Friday, March 28, 2008

WQED Studio A Renamed Fred Rogers Studio

This morning, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports:

WQED Multimedia's Studio A, which was home to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," will now be called the Fred Rogers Studio in honor of Fred Rogers' life and work in children's television, WQED board members decided yesterday. The station will open the studio in August for a series of open houses for those who want a look behind the scenes of the long-running PBS series.

"When he retired, he said, 'I miss my playmates at the studio the most,'" the late host's wife, Joanne Rogers, who was on hand for the announcement, told board members. "It was work, and it was hard, but he played there."

Chris and I spent a few minutes shooting exteriors outside of WQED last year. At the time, we still held hope that we'd be invited inside, so we were treading lightly.

As Chris shot a series of wide, mid, and close-up shots, I wandered around the grounds. The building is on the edge of the University of Pittsburgh campus, and so was teaming with students. In fact, it appeared by the volume of pedestrian traffic that the parking lot on the west side of the building was some sort of a short-cut. So I followed the kids around the back of the building.

I noticed an open door on the side of the building, and tiptoed towards it. From the looks of it, I was at the back door of one of the station's cavernous sound stages. My heart was beating as I stepped inside, hoping that I'd spot some little corner of King Friday's castle.

No such luck.

I've since spoken with FCI and relinquished my fantasy of being invited inside WQED, on camera at least.

I still like to imagine, though, that I was just a few steps from X the Owl's tree.

Either way, in some small way, I always am.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Mister Rogers & Me In 5:32

The first rule of film -- heck, of storytelling in general -- is "Show, Don't Tell."

Given that I never got back to Mister Rogers Crooked House with a video camera, Chris and I are left to retell the origin story -- that is, the story of my first meeting with Mister Rogers -- by reconstructing it through words and pictures.

And so, in roughly 5:32 of voice over recordedjust now in the studio picture here (yes, that's my wife's robe overmy shoulder), I usher the viewer from Iowa City, Iowa, to Nantucket, Massachusetts. Here's a sneak peak:

It seems to me that there just a few crucial moments that define every person's life. For me so far, they are as follows:

I was born September 4, 1971, in Iowa City, Iowa, to a graduate student and a nurse. Three weeks later, we moved.

In October of 1981, my parents divorced. My mother, brother, Christofer, and I moved for the fifth time in ten years to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I retreated into my headphones, the most-recent copy of Rolling Stone Magazine, and the fantasy that one day I’d be a rock star.

In 1993, I graduated from Syracuse University with dual degrees in creative writing and journalism. Shortly thereafter, Chris and I moved to New York City where timing, luck and experience conspired to afford me my dream job at THE preeminent music video network -- yeah, THAT music video network.

Perhaps THE defining moment of my life so far, though, occurred in September of 2001 on a tiny island 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts…

I sent the file to Christofer so he can begin cutting to it. Next steps?

1- Mister Rogers bio VO
2- All intro VOs
3- Bev Hall segment
4- 826 segment
5- Outro VO

The goal is to have a rough cut by May 1.

Very abmitious.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The End Is The Beginning Is The End

Putting this film together has been an excercise in time management. I don't have the luxury of producing "Mister Rogers & Me" as my day job, so I'm working on it -- tangiably or not -- the rest of the time. New ideas, then, are often unexpected surprises at odd moments.

Like this morning. I went for a five mile run along the Hudson River and through Central Park, cranking tunes the whole way. What with the traffic, the chaos, and the rock 'n roll, it was kind of the opposite of meditative or reflective. It was suprising, then, to step into my apartment and immediately come up with the opening voice over for the film.

I've been puzzling as to how to pull together a few disperate strands for a few weeks. We've already taped the opening shots of me walking to work, idea being to establish the chaos of the city in order to stanf in contrast to the tranquility of Nantucket. But the audience needs to know who I am, not because the film's about me, but because the conflict in the film -- every good movie needs one -- is my conflict: being a PBS mind in an MTV world. If the audience is going to be invested in the story, I figure, they need to be at least a little invested in me. Plus I had to establish a few notes -- like my parent's divorce -- as they figure into the story. Finally I had to get the film to Nantucket, then onto the road.

