I honestly didn’t plan on saying anything about the recent passing of Mr. Rogers. I knew that there was going to be a great deal of ink (and/or pixels) devoted to the man, and I figured it was probably going to come in two waves. First would come the usual eulogies and respectful retrospectives. Then the dismissive “Grow up, people! He was just some white guy in a cardigan who lived in an overly-simplistic, artificial environment with creepy hand puppets…” contingent would follow.
But even I, cynic that I am, was taken aback by a third wave of invective that was hurled in Mr. Rogers’ general direction with such volume and force that I felt like I had to do something. I mean, it’s one thing to disparage a man’s life’s work just because it didn’t speak to you personally, but some folks have gotten downright nasty (literally). I feel like I should say something profound to counter this third wave of rubbish, but my cold medicine (I’ve got a wicked cold and sore throat today) has probably rendered me incoherent. (As if that’s ever stopped me in the past…)
I spent part of my childhood in Iceland, where there was only one English-language television station on the local U.S. Air Force base. It only broadcast for about four hours every day and it didn’t have any kid’s shows at all until the last year we lived there, when they added a full hour of Captain America and the Incredible Hulk cartoons on Saturday morning. We thought we were living in a media nirvana.
Living in this children’s programming wasteland meant that I came a little late to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. By the time I started watching him, when I was 9 or 10, I was well out of the target demographic. While I used to love it when he would visit Chef Brockett to make a nutritious fruit salad, or when Picture Picture would show how loaves of bread were mass-produced, I wasn’t too sure about the Neighborhood of Make Believe.
I mean, I kind of understand the “creepy hand puppet” sentiment because Lady Elaine Fairchild used to scare me to death. I was pretty sure that if I lived in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, she would have konked me on the head with her Boomerang Toomerang Zoomerang, dragged me behind her Museum-Go-Round, and beat the crap out of me on a daily basis unless I relinquished my lunch money. I, in turn, would have spent a great deal of time and energy restraining myself from slapping Henrietta Pussycat <meow, meow> upside the <meow, meow> head <meow>. (Do you see how the cycle of violence is perpetuated?)
But it never occurred to me to be dismissive just because I was far too sophisticated (at 9 years of age) to really appreciate the show. The fact that there was any kid’s programming at all was a wonder to me.
I did, however, fall into the trap a little later on in life. When I was a wee bloke, I loved Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. Every year, when “The Sound of Music” would come on (this was pre-VCR…post-talkies), I would sit there glued to the TV, fantasize about having Julie Andrews as a governess, and think about how brave I would be as we fled over the Alps ahead of the Nazi hordes. I was pretty sure I would look great in Lederhosen, too. (I’ve got the legs for Lederhosen.)
But, years later, as my tastes matured, I got to the point where the simplistic story lines and syrupy-sweet lyrics of a Rogers and Hammerstein Schmaltzfest just didn’t cut it anymore. I had discovered Stephen Sondheim and, because I was in the middle of that “more-sophisticated-than-thou” phase that we all go through in life, I thought his darker, edgier vision was much more attuned to my newly-cultured palette. During this period of my life, if someone would suggest that I go see a local production of “Oklahoma” that a friend was in, I would roll my eyes (literally), sigh the sigh of the terminally bored, and think to myself, “That’s baby stuff.”
[Tangent: Which reminds me of an episode of Arthur (one of the best shows on TV today) in which Mr. Rogers (voiced by Mr. Rogers) comes to stay with Arthur’s family for a few days, but Arthur doesn’t want anyone to know because all his friends think that Mr. Rogers Neighborhood is a “baby show.” Turns out that even though everybody tries to act cool and say that they’re “too old” for Mr. Rogers, they fall all over themselves when the actually meet the man.]
There’s a book (long out of print) entitled Playwrights, Lyricists, Composers, On Theater, that features transcripts from a series of forums that had been conducted by the Dramatists Guild Quarterly back in the late sixties. These forums were kind of like Career Day at school. People would get up in front of an audience and sort of riff on what they did for a living. But instead of hearing from an insurance broker or a civil servant, you got to hear from people like Edward Albee, Paddy Chayefsky, Arthur Miller, Walter Kerr, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim.
