“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Yes, Please.

Christmas in Maine. I had come in from walking the dog, unzipped my L.L. Bean parka, and hung it up on a hook by the door.

I walked by my family as they were chatting in the kitchen, slipped out of my snow boots and pulled on my slippers. Then, while I listened to them talk, I reached into the closet and pulled out one of my many Irish cardigan sweaters, the ones my kids called “old man” sweaters.

My oldest said, “Oh look, Daddy has finally become Mr. Rogers.”

Everyone laughed, and I realized that I had indeed become a forgotten icon from their childhood.

This week in a very hot summer, I had been assigned to see Morgan Neville’s documentary “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.” I rather dreaded it. I had more interesting projects to pursue, and had little memory of that era.

My memories of Fred Rogers’ beloved children’s show were chipped and foggy.

Back in the ’70s, at least one of my daughters would be sitting on the floor in the living room watching Mister Rogers pop in his door and slowly perform that iconic ritual of doffing his jacket, taking a soft cardigan sweater from the closet, changing his shoes to sneakers, and start chatting with his millions of children.

This tall, gentle man in a comfy sweater would introduce all the different characters from “the neighborhood,” who popped in and out to exchange stories of the day.

There were my kids, chomping away at bowls of cereal, and listening to a sweet, middle-age man in a red sweater talking to a hand puppet and a tiny train car full of toys.

So one morning on the way out, I sat behind them on the couch and listened for a moment that turned into several minutes and then longer, as Rogers even seduced me into his make-believe world.

He was so soft spoken, never losing his sweet smile, never raising his voice. He was like my doctor telling me, “It’s nothing, it’s your imagination.”

When Rogers laughed at the corny jokes his visitors made, it was a soft chuckle. He rarely laughed out loud, and his drop-in friends and neighbors were pretty much the same. No acting was allowed.

In watching Neville’s beautiful album open and unfold, they were all there: Mr. McFeely, the delivery man, Neighbor Aber, the sweet and lovely “Lady Aberlin,” and the comforting policeman, Officer Clemmons.

I think the girls patiently sat through some of them, while they eagerly waited the arrival of the grouchy King Friday, the snuggly Daniel Tiger and X the owl, striped tiger, Henrietta Pussycat and the delightful Froggs, looking like they were sewed and glued together just last night by the local middle school art teacher. Comforting, yes, like something they themselves could make. Yes, comforting. Mr. Rogers was comforting, his living room, the tea cups, throw rugs, sweaters and sneakers, all comforting.

There I sat with my cereal untouched, coffee growing cold, being comforted by the host of a children’s show.

Scenes: Mr. Rogers sitting in his yard, cooling his feet in a child’s plastic swimming pool, while “Officer” Francois Clemmons, the black police officer, drops by and is asked to join him. Imagine seeing that tonight on the six o’clock news.

There are interviews with the surviving players, scenes from the congressional hearings at a time when Republicans were trying to severely cut money from public television.

Rogers, in that same “comforting” voice, actually convinces Sen. John Pastore’s committee to restore the funds.

Some tiny warts appear: Rogers accepting Officer Clemmons being gay in real life, but cautioning him to conceal it from the public. We’re reminded in small doses that Rogers was a lifelong Republican, the “old fashioned kind,” and even though his show never preached, he was an ordained Presbyterian minister.

Come ye one and all, children of the ’60s and ’70s. Turn off the news; put down the paper. Come be comforted. Come be Mister Roger’s neighbor.

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.

Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.