It's a beautiful day in any neighborhood where Fred Rogers can visit. Judge Mike Pinsky urges you to bring him home now on these two DVDs.
"Why in the world couldn't we use this thing called television for the broadcasting of grace throughout the land?"—Fred McFeely Rogers
Won't you be my neighbor?
I grew up watching Mr. Rogers. I remember baby Prince Tuesday's birth, and shy Daniel Tiger, and Donkey Hodie. I hesitate to psychoanalyze too deeply, but I suspect Mr. Rogers might have had an influence on my fascination with both ethical philosophy and storytelling. My wife watched him too, feeling a special connection since she grew up near Fred Rogers's home town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. His honest manner with children inspired her to become a guidance counselor. Last summer, we took our daughter to Idlewild theme park, where her first ride was the trolley to the Neighborhood of Make Believe. She was only beginning to warm up to Mister Rogers on television when both our local PBS affiliates cruelly pulled the show from the air. In any case, Fred Rogers has always been a part of our family.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Fred Rogers in person. The closest I came was through a friend who knew Fred quite well. She and her husband (director of the music program at Rollins College, where Fred Rogers got his degree in music composition) were close to Fred and his wife Joanne for years and would frequently spend time together on vacation. And from her I learned that Fred Rogers was exactly like he appears on television: gentle, charismatic, genuine.
Yes, I know the tendency in our ironic age to mock somebody as visibly sincere as Mister Rogers. I mean, he can't be that nice, can he? He must be a taskmaster to his employees, and a calculating businessman interested in merchandising his image, and have some dark secret. But no, Mister Rogers was for real. He never seemed patronizing; he never talked down. He always seemed to look through the television and right at you—never like Big Brother, but only as a kind friend. Only Fred Rogers could invite you to come back to his home and never seem creepy. When he talked about goodness or grace (as in the quote above), set to the delicate jazz piano of John Costa, it never sounded like he was foisting some religious viewpoint on you (although he trained as a minister). This was not preaching from a pulpit. This was a visit to a friendly neighbor in a world where, even though bad things sometimes happened, you could be assured that all would be well eventually.
You can finally show your kids what all the fuss is about as the dearly lamented Fred Rogers makes his debut on DVD with two new releases of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, courtesy of Anchor Bay and Family Communications. Each disc includes two non-sequential episodes from the show. Ready for a trip to our favorite television neighbor?
Our first visit is Adventures in Friendship. Join Mister Rogers as he heads out to a restaurant where series regular Audrey Roth works as a waitress. Mister Rogers orders a cheese sandwich and gets to visit the kitchen to see how it is made. Before that, he shows us how to use a napkin and points out the bathroom ("in case you need to go"). My wife loves the gesture he makes when explaining the silverware setting, drawing his finger in a circle on the table to help children imagine a plate sitting between the fork and the knife. Then, in our daily trip to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, Lady Aberlin, Henrietta Pussycat (whom my best friend recently admitted a childhood crush on), and X the Owl make fruit salad. Henrietta and X have an argument, but learn to reconcile. A particularly warm performance here by Betty Aberlin makes the lesson about friendship seem natural and not didactic. Friends sometimes fight, we learn, but they can deal with conflicts. "There are many healthy things you can do with your anger," Mister Rogers tells us, before bouncing into a song about channeling the "mad that you feel."
This 1982 episode is followed by one from 1993. Here we take another field trip (when I was a kid, Mister Rogers tended to stay in his house and watch movies with Mr. McFeely), this time to a local music store run by guitarist Joe Negri. Wow, Pittsburgh sure has some friendly places to visit. Prairie Home Companion stalwart Peter Ostroushko plays the mandolin and performs some lovely Ukrainian folk songs. But before that, in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, Lady Aberlin tries to define love. Snappish Lady Elaine (I always pegged Bea Arthur to play her in any live-action Neighborhood of Make Believe movie) turns Lady Aberlin's confusion into an opportunity for a message about conflict resolution. In the end, no answer is reached about what love is, and the lesson seems to be more about how to ask the crucial question (How do you continue to love even when you get angry at someone?) than providing an understandably impossible answer. Mister Rogers then agrees that the meaning of love is a very hard question and tables the discussion for a future time.
This trip to Make Believe suggests one small flaw in the way Anchor Bay and Family Communications have packaged these episodes of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Themes for the show were often designed to be explored over the course of a week's worth of episodes or longer. Subplots would be developed, usually during the Make Believe segments, that would develop some issue that Fred Rogers wanted children to ask questions about. To take episodes out of context is tricky, and parents viewing these DVDs with their children need to be prepared to discuss ideas presented here. Fortunately, for each of the DVDs released so far, Family Communications provides a booklet with "Care-Giving Tips" that discuss the disc's theme. For example, the Adventures in Friendship disc comes with excellent parenting advice for teaching sharing skills and how young children relate to their friends.
