Saturday, July 7, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Won't You Be My Neighbor?
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

Telling you which children's shows I watched as a youngling will date me, I'm sure, but that ship sailed long ago, so what the heck. Sesame Street and The Electric Company are both given, and you can add Romper Room to that list too. (People from my generation don't believe it when I say the Magic Mirror scared me. I really thought she could see me with that thing!) I even remember Captain Kangaroo.

Here in New York we had a local show called The Magic Garden, with these two hippie chicks with guitars, Paula and Carole, amidst their tricked-out studio set garden full of puppets and other weird critters. They'd sing songs and play games and stuff. I dunno, I just really dug them.

Patchwork Family had an artist who drew stuff; naturally, I was attached to him. Wonderama had a studio audience of kids, but I don't remember much else. ZOOM had a cast of tween kids in striped shirts doing stuff. Villa Allegre had a Spanish vibe (and a cool theme song). 3-2-1 Contact taught science.

Many of these shows were on PBS. Seems like public television is always endangered from somebody in Washington who wants to use the money it gets for something else, usually less important, yet over 75 years later, it's still here, providing a different caliber of television for discerning viewers. It's good to know that in the age of reality TV, Fox News and Kim Kardashian, there is still a place for PBS.

Getting back to kiddie TV, though: I was no different than most kids of my generation. Once the era of GI Joe and Transformers came along, I was hooked, too, but my parents never beefed about the cartoon violence in those shows.

They didn't get caught up in the hoopla over what kinds of TV shows were appropriate for an eight year old — they were unusually liberal in that sense — so not only did I watch those cartoons, I watched Three's Company and Dynasty and Saturday Night Live without being corrupted. I was lucky.

Still, I had a foundation of more age-appropriate programming that I enjoyed as a child — and few were like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

Rogers' signature puppet, the tiger Daniel,
has an animated spin-off series done in the spirit of MRN.

I would've seen it in the mid-to-late 70s. My memories of it are vague; I'm uncertain how deep an impact it had on me in comparison to, say, Sesame Street. I enjoyed MRN, I was engaged with Fred Rogers and his array of human and puppet characters, but no more so than with Big Bird and Grover and Mr. Hooper. Was it less memorable for me? I suppose so, but I doubt that's the same as thinking it was inferior. It's so hard to say for sure when I'm working from fuzzy memories.

I can say I felt nostalgia for the show while watching Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Rogers and MRN from 20 Feet From Stardom director Morgan Neville. Nostalgia, hell: I was deeply moved.

Here was this guy, who deliberately chose not to pursue the lowest common denominator in providing quality television for kids, caring about them and what they have to say in a manner unlike any other TV personality, before or since.

Coming when this movie does, at a time in American history when children are being callously separated from their parents because of where they were born, by an asshole of a president oblivious to the harm he's causing, how appropriate it is that we are being given this portrait of a man who dared to say to children, "I like you just the way you are."

Neville talks to family members, co-workers and friends of Rogers, and includes footage of interviews of the man himself. Neighbor stops just short of hagiography, but even one of Rogers' sons compares his childhood to having the second Christ for a father.

I saw Neighbor with Virginia and a friend of hers named Ann, who I had met weeks ago at a recital of Virginia's in which she sung with a chorus. The two of them were in a different chorus for awhile.

Ann lives in Queens, too, but she said she had never heard of the Kew Gardens even though she doesn't live very far from the theater. She dug it a lot.

She doesn't get around too well — she walks with canes — but to her credit, that doesn't stop her from getting around the city and going places. Fortunately, Neighbor played on the ground floor; she can go up and down stairs if she absolutely had to, but I was grateful she didn't have to that day.

As for Virginia, this was our first time at the Kew together, though she said she thought she might have been there before. Between this and the Cinemart, we seem to keep going to theaters off the beaten path, as it were, but she doesn't mind. I like that.


  1. The right companion can make all the difference in an outing.

    My favourite childhood TV guy was Friendly Giant (Bob Homme) who invited viewers into his castle to hear stories read from the books kept in Rusty the Rooster's (puppet) book bag. Friendly's other friend was Jerome the Giraffe because his long neck allowed him to visit through the turret window.

    Bob played the recorder and every once in a while they would go to the castle's music room for a concert with a puppet raccoon and cat who played piano and vibes. Rusty played the harp. Jerome kept time nodding his head. I loved the concerts! I was always overwhelmingly sad when the episode would come to an end. I lived a lifetime of emotions in those gentle 15 minute episodes.

    Bob Homme and Fred Rogers both started out at the same time and with similar goals. Different networks took them to their audience.

  2. That sounds nice. Bet he got to walk around in a lot of small sets to make him look like a giant.

  3. We must be around the same age (mid 40s) because all of the shows you watched as a kid on PBS were my favorites, as well. I really loved The Electric Company! I am looking forward to watching "Won't You Be My Neighbor." Digging the new look of your blog!

  4. Hi Pam! I'm pretty sure we are the same age. ELECTRIC COMPANY was my fave too; I did a post about Rita Moreno in which I go into a little depth on her involvement in the show. Thanks for stopping by!


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