TV critics are used to pomp and hype, to overstuffed praise for underdeveloped shows.
So it’s refreshing when we get the opposite: That was the day Fred Rogers showed up.
It springs to mind now – almost 22 years later – because of the odd (and oddly wonderful) movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Here is Tom Hanks playing a gentle man who happened to be an important TV producer-writer-composer-star; people might wonder: Was Rogers really like that?
Apparently. And that’s what we got that January day in 1998.
The previous summer, the Television Critics Association had given Rogers its Career Achievement Award. Now he was 69 and PBS had brought him back to the TCA to mark a sort of milestone:
“For 30 years on PBS, ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ has personified a place where caring and consideration for others instills good feelings,” said Kathy Quattrone, the PBS programming chief.
(The number “30” was fairly arbitrary. At that point, his 28th season was about to begin, sandwiching a two-year break. But he had also spent 14 previous seasons on public-TV in Pittsburgh and Canada.)
He was supposed to simply answer TCA questions. Instead, Rogers read a gorgeous essay.
“Early last month,” he said, “a small, 14-year-old boy in West Paducah, Kentucky, said to his classmates: ‘Something big is going to happen.’
“A week later, that boy walked into school with earplugs in his ears and a gun in his hand and he shot and killed three people and injured even more. That was his ‘something big.’
“When I hear that story and others like it, I wonder how much our society has encouraged children to idolize the big and the flashy and the loud.”
Rogers talked about a TV interview he had seen: A race driver wanted to discuss deeper things; the interviewer only wanted to discuss speed and money.
People, Rogers said, should “celebrate life and the goodness of it …. But how do we celebrate? By telling our own story and encouraging others to tell theirs – not insisting that they talk about 198 miles an hour and a $2 million prize when they’re aching to share their discovery of the slow and the small.”
He told of pianist Andre Watts’ joy in playing a quiet Franz Lizst piece. “Lizst composed some of the flashiest, loudest compositions in the piano repertoire. And yet it’s this little, quiet piece which obviously nourishes Andre’s spirit.
“There have been, and continue to be programs which encourage people to believe that big is best. That loud is necessary. And that violence and cruelty are how we human beings solve our problems.
“You and I must do all we can to encourage the producers and purveyors of all mass media to help us raise children who will reject violence and cruelty – (who can) say to their families and their friends, enthusiastically and without a trace of apology, ‘something little is going to happen.’”
Rogers would make four more mini-seasons, adding 45 new episodes, for a final total of 912. The last new one aired on Aug. 31, 2001 … 11 days before the world saw the opposite of his gentle philosophy. He died of stomach cancer at 74, in 2003, but his neighborhood keeps returning.
In 2012, the animated “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” debuted. Talking to the TCA, Joanne Rogers recalled an alternative side of her late husband. “He was whimsical and he loved to be silly and so do I. Really. I mean, we really were silly people.”
And in 2018-19, more attention came – two documentaries (one in theaters, one on PBS) and now the Hanks movie. Things came full-circle.
Back in 1998, Rogers talked about cellist Yo-Yo Ma, “the most other-oriented genius I’ve ever known …. When I hear him play, I’m convinced that he is in touch with the very heart of the eternal.”
And 20 years later, Nicholas Ma – who had performed on the show with his dad – produced PBS’ film. He told the TCA about “the courage (Rogers) instilled in children, whether they were in a wheelchair or, in my case, terrified of performing with my dad.” Fear was conquered; kindness prevailed.