I knew I'd be spending time on the film today, and knew I had to write the opening voice over, but I wasn't thinking about it when I ran, or when I walked into the door. I think I figured it out, though. And it ties nicely to how I plan to end the film. Now I just have to tie everything up in-between.

I had to smile as I sat there typing everything out this afternoon when I noticed that Abbi had placed a bunch of daffodils on our desk; Nantucket's Daffodil Festival kicks off in a month. Today, I was a few steps ahead.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Dear Mister Rogers

Dear Mister Rogers,

My memory isn't the best, but one moment I'll never forget is meeting you.

It was September 4, 2001. I'd arrived on Nantucket just a few hours prior. I remember going for a run, then swimming in the bay at sunset. By the time you walked over from The Crooked House, there wasn't a trace of sunlight to be found; the sun had fallen below the waves. The stars had yet to come out. It was completely and perfectly dark.

I was standing on the back porch, beer in hand, when I heard your unmistakable voice inquire, "Has the birthday boy arrived?"

I don't remember what I said, or what happened next, but I remember exactly how I felt. For the first time in a long time, the increasing pressures of modern, accelerated adult life slipped away. For the first time in a long time, I felt like a little boy; wide-eyed, full of wonder, and 100% unique.

I couldn't have imagined then just how radically spending time with you that weekend would affect my path. Meeting you was a turning point, a moment where my existing values, interests and -- frankly, anxieties -- began to galvanize around a new mission.

I'd only just recently broken free from the haze of low-level but insidious drug addiction, and begun to address some of my own demons: the dual traumas of my parent's divorce, my broken jaw, and the resulting low self-esteem that accompanied both. Creatively, in my music, I was still wrestling with the tension between style and form. I was still -- metaphorically, at least -- dressing for a roll I thought I needed to play, not living in the clothes that fit and were comfortable.

I was, come to think of it, only beginning to find my voice. You helped me. You helped me settle into myself, and into the realization that I was good enough just the way I am. I stopped trying to be something or someone else, and began to just be me.

So much has changed since then: September 11, Afghanistan and Iraq, iPhones, The Long Tail, MySpace, integrated marketing and psychographic ad targeting. Everything feels darker, more self-absorbed, more disconnected, and less engaged than ever before. From cell phone video of Saddam Hussein's hanging to paparrazi snaps of Britney's meltdown, it seems like we're entertaining ourselves to death. Were you still here, I'm sure you would have some gentle, substantive advice for us all.

My hunch is that you would remind us that we're all more alike than dissimilar. You might encourage us to reflect a moment on something beautiful: a sunset, a flower, the memory of a loved one. And then you might have us simply turn to our neighbor and ask, "How can I help?"

In the absence of that calm, patient voice, though, and in the face of so many blustery and boisterous ones, I'm not sure who or what will remind us of those simple values: community, reflection, modesty. In the absence of you soothing presence, I'm not sure who or what will remind us to slow down, tune in and really listen to one another.

You know, Christofer and I visited your home town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a few months ago. We didn't go to your house, or your grave. Instead, we just drove around looking for the highest point from which to take it all in. Oddly enough, as the sun began to fall over the Western Pennsylvania town, we couldn't find a clear vantage point from which to see everything. We could only see what was immediately in front of us: a weather-beaten factory, a rusted out rail car, a chipped and faded duplex. You'll recall also that we had all but given up and were headed out of town when we spotted St. Vincent's Cathedral -- little more than a tiny, red-brick tower clear across the valley -- illuminated in the setting sun.

There is so much to say to you today, Mister Rogers, on the celebration of what would have been your 80th birthday. For now, though, just this: Thank You. Thank you for helping me find my own cathedral on the hill, something to stare at, reflect on, and believe in even when everything else seems completely and perfectly dark.

Love, Benjamin

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Mister Rogers, Serendipity & Us

Brace yourself; the following story may blow your mind.

Just this past Sunday, Nada front man Jason Walsmith and I were sitting around his Beaverdale, Iowa, living room recovering from the previous night's show and preparing for the next. We were watching TV when he said, "Lemme' show you this documentary."

He surfed around his Tivo menu until he found Iowa Public Television's "More Than A Game." The film, "a look back at girls' 6-on-6 basketball and what it meant to generations of young women who played it," features a new song from my Des Moines rock star friends, "Play Like A Girl."

