by David Cooper
Blake and I were talking over your note inviting us to write about an interesting piano sale. During its 106 years, Cooper Music has had thousands of customers, many of them famous — from John Phillip Sousa to Elton John. Blake and I agreed, however, that the most interesting story is about a customer we did not sell a piano to.
During one of the Great Depression years, Blake’s grandfather, John E. Cooper, was approached by a respected local music director, Frank Oliver, about an accordion student, a gifted teenager named Johnny Costa. Frank said that young Costa should be taking piano lessons, but in those years Costa’s family didn’t have the money for a teacher or a piano.
John Cooper took Oliver’s remarks seriously enough to arrange an audition with Martin Meisler, a master piano teacher in the area. Meisler, too, was impressed, and a scholarship was arranged for piano lessons for young Costa.
Cooper knew that, without a piano, the lessons were on hold for this great young performer. So a decision was made to forgo a sale and give a piano to Johnny Costa.
Costa’s career speaks well for the people who recognized his talent. Johnny was a unique lifetime professional performer, recording artist, and music director. It would be difficult to decide which he was most successful at. Most outstanding, perhaps, was his superb style. Art Tatum once remarked, on entering a Pittsburgh piano lounge, “Oh! They’re playing my record.” No. It was Johnny Costa, live.
After graduating from Carnegie Tech, Costa toured widely, appearing at venues such as the Embers Lounge, in New York. Johnny is still remembered locally for a hometown appearance with Dave Brubeck at an Allegheny Valley Concert Series event sponsored by Cooper Music.
After touring, Johnny went to work as Music Director of KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh. This led to his assignment, for decades, as anchor on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS TV. This award-winning show remains an example of superior entertainment and TV musical excellence. Readers are invited to view a YouTube video of Johnny Costa during the Mister Rogers.
The thousands of customers who have bought pianos from Cooper Music over the years are wonderful, but it’s with genuine pride that we think of the sale we did not make to Johnny Costa.
Nancy M. Williams David Cooper
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Pianos are unique among consumer goods in the extent to which deciding whether or not to purchase a particular instrument combines hardheaded choices about price and features with emotional responses involving art and passion. For many, buying a piano is more like finding a marriage partner than like buying a refrigerator or washing machine. Selling a piano, too, has its special challenges and fulfillments: satisfying the famous client, the donated instrument that helped launch a career, the sharing of a touching moment involving the importance of a piano in a customer’s life.
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