The transcript from the forum featuring Stephen Sondheim (imaginatively entitled “Theater Lyrics”) begins with the following:
To start off with a little history: I first got into lyric writing because when I was a child of 11 my parents were divorced and we moved to Pennsylvania. I moved there with my mother, and among her friends were the Hammerstein family. They had a son my age and we became very close. Oscar Hammerstein gradually got me interested in the theater, and I suppose most of it happened one fateful or memorable afternoon. He had urged me to write a musical for my school (George School, a Friends school in Bucks County). With two classmates I wrote a musical called By George, a thinly disguised version of campus life with the teachers’ names changed by one vowel or consonant. I thought it was pretty terrific, so I asked Oscar to read it — and I was arrogant enough to say to him, “Will you read it as if it were just a musical that crossed your desk as a producer? Pretend you don’t know me.” He said “O.K.,” and I went home that night with visions of being the first 15-year-old to have a show on Broadway. I knew he was going to love it.
Oscar called me in the next day and said, “Now you really want me to treat this as if it were by somebody I don’t know?” and I said, “Yes, please,” and he said, “Well, in that case it’s the worst thing I ever read in my life.” He must have seen my lower lip tremble, and he followed up with, “I didn’t say it wasn’t talented, I said it was terrible, and if you want to know why it’s terrible I’ll tell you.” He started with the first stage direction and went all the way through the show for a whole afternoon, really treating it seriously. It was a seminar on the piece as though it was Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Detail by detail, he told me how to structure songs, how to build them with a beginning and a development and an ending, according to his principles. I found out many years later there are other ways to write songs, but he taught me, according to his principles, how to introduce character, what relates a song to character, etc., etc. It was four hours of the most packed information. I dare say, at the risk of hyperbole, that I learned in that afternoon more than most people learn about song writing in a lifetime.
I remember having to stop after I read that because my ears were popping due to extreme changes in intellectual altitude. In my mind, Stephen Sondheim and Oscar Hammerstein were polar opposites. I couldn’t even comprehend them being in the same room, but there was Stephen Sondheim explaining how Oscar Hammerstein provided him with what amounted to a six year course of study on how to write musical theater. Referring to his first real job on Broadway, he says:
…this was the first professional work I had done, and I was prepared to do professional work only because of what Oscar had made me go through.
I wasn’t quite sure what to do with this information. How could I reconcile my distaste for the “baby stuff” lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein with the high regard in which Stephen Sondheim obviously held his mentor and friend? The answer came a little further on when he was asked about his favorite lyricists:
I’ll tell you a little bit about what I like about them. The best thing about [Cole] Porter, the most astonishing thing to me is not his facility with words — facility with words is fairly common. He believed what he wrote, that’s what kills me. Oscar did too. Oscar was able to write about dreams and trees and grass and stars because he believed in them, and what Porter believed in was gossamer wings. No man on earth can write “gossamer wings” except Cole Porter, and nobody has been able to imitate Porter successfully because they don’t believe what he believed.
It’s that simple. What makes Oscar Hammerstein’s work worthwhile is not that I believe in the things he wrote about. It’s that he believed in them. Doesn’t the whole modern ideal of embracing diversity in people boil down to the ability to appreciate the gifts and beliefs of others, even though you may not possess those same gifts or hold those same beliefs.
If you really cherished diversity, how could you not cherish Mr. Rogers? There was absolutely no one like him. Heaven knows, he never followed fads, he never sold out, he never altered his presentation as a result of focus group research (“Could you talk a little faster? 78% of respondents said that they felt uncomfortable with your delivery. And we need to do something about Mr. McFeely. 67% felt that someone younger would provide more efficient parcel delivery and be less likely to hang around shooting the breeze instead of delivering their Vanity Fair in a timely manner. UPS guys in those brown shorts scored very well with the 17-35 female market segment.”) He was an honest, caring man who, “according to his principles” and in his own way, was doing good in the world for millions of small, adults-in-training every day. Heaven knows there are blessed few on this earth about which the same could be said.
So, whether I liked Mr. Rogers (or not) has absolutely nothing to do with it. It was never Fred Roger’s obligation to be true to me. He only needed to be true to himself — and he was. And that’s what made him great. And, as far as I’m concerned, the neighborhood is a little scarier place without him.