Mr. Rogers explores the rhythms of childhood - and life
``I have wanted so much in my life to be honest with children and their families. I think that we long to be in touch with honesty, all of us.'' Television's Fred Rogers - speaking by phone from his headquarters in Pittsburgh - was talking about his approach to children in general, and the ideas behind this week's five programs dealing with dance and movement on ``Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'' in particular (PBS, daily, March 9-13; check local listings).
The series explores dance in the broadest sense - everything from the action of killer whales to more formal expressions like the Dance Theatre of Harlem or tai chi, a Chinese form of exercise and self-defense. But children will be in no doubt concerning the real subject - it's what ``Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'' is always about: themselves, their feelings, and the business of growing up. Through it all, Mr. Rogers's honesty and directness are in evidence, reminding small viewers of their self-worth. His seriousness tells them they are worth paying close attention to. His dignity tells them they too have dignity.
For all his gentleness, Rogers never ducks tough subjects. Little ones may wonder about the name ``killer whale,'' for instance, when they see these sleek giants coming like docile pets to the pool's edge. So Rogers asks the trainer directly about the name and gets an honest answer about the creatures' predatory nature at sea.
``I remember the struggle that I had with that very notion of `killer whale,''' he recalls. ``I remember being on the spot and thinking `Should we duck this? Is this too much?''' But he finally dealt with the name on the show because ``I really feel that children trust me,'' he says.
They trust him because he is their well-tested TV representative in exploring the adult world. Without imitating children in any way, he takes on their own rhythm and pace in asking questions he knows they want answers to.
``I think I haven't lost the childhood curiosity, and yet I am a grown man,'' Rogers reflects, ``and so I am in touch with who I was as a child and yet am able to be in touch with people like [playwright] Arthur Miller and with experts who deal with whales, or people like [tap dancer] Sam Weber.''
It's an approach that works beautifully for the subject of dance. In Rogers's hands, dance is seen as the rhythm of childhood - and of life. It's a theme that runs gently and meaningfully through the five programs, cropping up in the varied ways that are typical of ``Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.'' The approach can be simple - like listening to rain on the porch and then watching raindrops ``dance'' on Rogers's upturned palm during the Monday show. Sometimes it's as subtle as the time Lady Aberlin - a character in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, a regular feature - waves goodbye to tai chi instructor Patrick Cheng, then looks at her still-waving hand and uses it to begin a taichi exercise. As Rogers says near the end of this first program, ``There are all kinds of ways of moving, aren't there?''
Adults can watch the series not only through their children's eyes, but also as straight entertainment. There are the exhilarating antics of the two killer whales with their trainers. (``What splendid water-dancers they are,'' Rogers observes). Or the treat of watching a true tap artist like Sam Weber improvise to a jazz piano. And when Arthur Mitchell, head of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, lets viewers watch his youngest class in session, the room is fairly bursting with the look of joyous expectancy on the faces of the well-disciplined hopefuls.
Throughout the week, the dance theme is constantly being tied to basic concerns like children's feelings. In talking to Rogers about tap dancing, for instance, Mr. Weber shows how the way a child stamps in anger can be a dance, and then demonstrates the point with a brilliant turn of ``angry'' tap dancing.
``I loved what he [Weber] said about dancing,'' Rogers observes, ``that when he was angry, that the longer he danced, the less angry he was.'' And when Mr. Cheng teaches tai chi, he notes that this exercise ``helps with your feelings'' when you're scared, happy, or sad.
There are even some big lessons tucked into a little subplot in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe: Lady Elaine - one of the many puppet figures manipulated and spoken by Rogers - sets up a dance studio, and in the process learns some things about gender perception and other attitudes.
But it's Rogers himself who most effectively ties the show's various topics to its listener's lives. His simple comments during the series get to the heart of the matter. ``It's fun and it's a lot of work,'' he says about tap dancing. And about dance he notes, ``You have to try hard, and then keep trying. That's a way of growing,'' referring not only to the pleasure of movement, but to the hard facts of dance as a disciplined art.
Dance's link with music has a lot to do with its choice as the subject of this series. ``I always felt that music was my main way of saying who I was and how I felt when I was a little boy,'' Rogers explains. ``When I was a child I could much more easily express myself through the tips of my fingers - which in in a way is like dancing on the keyboard - than express myself through my mouth. I used to go to the piano and literally laugh and cry through my fingers. I was playing the piano when I was five. I can't do without it. In fact, my first degree was in music composition, from Rollins College.''
Part of his understanding of children's feelings comes through the flow of letters he receives. ``I wish you could see a whole bunch of our mail,'' he remarks. ``Some of it is very personal, and many of the letters are very astute. Some of them are on obviously childlike tablets of paper, and others are on very fancy stationery. It just runs the gamut from the king's English to some very primitive wording of how people feel.''
The future for his kind of children's programming could use a little brightening, according to Rogers. ``Years ago people would say to me, `Well, now, what's next?' And I'd say, `This is next.' So many people felt that being a communicator for children was a stepping stone to doing something that was a lot more glamorous.
``I do wish there were people coming along who were producing more of the kind of programs that I think comes from the inside of childhood, rather than what many adults feel is appropriate for children. Clowns and balloons are adult ideas of what children would like. It's not a criticism on my part of those who produce these other things. It's just a sadness that there aren't many who want to make that [children's programming] a ministry, because it has to be that.''