The supplemental material on this Adventures in Friendship DVD is also designed to focus attention on cooperation and conflict resolution. A 1987 book by Fred Rogers, "Making Friends," is included, with or without narration by David "Mr. McFeely" Newell. Learn how friends can disagree with one another and still share. Do a project together with some "Recipe Fun" instructions for pizza bagels or make a paper chain together. If you do not have any friends handy, you can play some toddler-level games (a trolley maze, matching shapes, or a DVD-ROM colorforms set), or watch a factory film about manufacturing teddy bears. Don't forget to sing along with Mister Rogers on "You Are Special," which I've hummed for nearly four decades to remember how to spell "friend" correctly. Parents might note that during the clip of Fred Rogers accepting a 1997 Lifetime Achievement Emmy, he asks for 10 seconds of silence so you can think about all the friends who have helped you. Only Mister Rogers could turn an award for himself into a celebration of everybody else and seem genuinely humble.
On A Day at the Circus, Fred Rogers accepts a 2002 Medal of Freedom from President Bush, who treats the moment like just another state duty. I'll let you interpret that as you will. The two episodes on this disc (from 1987 and 1985) seem to focus, rather loosely at least, on self-esteem issues. Of course, self-esteem, as any professional counselor will attest, is a difficult issue for children. Can it be developed in isolation from other skills, or should it be yoked to accomplishments in other areas? Perhaps no other issue in the field of counseling has been so contentious in recent years as this one. Perhaps this is why Family Communications chose to title this disc after the first episodes' field trip, as opposed to the more thematically explicit title of the other disc. In any case, the first episode features—you guessed it—a trip to the Clyde-Beatty-Cole Circus, where we visit elephants, tigers in painfully small cages, and "clown alley." The focus throughout this episode seems to clowns, a fact which makes my toddler somewhat nervous every time she watches it. In the Neighborhood of Make Believe, Chuckles the Clown (Jeff Gabel, who visits earlier in the episode as himself with some chicken peeps) jumps around startling people and turns Lady Aberlin into a chicken. Daniel Striped Tiger is understandably freaked by all this. Then Chuckles and Lady Aberlin help an anxious Nancy Caterpillar accept herself "just the way you are."
Later comes the trip to the circus, where Mister Rogers and Betty Aberlin (remember that performers in the Make Believe segments often appeared in the "neighborhood" segments as themselves or other characters) watch Jeff Gabel put on his Chuckles makeup. Then they sit under the big top for some old time three-ring action. Afterwards, Mister Rogers lets you know that circus folk love to entertain you and mean you no harm. He acknowledges that some children may be put off by certain parts of the circus, and lets you know that if anything scares you, you can always ask your parents to go outside until you feel better.
Children will likely be less unnerved by the second episode, entitled "Music Adventures." Mister Rogers sings about entertaining yourself while waiting, then takes us to a collector of unusual musical instruments. In the Neighborhood of Make Believe, a bass violin festival is underway in a neighboring village. Joe Negri plays guitar while Audrey Roth dances in an odd bass costume. Look for Keith David, one of my favorite character actors here just off from John Carpenter's The Thing, doing a puppet show, as well as a young Ming-na Wen in the background as a royal trumpeter. I think Keith the Carpenter and Morgan Freeman's Easy Reader should team up and do a funky children's movie together.
Extras on A Day at the Circus are comparable to the Adventures in Friendship disc: some games (counting, identification, and the DVD-ROM game again), a sing-along ("It's You I Like"), a recipe and activity (soft pretzels and a paper plate shaker), and a slightly blurry field trip segment where Mister Rogers visits a pretzel bakery. There is also a 1975 book by Fred Rogers entitled "Josephine the Short Neck Giraffe," about how school can teach you how to validate yourself through friendship. Neither disc has subtitles, and the video and audio are about what you might expect from a modestly-budgeted children's program that had to rely on grant money while network shows with lots of merchandising tie-ins raked in the cash. But while those shows are all dead and gone, piled over by the next toy craze, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood will unite families for years to come.
You can purchase these two Mister Rogers' Neighborhood releases in several packages. They come disc only, or in boxes with toy vehicles (a trolley with Friendship or Speedy Delivery truck with Circus)—or with a miniature red sweater with Adventures in Friendship only. A school-themed disc has been announced for August. So few episodes, but well worth owning, not matter which package you choose.
Family Communications, please consider releasing more episodes of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, hopefully in week-long blocks, as soon as possible. Since Fred Rogers's death in 2003, more PBS stations have been dropping the show in favor of more profitable dreck like Dragon Tales and Clifford the Big Red Dog. Do it for my daughter. She loves Mister Rogers like he is a personal friend. My wife and I both believe that Fred Rogers made us better people, and we want to pass that legacy on to our daughter. With Fred Rogers sadly gone from our lives, we at least have these DVDs to remind us that somewhere, even if only for a few minutes a day, there is a friendly neighborhood where we are all welcome to live.
This court changes out of its sneakers and puts its sweater back in the closet. Case dismissed, neighbor.
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