Mr. Rogers

At QED we were almost a happy family, probably because we were there for a cause, working for minimum wage under extreme conditions. I shared a tiny editing space with two moviolas separated by a makeshift curtain. We all ate together in a small room with no menu, just what was there, and we enjoyed it. This was before vegetarians existed and calorie counts didn’t matter. I don’t remember the ‘chef’s’ name, but he was a very old, charming black guy who cooked everything himself and even did the dishes.

We worked in an old church and through the years all the spaces had been converted to practical uses. Of course, we film people were in the basement as it was at first a teevee station with teevee equipment and studios upstairs. There was a ‘television mentality’ permeating the place and we were considered weirdos, but I could go out on the street without three trucks and a generator and shoot stuff with a Bolex by myself.

It was almost a cult (except for the video guys). I think they brought their own bag lunches.

Fred Rogers was a part of this then. I believe his show was just called MR. ROGERS and ran locally. His greeting to me, when we would pass in the hallways, was always, “How is Mister Pytka today.” That greeting and his truthful smile always gave pleasure. 

Of course, I didn’t pay much attention to the show, not having any children and dealing with my own issues of creative survival, so I was surprised when I was asked to film a documentary about him. Bill Francisco was to be the director and I was surprised because Bill was openly gay and having him deal with a doc that had young children (even then) seemed strange. 

Fred Rogers was an ordained minister, and a child psychologist, and his shows were insanely well thought out although they seemed spontaneous. His musicians were local jazz players that I had heard in various clubs through the years. Fred spent his summers in Nantucket writing the shows that had myriad meanings.  His songs were there to deal with problems that very young children face as they grew up. For example, he had a song that had the lyrics “your arms don’t fall off, your legs. don’t fall off…” that dealt with fear that young boys had about their penises falling off. The logic of extending the lyrics to that dealt with those fears.

I was lying on the floor at someone’s home filming a bunch of wee kids watching the show and their focus and responses to Mr. Rogers were astonishing. Those shots said more than any of the adult accolades we filmed.

Mr. Rogers lived in an extraordinary mansion in the Highland Park district of Pittsburgh. It was from family wealth not from the show’s profits (bad joke). While we were there Mr. Rogers asked me not to reveal the opulence, especially the two grand pianos that faced each other. I assured him that the shot would be only of him speaking and maybe playing a bit, if that’s what would happen.

Alas, I don’t have a copy of this very early film. I haven’t seen the recent films made about him either. I want to preserve my own uncorrupted memories of this very special person and those very special times.