Mr. Rogers is back, in online viral music video
NEIL STEINBERG email@example.com Twitter: @NeilSteinberg June 8, 2012 11:00AM
Updated: June 12, 2012 4:33PM
“As I was at five, so I am now,” Tolstoy wrote, in his old age, and I think that is pretty much true for many men. While I may not maintain the same burning fascination for mummies, G.I. Joe or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that I had in 1965, there is definitely the kindergartener on permanent naptime somewhere deep in the old psyche, who stirs on his low cot whenever, say, a firetruck goes by, or there’s candy.
That boy sat up with a start Friday morning, early. I had checked the newspapers online, to see what was cooking and, not finding much, drifted over to what I consider the outliers of popular culture — the Daily Beast, the Drudge Report and Google Trends.
If you haven’t seen Google Trends, it’s a fun tool — a snapshot of what people are interested in right now, how the hot trends stack up against the volume of overall Google searches.
Friday morning about 5:30, the top ten were the standard mix: mostly sports (“LeBron James,” “Miami Heat” “Chad Ochocino,” “Wade Davis”); a tragedy (No. 1, “Bob Welch,” the singer who killed himself); a strange medical topic (“body dysmorphic disorder”) and there, at position No. 5, something truly unexpected: “Mr. Rogers.”
Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who, from 1968 to 2001, was the genial, cardigan-sweater-wearing host of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” on public television. It was a show for children though, as a child, I never liked him — by the time he debuted, I was a worldly 8-year-old, given over to hip concerns like comic books and zeppelins. Besides, I had been a Captain Kangaroo boy, savoring the more bumptuous world of knock-knock jokes and ping pong ball drops. Of course I wouldn’t like Mr. Rogers — it would be like a Three Stooges fan embracing the dance films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Still, I was curious. What was Mr. Rogers doing at No. 5 on Google Trends, above LeBron James? I held my contempt in check and clicked. It linked me to a video released by PBS yesterday, an Auto-Tuned music video created from clips of the show by Symphony of Science’s John Boswell called “Garden of Your Mind.”
At 5:30 a.m. it had 400,000 hits. By 10 a.m. it was 650,000 and rising. I’m sure soon it will have millions.
If you loved Mr. Rogers — and millions did — it no doubt is a welcome bit of updated nostalgia. If, like me, you always found something off-putting, both in Mr. Rogers’ stiff, deer-in-the-headlights deportment, his syrupy tone and his message, which always seemed, to me, to be directed at woebegone children chained to radiators somewhere in desperate need of any kind of encouragement or kindness, then you may react differently.
The video — from the beginning, when he shows off a cassette recorder as if it were a marvel that his viewers had never seen before, to the song’s message, “Do you ever imagine things? Did you ever grow anything in the garden of your mind. You can grow ideas in the garden of your mind” — would have deeply offended the proud child that I was, sitting cross-legged in front of my parents’ black-and-white Zenith television. I could imagine fine on my own, thank you. Nobody need tell me I could think. Even now, it seems almost creepy.
This is not to criticize Fred Rogers, but a reminder that timing is everything, and, for me, Mr. Rogers was late to the game. The Captain, and his crew had not only gotten there first, but the locally-produced Cleveland kiddie shows like Woodrow the Woodsman and Barnaby had also burrowed into my heart already.
Barnaby, in retrospect, was idiotic compared to Mr. Rogers. A character in pointed elfin ears and a straw hat, played by Cleveland actor Linn Sheldon, Barnaby hosted whatever 1940s “Casper the Friendly Ghost” cartoon they had sitting around the studio, played the banjo and, most memorable for me, bade goodbye to his viewers this way. A twittering, pastoral tune would come up, and he would say: “If anybody calls, tell them Barnaby said hello. And tell them that I think that you are the nicest person in the whole world. Yes, you.”
That must have made an impact, because I remember being four or so and telling my grandmother, when she called on the phone, that Barnaby said hello
After watching Mr. Rogers music video, I went hunting for that Barnaby ending on YouTube, and wonder of wonders, found it, his last show in 1990. He was old, and fighting emotion himself, but the words were the same, and the haunting melody was the same, and the span of nearly half a century winked out. It wasn’t me, but the little 5-year-old in there somewhere, well, he wouldn’t want to say he was crying, but he did take the heel of his hand and smear it across one eye, and then the other, laughing at the same time, at how funny people are.