Archives for February 2013

You Were Special: A Tribute to Mister Rogers

John Costa, Fred Rogers, Bob Rawsthorne, Carl McVicker

John Costa, Fred Rogers, Bob Rawsthorne, Carl McVicker

 

Robin Meloy Goldsby remembers a family friend.

On February 27th, 2003, America lost one of its national heroes. For more than three decades Fred Rogers, of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, had taught parents and children about joy and sadness, life and death, being different and fitting in. “You are special,”  he told us, without a tad of irony or skepticism. “It’s you I like.”

Because my father, percussionist Bob Rawsthorne,  played on the Mister Rogers program (Fred never called it a “show,” it was always a “program”) for thirty-five years, I had the honor of knowing both Fred and his spirited wife, Joanne. Along with pianist Johnny Costa and bassist Carl McVicker, Dad logged hundreds of hours at the studio, playing vibes and drums for Fred and his family of puppets and Neighborhood regulars (Neighbor Aber, Handyman Negri, Chef Brockett, and Mister McFeeley among them). The Neighborhood, a popular hang-out for famous people like Tony Bennett, Wynton Marsalis, and Yo-Yo Ma, was also populated by real men who drove bulldozers, real women who worked in graham cracker factories, and real nine year-old boys in very real wheelchairs. Fred’s true gift was the ability to make everyone of these people feel loved, respected, and unique.

In Fred’s universe, we were all special.

People often ask what Fred was “really” like off camera, hoping, I guess, to hear that he was too good to be true. He wasn’t. The television Mister Rogers mirrored the real-life Mister Rogers. Talk to any of the artists, administrators, and technicians who worked for him over the years—Fred was Fred. I got to visit with him once or twice a year—sometimes at the studio, sometimes at the annual picnic he hosted for his employees’ families, sometimes at his “Crooked House” on Nantucket Island. He always remembered the tiniest details of our previous conversations. His genuine curiosity about my world made me feel, for lack of a better word, safe.  Fred possessed a whacky sense of humor and a true love for all things whimsical. Most of us lose our childlike sense of wonder as we grow up—he clung to his innocence  and treasured it until the end, sort of like his well-worn cardigan sweater. He found an inner quality that worked for him and he stuck with it. Lucky for us.

“You make people feel good with your music,” Fred said to me once, words of gold for someone like me, who makes a living playing cocktail piano.  “What a wonderful feeling that must be for you. Isn’t the piano a marvelous thing?” Fred understood, perhaps better than anyone, that playing made me happy, even if no one in particular seemed to be listening. Fred played the piano to express his own feelings. He understood that music, along with its challenges and frustrations, can bring comfort to those of us who play.

Even though I live in Germany, I don’t have to travel far to hear Fred’s voice. I play a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood DVD and fall into a melodic time tunnel. Fred  left behind a billion notes, a dizzying number of beautiful thoughts transposed into song, and a musical tapestry woven with the fragile threads of optimism and inspiration.  Listening to Mister Rogers Neighborhood reminds me that each supportive person in a young person’s life—teacher, parent, or TV star—has the potential to  spark the artistic flame that lives in every child’s heart.

I am still waiting for someone, anyone on television, to fill his sneakers. Come back, Fred. We miss you. It has been ten long years. All of us, more than ever, need to feel special again.

**

From the Goldsby Archives—a piece I wrote in 2007 for Steinway Magazine, about Fred, his wife Joanne, and the piano they both loved.

A BARRELFUL OF SONGS

On a sparkling July morning—a beautiful day in the neighborhood—three broad-shouldered men gently boost a concert grand piano from a fourth-floor apartment window onto a towering platform. Swaddled in thick blankets, the Steinway D waits for the next part of its voyage to begin. The workers cautiously slide the piano onto a set of pipes that extend from the scaffolding while a crane operator attaches the thick rope coiled around the instrument to a large metal hook. After much double-checking, the crane springs to life, lifting the Steinway into a beam of sunlight. The piano seems to hover over the street, pausing for just a moment, and then—with grace, dignity, and an almost human air of self-determination—it swoops to the earth below.

