Won’t You Be My Neighbor? premiered at the Princeton Garden Theatre on Friday, June 22.
The documentary, which lasted for roughly an hour and a half, centered around the public television star, Fred Rogers, and his work with children around the country.
The Princeton Garden Theatre held a special screening of the documentary, which included a question and answer session following the screening with Eliot Daley, one of the original producers of MisteRogersand a close friend of Rogers.
“I was a young teenager when television came into the American household,” Daley said. “It struck me immediately that this was going to revolutionize the way we think, the way we relate, the way we perceive the world. So, as a teenager, I wrote essays about it and then when I got to be a young parent, I had already done a lot of research on the effects on children. I wrote articles on it for TV Guide, Family Circle and Look Magazine and places like that. In so doing so, I came across a video tape of this guy Fred Rodgers, who at that time just had a local program in Pittsburgh. I was absolutely blown away by it.”
Following Daley’s discovery of Rogers’ tape, he gave him a call and asked if they could meet. Rogers invited him out to Pittsburgh to spend a weekend with his family, where they could get to know one another. They immediately hit it off and within months, the two were on to something big.
“We just kind of fell in with each other,” he said. “About six months later, he called me up and said that he was about to get a grant from Sears and he thinks that he may be able to amp this up and create a real company, if I would be willing to join him? I said, I’m there.”
From there, the two created an independent production company called, Family Communications Incorporated. They amplified production from only 17 programs per year to 65. Daley realized that Fred couldn’t write them all himself, so he stepped in and helped write some of the earlier episodes.
“It was an amazing experience,” he said. “I am fond to say that I learned more from Fred in any one week than I did in any of the degree programs that I ever took.”
The two men had an idea and a plan set to reach children in any American household and it looked like their plan was succeeding.
“The mission was doing exactly what we intended it to do,” he said. “Fred was such a gift to American children and to American families and we just wanted to do everything conceivable to make it possible for any child, at any time, to be nurtured by this guy and his extraordinary capacity to be there for kids.”
Daley and Rogers created the beginning of what went on to be an ageless classic. Their show, MisteRogers, after being on the air for eight years, stemmed off to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which was on public television from 1968 to 2001.
“Our vison was that this program would be the equivalent to timeless children’s literature,” he said. “The things that are read generation after generation after generation. And so, the set looked like it could be a mid-west town in 1850, and we went through great lengths to ensure that there was nothing faddish or time-bound about it. It sustained itself for a long time on the network.”
Daley had some high praise for his friend, who died in 2003 after a long battle with stomach cancer.
“He is unquestionably, the most powerful human being who I have ever known in my entire life,” he said. “Now, here’s this wimpy looking guy, androgynous to the core and most people would never associate him with the word powerful. Nobody held a candle to Fred. The reason was, Fred was the most completely self-possessed person that I have ever known. He didn’t pander to anybody, he didn’t need anything from anybody else, he was on a track and he knew where he was going and what he needed to do to get there. He was undeterred and undeterrable. That gave him a tremendous power because nobody could manipulate him.”
But, in the end, Fred Rogers’ power couldn’t mask his honesty, and that is what made him a great friend to Daley.
“Fred made a friend of everyone that he encountered,” he said. “I just happened to get a bigger dose of it than the average person did. He was honest, he was funny, he was honest with his praise, he was honest with his critiques, he was honest to his feelings and to my feelings. As a friend, you couldn’t ask for a better one.”
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is now in select theaters.