Fast forward to Tuesday night. Chris and I are saddled up to the bar at The Dead Poet. We're well into our second pint, and nearly done with our cheeseburgers. I'm scribbling all over the film's outline, clarifying our respective assignments for the coming days ("Chris: Cut Davy. Ben: Script Pittsburgh").

"Excuse me," the gentleman next to us says. "Is that some sort of script?"

"Yeah it is," I say. "My brother and I are working on a documentary about Mister Rogers."

"Really!?!?" he says. "I work for PBS."

My eyes light up as we reach for our respective business cards."

"In Iowa."

"What!?!" I say. "I just got back from Iowa. I played a few shows with my pals in The Nadas who ..."

"Whose songs are in '"More Than A Game!'"


The pair, Wayne and Jerry, were in town to meet with The Metropolitan Opera. They'd stopped into The Poet (my favorite bar in New York City simply because it is anomylous in its authenticity) on the recommendation of a colleague. Which is where they found us.

In a city of 10 million people and 1000 bars, these two Iowans found two more.

In a city full of bankers, brokers, actors, dishwashers and directors, these two public television programmers found us: two documentary filmmakers aspiring to air their freshman effort on ... public television.

Once we got over our initial surprise -- including the additional revelation that we'd shared the same flight from Des Moines Monday morning -- we spent a few hours talking about the film, public television, and Iowa. We had a great time, until I looked down at my watch and realized that, for the fourth night in a row, I was out well past midnight.

Chris and I were still shocked, amazed, and thrilled at our collective serendipity as we stumbled towards Broadway.

"Mister Rogers always said to look for the helpers," I said as I hailed a cab. "Maybe the helpers are looking for us too."

* * *

By last night, the story had boomeranged from New York to Iowa and back. "More Than A Girl" director, Laurel Bower Burgmaier, emailed Jason (who is in Austin, Texas, at the SXSW Music Conference. He immediately forwarded her note with a one-liner, "Aren't you glad I made you watch that doc?"

Ms. Burgmaier wrote:

Hi Jason. I have a funny story to tell you. Two colleagues of mine at IPTV were in NY earlier this week and after scouting something, went to a bar called "Dead Poets". They were sitting by two guys who looked to be working on a script and asked them about it. When the two guys found out my colleagues were from IPTV, they said, "You're kidding! You mean the station that did 6 on 6?" They said they were from Waterloo and were friends of the Nadas, particularly you. One works for Sony and the other is from MTV News and said he just played this past Saturday with you guys in Des Moines. They are working on a doc about Mister Rogers. They exchanged cards with one of my colleagues who is the local production manager. What a small world in a city of 12 million, they'd run into these two guys!

What was once a cliche apparently bears repeating: it is a small world after all, especially when you have a guardian angel looking out for you.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mister Rogers (& Me) In The Nantucket Independent

I was thrilled when I received an email from Nantucket Independent reporter Mary Carpenter last week.

Mary and I spoke on Wednesday. I turned my chair away from my desk, and looked out across Times Square towards the sea. I spoke slowly, both because she was taking shorthand notes, and because I wanted to sufficiently communicate the reverence I feel for the man right. Somehow, staring at the clouds made that reverence a bit more approachable.

Here's an excerpt of how Mary's article turned out.

Professional photographer and Madaket neighbor Beverly Hall met Mister Rogers shortly after his family started spending summer seasons on the island. Not only did she treasure their friendship and the fact that they shared being ministers, she produced an extensive collection of photos of him she lent to summer visitor Benjamin Wagner, who works for MTV News and met Mister Rogers six years ago. Wagner felt so much admiration for him he is producing a documentary called "Mister Rogers & Me."

Wagner, now 36, met Fred Rogers on his 30th birthday and the following day was given a tour of his home during which time Rogers played "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" on his piano. Wagner's mother Mary Bolster rented a cottage next to the Crooked House and became friends with the Rogers in part because she was studying for her master's degree in theology, a deep interest of his.

"He took an interest in everything and everyone he met. I have yet to meet an adult who is more thoroughly invested in the moment or the person before him than Mister Rogers," said Wagner, whose documentary represents his personal memories and impressions.