Joanne Rogers, a seventy-nine-year old concert pianist who has spent much of her adult life playing this piano, stands in the imposing space once occupied by the instrument and takes a deep breath. She hurries down to the front of the building and watches as the movers load the piano into a truck. The time has come to say goodbye.

“I thought at one point, this is crazy, why am I doing this?” says Joanne from her home, six weeks after the piano’s departure. “I guess maybe we have those feelings about every big thing we do in life. We want to back out at the last second.”

Joanne’s honest words would have made her husband proud. She was married to television legend Fred Rogers—of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—for 50 years. She and Fred celebrated their golden wedding anniversary at the White House in 2002; on the day Fred was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A year later, her husband was gone.

Almost five years after his death, Joanne decided to donate Fred’s Steinway D to the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the town where Fred was born and raised. In a way, the piano is going home. But first, it will travel to the Steinway Restoration Center in New York City, where master technician Chris Arena will supervise a total restoration of the piano’s interior and exterior. The work will be completed in time for the spring 2008 opening of the Center.

“The idea to donate the piano to the Center suddenly came to me,” says Joanne, who followed through on her promise in spite of last-minute jitters. “It was a very practical decision, and yet I got very excited at the same time. It makes me so happy to think that the piano will be there.”

Two years before Fred died, Archabbot Douglas R. Nowicki, of Saint Vincent Archabbey, began planning the Center with Fred. According to a statement compiled by its Board of Advisors, “the mission of the Fred Rogers Center is to advance the fields of early learning and children’s media by acting as a catalyst for communication, collaboration, and creative change.” These are fancy words to describe a man whose remarkable career was launched by the purest of musical beginnings.
Fred’s beautiful journey began with a piano.

“When he was a child,” says Joanne, “he would go to the piano to express all of his feelings: mad, glad, and sad all came right out through his fingers.”

In the early 1940’s, in a scene out of every piano student’s wildest fantasies, Fred’s parents took him to Mellor’s Music Store in downtown Pittsburgh. Fred, thirteen at the time and blessed by a supportive and enthusiastic family of means, was given his choice of instruments. He selected the Steinway D. The piano, manufactured in 1920, had been played for two decades by concert artists passing through the city. Shortly after taking possession of the instrument, Fred developed a strong interest in songwriting.

When I ask Joanne if her husband cited any mentors, she says, without missing a beat, “Why yes! Jack Lawrence!” Mr. Lawrence, now 95 years old, penned an astonishing number of popular songs that became standards, including “Beyond the Sea,” “Tenderly,” and “All or Nothing at All.”

In his book The World According to Mister Rogers, Fred writes about his meeting with Mr. Lawrence: “I took him four or five songs that I had written and I thought he’d introduce me to Tin Pan Alley and it would be the beginning of my career,” writes Rogers. “After I played him my songs, he said, ‘you have very nice songs. Come back when you have a barrelful.’”

Taking Lawrence’s words to heart, teenage Fred Rogers devoted himself to the art and craft of songwriting. Sitting at his piano, he began shaping many of the ideas that would later become Mister Rogers classics. “The more I wrote the better the songs became, and the more those songs expressed what was real within me.”

“Fred was a very disciplined writer,” says Joanne, who met him while she was studying classical piano performance at Rollins College in Florida. “He had a composition teacher there who taught him the necessity of having a time every day specifically for writing. You go and you just do it. You sit there until you can.”

Joanne’s practice schedule and Fred’s devotion to his writing meant that the Rogers family needed instruments everywhere they went. Joanne enjoyed practicing one of the big pianos at home in Pittsburgh, but Fred accomplished some of his best work on Nantucket Island, where the Rogers family owns a lopsided beachfront cottage called The Crooked House.

