We were recently generously invited to attend dinner and a movie – except the other way around – of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary about Mr. Rogers Neighborhood’s creator and TV host, Fred Rogers.
To be honest – and when am I not? – I was not overly enthusiastic about seeing this movie. A droning guy in a cardigan, tying his shoelaces…? Sure, I liked him just the way he was. But I was far from bowled over.
As an alternative, I proposed instead going to RBG, a documentary chronicling Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which – to be honest again – I was also less than excited about, putting me two movies away from “Hooray!”
Our hosts had already seen RBG, so “Mr. Rogers” it was.
It turns out I was wrong about it.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a full – about ten minutes toofull in some assessments – and affecting depiction of a singular character, whose announced mission was to validate the (scary) hidden feelings of children.
An ordained minister who played music, Rogers pursued his agenda using, by show biz standards, a counter-intuitive approach – non-frenetic, non-violent, extremely low tech, and paced for slippers rather than sneakers. In short, it was everything other children’s programing of the day was not.
(A Personal Quibble: There was a scolding critique of “pie-throwing”, which for me crossed the line, being a life-long supporter of Soupy Sales. End of “Personal Quibble.”)
Watching the movie, my companions were occasionally moved to tears, most specifically when Mr. Rogers sang a memorable duet with a gutsy young boy, confined to a wheel chair.
In another noteworthy segment, in response to some states’ refusal to integrate swimming pools, Rogers invited his program’s African-American “mailman” to join him, relaxing his feet in a small tub of cooling water.
I myself was knocked out by Rogers’s courageous testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee (1969), attempting to prevent the cutting of 20 million dollars from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting’s annual budget. Rogers’s delivery was so persuasive the crusty committee chairman John Pastore immediately proclaimed,
“Looks like he just earned the 20 million dollars.”
Some people were annoyed by Rogers’s “cloying sincerity.” He was easily parodied, most famously by SNL’s Eddie Murphy. (Who later met and hugged him, affectionately dubbing him, “The realMr. Rogers.)
Some found Fred Rogers so “emotionally sympatico”, they believed he was gay. (Which says whatabout the rest of us – “All people are the enemy, and if you don’t believe that you’re gay”?)
Since he never broke character, you have to conclude that that was his character, making Fred Rogers a genuine, one-of-a-kind “Authentic.”
Okay, so the movie’s over, and I’m standing in the Men’s Room, when it occurs to me – as things often occur to me when the pressure’s off in such “facilities” –
“Who does Fred Rogers remind me of?”
And then it suddenly occurs to me:
The recently – sadly departed – Anthony Bourdain.
Holy Cow! I just Googledto confirm the correct spelling of “Bourdain” and there’s this headline: “Anthony Bourdain Was A Modern Mr. Rogers.” Hold on while I read it, okay?
Never mind. It’s too long.
Not to belabor the comparison, here, to me, is the common denominator between Fred Rogers and Anthony Bourdain.
For his CNN show Parts UnknownAnthony Bourdain, an erstwhile big-time restaurant chef and former heroin addict, traveled the earth – and not just “Michelin Star” places like Paris and Rome but numerous considerably less glitzy destinations, like Mongolia and Myanmar, sampling the traditional cuisine and asking questions about the culture.
I recall a recent show where Bourdain visited West Virginia, and along with consuming the local delicacies, he quizzed the “Hill Country” inhabitants about “Gun Control”, analogizing, concerning sensible restrictions, “People drive cars in Florida. But should they be allowed to?”
Though polar opposite to Fred Rogers in character and temperament – Rogers being gentle and earnest, Bourdain, sardonic and gruff – their espoused missions were detectably the same:
To demonstrate through their unwavering civility that allpeople – whether in Kindergarten or Borneo – are essentially worthwhile, and deserving of our compassionate consideration.
Each of them, in their own style, was unquestionably “Authentic.”
Startling authenticity can take you a long way, its magnetic draw, in one case, carrying them all the way to the White House.
Proving authenticity, although fusingly “connecting”,
Does not always mean kind.