New Mr. Rogers' Movie Brings Back Memories For Joffrey Pianist

Lisa Fielding
November 21, 2019 - 2:21 pm

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- In "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood", the show always began and ended with a song.

The man at the piano for a time was Michael Moricz, who was the musical director for the PBS children's television show from 1997-2001.

"I took over for the legendary Johnny Costa. Johnny had a huge influence on the style and the sound of the show. He was with Fred from the beginning. When Johnny died of cancer I took over," Moricz said.

Moricz met Fred Rogers when he worked for the Pittsburgh ballet.

"I started in a highly emotional time on the set. I had to learn the songs pretty quickly. I knew I couldn't play like Johnny could," he recalled. "Part of my job was to reproduce what Johnny had already done." 

Michael Moricz with Fred Rogers
Photo courtesy of Mr Rogers Neighborhood

Rogers wrote all of the songs for his show. Moricz said they all had universal themes of friendship and acceptance.

"There's so much child psychology in what to script and how to present it. To try to make very young children understand the world better in a way that was not just non-threatening, but reassuring," he said.

Moricz said Rogers was very much the same person off the air as his on-air persona.

"If you watched the show that was him," he said.

Michael Moricz
WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

"We'd tape five shows, all week at once. It was all live to tape, so the music was never tweaked in post. We played the music live as Fred lead the show. We'd respond to what Fred was doing, like the trolley music," he said.

Moricz is currently playing and composing for the Joffrey Ballet and in rehearsals for the upcoming "The Nutcracker."

"I think anybody who worked on that show, you knew the significance on pop culture. Walking in on the show as late as I did, I knew this was a hugely significant thing about television history and cultural history," Moricz said.

"We all knew that we were involved in something significant to the culture. I don't think I've been involved in anything else so significant to the culture."

Michael Moricz with Fred Rogers
Photo courtesy of Michael Moricz

Moricz said he's thrilled to see a new generation learning about who Fred Rogers was and how his legacy still resonates today.

"The documentary from a few years ago really reintroduced him to everyone and it showed sides of him not everyone knew. Now, the new movie with Tom Hanks. He's very much in the culture again in a sort of a different way. It's not quite the same as when he was here with us, but people are remembering the value you of him, not just kids, but everyone."

Moricz said even though he was on the show for a short time, it changed his life in many ways.

"He set a high standard that almost none of us could meet," he laughed. "As a role model of how to be a human  being, how to be kind, how to be compassionate, to honor what's inside everyone. That's stayed with me forever." 

Michael Moricz
WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood ran from 1968 to 2001. Fred Rogers died in 2003.

"None of us knew he was dying. He didn't tell any of us. His death was sudden. None of us had closure, we didn't get to say good-bye. There's kind of a spirit of what he represented is still in the air. The fact that the culture is revisiting it and celebrating, it feels comforting for us," he said.

Music was a big part of Rogers' work, but Moricz said Rogers' message of love, acceptance and honor will live on forever.

"He was a great man who influenced a lot of us to be better people.We're all glad to see people paying attention to him again, because not only could we use him now, but it's also the things he stood for, how he wanted us to act with each other, treat each other, and honor each other the more of that we would have in this time and this country, the better the world will be."

"A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" opens in theaters Friday. The Joffrey's "The Nutcracker" opens Saturday, Nov. 30 at The Auditorium Theater.