''Mister Rogers''' Johnny Costa -- The musical director is one of TV's unsung treasures

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
Updated December 04, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

Forget Yo! MTV Raps and Beverly Hills, 90210. TV’s coolest music is on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, currently celebrating its 25th anniversary on PBS. Yes — that Mister Rogers, whose musical director, Johnny Costa, an acclaimed modern-jazz pianist, rivals Sesame Street‘s Joe Raposo as one of television’s unsung musical treasures. ”His is the best music on TV,” says pianist Marian McPartland, host of NPR’s Piano Jazz program. ”Costa is amazing, both on and off Mister Rogers.”

Costa’s success comes partially from his refusal to play down to his audience. ”I think kids have wonderful ears and an uncanny way of knowing if it’s rhythmically right. Why not play for the kids as I would for any adult?” Evidently, it works — for both audiences. Fred Rogers notes, ”Adults have said to me, ‘I listen to your Neighborhood just to hear Johnny Costa play.”’

A lifelong believer in fate, Costa was offered $5,000 to work on the show when it began in 1965. ”I wasn’t sure about devoting my life to children’s programs, but my son’s tuition was $5,000, so I thought, ‘Well, this has to be right,”’ Costa recalls. ”I’d had other opportunities — I had recorded albums — but when I saw that light in children’s eyes, I knew money wasn’t everything.” From the start, Rogers gave Costa free rein, even letting him ”go wild” improvising while the show’s final credits roll.

During the nine months a year that he’s not taping in the show’s Pittsburgh studio, Costa heads a jazz quartet that performs around town about 50 times a year. He says he has developed his style by drawing on everyone from Art Tatum to Ravel and Bach. ”I love everybody who ever wrote good music,” he says. ”I love everything. Well…” he hesitates, ”I’m not into rock. All that jumping around — I guess it’s fun, but it scares me.”