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.

    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.

    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.

    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.


    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.


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.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Mister Rogers Goes Digital

We were just talking about the MTV "Wiki" initiative to digitize every music video, show, and interview today. For once, we are as timely as today's headlines.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that "A project to digitize 900 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' episodes dating to 1967, as well as thousands of pages of print material, 35 years worth of viewer mail and audio recordings of Fred Rogers' music is now under way at Saint Vincent College."

Continue reading "Mr. Rogers' Shows To Be Digitized" here...

Monday, July 09, 2007

Jeff Erlanger (1970-2007)

I got a nice email just now from someone I don't know who found our "Mister Rogers & Me" trailer on You Tube.

So I was showing Abbi all the great Mister Rogers clips there, like when he saved congressional funding for the newly formed Public Broadcasting System, or his farewell message to viewers.

The third video we watched was beloved "Neighborhood" guest Jeff Erlanger's remembrance of appearing on the show. Christofer and I have discussed flying to Madison, Wisconsin, to meet Jeff, as his story has resonated with generations of viewers.

"Mister Rogers made me feel as if he was talking to me," he said.

Before I had time to tell Abbi that Mister Rogers made me (and everyone he met) feel the same, I read in the comments below the video that Jeff -- who was just a few months older than me -- had died last month.

This is obviously sad news. Jeff was brimming with joy and hope, whether surprising Mister Rogers upon receiving his Lifetime Emmy, or speaking at his tribute. He was a living legacy to Mister Rogers' goodness.

The first person Chris and I discussed interviewing for this film just prior to their passed away unexpectedly was Mister Rogers. Jeff -- a key character in the warm and wonderful story of Fred Rogers life -- is the second.

Now, we're not trying to make the definitive Mister Rogers biopic here. We're trying to tell a story about how one person can inspire change in another. Moreover, I'm pretty sure we're not going to interview Mrs. Rogers (who is 79-years-old), or David Newell (aka Mr. McFeely), as Family Communications CEO Bill Isler pretty much told me so.

Still, it drives home that whole carpe diem thing. "This moment," as singer/songwriter Victoria Williams sang, "will never come again."

In the face of a challenging summer of work, a wedding and honeymoon to plan, and a triathlon and marathon for which to train, it feels overwhelming again.

Even in his absence, then, Mister Rogers speaks to me.

"I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence to the months and years ahead. But I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger: I like you just the way you are."

Friday, July 06, 2007

Misunderstanding Mister Rogers

One of the byproducts of working on ths film has been that we end up hearing some strange myths and untruths about our hero, Fred Rogers.

The big myth is that Mister Rogers was some sort of sniper killed all sorts of people in Vietnam. In fact, we met a few teenagers outside of The Smithsonian who couldn't be convinved otherwise. "That's why he always wore long sleeves," they said. "To hide his tattoos."

Of course, Mister Rogers wasn't a sniper, and didn't kill anyone, or -- for that matter -- have any tattoos. For Heaven's sake, I'd know; I hung out with him at the beach.

This week, The Wall Street Journal published commentary on the affect of Mister Rogers' message on kids.

    Don Chance, a finance professor at Louisiana State University, says it dawned on him last spring. The semester was ending, and as usual, students were making a pilgrimage to his office, asking for the extra points needed to lift their grades to A's.

    "They felt so entitled," he recalls, "and it just hit me. We can blame Mr. Rogers."

Of course, that Mister Rogers constantly told kids, "You are special," and that phrase somehow created generations of entitlement-crazed kids is absurd. Fortunately, The Huffington Post's Michelle Pilecki took the article to task.

"Whatever 'culture' or 'doting' the WSJ is talking about," she writes, "has nothing to do with the actual mission embodied in the program."

The show (and, ergo, the man), she continues, "is designed for children, encourages children to feel good about themselves, helps children learn the skills needed for learning readiness, is based on solid principles of child development and child psychology, encourages appreciation of and respect for others, and promotes values that are important to all children and families."

"Fred taught us," she concludes, that "we shouldn't be hurtful in our anger, and respect the differences in others while recognizing their shortcomings."

I'm not sure about the shortcomings part, but he didn't lash out when he was angry or hurt, he played piano or went for a swim.

In the time that I knew him, Mister Rogers gave me a few small birthday gifts, and sent me two care packages. one of the care packages contained a booklet of magnetic postcards. My favorite hangs on the fridge. I read it every morning and smile.

It reads, You Are Special.

I've wrestled with self esteem most of my life. I've often felt like I didn't fit in, either because I was new to town, or liked to sing instead of play football, or like to write instead of watch tv. I've been bullied plenty. So Mister Rogers and his message resonated with me long before meeting him. It stil does when I see that postcard on the fridge every morning.

That some kids think Mister Rogers was a sniper is wacky. That some professor somewhere thinks Mister Rogers is to blame for entitlement is nuts. That some bully tossed me up against the lockers because he thought I was a "fag" still makes me sad.

But even today, when my confidence wavers, or I feel persecuted or out of place, I think of Mister Rogers, and I play my guitar or go for a run.

And every time I see Ethan -- in fact, just yesterday -- I whisper in his ear, "you are special!"

Even if he grows up and gets a tattoo.

He's special. And so am I. And so are you.

Update: Professor Don Chance retracted his statement, saying, "The reference to Mr. Rogers was just a metaphor. I have no professional qualifications to evaluate the real problems or propose solutions. Mr. Rogers was a great American. I watched him with my children and wouldn’t hesitate to do so again if I had young children."

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Mister Rogers & Me Trailer Premiere

Though Christofer and I began accruing footage in Nantucket in 2004, production on "Mister Rogers & Me" didn't begin in earnest until almost a year ago.

In fact, it was Sunday, June 25, 2006 when we drove to Fredericksburg, Virginia, to interview author Amy Hollingsworth, and then to Chapel Hill, South Carolina, to interview Human Kindness Foundation founder Bo Lozoff.

Just over one year later, we have this trailer to show for our efforts.

We've covered a fair amount of turf in between, including two trips to Washington, D.C. (Tim Russert, Susan Stamberg, and the Smithsonian), and three interviews here in New York (Marc Brown, Tim Madigan, and Linda Ellerbee).

We've also encountered our fair share of obstacles. Both Bill Moyers and Garrison Keillor declined our interview requests.

Still, it's been a terrific process, and easily the most meaningful project of my life. It's provided me with all sorts of insights and epiphanies, and afforded me the opportunity to meet some really inspiration people. Oh, and through the making of this film, I met the gentleman who will be marrying Abbi and me.

So, it's back to the production. We hope to shoot interviews with Katie Couric, Yo Yo Ma, and Found Magazine's Davy Rothbart, and to visit Dave Eggers' 826 organization. With any luck (and it will take a fair dose of luck), Chris and I will wrap it up in time for Mister Rogers' 80th birthday next year.

Stay tuned...