Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Dark Side of Mr. Rogers

Did Fred Rogers, the most beloved children's entertainer of all time (and Marine sharpshooter!) have a dark side?  Sort of.

In my posting about the stupidity of the Dr. Seuss brew-ha, which to recap, is the GOP taking a "study" done by two obscure academics, and claiming it is "cancelling" the beloved children's author, I said, sarcastically "there's coming for you next, Mr. Rogers, you white supremacist bastard!"

Well, there is no evidence that Mr. Rogers was a white supremacist, and no, he wasn't a Marine sharpshooter who killed 20 North Korean soldiers on Porkchop Hill in Korea, either.  But like anyone else, his life had its ups and downs, and like any other parent, he had the usual problems in raising kids, which was made worse, no doubt, by his fame.

In the movies A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Won't You Be My Neighbor? as well as his Wikipedia page, it is alluded that he had some trouble with his two sons, who today, choose to retain their privacy and haven't commented on the matter.  But as teens, apparently there was some sort of rebellion, although they seemed to reconcile with their Father before his untimely death. Pretty standard stuff, really, in families.

But no doubt it was made harder by the fame of their Father.  You can imagine what it must have been like to be Fred Rogers' kid.  At school, the other kids would mock you, talking in an imitation of their Father's voice, and no doubt implying the kids were sissies or gay.  The accusation that Fred Rogers was some sort of pedophile, has been made, at least in jest, by some.  And that sort of "humor" apparently really hurt his feelings, as opposed to say, Eddie Murphy's ghetto rendition, which he apparently enjoyed.  Others have tried to make Fred Rogers a bisexual hero.  We can't leave the dead in peace, it seems.  Poor Lincoln - first gay, then Asperger's.

Being the child of a famous children's entertainer is hard, and to some extent, I experienced this on a minor note.  You may recall that the guy who wrote the comic "Dennis the Menace" (which later became a television show) had a son named.... Dennis.   And he had to endure a lot of name-calling and teasing as a child and was estranged from his Father for much of his life.  He just wanted anonymity and to "do his own thing" and not be known as "Dennis the Menace" - some kid with an anger-control problem.

The son of A.A. Milne was named..... Christopher Robin, and he endured a lot of taunting in their "Public School" which of course was private.  You know, it seems the Brits have everything wrong - public schools are private, they drive on the wrong side of the road, the monarchy, Brexit - the works.  They once ruled the world, and now they rule a collection of council flats and people on welfare.   So a mighty empire falls - food for thought for Americans who think Socialism is keen.  But I digress.

My own brush with fame occurred in Chicago in 1966.  Back then, the FCC mandated "local content" on each station, and most stations produced afternoon kiddie shows, dragooning members of the news team to dress up as clowns.   In Chicago, I guess it was WGN or something, they put on a local version of the licensed "Bozo the Clown!" show, which we kids watched, if only for the cartoons.  At the end of one episode, one of the kids actually read the closing credits and noticed that the guy who played Bozo in Chicago was named "Bob Bell!"

Well, my life ended at that point.  From then on, all the kids called me "Bozo!" and not as a compliment.  It  upset me so much that my parents actually got tickets to the Bozo Show and we sat in the audience for one episode.  My Brother was chosen to play in one of the contests they had, and I think he won a board game or something.  After the show, I was invited up to see Mr. Bell in his dressing room, but my Mother declined, saying we would meet Mr. Bell in the studio.  It was a shock to see him without his makeup, just an ordinary guy.   He introduced himself to me and said he understood we had the same name.  "Yea, and all the kids called me Bozo!" I said.  He thought this would be a compliment, but I tried to explain to him it was not.  I probably hurt his feelings.  While we all loved the Bozo show, no one wanted to be called Bozo.  Fortunately, it all ended a year later when we moved back to New York, and no one there knew about my Bozo connection.  Now you know.

That is as close as I can get to understanding what it would be like to have Fred Rogers as a Dad - or Hank Ketcham, or A.A. Milne, or some other famous children's star.   Fortunately for kids today, most of the stars on kids shows are people in elaborate fur suits, so there is little chance of being "outed" as the Son of Barney or something like that (which would be the good name for a serial killer, come to think of it).  No word on the children of The Wiggles.

Compounding the problem is having a famous or famously successful parent, as I have noted before.  When you are a kid, you can act goofy and stupid and not take life too seriously - something you won't be able to do for another 50-60 years when you retire.   But as an adolescent, you have to navigate the rough waters of the transition from childhood to adulthood.   College and other schools were once the way to accomplish this, but as of late seem to instill perpetual childhood into most students.  As a result, many are learning harsh lessons in their late 20's when the bills from their extended childhood come due.

But if your Mom or Dad are famous or very successful, it is even harder to navigate these waters.   If Dad is a neurosurgeon making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, how are you, as a snot-nosed teenager ever going to even approach that kind of success?   And often the parents, seeing their kids as half-formed failures, instill this message even harder.   Look at me, I am successful.  You will never achieve as much as I have.

Even worse, if Mom and Dad have even a modicum of money, the temptation - the decision matrix - favors inaction.   Why risk an inheritance trying to do your own thing or invest for the future, when you can just wait around for Mom and Dad to die, and then inherit?   The sad thing about this tactic is that Mom and Dad might not have as much money as you think, they may disinherit you, they may live a long time, or Dad may re-marry a stripper and leave all his dough to her - the latter I have seen.

