Q: When did your collaboration with Fred Rogers
A: On the day I graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University in
1951, I began work as musical director of KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh. I
played the piano on every program that required music, including "Meet
Your Neighbor," "Funsville" and "The Wonderful
World of Johnny Costa."
Costa and Hugh Glenn in 1993
During the production of "Children's Corner,"
which featured Josie Carey and Fred Rogers, Josie introduced me to
Fred. He offered me $5,000 to do 100 episodes of "Mister Rogers'
Neighborhood." I accepted Fred's offer immediately because that
was the exact amount I needed to pay my son's college tuition.
Q: Did you ever consider working elsewhere?
A: During the 1950s, I traveled the MCA circuit with the Johnny
Costa Trio (Jim DeJulio, bass; Chuck Spatafore, drums). We played
in Chicago, Detroit, Miami and New York several times a year. For
a short time, I worked as musical director on the "Mike Douglas
Show." But I never wanted to travel; I wanted to be with my family.
So by the end of the decade, I decided that my traveling days were
over. I'm glad I stayed with Fred. He's brilliant and he really knows
music. What he has done for children has been wonderful. We've had
a good time putting shows together.
Q: The jazz you play includes classical music.
Who has influenced your musical style?
A: Art Tatum and Fats Waller. When I studied musical composition
in college with Nicolai Lopatnicoff, he encouraged me to study Hindemith
and Stravinsky. But I don't use too much of what I learned about classical
musical in college anymore. I seldom use polytone harmonies. When
I play "Embraceable You," I don't want it to sound like
Shostakovich. Now I integrate the music of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin.
Bach really drives me crazy; his music is so metrical, rhythmical,
and mathematicaland fun to play.
Q: Do you practice?
A: Not as much as I should. Lopatnicoff said, "You must
practice the scales," so I practice the major scales and exercises
I invented. I still try to practice them daily, but I don't practice
enough. But when my fingers feel weak, I force myself to do the scales.
Afterwards, I usually feel wonderful. When I'm practicing seriously,
I'll play a few Chopin etudes, a polonaise, and often parts of "Rhapsody
in Blue" to maintain my fingerwork and dexterity.
Q: Why didn't you record during the past 35 years?
A: During the 1950s, I recorded for Coral, Dot, Savoy and a
few other labels. But after I returned to Pittsburgh for good, I guess
record producers forgot about me. In 1990, Dick Hyman, unbeknown to
me, mailed an audiocassette of some of my recordings to Hank O'Neal
at Chiaroscuro Records. He listened to the tape and asked me to sign
on with him. The audiocassette was released as "Classic Costa."
Since then, I have recorded two other CD's: "Flying Fingers"
and "A Portrait of George Gershwin."
Q: What's next for Johnny Costa?
A: I'll continue my work on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,"
perform a concert now and then, and record more CD's. Last September,
for the fifth consecutive year, I played a concert for music students
at Carnegie-Mellon. I don't remember every playing any better. If
I could have played the university's Steinway all the time, I'd never
had had to practice.