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‘Mister Rogers & Me’ A Tale of Real Neighbors

21 Mar, 2012 By: Chris Tribbey

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Through the nearly 900-episode run of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” many kids came away from the half-hour shows feeling like they were neighbors to the simple and gentle host of the series.

Benjamin and Christofer Wagner actually were.

Spending summers next door to Fred Rogers on Nantucket Island, Mass., Benjamin — then an MTV producer — spent days conversing with “America’s Favorite Neighbor,” learning how truly kind and basically wonderful the man was. And when Rogers died in 2003, two years after production of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” ceased, Benjamin and his cameraman brother Christofer set out to tell the story about Fred Rogers and the people he touched.

Using photos, interviews and personal reflections on the man and series, the brothers produced Mister Rogers & Me, an 80-minute documentary that aired on PBS March 20, which would have been Fred Rogers’ 84th birthday. PBS also released the documentary on DVD and iTunes that same day.

“I do think we could have and would have basically been telling this story for the next 20 years,” Benjamin Wagner said of having to chop so many interviews and content from the final cut of the documentary. “Once you start talking to them, you discover how many people who met Fred Rogers and were touched by him, changed their lives in one way or another.”

Those people include the late Tim Russert from NBC’s “Meet The Press,” Deep & Simple author Bo Lozoff, Campaign For Commercial-Free Childhood founder Dr. Susan Linn, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers author Amy Hollingsworth, NPR’s Susan Stamberg, “Nick News” host Linda Ellerbee and many, many more.

Their memories of Rogers all boiled down to three messages from the man, Benjamin Wagner said: Be a part of your community; remember there’s something larger than us, and pause to appreciate it; and shy away from the pursuit of material things. They were lessons fans of the show knew pretty well.

“That was exciting to us, these core values as humans,” Benjamin Wagner said. “They’re pretty simple. It’s not rocket science.”

Tim Madigan, author of I'm Proud of You: Life Lessons from My Friend Fred Rogers, was interviewed for the documentary while he was on a tour for his book in 2006. He called it a must-see for people who want to know who Fred Rogers really was.

“I want everyone in the world to know how wonderful Fred Rogers was,” Madigan said. “Everybody who loved ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ needs to see this. It brings a perspective that’s invaluable.”

PBS didn’t just drop the documentary on the DVD, slap a $24.99 price tag on it and leave it at that. The DVD includes a commentary with the Wagner brothers, bonus interviews, and a Q&A session with David Newell (Mr. McFeely from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”) and Angela Santomero (creator of the kid shows “Blue’s Clues” and “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”).

Christofer Wagner praised the work PBS did with the DVD, lamenting only that one disc couldn’t fit everything he and his brother would have liked to include.

“Once we began getting [the material] we talked about putting all of our interviews on the disc,” he said. “But it wouldn’t fit.”

To see a photo of the filmmakers and contributors on a panel, click here.

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