The Beginning Of Something Else

March 20th, 2012

The sunlight is creeping in through the window of the plane. In 30,000 feet more, LAX-JFK Flight #30 will be back home again. It’s been an eleven year trip.

See, Mister Rogers summered in a modest, gray, shake-shingled house on the edge of Nantucket. My mother rented a tiny cottage next door. So Mister Rogers really was my neighbor.

Somehow, one brief but powerful conversation with the television icon on the afternoon of my 30th birthday way back in 2001 inspired me to write, produce and co-direct (with my brother who shot and edited) a feature-length movie.

Today, we celebrate what would have been Mister Rogers’ 84th birthday with the release of that film, “Mister Rogers & Me.”

First, it screened in festivals from Nantucket to to Hot Springs and Sun Valley. Then at events from New York to Chicago and Los Angeles. Today, it’s officially not ours anymore. It’s everyone’s.

That’s exciting: Mister Rogers asked me to “Spread the message.” That pure-hearted imperative has driven this project forward for over ten years through every imaginable impediment.

But it’s also scary; people can by cynical, sarcastic and mean spirited. Our film is hopeful, sincere and joyful. I steel myself against the naysayers with something Mister Rogers told Amy Hollingsworth that she shared with me shortly after we met: “I’ve often hesitated in beginning a project because I’ve thought, ‘It’ll never turn out to be even remotely like the good idea I have as I start.’ I could just ‘feel’ how good it could be. But I decided that, for the present, I would create the best way I know how and accept the ambiguities.”

I was a 30-year-old, serial monogamist, aspring rock star when I met Mister Rogers. I had no idea what he meant when he told me, “I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.”

Today, I am a 40-year-old media executive, husband and father. I now have dozens of deep and simple insights from some remarkable mentors and neighbors: Bo Lozoff, Tim Russert, Maureen Orth, Susan Stamberg, Linda Ellerbee, Marc Brown, Amy Hollingsworth, Tim Madigan, Davy Rothbart and the plethora of other off-camera conversations I’ve had on the subject.

Eleven years later, I am finally coming in for a landing. In a few minutes I will be home. It’s where I was headed all along, it’s what I wished for; I just didn’t know it.

Maggie will bound down the hall screaming, “Daddy!” She will throw her arms around my neck, giggle, and pat my back. And then she will grab my pointer finger, and lead me into her bedroom where we will build blocks, sing songs, and solve puzzles. I will relish every second.

Today, on Mister Rogers’ birthday, I am grateful for the gifts he gave me: above, the knowledge that “There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.” Every relationship matters. Every second is a choice.

12 thoughts on “The Beginning Of Something Else”

  1. Curt Peterson says:

    It looks like a very special film. When I was younger, I watched his show, and now that I’m older (and not as wise as I’d hoped)- I look back and find how the simple messages he’d delivered, still hold true. I am one of those people who has developed an increasingly cynical eye with world events as time goes along, and beg, almost plead to find small nuggets of wisdom come along and lift me out of my stupor. I live in Omaha, and I hope the independent theater here, “Filmstreams” can pick this up. Thank you and I’m sorry if I’ve rambled. Curt P Mar22,2012

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Kurt!

  3. Mike says:

    I was came across your link on a website on a blog ( while looking up the lyrics to the song that was sung on Mr. Rogers . What started off as looking up lyrics as a Facebook post turned into a much deeper discovery with your film. I wish you great success in the future with your project, and I know that this film will bring people back to their childhood memories, and bring back the that childhood prospective of wonder and kindness that we seem to lose as adults. Somehow I think I will see your film on many PBS fund drives in the years to come.

