PARK CITY — Before there was the Disney Channel or Cartoon Network, most of America’s children sat down in front of the television every day for sage advice from their friend and neighbor Mister Rogers.
From 1968-2001 (with a small break) the quiet, kind host, Fred Rogers, talked and sang directly to children through his show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," telling his audience that he liked them “just the way you are.”
The filmmakers behind the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” believe the time is right to remind the country of Rogers’ concept of loving one another unconditionally.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” premiered last week as the Salt Lake City opening night film for the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville ("Twenty Feet From Stardom") got the idea for the film from an unlikely source, according to producer Caryn Capotosto.
While working on a film with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Neville asked the musician how he handled the celebrity that has come with his talent. Ma answered that he learned how to navigate fame from Mister Rogers. Neville thought Ma might be joking, but the cellist explained that he and Rogers had become friends after his several appearances on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood." Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, advised Ma that fame was not necessarily a bad thing and mentored him on how it could be used for good in the world.
When Neville heard Ma's story, he decided to look a little closer into Rogers’ work.
He scoured YouTube for videos and was particularly moved by Rogers’ 1969 plea to the Senate Subcommittee on Communications. Congress, looking for ways to pay for the Vietnam War, was considering cutting public broadcasting and Rogers testified before them. With his trademark gentle manner, he earnestly told the legislators, “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.” Rogers concluded his testimony by quoting the lyrics from one of the songs on his program, visibly melting subcommittee chairman Sen. John O. Pastore. Public television got its funding.
Capotosto said in an interview that video set the stage for the documentary team.
"It was the first breadcrumb in understanding Rogers' dedication," she said, "to helping children understand the world in their terms and to never talk down to them."
"Won't You Be My Neighbor" reminds viewers that Rogers never shied away from difficult subjects, such as divorce, violence and children getting lost, as well as news events such as the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and the Challenger explosion in 1986.
Capotosto said everyone involved with the film was thrilled when Sundance asked them to premiere at the festival, especially considering how positively audiences have responded to the film so far.
“We have witnessed a lot of laughs and a lot of tears from the audiences at Sundance, which is exactly what we hoped for," she said.
Rogers died in 2003, but with 2018 marking the 50th anniversary of the debut of his show on Pittsburgh’s WQED-TV, people can expect to see his name in the news in the coming months. This year, the United States Postal Service will release a stamp of Rogers, featuring him alongside his puppet King Friday XIII. PBS plans to air classic episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" from Feb. 26-March 2 alongside episodes of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” an animated spinoff of the original show. And actor Michael Keaton, who worked as a stagehand on the television show in the early 1970s, will host a PBS special celebrating the anniversary, titled “Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like.” It will air March 6 and will feature memories from David Newell (Mr. McFeely), Joe Negri, Yo-Yo Ma and others.
And if all of this isn't enough, Focus Features has already acquired "Won't You Be My Neighbor" and plans to release the documentary in theaters this summer.
Rogers was no stranger to attention during his lifetime and, in fact, welcomed any chance to share his messages of acceptance and love with as many people — especially children — as he could. "Won't You Be My Neighbor" reminds viewers of the power of that message.
As Capotosto sees it, the essence of Rogers is easy to explain.
"It's the concept of radical kindness," she said. "It's about being grateful and appreciative of the love you have in your life."
If you go …
What: "Won't You Be My Neighbor"
When: Friday, Jan. 26, 12:30 p.m. (Park City) and Saturday, Jan. 27, 6 p.m. (Salt Lake City)
Where: Ray Theatre, 1768 Park Ave, Park City, and Salt Lake City Public Library, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City
How much: $20 for eWaitlist tickets