Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (never spelled Mr. Rogers), aired regularly on public stations throughout the United States from 1968-2008. If Fred Rogers was the heart of the program, Johnny Costa was its soul. Costa always created the right musical mood and sounds to correspond with each setting and scene. Costa served as musical director, pianist, conductor, and arranger until his death in 1996. Even after his death, much of the Neighborhood's music was Costa's previously recorded music. When the credits rolled at the end of each program, Costa was credited as Musical Director.
The primary audience for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was 3-year-olds, but many adult enjoyed the program. Musicians tuned in to hear Costa play. Paul T. Smith, an extraordinary studio pianist who served as musical director and accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald for almost a decade told me, "I always try to tune in the last few minutes of the show just to hear what Johnny's up to." The first time I asked Paul about Johnny, he said, "Johnny has all the skills."
Costa's almost 30-year collaboration with Rogers began five years before Mister Rogers' Neighborhood began airing. During the production of the Children's Corner on KDKA-TV, the predecessor of the Neighborhood featuring Josie Carey and Fred Rogers, Carey introduced Costa to Rogers. When Rogers began planning Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, he offered Costa $5,000 to arrange, conduct, and play the music for the first 100 episodes, a job Costa accepted without hesitation. The salary Rogers offered was the exact amount Costa needed to pay his son's college tuition.
From the beginning, Costa never considered playing traditional children's music for the program: "Children understand good music. I would never play piddling nursery rhymes." And the Johnny Costa Trio, which played during each episode of the program, never did. Sidemen in the trio were Carl McVicker (b) and Bob Rawsthorne (d).