The year was 1969, and as you may have heard or experienced, America was rife with racial animosity. There were so many divisions between African-Americans and whites, so many points of contention, but one of the most offensive had to have been white people’s insistence that blacks swim in their own pools.
“How can we have these Negroes doing the breaststroke and dog paddling in the same water as our pure, clean white boys? Won’t the black kids and adults dirty up and make our water impure? Heaven forbid people of different races swim and have fun together!”
It was horrible, racist thinking, and so many in their own way did their part to fight injustice.
Some did it in huge ways. Others, in ways that seemed small but were really so, so big.
Fred Rogers had a TV show in 1969. Maybe you’ve heard of it. He was disgusted by the racism illustrated by separate swimming pools, and so on his new TV show, he decided to make a point. He invited the African-American police officer character, Officer Clemmons, to sit down in his TV backyard. They get to talking and Rogers mentions how hot the day is, and wouldn’t it be nice to cool down and soak your feet in a little kiddie pool there on the lawn.
Rogers does it, and invites Officer Clemmons to do so as well. And in a minute there are two men, one white and one black, sharing the same pool.
For millions of American children to see.
It was a wonderful moment in a career filled in them. (This episode here was the two men re-enacting the famous original episode, 25 years later; fast forward to the 6:30 mark to see it.) And it was just one amazing, heartwarming story in the new documentary about Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
I got a chance to see it in the theaters last Thursday, and it was remarkable. Poignant, funny, smart and oh-so emotional (bring the Kleenex, you’ll need it), it was a portrait of a man, and a TV program, that changed America.
You learn so much in this fabulous film from director Morgan Neville (who also did the fantastic movie “20 Feet from Stardom,”), from people like Fred’s widow, his two sons, and people who knew him best. We get glimpses into how he created Daniel Striped Tiger (the inspiration for whom is now “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” a great kids show my 3-year-old watches all the time) and other make-believe friends; how he decided to give up the show for a while in the 1970s to try to make programming for adults, and how he became such a voice of calm in the time of tragedy (his programs after the Challenger space shuttle explosion, and after RFK’s assassination, stand out in the film as extraordinary.)
He took on so many issues for kids, like divorce, and getting lost, and talked to us always in such a calm, reassuring way. He told us we mattered, and we were loved, and that’s so important for kids to hear.
I can’t praise this movie enough, and honestly wished it was longer. (I particularly loved that he seemed to get a chuckle out of Eddie Murphy’s brilliant “Saturday Night Live” parody of his show, “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood.”)
There was no need to shine up or polish over the negative parts of Fred Rogers’ life, because there were so, so few. (There was one significant bit of homophobia Rogers displayed, but I won’t go into too much detail about that, the film handles it well.)
I can’t think of a better tonic if you’re feeling bad about the current state of our world. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is hopefully playing somewhere near you.
What a wonderful human being he was. A credit to the human race.
**Finally today, this is one of the most special and fabulous days of the year for tennis fans. It’s Manic Monday at Wimbledon, and no, that doesn’t mean all the fans at the All England Club dance around to the great Bangles tune of that name.
No, Manic Monday is when all Round of 16 matches on both the men’s and women’s sides get played all on the same day. Wimbledon is the only one of the Grand Slam events that does the Round or 16 like this, and it creates a wonderful viewing experience for TV.
Now usually, there are firecracker matchups on both the men’s and women’s side, but there have been so many big upsets in the first week that there aren’t as many this year. Still, we’ve got Federer, Nadal and Djokovic all playing, and a terrific story in young American and UCLA grad Mackie McDonald, who’s never won three matches in any ATP pro tournament yet is in the fourth round of Wimbledon, stunningly.
And on the women’s side we’ve got Serena, who absolutely looks like the favorite now that nine of the top 10 women’s seeds have lost, and terrific stories in Alison Van Uytvanck (one of the only openly gay women’s players on tour) and Angie Kerber.
ESPN, God love them, devotes two channels to Wimbledon on Manic Monday. So yeah I’ll be glued for a few hours (Asking for a friend: I don’t really HAVE to pick up the 3-year-old from camp on time, right? An hour or two more waiting for Daddy builds character, doesn’t it?)
But seriously, while you’re here, check out this phenomenal little video from ESPN’s Chris Fowler, on what it looks like inside the Centre Court TV booth. So cool to get this view…