Fifty years after longtime summer resident Mr. Rogers debuted on public television, a documentary about his life headlines the Nantucket Film Festival this June.
For millions of children, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a fantasyland of puppets, trollies, gold fish and a soft-spoken, sweater-clad friend that made them feel safe, loved and understood. The program was once the longest-running children’s television show in American history, spanning thirty-three years with over nine hundred episodes. Through his calm and compassionate demeanor, Fred Rogers was able to forge a deep and enduring connection with his viewers that transcended the television screen. Yet, for many on Nantucket, their relationship with this television icon was far more intimate, given the fact that Mr. Rogers was quite literally their neighbor.
In 1961, Mr. Rogers’ parents gave him a cottage in Madaket, affectionately known as the “Crooked House,” as a wedding gift. Located on Massachusetts Avenue, the cottage was simple and sparse, filled with books, a piano, and it looked out to Madaket Harbor where Rogers swam laps every morning. He routinely strolled the beach in his iconic cardigan sweater, Nantucket reds, and boat shoes, often chumming it up with another local legend, Madaket Millie. With rows of quaint cottages lining the dirt road, Mr. Rogers’ Madaket was the tranquil, real-world version of the neighborhood he created on television.
“So much of that neighborhood still embodies the warmth and gentleness of Mr. Rogers,” says longtime summer resident Maureen Orth, who remembers first meeting Mr. Rogers in the mid-nineties when she and her late husband, Tim Russert, vacationed on Smith’s Point with their son, Luke. At the end of the summer, Mr. Rogers hosted an annual potluck in the Crooked House for all his neighbors. “Thirty or more neighbors crammed into the little cottage to relive their best fish stories and aquatic adventures,” Orth remembered. “He was as patient and soft spoken as he was on television.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ debut on public television. His life is being celebrated in a critically acclaimed, feature length documentary playing at the Nantucket Film Festival this June. “Selecting Won’t You Be My Neighbor as the Centerpiece for the Nantucket Film Festival this year was an easy decision,” says Mystelle Brabbee, the festival’s executive director. “It’s the kind of story everyone in our country needs right now with its honesty, simplicity and sweetness.”
Won’t You Be My Neighbor was directed by Morgan Neville, who won an Academy Award in 2014 for his stirring documentary 20 Feet from Stardom. After making films about the rough and tumble lives of rock stars like Keith Richards and Johnny Cash, Neville’s fascination with Mr. Rogers—who in fact was a classically trained pianist—might seem out of character for the director. But Neville says that he grew up watching Rogers’ program and believes that the country is in desperate need of his calm and comforting voice. “Morgan Neville goes straight to the heart with his portrait of Fred Rogers, creating a moving tribute to the individual and also the kindness and compassion he and his program embodied,” says Brabbee.
The documentary debuted at Sundance Film Festival and has since received rave reviews, including a 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. While some critics say Neville’s film did little to reveal more about the man behind the sweater, Won’t You Be My Neighbor brings viewers behind the scenes of his show and captures Rogers’ magical ability to teach children in the face of society’s worst tragedies such as the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and the Challenger disaster.
As the documentary reveals, Mr. Rogers was mercilessly teased and bullied as a child. Kids called him “Fat Freddie”, and he became fiercely shy and turned to his piano for comfort. The troubles of his youth inspired Rogers to want to work with children as an adult. Before he turned to public broadcasting, he was training to be a minister. He ultimately decided that television offered a more impactful platform than a minister’s pulpit. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood first aired at a small public television station in Pittsburgh in 1968. A few short years later, Mr. Rogers was a household name across the country.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor will be shown as the Nantucket Film Festival’s centerpiece on June 22nd. Neville will attend and will receive the Special Achievement in Documentary Storytelling award at the 2018 Screenwriters Tribute.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor has a deep connection to Nantucket,” says Neville. “I’m thrilled we’re able to bring this film back to the island (part of it was actually filmed there), so it’s a home coming for Mr. Rogers. I can’t wait.” Both Film Fest events are bound to sell out, but the Dreamland Theater will be showing the film again for a week beginning on June 29th.
One special guest attending the Film Festival showing is Mr. Rogers’ son John, who inherited the Crooked House with his brother James after their father passed away in 2003. “The film is just amazing,” says John Rogers. “We feel so lucky and so gratified that dad’s work was so important to so many people.” Rogers still spends his summers in Madaket where memories of his father are alive and well. “Nantucket was dad’s favorite,” he says. “It was just his favorite spot—his Nirvana.” Indeed, Nantucket was his neighborhood.