“His piano there, a tiny thing, was from a company called Grand,” says Joanne. “So the piano was referred to as his grand piano. You know, the music was in his head, he didn’t need a big fabulous piano to compose, he always had a sense of what the piece would sound like.”

In their Pittsburgh home, next to Fred’s Steinway D, Joanne also kept a Bechstein C. For the last thirty years Joanne, a former student of Ernst von Dohnanyi, has performed two-piano concerts and recitals with Jeannine Morrison. She and Jeannine frequently practiced side by side on the grand pianos in the Rogers living room.

“Fred’s Steinway was the piano I loved to play the most when I had a lot of practicing to do to get ready for a concert. It had a firmer touch than the Bechstein. Fred and I played both pianos, but when Fred was working he liked to play his Steinway. He would almost purr when he played that piano.”

Millions of children who have listened to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood over the years have been enchanted by the lush sounds of the program’s Steinway B. This piano, signed by John Steinway and played by Johnny Costa, holds the honor of being heard by more children than any other piano in television history. The raffish Johnny Costa—Fred’s musical director for thirty years—peppered Mister Rogers’ easy-going neighborhood with fiery dashes of swinging jazz, performed live for every program.

“Sophistication was built into Fred’s compositions, but Johnny always knew how to find the right chords to enhance that,” says Joanne. There were lovely surprises in Fred’s collaborations with Costa—childlike melodies that seemed to dance through a maze of mature harmonic underpinnings. Those elements, mingled with the poetry of Fred’s lyrics and the thrill of Costa’s playing, created a magical partnership. When Costa died in 1996, pianist and arranger Michael Moricz stepped in as musical director, taking over Costa’s duties and gracing the neighborhood with his own creative brilliance and musical charm.

Fred always insisted on a stellar jazz trio for the program—including bassist Carl McVicker and percussionist Bob Rawsthorne—and he taped memorable segments with giants like André Watts, Van Cliburn, and Yo-Yo Ma. By avoiding obvious commercial choices, he hit on a simple truth: that children, when given the opportunity to hear excellent music, will listen. “Fred provided children with music they ought to be hearing,” says Joanne. “He always knew he was giving them the best.”

Fred never lost faith in the power of musical expression. Recalling her husband’s final weeks, Joanne says: “When he returned from the hospital, he walked straight to the piano and sat down. That’s what he wanted to do. And he would go every day to the piano, and play. He did this until he was completely bedridden. I think he was improvising—his way of composing—until the end.”

According to Father Paul Taylor, the Vice President of Institutional Advancement at Saint Vincent College, the restored Steinway will be given a place of honor in the atrium at the Fred Rogers Center—a fitting tribute to a human being whose passage from young man to television legend began with a piano, a soaring imagination, and the desire to give shape to his feelings through song.

When the piano is played—by hands large and small—Joanne Rogers hopes visitors to the Center will remember that Fred’s music has carried millions of children to the proud heights of self-recognition. One heartfelt song, that’s all it takes to make a person feel good. In his lifetime, Fred Rogers wrote a whole barrelful of them.

**

For more information on the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, please visit: www.fredrogerscenter.org

For information regarding Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Fred Rogers, please visit Family Communications: www.fci.org

Pianist and composer Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm, and Waltz of the Asparagus People. Robin Goldsby is a Steinway Artist.

Varmint on the Roof

weaselAs if a career in music isn’t perilous enough, Piano Girl Robin Goldsby and her bassist husband take on a few critters roaming the German countryside. 

Thwack. Or is it thwump? Skittle, scratch, scrape, thwop. It’s a quarter to three and there’s no one in the place except you and me—thonk—and Dumbo? Has a baby elephant crash-landed on the roof? Thwunk. Bosh. Maybe it’s Batman. Sasquatch? A lost WWII paratrooper? Lord of the Dance? At this time of the night anything is possible.

