Visiting Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

Richard Stoltzman and Fred Rogers

Richard Stoltzman and Fred Rogers

Just around the time my daughter Meggie began sitting in her little chair right in front of the old TV set in order to watch and talk to Mr. Rogers and his Neighborhood, I was invited to Pittsburgh to visit Fred Rogers on his show. This pleased my Mom no end since she lived in Pittsburgh at the time and was happy to have me at home for a couple of days. Plus, she didn’t have to get all nervous as she usually did when I would come to play with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Sometimes I had to insist that she not stay in my dressing room to listen to performances over the speaker backstage. “Mom, just enjoy the concert and don’t worry.” But a mom often can’t help but be worried about whether or not every single person in the audience loves her little boy as much as she does. So coming with me to the Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood stage set as the only person in the studio (other than the crew, and Mrs. Rogers) was pure pleasure.

I remember I was dressed informally as befit the temperament of the show, and Mr. Rogers himself made me feel completely relaxed and comfortable. He possessed no pretensions at all. I’d brought along my signature Linzertorte at his request. I had baked it the day before and he was eager to let all the children watching know that, “Daddys can cook too!”

The whole show seemed to be based on free, natural curiosity and improvised conversation. I loved it. He asked me to draw out various moods from the clarinet based on how I felt. Music allowing us to express feelings that were personal and hard to put in words. How beautiful and simple were our interactions.

When I suggested he put the Linzertorte in the refrigerator until ready to serve, he picked it up and spontaneously asked for some “walking to the refrigerator” music to which I responded with the rondo from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. The late great jazz pianist for his show, Johnny Costa, suddenly jumped in with the orchestral part off the top of his head and transposed to B-flat clarinet by the time I hit the second measure!

Excerpted from ANOTHER NAME FOR GOD, copyright Richard Stoltzman