fred and dolly

Mister Rogers has been getting a lot of attention the last few years.  He has been the subject of books and movies and articles and a Google Doodle.

The first of two documentary films, Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like, was hosted by the actor Michael Keaton, who early in his career worked at WQED in Pittsburgh, including behind the scenes and occasionally on-air for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  It featured celebrities recounting their memories of the show as children and as parents.  The second was Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which offered a deep look at Rogers and his television ministry.

The films included archival footage, showing the never-changing introductions and conclusions of each episode, the characters, the puppets, the music, the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and the great empathetic listener and teacher, Mister Rogers himself.  He didn’t shy away from difficult topics, including death, war, divorce, and race.  And he opened up new worlds for children, exposing them to the arts, how things were made in factories, and people from all walks of life, along with those invaluable lessons about how to treat others.

His kindness and compassion seemed endless.  Every encounter was one of tenderness and consideration; even Koko the gorilla could sense it right away.  The appearance of Jeff Erlanger, a young boy in a wheelchair, is a famous segment.  When Erlanger showed up as a surprise guest years later at an awards show where Rogers was being honored, Rogers rushed to the stage to greet him.  Upon receiving his award, Rogers said that we all have a choice whether “to demean this life or to cherish it.”  You know which path he chose, emphatically illustrated by the videos of his times with Erlanger.

In November, a feature film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, was released.  It is an allegory based upon a real friendship that started in 1998 when a cranky reporter was assigned to interview Rogers for an edition of Esquire about heroes.  It was supposed to be a short profile among many others.  Instead, the resulting article by Tom Junod became the cover story for the magazine.  As Junod explained in a recent piece, the movie captured the essence of his relationship with Rogers, even though the facts surrounding it were changed:  “He allowed me to choose between two visions of manhood.”

In a world where “hate is more viral than love,” Rogers lived a “radical kindness,” perhaps innate, but bolstered by his belief in grace and prayer, honed through discipline and dedication, even in the midst of doubt.  An ordained minister (as well as an accomplished musician and composer), Rogers “prayed for the strength to think the same way about everyone.”

Given our fraught political climate, a common question is, “What would Mister Rogers do?”  The civility that he tried to instill has lost out to incivility, in the public square, on social media, and around the dinner table.  What can we do in response?  Perhaps the line that begins a Rogers song — “What do you do with that mad that you feel?” — would be a good retort to a demeaning tweet or comment.

Rogers was born into a wealthy family, but he was a sickly child (and an only child until his parents adopted his sister when he was eleven), so he was alone with his thoughts during much of his youth.  He was bullied as “Fat Freddie” when around others.  Maybe that’s why he could relate so well to children and their fears and challenges and needs — and why he would gently remind adults, “You were a child once too.”

Unlike Rogers, Dolly Parton grew up as one of twelve kids in a small cabin in the mountains of Tennessee, but like him, she’s having something of a moment, with a musical based on the film 9 to 5, the Neflix series Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, and, especially, the popular nine-episode podcast, Dolly Parton’s America (about her, not by her, although she is interviewed).

The podcast covers a lot of ground.  First, there is the music, from her “sad-ass songs” and early success with Porter Wagoner to her blossoming into a prolific, successful songwriter and country music superstar.  One of her most famous songs, “Jolene,” turned the “cheating song” in an entirely new direction, complimenting and pleading with the woman who would take away her man.  And her body of work illustrates that the universal language of music often rests on a longing for home.  Migration, movement, and the interchange of ideas are the natural course of events that propel human progress, but the process can be heart-wrenching.

Not far from the Dollywood theme park is a replica of that cabin in the woods, along with rebuilt versions of the school and church that were nearby when she was growing up, now all reserved for gatherings with her extended family.  The podcast mentions that the word “nostalgia” means a painful longing for home.  Like Parton, many of us yearn for times and places that are no more.

She is ranked in the top ten globally in “Q score” (a measure of appeal) and has lower negatives than almost anyone else.  According to the podcast, being at one of her concerts seems like “an alternate reality” because of the diversity of her fans — “groups of people that we think shouldn’t get along.”  From drag queens to rednecks, Parton draws them all in.

Part of the secret seems to be her refusal to be overtly political in her public statements, leading everyone to try to figure out her views.  Whatever she has to say, one person commented, is “in the music,” while another felt that “her lyrics over time are the progress of women in America.”

In one of the podcast interviews, Parton asked, “Why does it all have to be about politics?” and “Can’t we just stop?”  Maybe her unwillingness to play the game should be a lesson to others.  We are unique individuals and shouldn’t be automatons in a political war.  If Parton “can pull off contradictions that no one else can pull off” and be “a unifier in a divided country,” maybe some of the rest of us should try to just be ourselves and not default to the beliefs of our tribal echo chambers.

When she says, “I would never want to hurt anyone for any reason,” it rings true.

She left Wagoner, her musical mentor, by singing him her song, “I Will Always Love You.”  He did not take it well, trashing her in whatever way possible.  They eventually made up and Parton was with him before he died.  “Forgiveness is all there is,” she said.

Like Rogers, Parton acknowledged some “serious conversations with God” along the way.  She says that she doesn’t “practice” her faith, she lives it.  Like a lot of people, she feels called more to God than to church and isn’t interested in foisting her views on others.

But, she can’t stand intolerance:  “God made us as we are . . . I hate Christians that are so judgmental,” who “take little pieces of the Bible and ignore the story of love . . . It’s God’s to judge.”  It reminded me of a sentence in one of Rogers’ personal notes to Junod:  “The attitude that makes me (sometimes physically) sick is the ‘holier than thou’ one.”

I wish I could claim that I recognized the connection between Rogers and Parton on my own, but I had heard the producer of the podcast compare them in an interview, when he talked about our need for “folk heroes” right now.

And so we are drawn to them, the flamboyant country singer and the quiet children’s television host, and their shared ability to use fame to help us find (and put into practice) our best instincts.

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