Still on Stage [part 2]

Roger Rocka makes the switch from television to the theater

Though Rocka had no real restaurant experience to speak of, he did have some live theater experience. In 1969, Rocka appeared in a few Fresno Community Theater plays, including “The Odd Couple” and “Gypsy.” He later took some time off from theater to attend to domestic matters at home, and he reappeared on the theater scene in 1975 with the Good Company Players (working with Pessano) in “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Cabaret,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and Community Theater’s “Annie Get Your Gun.”

Pessano, too, had extensive theater experience in working with the “Good Company Players” group. So when the doors to the Music Hall first opened in the late 1970s, the public received it with enthusiasm. But there were problems.

“The first few months that we were open, the community responded wonderfully,” Rocka said. “We were full almost every night, and we were losing our fannies. We were spending way too much on things, and we didn’t know how to bargain and how to operate effectively.”

“The audience enjoyed it, we enjoyed it, the food was passable, but we were losing our fannies. As time went on, we learned those hard lessons,” he said.

Those lessons included what Rocka called “a lot of depression and a lot of going home in this cloud of blackness, and then just refusing to quit, coming back the next day and saying, ‘OK, what’s plan Z?’”

A year after opening the Music Hall, Rocka delved back into the television arena in doing some commercials for Gottschalks department stores, and has been since.

As with opening any business, he said, establishing the dinner theater involved some risk and determination.

“Maybe it was proof of the fact that if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen — against all kinds of obstacles — and that probably was the case with us.”

One major risk was that the theater-going population is not as high compared to other forms of public entertainment. Yet Rocka said he still strives to reach a broad section of the public.

“When I say that we do things here that appeal to a broad section of the public, it’s not really true in the sense that the theater audience is a very narrow section of the public. Nationally, I think statistically less than 4 percent of the American public has ever in their entire lives been inside a live theater.”

“Ninety-six out of a hundred people don’t care; they’ve never been exposed to it, and if you haven’t (been exposed), you probably don’t want to be,” he said.

“It (theater) is one of those things that you see and say, ‘Oh, hey, this is kind of fun,’ and then you go back,” he said. “Not having seen it, it just doesn’t enter your consciousness. So we’re dealing with a very tiny fragment of the public that really cares.”

“I suspect our percentage may be higher here (in Fresno) than the national 4 percent,” he said. “Most people are going to go see ‘Indiana Jones’ and never think of coming to see live theater.”

Having been involved in more than one branch of the mass media, Rocka said he feels “a lot better about this form of the media in the sense that we do what we say we do. Our intention is to entertain you when you come into this place, and if we do what we do well, you’re going to walk out feeling better than you did when you came in. The nature of theater, in some plays, is that sometimes you’ll feel a little enlightened too when you walk out.”

Rocka commented that the state of national live theater seems “stagnant” at this point, and that he encourages the opening of more theaters throughout the country.

In fact, Rocka worked with Pessano (now the managing director of the Music Hall’s resident “Good Company Players” group) in establishing the group’s Second Space Theater just across the street from Rocka’s dinner theater.

Rocka said the cast of the resident Good Company Players is constantly changing, rather than set permanently.

“We hold auditions about every two months, and every single audition that we hold we find some new, good people and it’s almost as much an amazement to us as it is to everyone else where they come from,” he said.

“But there’s a lot of talent running around this valley, and audition by audition it keeps coming up. So we have a constant stream of new blood in the shows. I would say at least 50 percent of every cast is new people or people who have not done a show for quite a long time,” Rocka said.

About 50 employees on the restaurant staff and about 10 theater staff members are what Rocka currently employs at the Music Hall.

Except for a bleak period between April and December of 1982, Rocka said the Music Hall has been operating “into the black” and that business is “generally going up.”

Rocka said future plans for the Music Hall are just to polish the techniques in running the dinner theater as it stands now, with the possibility of expansion somewhere off in the distance.

“I think for the time being, we’re in a state where what we want to do most of all is try to do this just as well as we can possibly do it, and there’s still lessons for us to learn,” he said. “When we have accomplished that and we feel like we have really got this thing going so that it is totally satisfying to us and really an asset to the community, then maybe we’ll think about another theater somewhere.”

At age 43, Rocka’s personal future plans include possibly satisfying his “travel bug” and also getting together soon with all three of his children: His son Patrick, 22, will be coming home from a two-year education in Europe; his daughter Leslie, 20, will be coming out from the University of Wyoming to possibly attend California State University, Fresno in the fall, and his youngest son, Danny, 18, who currently attends Fresno City College.

As far as theater is concerned, Rocka has some advice for the other 96 percent of the public who have yet to attend a live theater performance.

“It’s fun; it’s a heck of a way to spend an evening. It (theater) is like a little treasure that maybe you haven’t discovered yet,” he said.

“You know about going to the movies and you know about going to TGIF’s (a Fresno restaurant), but there’s another thing available — an undiscovered thing for you that you’re really going to enjoy on a lot of levels.”