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  • Earle Levenstein

Sure Miss the Neighborhood



Where is Mister Rogers now, when children need him so badly?

Kind, thoughtful, gentle and loving. Nothing sly; no side jokes for parents. Strictly for the kids…learning experiences. No commercials. No condescension, talking down, or lecturing. None of that.

About differences among people, disabilities, feelings, loss, curiosities, love, anger, and how to deal with all of them.

How to be helpful. To be friends. To be reliable. Truthful.

And all without lecturing; just as one calm, peaceful, conversation; a monologue. Teaching by showing, by example, by being. Talking to the children watching, directly at the camera, talking to them, not about them. Third person? No; directly to the children watching.

Compassion and love for every child; transparent, authentic.

Yes, I know that before Mister Rogers came along, Kukla, Fran and Ollie were around; for a sweet conversation among three friends, the two hand-puppets, Kukla and Ollie, and Fran Allison created by the enormously talented puppeteer Burr Tillstrom. I think I watched that delightful program a lot more than just about anything else on TV then.

Then, there was Captain Kangaroo: an engaging character, a simple story line, a different animal for sure; harmless, not the imagination of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, but way, way, better than cops and robbers.

My children would be totally engaged when any of these programs appeared; and not infrequently, I'd manage to share a visit.

Sesame Street: intelligently written, well-produced, well-cast, engaging characters and story-line, and an educational framework, was also around then. But for me—as an adult, I have to remind myself—more teaching and verbalizing than the relaxed, loving characters, nice people that I quite obviously favor.

Sure has changed now, hasn't it?

Yes; there are still talented people producing well-conceived comedic episodes, some with animated characters who can be very funny and imaginative.

But consumed by jokes, funny sequences…and filled with really amusing acts of supreme, unimaginable violence. Body parts flying with no evident damage. Cartoon characters reassemble and the jokes continue until the very funny ending, with lots of laughs among the children who happen to be watching…and who then reenact some of the scenes.

The problem, of course, is the jokes and humor are totally adult-oriented. We know that none of the cartoon characters are harmed. It's just a cartoon.

The danger of course, is, for kids, particularly young ones, if they're allowed to watch. The mayhem is funny and becomes part of playtime.

Flying objects, bodies leaping onto beds, pillows, handy objects fly. And being struck in the head by a book or a shoe, does hurt. And there are tears, followed by consolation and a belated explanation that there's a big difference between a real person and a cartoon character.

Alternative?

Challenging. Requiring prescreening, rules and regulations, a lot of attention, alertness. Supervision. Time.

Much less of a challenge years ago when my children were small.

When Mister Rogers was around: a totally different person. His authenticity, integrity, honesty, perception, understanding, relating to children…speaking truth; compassionate.

I worry…about a lot of things; maybe too much.

But I sure feel the great gaping space left by the absence of Fred Rogers.

Bless that man…


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