Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The New York Times

In Person; Just a Little Kid in a Man’s Body

My legs can’t move like others’ can, I’ll never walk or run.

But in my chair with wheels I peel around, I still have fun.

And when you see me, that’s okay If you can’t help but stare.

I know that I’m different.

I’m more than that — I’m rare!

SO go some of the latest lyrics by Dave Biro. Like those of many of his children’s songs, they pair an upbeat melody with an uplifting message — in this case, relishing life despite a disability. It’s a song whose meaning the 44-year-old composer and performer has experienced first-hand — although one might not think so at first glance.

Resembling Tom Hanks, he stands 6 feet 4 1/2 inches and has a richly resonant voice that can easily switch from Bugs Bunny to Popeye, from Inspector Clouseau to Walter Brennan’s Grandpa McCoy. He animatedly peppers his conversation with sound effects ranging from a chirping bird to a dripping faucet. At once zany and courteous, clownlike without being clownish, he is articulate, quick-witted, and thoroughly entertaining.

”People cannot believe that I am as brain-damaged as I am,” he says.

The brain damage he refers to is temporal lobe scarring, which affects his memory and emotions, according to Mr. Biro’s doctor, Douglas Labar, a neurologist at New York Presbyterian-Cornell in Manhattan. It is the result of encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain usually caused by a virus, which Mr. Biro suffered when he was a 26-year-old performer with a New Jersey society band.

”If I’m really tired, I can forget what I’m doing while I’m doing it,” says Mr. Biro, who must also take anti-seizure medication every day. Nonetheless, he is a relatively lucky victim of the illness, which is fatal in about 50 percent of cases and can leave people so brain damaged that they must be


After spending about 10 weeks in three hospitals and convalescing at his parents’ house in Maplewood, he returned to performing. But when memory lapses led him to call for numbers that he had just performed, he decided to switch to advertising.

An entry-level job had him composing print ads, commercials and jingles for such products as Folger’s coffee and Woolite. He also married and eventually had a child, Elizabeth, now 10. But the stress of trying to wean himself off the antiseizure medication while hiding his memory lapses from his employer and clients, took its toll, and ultimately cost him his marriage.

”To this very day, I can’t keep balls in the air,” Mr. Biro said in an interview at his home.

He still does freelance advertising projects now, but he is most enthusiastic about his cassette of children’s songs, ”The Cradle Will Rock . . . and Mambo and Rap and Swing and March!,” which he sells on his Web site (www.tunes4tots.com).

The songs, which he calls ”intelligent tunes for tots,” feature playful phrasing and a variety of orchestral arrangements to engage and educate young listeners. They touch on themes familiar to children and those who care for them — fear of the dark, using utensils, being kind, playing sports, proper grooming –

– in a lighthearted but never condescending manner.

Oddly enough, Mr. Brio credits the encephalitis with making him a good songwriter. Because it is difficult for him to recall lyrics he has recently written — even though he can easily recite those he wrote over a decade ago — when he reviews his work it is as though he is seeing it for the first time.

”If it surprises me well, I’ll know it’s well written,” he said.

Among the people Mr. Biro credits on his current cassette is his wife Charlotte Gilbert-Biro. ”She is my better seven-eighths, absolutely,” he beams. ”The reason I know Charlotte is my soul mate — that she was sent to me — is Charlotte is the first person, other than maybe my mother and my neurologists, who will accept the degree to which, the flukiness to which, I’m handicapped.”

The Biros met through the personals in New York magazine. Charlotte had placed an ad that revolved around a song lyric from ”Two for the Road,” a favorite movie. ”I was the only one who answered her lyric with the next part,” he said.

In his reply, Mr. Biro added, ”Before we start picking out china, let’s do phone.” She called him, they went out, and got married three years ago.

Charlotte, a corporate communications specialist, says: ”Every morning before I go to work, I give him what he calls affectionately a ‘charminder’ ” — a term that combines Charlotte with reminder. ”These are literally lists that I make from my memory of things he has to do to get him through the day.”

Although they may include mundane tasks like walking Jack, the greyhound the Biros rescued from a dog track planning to put him to sleep, they primarily involve returning important phone calls and following up on clients’ instructions, especially if he is working on more than one project.

”He can’t switch gears,” says his wife. ”He must keep me in the loop on what’s he’s agreed to do or what he’s doing, because if I don’t know, then it’s gone.”

These days the loop includes performances for children at schools, libraries and recreational centers, such as a recent one that captivated 125 kindgergartners and first graders and more than a dozen teachers and administrators at Wildwood Elementary in Mountain Lakes.

”He was outstanding,” said Bob Reid, the school’s principal and president of the Morris County Association of Elementary and Middle School Administrators. ”Dave has an incredible rapport with the children, and he just endeared himself to the staff. His songs are very much age-appropriate, and they are certainly developmentally appropriate. It’s so hard to find good programming that everybody finds is worthwhile.”

Mary Riskind, manager of youth services at the Montclair Public Library, where Mr. Biro recently performed, said: ”One of the things I was impressed with is he used so many different styles of music. His songs operate on more than one level. There’s a very verbal kind of humor and wordplay in his lyrics that appeals to grow ups.”

To which Mr. Biro says: ”Thank God that that part of my brain was not taken by the encephalitis — the part that understands language and syntax. Were that to have been taken, I don’t know that I would have had the will to live.”

Ms. Riskin added: ”He really reaches across different age levels. It’s not just for the little guys. He reaches the upper end of elementary age groups, for sure. He himself is just a big kid at heart. That was part of the fun; he was so energetic. That fun is contagious.”

Delivering important messages to kids in terms they can relate to infuses some of Mr. Biro’s advertising work as well. He writes antismoking rap songs directed to pre-teens and teen-agers for New Jersey Breathes, an antismoking advocacy group.

Some of these lyrics go like this:

Some old heads may be whack, smokin’ their cigarettes by the pack, turnin’ their white lungs sticky black. We don’t smoke!

Studios might think it’s down, perpetratin’ like a clown,

their breath smellin’ like a hound. But we don’t smoke.

”We need to deglamourize cigarette smoking, because telling a 16-year-old that cigarettes could take 20 years off his or her life is nothing,” Mr. Biro said. ”Dying at 50 is still an eternity away to a child.”

These days, this jesterlike performer who has trouble keeping balls in the air is, with the help of his myriad ”charminders,” juggling a variety of projects. Besides selling his children’s music through his

company, No Frills Radio, he periodically performs in a jazz duo at Cent’Anni restaurant in Maplewood.

He also is hoping to interest a television station in a cartoon series he created, ”Sumo Baby and the Blade Brigade,” which pits the title characters — an oversize diapered infant and a band of kids on in-line skates — against such villains as the Graffiti Ghouls, the Litter Bugs and a gang of cigarette-addicted Nicofiend Teens. There is also a play he has written about expectant fatherhood, ”Ready or Not, Here I Come, Dad,” as well as a second collection of children’s tunes, featuring such themes as sibling rivalry and arithmetic, which he would like to release within the year.

”Interestingly, I think it was encephalitis that forced me to have a direction,” he says. ”Otherwise, I may have ended up a very successful ad guy whose heart wasn’t in it.”