Audiences of the new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” can’t help but come away from the film with an appreciation of Pittsburgh legend Fred Rogers as not only a person whose personal values mirrored those he projected on television, but as an inspired innovator who refined a radical approach to engaging children through media.
Cathy Cohen Droz, who began working with Rogers in 1979 at WQED as associate producer of the iconic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” credits her late colleague for both positively influencing the ways that television could be used and helping to create a new generation of better parents.
Droz, a member of Temple Sinai, worked on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” until 1983 and has since taken on other projects at Fred Rogers Productions, including multiple books and audio recordings, a play space installation at a mall, and a hands-on children’s museum exhibit. She is currently helping to create a “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” website which will launch in September.
“Fred understood the power of the medium,” said Droz, who worked alongside Rogers until he died in 2003. “He was very astute. He knew how he could use the medium to talk to individuals and to talk to children. This was radical at the time. He wasn’t performing on television. He was talking directly to the viewers.
“I think Fred really impacted the way people used television,” she continued. “There was no sense of interactive TV then. Now I work on interactive websites, but what Fred was doing — interacting with the viewer — no one was doing that.”
She described Rogers as “ahead of his time.”
“People didn’t ‘get’ children then — the social, emotional, interior thoughts of children,” Droz explained. “But Fred said that children knew what was going on. He was schooled in child development and was a very spiritual man. He thought about who was watching; he understood how a 4-year-old thought.”
When Droz began working on the “Neighborhood” in 1979, the show was resuming production after being off the air for four years.
“Fred had taken a hiatus,” she recalled. “He actually said, ‘I’m done.’ He had done close to 600 shows, and he said that was more than enough. He said, ‘I’ve covered all the main themes of early childhood.’”
But Rogers eventually realized “there were new themes he wanted to explore,” Droz said. “There was new technology — remote cameras — and he was excited about that.”
In a subtle shift in format, Rogers decided to begin producing a full week of shows around a single theme. Those themes included superheroes — whom he disliked for their promotion of violence — transitioning to school, and divorce.
“Fred thought he never would do shows about divorce, but divorce was now so familiar in children’s lives,” Droz said, adding that taping a full week of shows around a single theme “gave Fred a chance to think about these topics from lots of angles. It was an exciting time to work on the ‘Neighborhood.’”
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” directed by Oscar winner Morgan Neville, premiered in Pittsburgh last week and has garnered rave reviews from multiple and varied media outlets. Even the edgy online magazine Slate reported that: “Even the most hardened cynics won’t be able to resist it.”
Hedda Sharapan, another Jewish Pittsburgher who has worked with Fred Rogers Productions since 1966, is interviewed extensively in the film. In one segment, she sums up the efficacy of Mister Rogers’ quiet and thoughtful manner in conveying his messages of love and respect: “If you really want to communicate, the best thing is to listen.”
Droz has seen the impact of Rogers and his work in 21st-century parents who grew up with the “Neighborhood.”
“I think it’s fascinating that people now having children of their own can think back on how they felt watching ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’” she said. “They felt respected, and they can take those feelings and be more confident parents by identifying with how their children feel.”
That is exactly the result Rogers wanted, she said: “If people can remember their own childhood they can be better parents, and that’s what we’re seeing now.”
A lot of people had a hand in making the show the success it was, she said. “But it was Fred’s vision.”
Working with Rogers on the “Neighborhood” was a “wonderful” experience, said Droz, who was hired by WQED after she returned from a period of living in Israel.
“It was wonderful for so many reasons,” she said. “Fred was really so thoughtful and cared so much about what he was doing. He took his work so seriously. It was great to be in a place where people were trying to do something better, to help children and families.”
The film, which is playing at AMC Waterfront as well as at the Manor Theatre in Squirrel Hill, “will be at the Manor for a long time,” Droz predicted. “This was really Mister Rogers’ neighborhood. He went to church on the corner of Forbes and Murray. He shopped at the CVS on the corner. People saw him all the time.”
In 2014, Rodef Shalom Congregation — located across the street from WQED where the “Neighborhood” was filmed — recognized Rogers posthumously for his good works with its Pursuer of Peace Award.
“Fred Rogers speaks directly to each of us,” Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom, told the Chronicle at the time. “There’s a saying in the Talmud: ‘Words from the heart go to the heart.’ And Mister Rogers spoke to our hearts.”
Rogers’ work led to an array of other honors, including induction into the Television Hall of Fame and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Another film showcasing Pittsburgh’s favorite neighbor is currently in the works at Sony Pictures, starring Tom Hanks as Rogers. Titled “You Are My Friend,” the biopic is scheduled to be released in October 2019. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.