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Music plays key role in Mrs. Rogers' relationship with husband Fred

Tuesday, April 09, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Long before she was Mrs. Rogers, Joanne Byrd Rogers loved music. It's a love she and her husband, children's show host Fred Rogers, came to share.

"I think it's wonderful to just sit there and laugh when you hear something that is just funny," says Joanne Rogers, who will play in a piano concert Sunday. " I wish more people could share the humor in music. It's so rich." (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

"It's so important in the relationship that I look at him and say, 'What do people do who don't have music?' " she said. "It's that important."

A concert duo-pianist who performs with longtime Atlanta-based friend Jeannine Morrison, Rogers has played piano since before she knew the alphabet. She started lessons at age 5, while Morrison began playing three months earlier.

"She beats me out every time," Rogers said, accompanied by her trademark hearty laugh. "I tell her we have to stop telling this story because I'm coming out poorly in this!"

Laughter is as much a part of Rogers' life as the sneakers and sweaters her husband wears on TV. Talk to her for even a short period of time and you'll hear a gregarious, contagious laugh. It's also part of her musical philosophy.

Music preview

WHO: Joanne Rogers and Jeannine Morrison, duo-pianists

WHERE: Shadyside Presbyterian Church.

WHEN: 4 p.m. Sunday.

TICKETS: $10; $5 seniors; students and children free; 412-682-4300.

A related article

Fred Rogers' 'retirement' busy with books, songs, appearances

Duo-pianists Joanne Rogers and Jeannine Morrison perform a portion of "En Blanc et Noir" by Debussy. The selection is from the "Duo-Piano Favorites," (aca Digital, 1997) which will be available for purchase following their concert Sunday.


"It's not a pet peeve, but one of the things I feel sorriest about is there is so much wonderful humor in music, and people sit and they don't feel free to laugh," Rogers said as a gentle accent betrayed her upbringing in Jacksonville, Fla. "I think it's wonderful to just sit there and laugh when you hear something that is just funny. I wish more people could share the humor in music. It's so rich."

Where Fred Rogers is quiet and contemplative, Joanne comes across as a little more mischievous. Fred will show a visitor a picture in his office of a carving from the wall of Rollins College that says, "Life is for Service." Joanne will tell you about how when she attended Rollins, students would cover up the first three letters of "Service" -- "Life is for vice" -- as a gag.

"She has a wonderful sense of humor," Fred Rogers said. "That was apparent from the first time I met her."

Two concert grand pianos -- a 7-foot Bechstein and 9-foot Steinway -- face one another in the Rogerses' Oakland living room. It's here that Rogers and Morrison often rehearse, an overgrown ficus tree between them.

About once a month, Morrison will come to Pittsburgh or Rogers will travel to Atlanta for practice sessions. They've made these trips since beginning their second act in 1976. The first act began in 1949 at Rollins College.

After playing together in college, Morrison and Rogers stayed in touch, but music took a back seat to raising a family. Rogers gave birth to sons John and Jim, now in their early 40s. John lives in Florida. Jim and his family -- including Fred and Joanne's grandsons, Alex, 13, and Douglas, 9 -- live in Allison Park. The boys' pictures adorn a calendar in the Rogerses' kitchen.

In the late 1950s, Rogers taught at the preparatory school of music at Chatham College, and in the early '70s she taught for four years at Carlow College. She's given some private lessons but prefers coaching.

"I don't consider teaching a strong point for me," Rogers said. "I do love to work with more advanced talent. I can almost see them changing in front of me."

Rogers and Morrison have no agent or professional management, successfully relying on word of mouth to gain bookings. This week they're playing in New York, and soon they travel to North Carolina.

This Sunday the duo will perform at Shadyside Presbyterian Church as part of the Music in a Great Space series. Rogers said one piece they'll play during the 90-minute concert, "En Blanc et Noir" by Debussy, is a challenge for listeners and players.

