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 warmly, “I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.”
Later, Rogers told Wagner, ‘Spread the message, Benjamin.”
After Rogers’ death in 2003, Wagner and his brother, Christofer, set out to meet some of Mister Rogers’ neighbors to find out more about the man himself, what he meant by “deep and simple,” and with whom in our junk food culture those values endure.
The brothers’ travels led them to Durham, North Carolina, where Mister Rogers’ friend, mystic, activist and author of “Deep & Simple,” Bo Lozoff, shared three core tenets of a deeper life.
In Boston, Campaign For Commercial-Free Childhood founder – and one-time ‘Neighborhood’ puppeteer – Dr. Susan Linn detailed the dangers of media over-exposure.
In Virginia, the two met “The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers” author Amy Hollingsworth whose groundbreaking, faith-oriented interview with Rogers informed the origins of his on-camera ministry.
In Washington, DC, Meet The Press” host Tim Russert shared his tale of meeting Mister Rogers on Nantucket, and spoke to how deep and simple values hold up in the nation’s capital. Later, NPR’s Susan Stamberg – with whom Mister Rogers produced numerous television specials in the ‘80s – related her deeply moving experiences with the icon.
Back in New York, “Arthur” author Marc Brown explained how Rogers inspired his entrée into children’s programming. “Nick News” host, Linda Ellerbee, amplified the challenges facing the modern media programmer. And “I’m Proud of You” author Tim Madigan shared the lesson he learned from his relationship with Mister Rogers: friendship comes from the least expected sources.
On Nantucket, photographer Beverly Hall shared her memories of being Mister Rogers’ actual neighbor — surprise visits, tiny gestures, and quiet moments — and recalls the day ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ visited hers.
And back in Rogers’ adoptive hometown of Pittsburgh, ‘This American Life’ contributor Davy Rothbart shares how his two encounters with Rogers continue to inspire an appreciation of reflective moments (even as they elude him).
In the end, the brothers come to know more than just the man and his luminous legacy. Their deeply-personal journey explores the roots of Mister Rogers’ values, unmasks the forces acting against depth and simplicity, and helps them to develop the means to lead deeper, simpler lives.
The 80-minute feature premiered at The Nantucket Film Festival in 2010, and went on to screen at dozens of other festivals, including The Heartland Film Festival (where it won a “Crystal Heart Award”), The Flagstaff Film Festival (where it claimed “Best Documentary Feature”), and The Paley Center For Media’s DocFest.
“Mister Rogers & Me” was released on PBS DVD and iTunes on March 20, 2012, in celebration of Mister Rogers’ 84th birthday. A 58-minute version will be broadcast on 27 PBS Affiliates from Seattle to Boston throughout 2012. Please check local listings.