So having famous parents or wealthy parents isn't always the advantage it may seem.  Some posit that if your parents are wealthy, the odds of you being wealthy are far greater.  But I think this can backfire, to some extent, if your parents are too wealthy or too famous.   If you come from a middle-class or upper-middle-class home where values such as hard work and education are encouraged, you are far more likely to become successful.  On the other hand, the children of the idle rich can, at best, hope to inherit a fraction of their parents' wealth.  A few choose otherwise, though.

In the case of famous parents like Fred Rogers, you can understand why the kids wanted to get away from all of that and start their own lives and not be known as "Mr. Rogers' kid" for the rest of their lives.  Some do become part of the family business (like the children of Jim Henson or the son of Bob Ross).  You either have to go all-in or get out.

It illustrates that family estrangement isn't all that strange.   Yet some folks - who often mean well, but are being particularly evil - act as though not being "one big happy family" is a sin.  They pontificate about this, but don't understand how difficult it is for some people in families where physical, financial, emotional, or sexual abuse occur.  You should forgive and reconcile with your abuser!  Well, maybe Fred Rogers can forgive like that, the rest of us find it a lot harder to do.  And even if your family isn't abusive, if you don't want to be a part of what they are all about, you have to leave, at least for a bit.

Much is being made today about the "Royals" and Prince whathisname and his American wife and how they are "estranged" from one of the strangest families on the planet.  As a reality television show, it keeps getting renewed, season after season, even though it is stultifyingly boring.  One can understand, however, why someone who has no real interest in being a "royal" (other than the money part) might want to walk away from all that and lead a simple life of their own - a life of their own choosing.  But to hear some tell it, this is an awful thing - that one's obligation to "Family" trumps all, and your desires in life mean nothing.   Maybe if enough people walked away, that would put an end to the monarchy.  They could do something different, say, for example, elect a new King or Queen every four years.  It's been known to work, but not without a hiccup here and there.  But I digress again.

Or did I?  The trials and tribulations of Megan Markle and her husband are case in point.  Having a celebrity family is fine, if, like the Kardashians, you want to milk that for all its worth and don't mind hanging out with your family members.  But if you don't, and just want to live your own life, well, people will come after you.   And to some extent, it isn't easy to break free.  After all, how can a Prince and Princess (or Duke and Duchess or WHO GIVES A FUCK ABOUT TITLES ANYWAY?) make a living on their own, particularly when they've been raised to do little more than cut the ribbon at the opening of a new Tesco.

You can see where the pressure of having Fred Rogers as a Dad comes in.  People expect you to be like him - even-tempered and nice.  Or they expect you to have aspirations for acting or television - you know, the way people see a baby touch a few keys on a piano and then declare them to be the next Chopin.   It's a lot easier to be left alone.

That is one area that Mark and I have in common.  As last born (last born rocks!) you are pretty much left alone.  Parents realize that their half-assed parenting skills didn't help much with the previous kids, and that maybe just letting the last ones free-range might work out just as well, if not better.  So my parents, absorbed in their own lives, pretty much left me alone as a teenager, only worrying that I eventually leave home - for good - at age 18, and the feeling was mutual.

Mark's Dad, after Mark's Mother died, gave him the checkbook and the keys to the Jeep and told him to watch the house for a few months, while he went to Florida.  Mark was 14 at the time.   Miraculously, he managed to stay out of trouble (but put on awesome dinner parties) and he learned a lot of "adulting" in a short period of time.   That is the nature of being a teen - you want to live life like an adult, but of course, don't necessarily have all the skills, and usually not the money.  In fact, until you are 18, you basically are still property of your parents.  Sadly, it seems some want to extend this to age 21 - and beyond.

But getting back to Fred Rogers.  Did he have a dark side?  Well, we all do.  Like myself, he was bullied as a kid and made fun of, and this hurt him a lot, but probably created the persona he had.   Our life experiences, even the negative ones, make us who we are.   And his kids, even if they struggled with being "Fred Rogers' kid" and struggled for their own independence, were also shaped by those experiences, whether they were positive or negative.

My own brush with fame being called "Bozo" taught me a few things.  Being teased or name-called only works when the person being teased reacts to the teasing.  The kids kept chanting "Bozo! Bozo!" the more I told them to stop - and the more I cried about it.  It was only when I ignored it, or actually embraced it that they gave up.   It is akin to the teenage girls these days, going on Facebook religiously, to see the latest horrible thing the "popular girls" said about them today, and then caring about what other people say about them or think about them.   Funny thing, once you stop caring, they stop caring, too.

I was at a potluck supper in a campground the other day (Mark hates potlucks - he calls them Salmonella buffets) and a neighbor in another camper we befriended saw us.  He said he didn't know anyone else at the party and felt nervous - as if everyone was looking at him and wondering who he was.  I explained that no one probably even noticed him, so just get some free food and free booze and be happy.  It is funny, human nature - we think we are at the center of things, when we aren't even on the radar.

It is only when you draw attention to yourself (such as the Sussexes are doing) the you invite ridicule and abuse.  If you react to negative things, chances are, more negative things will happen.

But that is a hard lesson to learn - and one we all continually re-learn in life.