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.

  • Peter

    two great guys

  • “Would you be mine, could you be mine…” Loved him and love what you wrote!

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      And he would have loved you, too, Felice. How he would have adored talking to your grandfather . . .

  • What a gift! From you too Piano Girl. So nice to ‘meet’your dad!

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      T, you and I were both blessed with wonderful fathers! xoxo

  • Julie Engelman

    I loved spending a few minutes reading your unique, personal take on this iconic man. Fred Rodgers helped all of my kids through the bumps and sunbeams of childhood, and even though they are all in their teens and twenties, the conversation still becomes animated when they reminisce about “The Neighborhood.” Fred’s brand of gentle communication was a port in the storm of a noisy world. They still miss him, and so do I! Can’t believe it’s been ten years. Thanks Robin!

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      So nice to hear from you, Julie! It warms my heart to know how many people remember Fred. Sending much love from Germany!

  • Sharon Reamer

    What a truly excellent piece of journalism and a fine commemorative tribute. And your Dad looks great with a beard.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thank you, Sharon!

  • Melissa Horsmann

    “won’t you be my neighbor…”

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Fred would have LOVED you!