The legacy of Fred Rogers, creator and host of the iconic children’s television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, is well known to millions of people. What is not so well known is that there was a musical trio in the background who played a significant role in the show’s format and its thirty years on television. The trio included pianist John Costa, who was the leader of the group, Carl McVicker on bass, and percussionist Robert “Bob” Rawsthorne, with additional help sometimes from guitarist Joe Negri. This article will introduce Bob and highlight some of his experiences in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and his life as a freelance percussionist.
In early 1968, during the first year of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, pianist Johnny Costa called Pittsburgh percussionist Bob Rawsthorne to appear in one of the episodes. At that early point in the program’s history, the music budget only included funds for Costa, but whenever the producers scraped together enough cash, they added bass and drums to the mix. Fred Rogers loved musicians; the more, the merrier.
Bob Rawsthorne was a skilled player and on-camera presence. He also had a percussion storage closet at home jammed with temple blocks, a marimba, vibes, various types of cowbells, glockenspiels, bird whistles, and even a stump fiddle. If you’re producing a kid’s television show, call the guy with the fun sound effects. Bob got the gig.
“No one thought much of the program back in 1968,” Bob says. “In fact, some of the local musicians made fun of me for taking a kids’ show. They didn’t understand that Fred and Johnny Costa were dead serious about keeping the musical standard high. They wanted kids to hear sophisticated jazz.”
Alongside Costa and McVicker, Bob’s music influenced millions of children over the past five decades. Musical visitors to the Neighborhood included Tony Bennett, Wynton Marsalis, Rita Moreno, Eric Kloss, Richard Stoltzman, and Kenny Burrell. Bob had a chance to accompany all of them.
Half a century after Bob’s first appearance on the program, he is still asked if Fred’s off-camera personality was anything like the kind, gentle, public persona experienced by several generations of children. “Yeah,” Bob says. “Fred was the real deal. I knew it from the moment I met him.” On that first day in 1968, Bob drove to the program’s original studio, located on the University of Pittsburgh campus, unloaded his drums, and went to park the car. When he returned, Fred Rogers greeted him at the door. “Welcome, Bobby,” Fred said. “Let me help you with the drums.” He picked up a large tom-tom case and a smaller bongo case and carried them into the studio. “At that point I thought this guy must be okay,” Bob says. “I mean, who does that? He was the star of the show, and he offered to carry my bongos.”
Both Fred and Johnny Costa were perfectionists. Fred’s style brought a sense of calm to the studio neighborhood, but sessions with Costa were harrowing and full of surprises. Bob called the band the Kamikaze Trio. He and bassist McVicker never knew what Costa would do next. He had a habit of switching keys at the last minute, causing low-level panic for his experienced sidemen. In the shoe-string budget world of public television, the trio was usually not offered more than one chance to get it right. Sink or swim.
Several years into the run, the vibes became an integral part of the trio’s signature sound. “What key is this in?” Bob would ask, mallets hovering over his vibes, as they prepared to record improvised music with complicated changes, live on tape. “Only God knows the key, Bobby,” Costa often said, seconds before launching into one of his Ravel-influenced improvisations on one of Fred’s melodies. Bob and Carl would hang on, finish the take, and silently congratulate each other with a subtle “yeah, man” nod.
In addition to his 30-year run on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Bob Rawsthorne is a celebrated drummer in the greater Pittsburgh area. He was recently recognized with a Grammy for his playing on It’s Such a Good Feeling, the Omnivore Records release that snagged the 2021 prize for Best Historical Album. Although Bob is best known for his work with Fred Rogers, his career as a freelance musician has always been multi-faceted. In her story “The Notes that Got Away,” Bob’s daughter, author Robin Meloy Goldsby, pays tribute to a musician, his career, and his renowned sense of humor.
Stanley Leonard is a timpanist/percussionist, educator, composer active in the musical world for more than 70 years. He is a member of the PAS Hall of Fame.
EXCERPTS FROM PIANO GIRL PLAYBOOK: NOTES ON A MUSICAL LIFE BY ROBIN MELOY GOLDSBY
Courtesy of Backbeat Books (all rights reserved, used with permission).
“See that Burger King? I played there once, before it was a Burger King.”
I’m in the car with my musician father, and he’s pointing out places where he used to perform. “The Burger King used to be a Moose Club. Before it was a Moose Club it was a Masonic Lodge. I played there, too. And down the highway, over by the Southland Shopping Mall? That used to be the Ankara. Big night club. Six nights a week, live music, different acts all the time. I was in the house band in the sixties. Mr. Cenemie was the manager. Called him Mr. Centipede. He hated me. I’m telling you, beautiful dancers from the Philippines in that place. Made no sense since it was called the Ankara, but whatever. And up on the hill? That nursing home? I played there for about two years, when it was still a hotel. They had great shrimp cocktail.”
Driving anywhere in the greater Pittsburgh area with my dad, octogenarian drummer Bob Rawsthorne, means listening to dozens of stories pulled from over six decades of gigs in vanished venues. We can hardly cross a strip-malled intersection without him pointing at a corner and blurting out a tale that involves skullduggery, musical madness, or management idiocy. My father was, and is, an accomplished musician, a big fish in Pittsburgh’s smallish pond of high-quality players. He stayed in Pittsburgh because the city’s many nightlife outlets once rewarded good musicians with plenty of work. For most of his career he stayed busy. Crazy busy.
