "This American Life," which -- as you know -- is hands-down the best radio out there. In fact, the show is how I came about Davy. "This American Life" is produced by Chicago Public Radio. So -- yeah, you got it! -- I thought maybe Davy'd be in town.

Short answer: no, he won't be in Chicago this weekend.

Still, we had a great conversation. I really relate to this guy. In fact, I'd kinda' like to be in his shoes: author, magazine publisher, documentary filmmaker...

First, though, allow me to explain Davy's connection to Mister Rogers. It's a classic, one he recounts in his New York Times' remembrance shortly after Mister Rogers' death).

    When I was 3 years old and my older brother was 6, he wrote a letter to Mr. Rogers. Thrillingly, Mr. Rogers wrote back. They began a little correspondence, and the next summer, when my brother told Mr. Rogers that our family was headed to Massachusetts for a week's vacation, Mr. Rogers invited all of us to chill with him for a day at his summer home on Nantucket.

    We had a glorious time. Mr. Rogers sang songs to us, played with us in the sand and told us stories about our friends from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. It was a day I have never stopped glowing about.

Sounds kinda' familiar, right? I especially like how he says that he's "never stopped glowing." I totally feel the same way. This city beats me up almost every day. All I have to do, though, is pause a moment and listen for Mister Rogers voice. He always has the perfect advise. And I always end up glowing.

Pretty lucky.

So Davy's not going to in Chicago, but -- as it ends up -- my timing was (as is often the case when Bigger Things are at play) impecabble.

"Wow," he said. "It's so funny you call. I just emailed Mr. McFeely!"

Here's where the plot thickens.

Davy was emailing Mr. McFeely -- whose real name is David Newell, and who functions as Family Communications Director of Public Relations -- on behalf of his friend Lizzie Gottlieb. Lizzie is a documentary filmmaker whose 2006 film, Today's Man, chronicles her brother Nicky's diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. In the film, Nicky speaks of his life-long ambition to meet Mister Rogers. Cut back to Davy Rothbart, and David Newell's email.

Are you beginning to see why I'm excited!?!

So Davy's going to be in New York in September. And he's invited Chris and I along to Pittsburgh in November.

Now, I'm obviously excited for the film's sake, and our mission of "spreading the message." But I'm also excited that Davy and I spent twenty minutes on the phone talking about growing up, growing old, depth and simplicity, art and commerce, how we each suffer from what Bono calls "the tyranny of ideas" (Davy's in the middle of booking at 65-city book tour, while wrapping production on his documentary, "My Heart Is An Idiot"), and all of the things with which we both wrestle with and aspire to. It was, in short, inspiring, and energizing.

As we hung up, I was reminded of when Tim Madigan told me, "Fred loved bringing people together."

And I was reminded of Chuck Close. He's the artist who paints huge portraits comprised of tiny rectangles and squares. If "Mister Rogers & Me" is anything, it's an attempt to sew together a few portraits -- Davy's, Nikki's, Tim's, Chris', mine -- that, taken together, begin to take the shape of The Man himself.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Speedy Delivery


I've received a few dozen great, really thoughtful emails since posting the trailer a few weeks ago. Some are from friends, some are from strangers, all are appreciated. I thought I'd share excerpts of just a few.

    I love Mr. Rogers. I love that as a child, my mom let me watch him despite the fact that she still shudders when she thinks about the instant and entranced calm that came over me as soon as it started, just after Sesame Street, which, in contrast, always included a fair amount of me jumping around and counting out loud and singing and talking back to the television. I love that I still remember her telling me that Mr. Rogers bought a car from her college roommate, and that being the first time I wrapped my head around the idea of him existing on TV and in real life. I love that on a road trip when I was in college, my boyfriend planned a stop at the Crayola factory -- based entirely on the fact that seeing the brochure in our hotel lobby launched me into an insanely detailed recollection of the trip Mr. Rogers once took there on his show.

    Jen
    New York, NY

    I grew up with Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, Electric Company, etc. Somehow I wish today's children's entertainment would retain some of the innocence of those shows. My background is in advertising/marketing so I can understand the success of much slicker shows like Sponge Bob, Dora, etc. But there's something lacking - a heart and soul. I think Fred Rogers did a great job of that.

    Paul
    Houston, TX

    I just happened upon your story about Fred Rogers and wanted you to know that I loved it and thank you so much for writing it! I have been trying to figure out where to take my family for vacation and we have been punting around the idea of Nantucket, along with Maine, Martha's Vineyard et al. and we asked a friend who we knew had been to Nantucket if they liked it and they loved it and mentioned that they saw Mr. Roger's house.

    Something also touched me about your words in that you indicated that your parents were divorced when you were ten. Mine were at six. It is painful isn't it! I am a 46-year-old married man with three kids of my own and I still have issues from my parents divorce and step-parent issues. At any rate, I kind of feel like a blood brother to anyone else, like yourself who suffered that fate.

    I assure you that I am not prone to writing strangers, but you opened your heart to the world and I just thought that I would let you know that I appreciate your doing that.

    Jamie
    Dallas, TX

    As you have the Nantucket connection to Mr. Rogers, I have a Pittsburgh connection to him. My youngest sister was an avid fan of Daniel Stripped Tiger and King Friday even before Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was on PBS. I was a little too old to appreciate him then, but often watched with her on our black and white TV in our living room in Leetsdale which is about 18 miles from “downtown” Pittsburgh.

    I graduated from Pitt with a degree in early childhood education. My first job after graduating was teaching in a Head Start program in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Training for this program was at the Arsenal Family & Children’s Center. Not only did Mr. Rogers have an office there, but both of his sons were students there. Often Fred would come into our training sessions. He encouraged us with his slow soothing speech and made us believe we were doing the most important job in the world – loving and caring for young children.

    Mr. Rogers was always a force in our household. My son began watching his show at age 2 and I used his records in my creative music classes as a teacher. When he was 4 (or maybe he was 5) he missed a very important show. I think it may have been the wedding of Princess Sara, but I’m not sure. He and I wrote a letter to Fred asking if it would be repeated during the summer months. True to form, Mr. Rogers answered and not only told him the number of the segment but praised him for being able to tell his mother how he felt about missing the show.

    Fred Rogers left a legacy of tenderness and caring not often found in today’s TV world. I can’t wait to see your finished tribute to him. Please keep me in the loop.

    Hugs,

    Sandy
    Berwyn, PA

    I came across Mister Rogers today on YouTube and it made me recall so many happy thoughts that were once forgotten. I can't really explain why I came across Mister Rogers, or what led me to searching for more videos on him. Just something that made me feel great inside and led me to the film which you are making. I understand you probably have many emails based around interested fans or whomever else is emailing you but good luck on your project.

    Matej

As you know, this process has been long and sometimes difficult. Throughout, I have heard Mister Rogers' voice in my head saying, "Look for the helpers." Every email and comment feels like help, like Chris and I aren't alone in all of this. It's gratifying.