A song in his heart for little listeners

December 17, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

The Beatles did it, really -- the Beatles and a pretty sensitive guitar instructor, says children's singer Frank Cappelli.

He was in sixth grade, growing up in the Pittsburgh area, and asked his parents for a guitar. They rented one and sent him to a music instructor.

"And then the next month the Beatles appeared on 'Ed Sullivan' and I thought, 'These guys look neat.' I told my teacher, and he said, 'Well, you're learning chords -- would you like me to write down some of the chords from these songs?' " recalls the star of "Cappelli & Company," a musical show for kids broadcast

daily at noon on the Nickelodeon cable network.

"From that time on I would go home and spend hours playing on the guitar. . . . I give a lot of credit to that guy. He was young enough to realize I would practice these chords," Mr. Cappelli said during a telephone interview from his Pittsburgh home.

Tomorrow, the 41-year-old singer is presenting two concerts of his gently instructive, upbeat songs for children at the Avalon Theater in Easton.

Although he appears on television and markets albums on the A&M label -- his latest is "Take a Seat" -- he says he prefers performing live. He has been in a different city almost every weekend since June.

"The audience my material is geared for is preschool, kindergarten and first grade," he says. He likes his concerts in relatively small venues, such as the Harborplace amphitheatre in Baltimore, where he performed this fall.

"The kids want to see you and touch you afterward, and I like to do that . . . A kid remembers a personal touch with someone they've seen on television," he says.

In fact, kids' asking for more songs is how he adopted his intimate style of teaching through music in the first place.

Mr. Cappelli went to college in southern Pennsylvania, at West Chester State University, and was studying to be a music instructor.

"But my heart was always in playing in coffeehouses and perfecting my little songs and singing like James Taylor and Jim Croce," he says.

When it came time to begin student-teaching, he took along his guitar, "because, unlike most teachers, I really couldn't play the piano well."

Good move.

"It was a riot. They'd encourage me to sing them a song after the class was over, and they would be riveted, hanging on everything I said. And I'm thinking, '20 minutes ago, when I was up at the board, they were throwing spitballs at me.' There had to be some way to make this connection."

Some time elapsed, however, as Mr. Cappelli married and with his wife, Patty, went into her family's lumber business. "But we always talked about those early years of teaching and how rewarding that was," he says.

So, several years ago they decided to start their own record label, Peanut Heaven, and he began performing for youngsters in the Pittsburgh area.

He came to the attention of local station WTAE-TV, and soon created "Cappelli & Company" for local broadcast. Mr. Cappelli credits Joe Heston, currently general manager of Baltimore's WBAL-TV (Channel 11), with starting the program in Pittsburgh, where he worked for the Hearst Broadcasting affiliate.

When they had produced 65 episodes -- the show won a couple of regional Emmys and other honors -- "Cappelli & Company" was sold through a syndicator to Nickelodeon. It began telecasting in April.

"I'd like to just keep doing more quality things on television for kids . . . the kind of things like Danny Kaye would make," the singer says.

He does not sharply criticize television's negative impact upon children, although he notes that, as a father of four, "Even before I was in television I was real strict about what they'd watch."

He prefers to emphasize the positive in his performing.

"I can't stop my kids from seeing the negative, I know they're going to see the negative, but I'd rather have them not see it on this show," he explains.

He cites such other fare as "Shining Time Station" (which for several seasons starred ex-Beatle Ringo Starr) and "Reading Rainbow" as particularly creative.

How about "Barney and Friends," the phenomenal PBS series with a big, purple dinosaur singing bland songs?

"What has happened in 'Barney' is that they have shown there is a tremendous market for merchandising," he says archly.

But he adds, "If you create a friendly place, a safe place, kids will go to that. 'Barney' is maybe the Muzak for television, but it is a safe harbor."

FRANK CAPPELLI

When: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. tomorrow

Where: Avalon Theater, Dover Street, Easton

Tickets: $5 for children 12 and under; $10 for adults

Call: (410) 820-6716

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