  4. admin says:

    Thank you, Mike. The film was a labor of love a long time coming. It’s received a warm response. It has been licensed to 27 PBS affiliates, though not for pledge. Nonetheless, I hope the film has a long life on behalf Fred Rogers’ essential, enduring legacy. Please “Spread the message!” Benjamin

  5. James A. Kramer says:

    Dear Benjamin and Christopher Wagner:

    Today on a sign in front of a church were 2 simple words – “He Lives” – Easter Service. As a Christian, I hope this is true, and that I will meet Fred Rogers some day. I choose to believe in the simple and deep belief of a resurrected and living Jesus, or to use Rev. Fred Rogers phrasing – “Jesus the Christ our Lord”. It is in some of the christian periodicals that interviewed Fred Rogers and in an article he wrote for a book called Saint Vincent’s College that I bought when i visited The Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent’s College. I have been researching the Christian spiritual life of Fred Rogers and am trying to do what some have said was Fred Rogers daily devotional activities. I also really like the book by the Catholic Tim Madigan and the Presbyterian Amy Hollingsworth. I like it that Fred Rogers faith “undergirds” his life and work like a foundation of a building, unseen, and unspoken on “The Neighborhood, but really present, in my opinion. There are many loving references to this in your film, Susan Stamberg’s mention of what was Fred Rogers “church”. That was lovingly said. The one I liked best was your segment with Beverly Hall where you go to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and go to a pew where there is a Fred Rogers Icon plaque – Gentle, Kind, True. and Beverly Hall talked of his contribution to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church there on Nantucket. Thank you for putting that in the film. I put Fred Rogers in a group like Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II. I have heard Fred Rogers described as “Mother Theresa in a cardigan”. But then I also have a picture in my collection of Fred Rogers and The Dalai Lama, when he was in Pittsburgh. I think there is a simple and deep apprecication for “kindness” in Buddhism, but I don’t know for sure. This is a guess on my part. I also know that everything that almost everything that Fred Rogers did with “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood and Family Communications, Inc – now “The Fred Rogers Company” – is done in “secular terminology” or a “secular framework”, and that is the way that PBS wishes to present “Mister Rogers”. But, underneath, and in private, there is the spiritual/christian “language” and “heart” or “soul” of the Rev. Fred Rogers. Your film stays with a lovingly done “humanist” perspective, for the most part, but you give some lovingly “religious” segments to Fred Rogers that “witness” to this “side” of Fred Rogers, as part of who he really was. For myself, I will continue to research the “christian life” side, as it is a very meaningful personal research project for me. It is sad that we can’t see more of the hours of filming that you did. But you and your brother and PBS have come out with an excellent A Plus film. It is a “lovely homage”. It tries to show how to deeply appreciate family communications and being a “good neighbor”, one who is “kind, gentle and true” to oneself – to kindly respect others whether their life perspective is the same as the one one has chosen, as one goes through one’s life. It was your way to share that life is simple and deep, while our culture wants to give us is shallow and complex. May your work help many to not only “coexist”, but to live in contact with others in ways that are caring and compassionate, and in which the ordinary really is extraordinary. I hope because of my christian faith in a resurrected, living Jesus to meet Fred Rogers “in heaven”. But I have already shared your DVD with someone else, and am “sharing the message. I have tried to give you my view and and a heartfelt appreciation for all the past years of filming work that you have given to “Mister Rogers and Me”. May your tribe increase. Your family is blessed to have you, and many of us have been blessed and touched by your lovingly done film. I now must end what has become a small “epistle”. God bless you and Christopher and all who helped to complete this film. Bravo!!

  6. Carole Douglas says:

    what a blessing… I raised my kids watching his program; thought he was a gentle example they should be exposed to; much like Jesus would have us to be… thank you for sharing, and God bless you : )

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  • Benjamin Wagner first met “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” creator and star, Fred Rogers, at Rogers’ summer home on Nantucket, Massachusetts. His mother rented the cottage next door, so Mister Rogers really was his neighbor. On the afternoon of their first meeting, “America’s Favorite Neighbor” asked the young journalist about his job as an MTV News producer.  Wagner felt exposed and a tiny-bit embarrassed, a PBS mind in a jump-cut, sound-bit MTV world. Mister Rogers said warml ...
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