I wonder if I should awaken John, my sleeping prince of a husband. He wears earplugs and misses most pre-dawn rumblings. ‘Round midnight he’s in slumber-land, oblivious to things that rattle the rafters in the wee small hours of the morning.  I could wake him, but I know if I do, he’ll go into Rodent Red Alert, a state from which he will not emerge until the intruder is caught and removed from the premises. Not anxious to encourage a late-night hunting expedition, I ignore the critter clog-dancing over my head. I retire to the sofa downstairs, leaving my sleep-diva man tucked in and dreaming of suspicious jazz chords. What he can’t hear won’t hurt him. I put a pillow over my head and hope whatever it is goes away—a time-tested technique for chasing away the heebie-jeebies.

**

My husband’s mission to rid the world of household pests began in 1964, when little John, age six, rescued his family home from an invasion of exotic creatures. Snug in his Louisville bed—this was before he started playing screaming loud rock and roll bass guitar and wearing earplugs to go to sleep—he heard varmints—scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch—eating away the walls, munching on the very foundation of his youth.

“Mother and Daddy,” he said with a charming little-boy Louisville accent. “There’s something alive in the walls. And it’s eating our house.” Mother and Daddy, who couldn’t hear what little John heard, brushed off his warning, until, at last, little John threw such a big fit that they had to call either a exorcist or an exterminator. They opted for the exterminator. The verdict? Carpenter ants—tiny insects capable of taking down an entire homestead. Little John was vindicated. He saved the house and reaped the rewards of a grateful family.

Several decades after the carpenter ant episode, I met and married John. We got to know each other while playing at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, next to Grand Central Station in Manhattan. He logged seven hours a night with a jazz trio in a marble lobby filled with fountains, potted palms, and uncomfortable chairs; I played a Steinway five evenings a week in Trumpet’s (named after The Donald), a cocktail cave that looked like a leather-lined womb. We dealt with a lot of pests on the job, but most of them worked for the Food and Beverage department. That’s another story.

We lived in a small apartment in New York City. Most of our pals had hideous pest problems.  Mice. Rats. Roaches. Oh, the war stories we heard. My friend Patti told me about an army of cockroaches that carried an entire plate of rat poison back to their cock-hideouts—only to reappear the next morning, ready for more, more, more.  A girl I knew named Nina had a rat the size of a dog drop on her head when the acoustic tile ceiling in her bathroom collapsed on her just after she had gotten out of the shower. It’s hard for me to imagine anything worse—naked and attacked by a rat-dog. But our apartment was surprisingly clear of roaches and rodents. Aside from hearing the carpenter ant story about a hundred times, I had no idea how John might react to a household pest of his own. Then we moved to Germany.

Some people might say were asking for it. We built a small home on a piece of wooded property in a village thirty kilometers outside of Cologne.  We moved in with our two kids, overjoyed at having a place of our own. We marveled at the deer, even though they ate our decorative bushes for breakfast. The kids caught frogs in the garden and made goo-goo eyes at the hedgehogs.  Oh, the birds, the bees, the flora, the fauna, the wild boars—one morning we spotted eight (eight!) of them walking down the slope next to our house. The adult boars were bigger than any member of my family, which is saying something. They weren’t needy, they were nicely choreographed, and they didn’t whine. Fine. Just passing through, like a well-disciplined chorus line exiting stage left.

This, in contrast to the mouse in the sugar bowl. I spotted him one morning, flopping around on a white-sugar high, nose deep in the bowl, ass up in the air, tail shaking, re-enacting the cocaine scene from Scarface.  I screamed (I am strong, I am invincible, but I am, after all, an American blond). John rushed to my side. Rodent Red Alert! John’s eyes glazed over and he began plotting a trip to the local hardware store to buy traps.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Julia is not going to like this.” Our daughter has always been an animal lover. She has been known to hold funeral ceremonies for drowned wasps. Killing a mouse would have been like offing a close friend.

“We have to be firm about this,” John said to me. “Do you know how dangerous mice are? They can take over. They’ll even take bites out of small children while they’re sleeping.”

I didn’t argue, especially when he tried to convince me the mouse might be a rat.

