Not Just the Trolley and the Sneakers

Posted June 7, 2018 7:37 p.m. EDT

When the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom”) began work on a documentary about Fred Rogers, the host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” he watched as many online videos of the beloved figure as he could find. It was a revelation. “I was hearing a voice I felt I wasn’t hearing anymore,” he said. “It was a grown-up voice, someone who was looking at the long-term well-being of ourselves and our neighborhood.”

Even so, Neville wasn’t sure where Fred Rogers ended and Mister Rogers began. “I needed artifacts to figure out who he was as a man,” he said. With the help of archivist Emily Uhrin, Neville looked at fan letters, interviews, annotated scripts and more housed at the Fred Rogers Center in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Then there were all those episodes from the show, which began in 1968: the host arguing against isolationism during the height of the Vietnam War, or explaining the word “assassination” to children after the death of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Now Rogers, who died in 2003, is the subject of two film projects, one starring Tom Hanks and due next year, and the other, Neville’s documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” opening June 8. Here are five of Neville’s favorite items from the center.

Daniel Striped Tiger

In 1954, Dorothy Daniel, the first general manager of WQED-TV, where Rogers got his start on “The Children’s Corner,” gave him a small tiger puppet as a party favor. Over the years, Daniel Striped Tiger appeared in hundreds of episodes, spawning a fan club (the Tame Tiger Torganization) and inspiring an animated series starring his son (“Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”). Despite his popularity, Daniel is something of a misfit, as tigers go: a docile, people-loving creature who lives inside a cuckoo clock. In one heart-rending episode, Daniel wonders if he was “a mistake.” “Fred was uncannily able to remember what it was like to be a child, to be in touch with all those fears and hopes, most of all fears,” Neville said. “Whenever I hear Daniel talking, I hear a 6-year-old Fred talking.”

A fan letter

At the height of his fame, Rogers received 11,000 letters a year. He answered them all. “He was a minister,” Neville said, “so it was his chance to really minister to people one on one.”

In 1988, a 5-year-old named Timmy Tsai asked Rogers something we’ve all probably wondered about the iconic host: Are you for real? “There’s something about him that doesn’t seem like any other person you know,” Neville said. “So he feels like a cartoon character, or somebody who doesn’t exist in real life.” Was Rogers for real? In Neville’s opinion, “Without a doubt, they’re the same person. If anything, Fred was actually a better version of Mister Rogers.”

The 1979 memo

Despite the adoration and accolades, Rogers struggled with feelings of self-doubt throughout his career. In a 1979 memo, typed neatly on yellow legal paper, Rogers described his fears about returning to the “Neighborhood” after a self-imposed three-year hiatus. Could he still create new episodes? After two decades of songs, stories and puppet-driven adventures, had the well run dry? “It was always difficult for him,” Neville said. “If you look at the old scripts, there are pages and pages of notes, just tons of notations, on every single episode. For something that seemed so simple, he put in an incredible amount of work.”

A hospital visit

In 1987, Beth Usher, a 7-year-old girl who suffered from a rare brain condition called Rasmussen’s encephalitis, wrote to the host, telling him about her coming surgery. After writing her back and calling her and her parents, Rogers flew to the hospital to see her, his puppets in tow. Although she was in a coma when he arrived, Rogers and his friends performed a bedside solo show. “By bringing the puppets, it was like he was bringing the ‘Neighborhood’ to her,” Neville said. “I’m sure if somebody had said, well, she’s in a coma, she won’t know you’re there, don’t come, that would never have deterred Fred.” (She woke from the coma several weeks later, and the two kept in touch for years, Usher has said.)

Senate testimony

On May 1, 1969, Rogers went before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications to argue against a proposed funding cut to PBS. Sen. John O. Pastore, the subcommittee chairman, had clearly never heard of the host or seen any of his shows, but after only six minutes of testimony by Rogers (including one song, recited from memory, about anger management), the politician went from a gruff, dismissive foe to a lifelong fan. “Many people would call Fred a wimp, but what you realize in that moment is that Fred was the most iron-willed person out there,” Neville said. “It’s Mister Rogers goes to Washington. It’s the perfect example of somebody speaking truth to power, and winning.” (Pastore blocked the proposed cut.)