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Mr. Rogers' New Neighborhood

A video tribute to TV's model citizen goes viral

posted by John Stark, June 19, 2012 More by this author

John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle.  Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.


By now you may be one of the millions who have seen “Garden of Your Mind,” an auto-tuned mash-up of clips from PBS' long-running children's show "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" (1968-2001). The tribute went live on the PBS Facebook page last Thursday.




Quicker than you can say “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” the video racked up more than 700,000 views on YouTube and made the front page of Reddit, the Internet hot sheet. The mass media took notice. On Friday morning, "Garden of Your Mind" was shown on Good Morning America and the Today Show.

When a video goes viral like this, it has obviously touched a sweet spot in our collective consciousness. Everybody still loves Mr. Rogers. Most baby boomers who've watched the three-minute clip know it's got more going for it than nostalgia and a hypnotic tune. The video is about reinvention — of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" in a new format, and though it may be directed to a new generaton of kids it speaks just as powerfully to our generation, which is redefining what it means to grow older. “It’s good to be curious about many things,” is the video’s repeated message, delivered over a slow-jam melody by the beatific host, who wears different colored cardigans throughout. A contemporary of mine describes our generation as the "How So's"  because we're always asking questions. Like Mr. Rogers and his young viewers, we want to explore the where, what, when and why of everything.

I can’t stop watching the video. It’s as if the kindly man who used to invite us to spend time in his neighborhood has now come to visit ours. 
 
I think Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, would like it here. Our neighborhood is not our parents' or grandparents'. It's a place where we 50-plus-ers like to stay active, mentally and physically. There are no zoning restrictions on imagination and possibilities. In every episode of his show, Mr. Rogers quietly and gently unveiled the simple magic of discovery. He ingrained in us that the words “learning” and “joy” are synonymous. “Garden of Your Mind” starts with Mr. Rogers showing us what a cassette player is. “And there's a little cassette in here,” he says, pushing a button that makes it pop out.
 
Mash-up artist John D. Boswell, who created the video (he did a previous homage to Carl Sagan called "A Glorious Dawn"), electronically transforms Rogers’ words into a boomer mantra about innovation. The monotone Mr. Rogers auto-sings in Phillip Glass-like repetition: “Did you ever grow anything in the garden of your mind? You can grow ideas in the garden of your mind.” Our new neighborhood has lots of gardens.
 
The values that Mr. Rogers taught us — everyone has a special talent; be true to who you are — continue to resonate deeply now that our first adulthood is behind us. In this video, Mr. Rogers reminds us to stay open to life. We trusted him as kids, and we can trust him now. I once heard that one of the secrets to sustaining vitality as you age is to not lose touch with your (excuse the expression) inner-child. When maturity and wisdom combine with a youthful delight for living, it's an irresistible cocktail — people will flock to you. I can't think of a better example than the comforting charisma of Mr. Rogers. 

Even though we tend to regard him as a teacher, he was also a student. I remember an episode where a kid taught Mr. Rogers how to breakdance. There's a lesson in that for everyone our age. 

When filmmaker Benjamin Warner was growing up, he lived near Mr. Rogers, who had a summerhouse on Nantucket. In Warner’s PBS documentary, “Mr. Rogers and Me,” he remembers the first time he met the ultimate neighbor, who said to him: “I strongly believe that being deep and simple is far more essential than being shallow and complex.” Now that's a motto I'd like to have embroidered on a pillow — or, better still, auto-tuned.
 
To read the comments about “Garden of Your Mind” on You Tube and PBS Facebook is to see why grown-ups are tearing up:
  • “I loved him as a child and appreciate all that he had to say even more now as an adult.”
  • “I’ve watched it 20 times since yesterday. I think he planted some ideas in my mind and now they are coming back to me 30 years later.”
  • “I really wasn’t a big fan of Mr. Rogers when I was younger, but now that I’m older I’m starting to understand the importance of imagination.”
 
As expected, there are a few comments from fans of Mr. Rogers who think his image should not have been messed with. Me, I don't think it was, and therein lies the power of Boswell’s video. It stays true to who Mr. Rogers was, and is. His wonderment about the world still sparkles.
 
As one woman commented on PBS Facebook:
 
“Mr. Rogers would have loved this! He probably would have had a segment on the show where he takes us into the mixing studio and has the artist show us how it was done. And then Mr. Rogers would have put on the headphones and tried a little remix himself. ‘It’s good to be curious.’”
 
It was good then. It’s good now. Welcome to our neighborhood, Mr. Rogers. You helped build it.
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