"In short, he changed my life," said Wagner, recalling a conversation they had about Wagner's job and Rogers' observation he never forgot. "Standing on his back porch he said 'I feel so strongly that deep and simple are far more essential than shallow and complex.' In his show he took time to explain things well and clearly in a way kids and adults could understand, and he didn't shy away from hard questions like what happens when my goldfish dies or why are my parents divorcing. I think that takes a special kind of courage, especially in the culture we live in."

Wagner's documentary is in the editing stage and he anticipates it will be released as an independent film next year.

"It is my remembrance of him and goes into details of our conversations about crucial cultural values," said Wagner. "I grew up watching Mister Rogers, but he moved me as an adult. There are very few people in the world who have that curiosity in others. He was a really special, unique man."

I'm not entirely sure how I did. Feels like an understatement. Still, it's nice.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Mister Rogers, Rain & Me

This has been a long road, and we're nowhere near our destination.

Though we only began shooting in earnest in June 2006, Chris and I have been talking about this film since 2002. And though we're gathering steam, it's slow going. There's no way we're hitting the March 15 Nantucket Film Festival deadline.

And yet, as we soldier on, there's no shortage of really cool, really meaningful, and really inspiring moments. I had one today when my friend Jen emailed:

I was talking about Mister Rogers with a dear friend of mine and he referenced a song from Mister Rogers that I vaguely remember about the rain. It was sung by him partially in French. I have Googled "il pleut" and "rain" and "France" and "Mister Rogers" and I am coming up with NOTHING! Do you have any resources that can help me find the words to this song, O le Expert?

I responded, CCing my new friend, Holly Yarbrough who's working on a CD of Mister Rogers' songs called, "Mister Rogers Swings!"

Oh my word, Jen, that's some advanced stuff. But I'll bet who'll know...

Meet Holly Yarbrough who's about to released a lovely new CD, "Mister Rogers Swings." She's the expert! Holly?

Holly -- who's father, Glenn, is a folksinger whos first record was the first record to be released on Elektra (later home to Judy Collins, Phil Ochs and The Pixies) -- responded almost immediately, CCing her friend Joe:

That song isn't on any of the Mister Rogers recordings that are still in print. I vaguely remember it from childhood too.... Joe Negri (of Negri's Music Shop) is the closest connection I know of to Johnny Costa, Fred's musical collaborator and accompanist.

If Joe doesn't remember it, he might know who we could try contacting next. Joe? Any ideas?

And so it was -- just like that -- I was in an email chain with Handyman Negri!

Every time something like that happens -- every email from Tim or Bev, every letter from Amy or package from Lynn, every comment and email from a stranger, and every extra minute with my brother -- is some sort of awesome, unexpected gift.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Mister Rogers, The Sweater & Me

Fifteen or more years ago, in the lingerie secion of Bloomingdales (I can't make this stuff up), a fortysomething store clerk (perhaps an early-adopting "cougar") said upon inspecting my MasterCard, "Benjamin. Hmmm. That's a nice name. Like a warm sweater."

The description flattered me. And it stuck with me. I remembered it just now, as I reflected upon Mister Rogers forthcoming 80th birthday and its attending celebrations. From The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

March 20 would have been the late children's TV host's 80th birthday, and Family Communications Inc. is urging everyone -- not just in Pittsburgh, but all over the world -- to wear a favorite sweater that day in honor of Fred Rogers' legacy. Family Communications is the production company behind the long-running "Mister Rogers" public TV series.

Mister Rogers said he wore a sweater “to make it seem like a comfortable time. It’s a symbol of staying a while, of settling down for some quiet time together.”

Of course, Mister Rogers' Grandmother McFeely sewed each one for him. One (which Chris and I vistited in August, 2006) hangs in The Smithsonian today.

I'm not sure that Bloomingdales clerk was prescient or not. That is, I don't know if I am anything like a warm sweater. I hope so. I certainly aspire to being warm and approachable. Mister Rogers certainly was, in spades. He was the epitome of warm and approachable. It takes great courage, I think, to be that way.

Madelaine D'Engle said, "Rightousness begins to reveal itself as that strength which is so secure that it can show itself as gentleness."

Most days this time of year, I wear a cardigan over my dress shirt but under my sport coat. And most days, I think, I exhibit some warmth. Regardless the weather come March 20th, I plan on both in remembrance of the man who has helped me become more of a man myself.