Still on Stage [part 1]

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 scene 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.

[continued in part 2]