We’ve often talked about the roller coaster lives of working musicians — the way a five-star gig on Tuesday turns into a dumpster-dive engagement on Wednesday. Here’s an actual conversation from 1986:
“Hey, Robin, guess where I’m playing this week? The White House.”
“Great, Dad. Is that the new restaurant in Bloomfield?”
“No, man.” (Jazz musicians often call their wives and daughters “man,” which manages to be slightly insulting and endearing all at once.) “No, no, man. The White House. Like, where President Reagan lives. I’m going with the Johnny Costa Trio from the Mister Rogers show to play for Nancy Reagan. Dig that.”
He went. The trio played “Nancy with the Laughing Face,” but the First Lady didn’t recognize it, or maybe she just couldn’t dig it. The next night Dad was back in town, playing for a drunken sing-along at the Swissvale Moose Club.
The day after that, he returned to the television studio. Dad held on to that Mister Rogers gig for over 30 years. He also had a 13-year steady engagement in a popular pizza and beer joint called Bimbo’s, a warehouse-sized restaurant that catered to gaggles of fun-loving folks celebrating life with oily pepperoni slices and mugs of watery swill. “Don’t eat there on an empty stomach,” he used to tell us.
Dad also subbed occasionally in the percussion sections of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Opera, and Ballet orchestras, often racing from the beer hall to the concert stage and back in one evening. “You know how many times I have to hit those drums to pay for a semester of college?” he used to ask me. Now that I have my own college-age kids, I can guess it was quite a few.
“I’m so old Stephen Foster was my first duo partner.” This is one of Dad’s lines — a joke he pulls out of his trap case whenever the topic of old age comes up. He used to tell this joke about other musicians. Now, approaching his 85th birthday, he tells it about himself. The genius, of course, is that you have to be pretty old just to get the joke, never mind make it.
Dad is still playing gigs. He’s the proud owner of two drum sets (a faded greenish-blue Premier, and a silver-sparkle Ludwig kit), two new hips (also silver sparkle), a collection of ancient Zildjian cymbals, and a vast repertoire of funny stories. Today he has received a call from a perky young woman (let’s call her Becky) who wants to book him — a year in advance — for a gig in February 2020. The gig is at a fancy-pants senior residence, the kind of venue where Bob’s band, a sophisticated mix of great music and comedy, tends to be a big hit.
“I told Becky the date will be fine,” Dad tells me. “And then she wants to know if I have video. Video? What the hell does she want video for?”
“Well,” I say, “that’s how people book bands these days. People have videos. On the Internet.”
“The Internet? I told Becky, ‘Look, I’m almost 85; I’m really good at what I do, even though I’m not exactly sure what it is I do. I have no videos on the Internet.’I asked her where she got my name and she said that the Saint Barnabas senior center told her we were the absolutely the best band in the world for the gig. And I said, ‘You still need the Internet after that recommendation?’”
“Get this: She wanted to know if it was ‘safe’ to book me that far in advance.”
“Because you’re almost 85.”
“Because I’m almost 85.”
“Dad, please don’t tell me you hit her with the Stephen Foster joke.”
“Of course, I did. But she didn’t laugh — never heard of Stephen Foster — so I kept going. ‘Becky,’ I said, ‘I’m so old I don’t even buy green bananas. I’m so old my social security number is 13. I’m so old John Philip Sousa was my roommate at music school. I need ten strokes to play a five-stroke roll. It takes me a half hour to play ‘The Minute Waltz.’ I’m so old I was in the house band at Ford’s Theater. One of my students was the drummer boy in Pickett’s Charge. I’m so old I’ve seen Halley’s comet three times.’”
“Stop!” I say.
“Funny stuff, right?”
“Uh, sure, Dad.”
“But Becky didn’t laugh. Not once. Can you imagine? Event planners these days have no sense of humor. But I kept going. I said, ‘At my age everything is either dried up or it leaks…’”
“So, what happened?”
“I think I wore her down. She gave me the gig. Now all I have to do is stay alive.”
Today we’re in Cranberry Township, near Pittsburgh. As my father’s drummer-friendly SUV reaches the top of a rise and descends into the valley, we pass an Olive Garden, a Starbuck’s, a Wal-Mart, and a KFC. At the bottom of the hill is a scrappy field, the last vacant lot on a congested strip of potholed concrete. Grass grows. Wildflowers stretch their faded heads toward the blazing sky.
“There!” my father says, pointing to the empty lot. “I played there once. On that very corner.”
“Nothing there now,” I say.
“No. But there used to be,” he says. “I’m telling you, man, there used to be.”
Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life. She has authored five books about the challenges and rewards of a musician’s life and recorded eight solo piano albums. Robin has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. She is a Steinway Artist and cultural ambassador with artistic ties to both Europe and the USA. In her pre-pandemic life Robin played about 200 solo piano jobs a year at Excelsior Hotel Ernst in Cologne, Germany, and toured internationally with her popular concert/reading program.