Still on Stage

Roger Rocka makes the switch from television to the theater

Story by Brian Covert

Roger Rocka, a former radio announcer and local TV newscaster, recently found in live theater performances a unique aspect of the mass media in which he could remain the star of the show while being a member of the audience at the same time.

In 1978, Rocka opened up “
Roger Rocka’s Music Hall,” the San Joaquin Valley’s only dinner theater featuring live theater acts in a restaurant setting, located in the heart of Fresno’s Tower District.

The idea behind the Music Hall operates basically this way: For a set price, which varies according to particular days of the week, customers are treated to a meal and a live theater performance for the evening. Rocka admitted that opening such a dinner theater in the first place was somewhat of a risk in that it had never been done before locally.

“It was a risk in the sense that it was starting something new,” Rocka said. “It was starting something that a lot of people said would never work here. On the other hand, I felt pretty confident that if it didn’t work, the world wasn’t going to end and I would be able to get a job in broadcasting again if I wanted — I felt confident enough about my skills in that.”

Rocka’s skills in broadcasting and his interest in live theater date back to his college days as a student at the University of Tulsa, Okla.

He got briefly involved in theater and said he enjoyed it “probably because there were some pretty girls hanging around the theater, and it was something different to do.” Looking for some steady work, Rocka took the advice of his roommate’s mother and began pursuing a job in radio announcing, landing his first job as a disc jockey and doing his remote show live from a bowling alley.

It wasn’t long after that Rocka decided to change his major to broadcasting.

In 1964, Rock decided to head out west to California, and he eventually got a job with radio and TV station KCRA in Sacramento. He became news director of the radio station and also did some live television reports on the station’s morning “Today” program.

It was in 1967 that a position for a news anchorman at
KFSN-TV, Channel 30 in Fresno, opened up and Rocka was chosen for the job. Though the television station was reportedly falling behind its competitors in technology, Rocka was later to say that he and a few others at the station helped to bring its standards up to par with those of the changing times.

In 1969, Rocka began to get more involved in local theater, doing some live performances at the Fresno Community Theater, which he said was then housed in “an old decrepit, totally charming building. It just had that smell of theater around it. I did some shows there and sort of got bitten by the theater bug at the same time.”

The concept behind the Music Hall was, according to Rocka, “born slowly” around that time. He met up with Dan Pessano, who was working at Channel 30, and at the same time, was heavily involved in summer theater productions around town.

During the late 1970s, Rocka admitted that he began to get disillusioned with the politics behind the scenes of national television news. He left his position at KFSN in 1978 and began serious work on his and Pessano’s idea of a live “dinner theater.”

Looking back on that period where “broadcasting was becoming less and less appealing and the theater idea was becoming more and more appealing,” Rocka said he thinks television has changed — and not really for the better.

“Television stations finally woke up to the fact that news was pretty important in terms of what the whole station did, and at first that was wonderful,” Rocka said. “After awhile the consultants started getting into the picture. There are a few of them in the country, and those few consultants are basically telling everybody in America what it is they see on TV.”

Rocka said that television nowadays is more concerned with “doing a ‘People’ magazine kind of newscast: It’s all form and not much substance.”

“I really don’t like what has happened to television news,” he added. It’s entertaining, and there’s still some really good people in it, but I think the consultants are way too powerful. The motivation is to make money — it works. It does build ratings, people do tune in, but I think we’ve lost the balance there.”

Rocka said the field of TV broadcasting began to seem sort of “phony.”

“If one really believes in what he’s doing, it’s pretty easy to take the bumps and pitfalls and so on that go along with it because you have some sense of purpose. When what you are doing seems sort of phony, little things can start to bother you,” he said.

Is there any chance of him ever going back into television?

“I enjoy what I’m doing now,” he said. “I do get to do some TV doing (“Gottschalks”) commercials, and probably enough, and the way TV is right now, it would just be going back to what repelled me in the first place. Things are still being done the way they were being done in ’77.”

So in 1978, Rocka’s and Pessano’s dinner theater became a reality when “Roger Rocka’s Music Hall” opened up at the corner of Wishon and Olive avenues in Fresno.

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
2nd Space Theatre 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.”