- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

Steve Rossi didn’t set out to be a troubadour for the toddler set. In fact, he didn’t set out to do much, thanks to what he calls a non-nurturing childhood.

So it was a happy confluence of events that led to Mr. Rossi’s alter ego, Mr. Knick Knack. As Mr. Knick Knack, Mr. Rossi has been performing around the D.C. area for a decade, writing and singing songs that entertain and inspire children. Mr. Rossi - playing a guitar covered with sparkly stickers - uses catchy tunes to tell kids to listen to their parents, that it’s a big world out there, and that the heart is like a family.

The children in the audience, mostly younger than 5, bop and dance and clap, but Mr. Rossi hopes what they will glean from songs like “All the Same” and “You Can Too!” will last way beyond the trip out of the mall and back to the minivan. Common themes are love, confidence, fears and family.

“We’re not pandering,” he says. “We are parenting. I am trying to teach them to get rid of the fears they have - of themselves and of the world. You’ve got to understand what is inside of you. When I started taking Mr. Knick Knack seriously, it had to do with addressing what went wrong in my household. I am targeting kids as if they are me.”

Mr. Rossi, 47, plays malls and coffeehouses, birthday parties and local festivals - about 400 shows a year.

“I have more playing time this year than the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton,” he quips.

The crowds are probably better behaved, too. Last week, at Mr. Rossi’s monthly gig at Dulles Town Center, they sat on laps, in strollers and on the floor, munching Cheerios. Many who came to see Mr. Knick Knack attend often - even weekly - as he plays regular shows at White Flint Mall, Reston Town Center, Silver Diner of Tyson’s and Tyson’s Corner Center, among others. Many mothers say their children quote Mr. Knick Knack, as in “Mr. Knick Knack says it’s OK to make mistakes.”

“What is the real reason we are here?” he asks the crowd as part of a song. “We are here because of love. So thank you for all the love.”

Jennifer Gibson of Oak Hill, Va., regularly brings her 1-year-old, Lindsey, to see Mr. Rossi’s shows.

“He loves the kids,” she says. “It’s a real ‘feel good’ kind of show.”

Sunny Flatla of Sterling says she and her daughter Cailin, 3, both enjoy Mr. Knick Knack.

“He puts his own stamp on some familiar songs [such as ‘This Old Man’ and ‘The Hokey-Pokey’],” she says. “Plus, he doesn’t talk down to the kids; he talks to their level.”

Kudos like that were missing in Mr. Rossi’s life for a long time, he says. He grew up in Springfield, attending Bishop Ireton High School and Lake Braddock Secondary School. Mr. Rossi taught himself to play guitar at age 16, inspired by groups such as the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Kiss. He says he retreated into music as a way to soothe himself.

“My family - I love them - but they were relationally poor,” Mr. Rossi says. “I didn’t have any direction; I didn’t have any sense of self.”

A series of jobs followed. Mr. Rossi says he did everything from scrubbing toilets in a school to working for Sprint to being an activities director at Sunrise Assisted Living.

“I did everything but wear a tutu and dance with the Washington Ballet,” he says.

Ten years ago, he had a $6.25-an-hour job unloading books at Borders Books, which offered a popular, free story time. When the Borders employee who read the stories left for another job, so ended story time. Customers complained, so Mr. Rossi offered to read a story and play his guitar.

As word spread, so did Mr. Rossi’s popularity. Even after he went back to an office job, he continued to play shows on Saturdays. One day, he looked at the audience and saw a wall of people. That’s when it clicked - he could entertain as well as convey a message. Being Mr. Knick Knack pulled together bits of what Mr. Rossi already was trying to do as a children’s chaplain at his church and with the senior citizens at Sunrise.

A few years later, Noelle Topetzes‘ two daughters became big fans of Mr. Knick Knack. Ms. Topetzes says her younger daughter, Julia, was quite shy when she started going to shows, but eventually started moving closer to the stage.

“I believe her whole personality changed,” she says. “She loved him. She would say, ‘Mr. Knick Knack is my best friend.’”

From that crush came a new job for Ms. Topetzes, a former corporate attorney who had cut back to spend more time with her children, and a boom in business for Mr. Rossi.

In 2005, Ms. Topetzes wanted to book Mr. Rossi for a birthday party, but he didn’t return her calls, admitting he was more about songwriting and performing than about business. Ms. Topetzes convinced Mr. Rossi to let her manage him. She organized his Web site (www.mrknick knack.com) and took over the business of being Mr. Knick Knack. She does everything from read the fan mail to wheel his guitars through the mall in a red wagon. Business is fantastic now, she says, because people can reach him.

“I think Steve had three days off all summer,” Ms. Topetzes says. “He is doing well, but he doesn’t care about money at all.”

Back at Dulles Town Center, it is getting close to nap time. The show wraps up, and Mr. Rossi, who does not have children of his own, is talking to the young fans near the stage.

“Thank you for being you, and you and you,” he tells the tots. “What’s your name? Alexandra. Love you, Alexandra. Will you come back? Connor? Love you, Connor. Will you come back soon?”

Says Ms. Topetzes: “What Steve does is teach kids about relationships. I know that’s why they have been coming to see him all this time.”

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