That night at dinner, John, using The Voice— not the cool jazz cat voice, but the booming dad voice—told the family about setting the traps and how we had to band together to kill the evil and diseased rodent. Julia’s eyes filled with tears. “Dad,” she said. “How could you?”

Never underestimate the power of an eight-year-old girl’s protest. Julia printed out über-cute photos of country mice, wrote slogans like stop the madness and please don’t murder us in red crayon on them, and taped the posters to walls all over the house.

John went to Plan B, the live trap.

“We’ll get that little rat,” he said.

“It’s a mouse,” I said.

“It could be a small rat. You never know.”

The live trap involved peanut butter and a weighted cake pan suspended on a Popsicle stick. I heard the pan slam in the middle of the night. John slept through it, of course; he was wearing earplugs. I stayed awake with the pillow over my head, certain I could hear the mouse choking on peanut butter while he dragged the pan—like a suit of armor—all over the kitchen. The next morning, a look of triumph on his rested face, John drove to the other side of the valley, where he released not one, but two mice (they were not rats). We were saved. Victory for the bass player.

**

For the last week I’ve been hearing it.  Every evening, long after we’ve fallen asleep, there’s a resounding thump on the roof, followed by a flurry of commotion.  The critter must be leaping from one of the old trees near the house. But the closest branch would require Evel Knievel skills to cover the distance. I can’t figure it out. On the sly, I ask Julia if she has heard anything.

“Yeah,” she says. “Whatever it is, it sure sounds big and fat. But don’t tell Dad. You know how he gets. The last thing we need around here is another safari.” A couple of times a year since that first mouse episode, we’ve had visitors. Rodent Red Alert has become commonplace. But whatever is thumping on the roof is in a different category. We don’t need a trap for this thing; we need a counter-terrorism unit.

I can’t sleep. I keep thinking of my New York friend Nina and that rat-dog crashing through the ceiling and landing on her head. Finally, I have no choice. I tell John. He removes his earplugs, stays up, listens to the racket, and proclaims a full-scale emergency. He confers with his good friend, Hans, a Dutch drummer with pest issues of his own. John and Hans, experts in jazz and critters, determine our roof dweller is a Marder, an American martin, which is a member of the dreaded weasel family.

Just what we need—a German weasel. We hear from neighbors that this particular weasel has been chewing on brake cables of parked cars down the street. He has also massacred and eaten the pet bunnies living next door to us. Julia’s friend, Maryam, is still heartbroken. She didn’t even have a carcass to bury. Julia nicely arranged a small memorial service.

“No more Mr. Nice Guy,” says John, using The Voice. “This is a dangerous situation. That weasel gets under the shingles and into the walls of the house, we’re in big trouble.” With a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Protected Species. In this part of Germany, we have to be nice to the weasels. The weasel is our friend.

We buy an expensive device called a “Weasel-Schreck” which claims to make a constant high-pitched squeal—unappealing to members of the weasel family.

Doesn’t work. Perhaps the weasel is also wearing earplugs.

Following Hans’s advice, John buys an expensive live trap that looks big enough to catch one of the neighborhood toddlers. I spy John setting the trap with a cheese-topped cracker and an olive. Looks like a weasel cocktail party.

Doesn’t work. The crackers and olives are gone, but the trap remains empty. I suggest a pitcher of martinis.

We drink the martinis ourselves, call the Baum Meister, and spend hundreds of euros having him trim back branches close to the house.

Doesn’t work. The thumps at night grow louder as the weasel leaps from even greater distances. It seems we have a member of the Flying Wallendas living on our roof.

We consult with a home improvement center Pest Expert. He tells us there’s no legal way to get rid of a German weasel. Then he takes us aside, lowers his voice, and tells us to wait for a full moon, drink some Schnaps. “Go out on the roof with a shotgun,” he whispers. “Sit there until he shows up. Then blow the weasel to smithereens when he’s not looking.”

