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“Won’t you be my neighbour”

Bill Fox

Bill Fox

By Bill Fox/Columnist

The title of this column should be familiar to many readers as they refer to Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood. The Hollywood movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood” will be released in theatres this coming November with Tom Hanks playing the part of Mr. Rogers.

My wife and I recently watched the Netflix documentary on Mr. Rogers entitled, “Won’t You Be My Neighbour.” The inspirational documentary tells the story behind the Presbyterian minister/puppeteer/writer/producer whose show entered homes for more than 30 years. In his program, Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, Rogers and his cast of puppets and friends spoke directly to young children about some of life’s most complicated issues including 9/11, divorce, death, etc.

Not commonly known is that in 1962, Ernie Coombs (Mr. Dressup) and Mr. Rogers made the drive together from Pittsburgh to Toronto for a trip that would eventually change the face of children’s television.

At the time, the pair had been working on a show called The Children’s Corner in Pittsburgh. The head of children’s programming at the CBC saw Rogers, and invited him to come to Toronto to do his own show. Rogers, in turn, invited Coombs to come along and work as a puppeteer on the new program, which was going to be called Misterogers.

Misterogers ran for four seasons on CBC before Rogers returned to Pittsburgh, taking his sets with him. For the next 33 years, he put on that cardigan and those sneakers, and talked about the joys of neighbourliness.

Ernie Coombs stayed in Canada and created Mr. Dressup, which ran on CBC for 29 years from 1967 to 1996. Mr. Dressup used the same formula as Rogers, offering young viewers a version of himself on screen, full of gentle lessons and quirky puppets. Casey lived in a tree house and didn’t have any parents. His dog Finnegan never spoke aloud but whispered to Casey.

Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood launched in 1968 at the peak of the civil rights struggle, and Rogers cast a black man as the local police officer named Francois Clemmons. A simple child’s plastic pool gave Officer Clemmons and Mister Rogers the chance to make a point at a time when black and white people didn’t share water fountains, bathrooms, or pools.

In a scene from 1969, Officer Clemmons stops by on a hot day, and Rogers invites him into the pool to cool his heels with him. As Clemmons said, “He decides to make a statement in his very quiet way, that it’s okay for black and white people to share a pool, to share a space, to share a friendship.”

Here are some other memorable quotes seen in the documentary:

– When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

– Peace means far more than the opposite of war.

– Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.

– “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

– “You know, I think everybody longs to be loved, and longs to know that he or she is lovable. And, consequently, the greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.”

– “What do you think it is that drives people to want far more than they could ever use or need? I frankly think it’s insecurity. How do we let the world know that the trappings of this life are not the things that are ultimately important for being accepted?”

– “There is no normal life that is free of pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.”

The good news is that the documentary is available at our libraries in Oshawa. I can’t wait for the movie. I’m at bdfox@rogers if you have any comments.