10/1/13

Mr. Rogers: A Beautiful Man in the Neighborhood


This photo accompanied a February 28, 2003 tribute to Fred Rogers in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Rob Owen (twitter) and Barbara Vancheri.  Rogers grew up in Latrobe, PA, 40 miles to the east. 


My friend Barbara Schauer (website) posted someone else's version of the following story about Fred Rogers on Facebook, but Marc Acito (website) is the original source,  according to A.W. Hatano-Worrell in 2006,  who quotes Acito's essay, "A Sad Day in the Neighborhood:  Mr. Rogers, Gay Men, and Me" published in Lavender Magazine.

UPDATE:  11/10/13.

After I posted A.W. Hatano-Worrell's version, I emailed 
Acito (email) on 10/2/13 and asked him for a link to the original, which he didn't have, but instead kindly sent me a copy.  I've replaced Hatano-Worrell's excerpt with the slightly longer version Acito sent me today.

UPDATE:  11/18/17:  Today, Facebook reminded me that on November 18, 2012, I had posted the auto-tuned version of Mr. Rogers' "Garden of Your Mind." 

When I was looking at Acito's website, I realized that he wrote the book for the Broadway play about the WWII US internment camps for American citizens of Japanese descent, Allegiance, starring George Takei.  I didn't recognize his name at the time he wrote me.  While the musical 
began development in 2008 and premiered in September 2012 in San Diego, California, it didn't reach Broadway until October 2015, where it ran until  February 2016.
I also learned that the tag line at the end marked it as one of his humor columns in 
"The Gospel According to Marc," syndicated for four years in nineteen publications, including the Chicago Free Press and Outword-Los Angeles, according to his bio at Penguin, publisher of two of his books.  Acito started writing a weekly column under that tag line again on 9/25/17, this time at his blog.
*

A Sad Day in the Neighborhood
Mr. Rogers, Gay Men and Me

So I’m talking with my friend Bobo about the recent death of Mr. Rogers
when he says to me, “When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch Mr. Rogers.”

Wasn’t allowed to watch Mr. Rogers? What kind of flicking-cigarettes- at-your-
head, child-services- arriving-in- the-dead- of-night parents don’t allow their kid to
watch Mr. Rogers? Did they keep him in a cardboard box in the basement, too?

“My dad thought he was gay,” Bobo says.

Gay?! Okay, purse-carrying Tinky Winky I can understand. The creepy purple
dinosaur, sure. But Mr. Rogers?

The Far-Out Right would have us believe that there’s a vast gay conspiracy
determined to warp the young minds of America. But I’ve got news for them; most
gay men don’t give a rip about the young minds of America. Forget Tinky Winky;
most of us are just interested in Hanky Panky.

The latest target is Sponge Bob Square Pants. Okay, I admit, the little guy
makes Christopher Lowell look positively butch by comparison, but he is most
certainly not a homosexual.

He’s a sponge, for crissake.

Sponge Bob, Tinky Winky, Mr. Rogers: What is it about these characters
that’s so threatening to conservatives?

Is it their gentleness, which has always been considered subversive in our
“my weapons of mass destruction are bigger than yours” culture? Maybe. Because no
one was gentler or more subversive than Mr. Rogers.

Wait a sec. The guy in the faggy sneakers subversive? Perhaps I’d better
explain.

I went to college in Pittsburgh, where Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was filmed,
and I once found myself seated near him on a People’s Express flight home. (For
those of you who don’t remember People’s Express, it was the first no-frills airline. It
was a good deal until the rubber bands broke.)

We disembarked at the same time and, after making the insightful
observation that he was indeed Mr. Rogers, I found I had absolutely nothing to say
to the man.

Fred Rogers took one look at my off-the- shoulder sweatshirt and leg warmers
(it was the 1980’s, okay, give me a break) and politely inquired as to whether I’d
seen Torch Song Trilogy. “I hear that Harvey Fierstein is awfully good,” he said.
That’s right, my one and only conversation with Mr. Rogers was about a drag
queen.

A couple of years later, my roommate Lisa got an internship on Mr. Rogers’
Neighborhood and she began a lifelong friendship with Fred Rogers. Lisa’s most
cherished memory is of a trip to Boston they made together for a concert. (No, not
to see Metallica, he was doing a children’s concert.) Upon arriving at the fancy home
of a WGBH executive, the limo driver Billy turned to Fred and asked when he should
return to pick them up.

“Why, where are you going?” Fred answered, and promptly invited Billy to
join them for dinner, much to the bewilderment of the hostess.

On the way back to the hotel, Fred sat in front, so he could find out more
about Billy. When he discovered they’d be passing Billy’s house, Fred suggested they
stop in to meet Billy’s parents.

“So there we all are,” Lisa says, “getting out of a limo in the middle of West
Roxbury, Massachusetts to meet the driver’s parents. We walk in the door and
there’s Billy’s dad coming down the stairs in his bathrobe, a cigarette dangling from
his lips. He takes one look at Fred and yells, ‘Holy Shit! You’re Mr. Rogers!’”

Think about it. How would you react if you were sitting around on a Friday
night and Mr. Rogers came wandering in your front door? Talk about visiting the
Land of Make Believe.

“Then suddenly it was like the whole neighborhood showed up,” Lisa says.
“People brought cookies and Fred was playing the piano…it was just magical.”
Billy and his family never forgot that night (who could?), but apparently Fred
didn’t either, because a few years later when he learned that Billy was dying of
AIDS, he took time out from his vacation to call the hospital.

Think about it. You’re on your deathbed, and Mr. Rogers calls to comfort you.
That indeed is a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

I don’t know what Mr. Rogers said to Billy, but I’m pretty certain it was the
kind of thing that he said to all of us for over thirty years: “You make every day a
special day by just being you. There’s no one in the world exactly like you. People
can like you just the way you are.”

No wonder the bigots are so threatened.

And that, my friends, is The Gospel According to Marc.