This won’t work for obvious reasons. In contrast to so many of our fellow Americans, we don’t own a gun. We don’t like Schnaps, we’re afraid of heights, and we’re skeptical about spending a winter night—even with moonlight—perched on a steep and slippery roof with a lethal weapon. And we have no intention of being deported for shooting a weasel, which is not only illegal, it’s just not nice. Remember, the weasel is our friend.

Meanwhile, John should be preparing for his new trio recording, aptly titled The Innkeeper’s Gun. I’m supposed to be writing a book, called Waltz of the Asparagus People. Instead we are on weasel watch. For over a month, the weasel on the roof dominates our conversations. We’re obsessed with the weasel. In addition to Ritz crackers and cheese, the weasel also likes to eat wiring, plastic tubes, and insulation. I have a nightmare that he breaks into the house, eats my iMac, all of my groceries, and kidnaps the children.

Then, one night, it all stops. The weasel is gone. No more thumps or thwacks at three in the morning. I don’t think the weasel is finished with us, but he has evidently gotten bored with Project Goldsby and moved on to the next thing. I can’t say I miss him, but, as an artist, I sort of know how he feels.

**

Three months later, early spring:

“Robin, we have a situation,” says John. I’ve learned to dread these words.

“What?” I ask. “What?”

“There’s something frozen in the rain barrel. And it looks like a human head.”

What? How is that even possible?” There was a lid on that barrel—we’ve always kept it tied down with cables and weighted with bricks. A small hole in the lid allowed rainwater from the roof of the garden shed to drip into the barrel—a perfect system for collecting water for the garden, not necessarily an ideal place to store heads. “Nothing could have gotten in there,” I say, trying not to panic.

“Someone opened it and put the head—or something that looks like a head—in there. The lid was off. Here, look. I took a photo—”

“Nooooo!” I scream. The last thing I want to see is a photo of a frozen human head in my rain barrel. I swat John’s camera away from me before the image burns itself onto my brain. “Just tell me what it looks like.”

“Well,” he says. “It has gray hair and pointy teeth and bloodshot beady eyes.”

“That could be anyone,” I say. “Or—”

“You know what?” John says, as he studies the photo. “It could be an animal. Maybe some poor critter chewed through the cables, knocked the bricks on the ground, dislodged the lid, and dove into the water barrel. He drowned and then the water froze. What an awful way to die.”

Silence.

“The weasel?” I say.

“The weasel,” he says. “Brick-throwing. Cable chewing. Death-defying leaps. Think about it. This situation has the weasel’s name all over it.”

“What are you going to do?” I ask.

“Don’t know,” says John. “He’s frozen solid in there right now—I’d have to use an axe to get him out. Looks like one of those exhibits at the Museum of Natural History. Look at the photo—”

“Nooooo! You’re sure it’s the weasel and not a human head? I mean, maybe we should call the police or something.”

“Nope,” John says as he continues to look at the photo. “Not a human head. It’s a frozen dead weasel. We just have to wait for the weather to warm up so I can hack him out. But don’t tell Julia. She’ll want to have a weasel burial. And, sorry, but I just don’t feel like singing ‘Amazing Grace’ for a weasel.”

John sends the photo to Hans.

**

I think about the weasel a lot. He was nasty—killing those bunnies, making little girls cry, destroying brake cables on cars, and keeping entire families awake at night. But, you know, he was acting in character, just being a weasel and performing weasel-ish deeds. He was likely living here before we moved in, hanging out with the mice, the frogs, and the wild boars. We might have served a nice cheese, olive, and cable buffet, but we didn’t exactly drag out the welcome wagon for him. I feel a little sad about his gruesome demise. I still haven’t seen the photo.

So we go on: Man (and reluctant woman) versus Nature. A couple of musicians, trying to create something meaningful out of the mess of the day—raising kids, cooking dinners, practicing, writing, setting live traps, practicing some more, listening for noise in the walls and thumps on the roof, and trying to get some sleep.

I hope the wild boars come back up the hill some day.

**

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl and Waltz of the Asparagus People.