Friday, March 6, 2020

Fred Rogers and a Beautiful Day at the Kennedy Center

It’s taken me all this time to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the 2019 feature in which one national treasure, Tom Hanks, takes on the persona of another, the late Fred Rogers. I admit I feel no special nostalgia for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the national program that kicked off on public television in 1968. My own kids were much more attuned to the lively, sometimes wacky humor of Sesame Street and its multiple inventive spin-offs (Square One, anyone? This memorable math show, which included a tongue-in-cheek Dragnet parody, was a big hit at our house).

I can see, however, how Fred Rogers (a man of many enthusiasms and enormous integrity) played an important role in the lives of many young children, especially those who were suffering from a lack of role-models. Rogers’ ability to communicate with people who are suffering – no matter what their age – is central to the plot of last year’s movie, in which a young writer (based on Esquire scribe Tom Junod) is helped by Mister Rogers to heal a rift that has torn his family apart.

What’s Fred Rogers really like when he’s away from his neighborhood? That’s part of the focus of Junod’s 1998 Esquire profile of Rogers. I haven’t read it, but I’ve been lucky enough to get a glimpse of the off-camera Rogers through a memory-piece by the always interesting Dale Bell. Bell, a friend who once helped produce the movie Woodstock, was also executive producer of Kennedy Center Tonight, the ground-breaking performing arts series that ran on PBS from 1980 to 1985. The program, which evolved from Bell’s deep admiration for the late President Kennedy, was intended to humanize the great performers who appeared on the Kennedy Center stages.

As the first entry in the Kennedy Center Tonight series was about to go before the cameras, Dale ran into Fred Rogers, whom he had known from  Pittsburgh’s WQED. When Fred learned that the inaugural show would be a celebration of composer Aaron Copland’s 80th birthday, featuring such stellar musical talents as Leonard Bernstein and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, he couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. A trained musician himself, he quickly agreed to be among those making the trek to Washington DC for the taping.

On the drive down, Rogers admitted why he had first aspired to be a musician: “I was very lonely growing up. I didn’t have many friends. I had to make up my own worlds. There, I could listen to my characters, or my puppets, and help them to deal with their problems, which were my own. My love of music was my constant inspiration.”

When Dale asked Bernstein, Copland, and Rostropovich if they were willing to have a special guest backstage, they (in Dale’s words) “erupted in joy that they were going to meet the creator and star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There were mammoth hugs all around.” As Dale remembers it, “This entourage, linked by hands that loved making music, this whole chain of sudden new-found friends and colleagues and comrades, was led out on stage among all of the players, who began tapping their music stands with their bows, and blowing their horns.  Fred Rogers, adored by millions of children, was alive and arriving on the Concert Hall stage at the Kennedy Center.”

And that’s how Mister Rogers—in his trademark cardigan and sneakers—came to sit down at the Kennedy Center grand piano to pound out “Happy Birthday to You” in Copland’s honor. Clearly, it was a beautiful day in D.C., a place that could certainly use some beautifying, and Fred Rogers’ gentle touch.

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