Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: It Was 40 Years Ago Today

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" premiered on PBS forty years ago today.

Family Communications is marking the anniversary with a series of announcements which, according to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is to include:

Groundbreaking for the "Tribute to Children" statue of Rogers on the North Shore is scheduled for on or near March 20, which would have been his 80th birthday. The riverside statue will be located close to Heinz Field and facing the Point.

In the meantime, Family Communications will launch "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Days in mid-March, a series of events involving the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, the National Aviary, the Carnegie Science Center, the Senator John Heinz History Museum, The Andy Warhol Museum, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, the Pittsburgh Symphony, Carnegie and regional libraries and other organizations in the region.

The New York Times celebrated the anniversary differently, running a piece on Sunday pondering, "Is PBS Still Necessary?".

Its creative heyday has passed, the author reasons. Audiences are deluged with similar options. Moreover, ratings are down.

The first two points are arguable about the entire television landscape, but the last point is crucial.

If the marketplace alone decides what constitutes programming, then -- eventually -- our only option will be to watch "Real World XXV" instead of "Materpiece." If the marketplace alone decides what constitutes news then our only option will be to watch "Access Hollywood" instead of "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." If the marketplace alone decides what constitutes documentary, our only option will be to watch "Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?" instead of "Frontline."

Now more than ever, a marketplace of ideas free from the marketplace is essential.

Now more than ever, when every corporate confab has a lobby, every politician is for sale, and every conceivable surface is covered with advertising, we need a place that's safe from influence -- or at least more safe.

Now more than ever, when the average 3-year-old recognizes 100 different brand logos, and the average 18-year-old has witnessed 200,000 acts of televised violence, we need a place that's safe from influence -- or at least more safe.

That's what Mister Rogers stood for. In a 1967 Senate Oversight hearing, he put it thusly:

"I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that its much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger than showing something of gunfire. I'm constantly concerned about what our children are seeing. And for fifteen years... I have tried to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care."

Monday, February 18, 2008

Mister Rogers Photographs

Mister Rogers loved taking photographs far more than being photographed.

The afternoon I met him, he snapped a few of my mother and me, and later sent them to her. Tim Russert tells a similar story. And Bev Hall has more than one photo of Mister Rogers taking photos. Apparently, he was never far from his camera.

I spent the balance of this afternoon watching The Graduate on DVD while scanning and sizing the nearly six dozen photographs that Davy Rothbart and Beverly Hall sent to me.

It's an extraordinary blessing, really, that they've shared entire photo albums with me. Not only do appreciate their generosity and confidence, these photos make the construction of the film possible. I'm still waiting on Lynn Johnson's photo archive, plus the results of Katia's photo agency research, but already we already posess enough supporting material to finish the film.

Many of Bev's photos are from an blustery afternoon in 1967 when Mister Rogers shot an interview with local legend Madaket Millie for air on the "Neighborhood." As I think I've mentioned, her photos of Fred and Millie from that afternoon is a beloved image on Nantucket. It hangs framed in many an island cottage. The photos she shared with me -- over fifty in all -- afford an even warmer, more intimate portrait of that day. There's also more current fare, like this one she took at a Nantucket wedding. That's how I remember him.

Davy's photos look like they were pulled from the pages of my family's photo albums. I recognize the 70s well: the short shorts, Sesame Street t-shirts, a Dutch Boy haircut. And I recognize all the locations in the photos: Eel's Point, Madaket Bay, and -- of course -- Mister Rogers' Crooked House.

I finished scripting Davy's segment last night. Despite having interviewed him at three o'clock in the morning, he nailed the essence of the man:

It's easy to feel isolated, like you're dealing with something and you're the only one. But you pick up some note off the ground from a total stranger and it turns out they're experiencing the same difficult experience you're going through. It's a powerful thing to realize, 'I'm not alone here.' Somebody else is dealing with the same thing. Mister Rogers dealt with some pretty difficult things on his show especially for public television -- death, divorce -- and I think that was what he wanted to communicate. This is stuff we all have to deal with yunno? You're not weird because you're afraid you're gonna go down the drain, or your parents are getting divorced.

It's one of Mister Rogers' greatest lessons, I think, that we're not alone.

In fact, Abbi's out of town, so I've been alone with "Mister Rogers & Me" all weekend. Pouring over these photos and screening interviews with Bev and Davy, 826NYC and the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, though, I feel warm and welcome, like I'm a part of some great big circle of friends. I don't feel lonesome at all.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

"A Tribute To Children" Approved

A little bit of news out of Pittsburgh today: the $3 million sculpture of 'Mister Rogers' has been approved.

