One summer night in 2015, Olivia Phan and her husband, Ian Hayden, were dining at Bridget Foy’s on South Street when they met a particularly charming waiter.
“He was very talkative and outgoing, a really nice guy,” Hayden recalled. “Then he proceeded to get all our orders wrong.
“‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I’m not a waiter, apparently. What I’m trying to do is start doing music classes for kids. Do you want to come to one?’ “
The server was John Francisco, a Georgia-born musician, actor and educator who had recently moved to Philadelphia from Chicago. He had just started Mister John’s Music, a school that has fostered a community of music-loving families and turned Francisco into a South Philly celebrity.
He now runs a growing children’s music empire with new headquarters in a converted house in South Philly, plus satellite sites around the Philadelphia and South Jersey areas and elementary schools in Atlanta and Brooklyn.
Phan and Hayden brought their oldest daughter, Levity, to a rented dance studio near South Street when she was 1. The first music lesson in early childhood was built around the music of Beyonce.
“It was another couple with their toddler,” Phan says. “From the first minute, we were like ‘Wow!’ It truly puts every other experience we’ve had for parents and babies here in Philadelphia to shame.”
The rest of the South Philly couple’s story is typical of Francisco fans. Levity, now 10, and the couple’s other daughters, Serena, 8, and Treble, 6, play multiple instruments and have attended Mr. John’s classes and open mic shows since they were babies. Hayden has taken adult guitar lessons and is looking into ukulele lessons.
Class with Mr. John
“What John does brilliantly is say, kids are going to have fun, there’s music, there’s shakers, they’re going to learn about important things,” he says. “But instead of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle,’ you get someone who’s wildly successful musically singing songs you’d hear on the radio. It’s no longer a chore.”
A recent Thursday at the spacious Eighth Street studio where Mister John’s moved in October was Gwen Stefani week.
The class would be heard on “Don’t Speak” and other No Doubt favorites. But Francisco kicked off the class for a dozen dancers, delighting music lovers ages 1-4 — and their parents, grandparents and caregivers — with “Love,” from the 1973 Disney film Robin Hood on the guitar. He then switched to the piano for a delightful rendition of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie.”
Julie Wilen, whose twins Sloan and Jesse, 5, are Mr. John veterans, was in the class with her 2 1/2-year-old daughter Ellie. She compared Francisco to “a much more entertaining Mr. Rogers. The lessons are about accepting others. He really makes you feel like you’re part of a community.”
The Wilen twins attended classes before the pandemic, but really got hooked during the lockdown, watching weekly episodes featuring Francisco and his fellow teachers jamming to classic children’s songs with artists like Sia or Rihanna.
“We watched those videos every day,” Wilen says. “They would remember what shirt he was wearing in each one and say ‘I want to see rainbow John’ or ‘I want to see Mr. Yellow John.’ “
A musical child
Francisco’s musical education began growing outside of Macon, Ga. His parents are lawyers, but his mother went to Juilliard. When he goes home, political debates are often avoided by making music together. “I make them do a lot of Brandi Carlile and my sister likes to sing the Avett Brothers.”
“I played everything as a kid,” says Francisco, 43. This included pianos, trumpets, trombones, tubas, bassoons and banjos. “I didn’t really find an instrument that felt right until I started playing guitar,” at age 28.
After college at the University of Georgia, he moved briefly to New York City, where he was working at a Broadway theater when the planes struck on September 11, 2001.
He moved to Chicago and stayed for 13 years, acting in productions by the LGBTQ theater company About Face. His first taste of teaching came from a friend who taught children at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
“I knew I wanted to do it, too,” and within a year of picking up the guitar, he was teaching music to children on the autism spectrum. “I liked it,” he said. “When you teach, it’s not about you. It’s about the people you’re lifting up.
“I love teaching people to sing because we all have a unique voice. No one has your voice. It’s exciting to convey to children that they don’t need to sound like everyone else.”
Francisco moved to Philadelphia “because I was dating someone and he got a show in New York. I asked him if he wanted me to go with him and he said, ‘No, I want you to figure out what you want to do next.’ It was hard to hear, but also the greatest gift he could have given me.”
He had friends in Philly, and in 2015 he opened Mister John’s in the dance studio rental where Phan, Hayden and Levity were among his first family.
Within a year, Mister John’s opened for business on Ninth Street in the Italian Market, where it has grown steadily ever since. Francisco now employs 20 music teachers and 500 children are enrolled in early childhood classes, with 200 older and adult students. The business is centered in South Philly, but has classrooms in Wayne, Haddonfield, Margate, Media, Wilmington and elsewhere in the region.
Casie Girvin directs the voice program as well as choir and cabaret classes for adults. She auditioned for the job at an open mic on Ninth Street in early 2021 and sang Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You.” Francisco hired him on the spot.
Girvin, who is also Arden Theater Company’s assistant director The Lehman Trilogy, has a wide range of students. “The youngest in my children’s choir is 4 years old and the oldest in my adult choir is in his late 70s,” she says. “In theater, sometimes we call it a ‘survival job.’ But honestly, at John’s … it’s kind of an informal collective of artists. It fosters a lot of creativity.”
Her 30-strong adult choir will take to the main studio on Sunday afternoon for a Valentine’s Day event called “Love is Love is Love”. It is open to the public and if the weather is good, the windows will be opened and the sound will spill out into the street. Another upcoming event is a TransJam on March 8, an open mic designed “to provide a safe space to make music for trans people and their allies.”
“John is … like Willy Wonka if [Wonka] was the head of a music school. He’s a wonderful person,” says Girvin.
Francisco has ambitions to take Mr. John’s to even more cities “but this year is about sustainability” and to completely revamp the new studio building. There is a garage room still to be completed and work is underway so that Francisco himself can live on the third floor of his music club.
“What I’d like to be is Mr. Rogers music,” he says. “He is the standard. It is about the belonging of many generations. When you walk through the door, you should feel like you’re walking into your own home.”