"Keeping it together is something we seldom have trouble with, but this one is difficult in that way. One time we played it and there was a little old man sitting in the first row. It ends very softly with just a single note, and this man said, in a voice that could be heard all over the place, 'They call that music!?' "

She laughs at the memory.

Fred Rogers plays piano, too, though his and Joanne's talents vary.

"Sight reading is not his strong point, but he improvises wonderfully and I don't," Joanne Rogers said.

"I think she is more concerned with the overall feeling of something than the actual perfection of it," Fred Rogers said. "That doesn't mean she doesn't play all the notes perfectly, it's that she's a communicator. She's not just a mathematician; there's feeling in her work."

Fred and Joanne don't play piano together often, and Joanne never sought to get more involved with the "Neighborhood."

"I just think it's wise to stay away from his work area," she said.

Though she provided voices for some of the characters on "The Children's Corner," a Pittsburgh precursor to the "Neighborhood," Rogers hasn't had a regular role on her husband's famous series. One of the puppets bears her name (Queen Sara, after Joanne's given first name, which she dropped while growing up because she found it stuffy), and she appeared in a few episodes of "Neighborhood" as Mrs. Rogers, playing piano in one.

Today, Rogers, 74, is on the board of directors for the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra and is a supporting member of the Pittsburgh Piano Teachers Association. She's also on the board of trustees at her undergraduate alma mater.

When Fred arrived at Rollins, Joanne said, they spent time together right away, often inviting one another to dances.

After graduating, Joanne spent two years getting a master's of music from Florida State University. During her first year, Fred was a senior at Rollins (though only 11 days younger than Joanne, he lost credits when transferring in from Dartmouth), but the next year he was in New York working in television.

"We were sort of looked on as a couple in that way, but it wasn't really until I was in graduate school and he was in New York -- I think he probably missed me. We wrote fairly regularly anyway, and he got in touch with me by letter and asked me to marry him."

She was surprised, but her answer was immediate. Sara Joanne Byrd went to a pay phone and called him with her acceptance.

Fred traveled to Tallahassee, hoping to find just the right place to present her with a ring.

"We found this little church," he said. "The doors were open, so we went in and I gave [the ring] to her. Later she told somebody she thought it looked like the light on the road to Damascus."

At the time, Joanne had no idea her fiance would become a pop culture superstar. Unlike television stars today who mostly throw themselves into the spotlight, Fred Rogers didn't go looking for fame; it found him gradually.

"Before he was anybody else's icon, he was my icon," Joanne Rogers said. "I just always have seen the wisdom and the quiet intelligence and thoughtfulness that's there. A person like that usually lives his life away quietly. It's a kind of goodness and thoughtfulness that would have been quietly there but never known about if it hadn't been for the media."

Fred Rogers was never marketed to America as the next big thing, and that's probably one of the many reasons he's been so warmly embraced by viewers. Though he'd never complain about the outpouring of goodwill he receives, Joanne acknowledged it can be a challenge.

"The poor guy, I feel for him," Rogers said, laughing. "When I'm gone, I try to stock up with things, but if I'm going to be gone for more than a week, he'll have to make one trip to the grocery store. People are dear, but the checkout lady doesn't just say, 'Oh, it's Mister Rogers,' to someone near her, it's always, 'MISTER ROGERS!' so the whole store knows. The poor guy. "

The couple share a sensitivity that's as genuine as it is rare. Fred remembered Joanne's role in helping resolve a dilemma not long after they got married in 1952. Fred was working on an NBC opera program in New York. During a dress rehearsal for Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti," the leading lady took offense at something said by the wife of an executive and refused to perform. The producer told Rogers to fix the problem.

"All I could think to do was take her home to our apartment to Joanne," Rogers said. "Joanne talked to her and listened and listened, and after that visit [the actress] decided to go back to work."

"Joanne has that way. She is so in tune with the people that she's with. I think what she probably did was to help this person to feel appreciated. ... That's about as close as we get to the Eternal. God is the great appreciator. We are created in God's image, so naturally the best thing in life is to be able to appreciate your neighbor and allow your neighbor to feel appreciated."

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