I'll be honest: I thought it had already been approved, and was being unveiled during the week-long celebration of what would be Mister Roger's 80th birthday. Apparently not. Which explains why, when Chris and I shot the remains of the Manchester Bridge, there besides Heinz Field, it looked like they hadn't broken ground yet. Because they hadn't.

Here's the story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

The Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority has cleared the way for construction of a $3 million sculpture of children's television legend Fred Rogers on the North Shore.

Authority board members approved a development and maintenance agreement yesterday with Family Communications and the Colcom Foundation that allows for the work to take place.

Authority Executive Director Mary Conturo said she expects construction to start on the "Tribute to Children" memorial in the first quarter of this year.

The authority board approved a moratorium on additional memorials or public art proposals for North Shore Riverfront Park once the Fred Rogers statute and a World War II memorial are in place.

With those two additions, there will be six memorials or art pieces in the park. Any more would interfere with requirements for open space under the park's master plan, Ms. Conturo said.

The finished sculpture was going to be a component of our epilogue. Guess not.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Mister Rogers, Lynn Johnson & Me

I'll be honest. I was pretty anxious about calling. You would be too having read this impressive curriculum vitae:

Photojournalist Lynn Johnson is known for her intense and sensitive work. Over the years she had divided her time between assignments for LIFE, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated and various foundations. Johnson has traveled from Siberia to Zambia and with her Leicas, climbed the radio antenna atop Chicago’s Hancock Tower and dangled from helicopters in Antarctica. Though she has photographed notables from Tiger Woods to the entire Supreme Court, her favorite assignments are emotionally demanding stories about ordinary people.

The plot thickens on her website, though: seven Golden Quills for Photojournalism, four World Press Photography Awards, the Robert F.Kennedy Journalism Award for Outstanding Coverage of the Disadvantaged, and Picture of the Year Award from the National Press Photographer Association and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

This is clearly a woman who gets it. She told National Geographic Photographer recently:

"For me, photography has been a mission. I don't mean on the grand scale, but in the sense of the daily awareness that each one of us is responsible for the wider community, that your sense of self and sense of responsibility outside yourself is as wide as you can embrace. It's a commitment to try to fulfill that responsibility by doing work about things that matter."

I came across Ms. Johnson rather by accident. I was doing research on photos to potentially license for the film when I came across this image of Mister Rogers staring out to sea. The photo seemed to communicate everything Mister Rogers and our film is about: seeking infinity, staring into the mystery, reflection, meditation.

On her Her website, I found a dozen of her Mister Rogers photos, lifted largely from the November,1992 issue of LIFE Magazine.

Each one of her vibrant, intimate, and clearly insider photos of Mister Rogers on Nantucket, in Pittsburgh, and on the "Neighborhood" set, indicated to me that she had spent serious time with them. Surely she had stories to tell, and lessons to impart.

I wrote her a novel of an email, explaining who I am, what I do, my relationship with Mister Rogers, and the "Mister Rogers & Me" project. She replied simply:

Hi Benjamin,

Ah, so you too have been transformed by Mister Rogers. Feel free to call me anytime.


When we finally spoke some two weeks later, I indicated that I nervous straight away.
"Mister Rogers would say that being nervous is part of growing up."

We met at the Empire Hotel Thursday night, and sat talking for well over two hours. Like most of the people I've met who knew or worked with Mister Rogers, she was patient, thoughtful and focussed. Unlike most, she was full of questions for me, many of which I hadn't considered, and some of which were in the process of changing.

Example. She asked me how I planned to effectively communicate what it felt like to spend time with Mister Rogers in person, the "physicality" of it. I told her that I hadn't really considered it, but hoped that the pace of the film, visual metaphors in it, plus the reverence of the interviewees would begin to hint at just how special it felt to spend time with him.

Example. She asked what our distribution plan was. I told her that the answer to that was in flux; where last week I would have said, "We're going to try and get it into the Nantucket Film Festival and then see what happens," this week I'd say, "We're going to get our rough cut done by March 15th and then decide."

Also. She loved how we're going to end the film.

I'm often reticent to speak with a potential interview prior to actually doing so in the event that they tell me great stories which they then have to try and retell me later with the same intensity. Luckily, we only scratched the surface, including the revelation that she interviewed Mister Rogers for her masters thesis and would be happy to share the tape.

Unfortunately, though, Lynn lives in Pittsburgh. She was in New York shooting photos for national Geographic for just a few days. So we're going to have to figure out when and where we're going to interview her.

I can't wait.