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UCLA

Yosemite's Music Maker

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By Dan Frankel

Published Jul 1, 2009 11:00 AM


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Tom Bopp belts out a tune in the piano parlor at the Wawona Hotel. Photo by Dino Vournas.

The fact that Tom Bopp '81 has held the same corporate job since 1983 makes him somewhat of an anomaly. A melodic anomaly.

That Bopp, who earned a music theory and composition degree from UCLA, has earned this steady living for so long as a hotel-lounge piano player seems, well, unfathomable. Yet, visit Yosemite National Park and pop into the 130-year-old Wawona Hotel, and on most nights you'll find Bopp banging away on a restored grand piano, pleasing a crowd with a wide-ranging improvisational mix.

"It's like sitting in my living room, catching up with friends," says the Torrance native, describing the feeling of the five-night-a-week gig that made him a Yosemite institution.

Last year, Bopp was given the Yosemite Fund Award, which recognizes the "significant effort he has made to enhance the value of Yosemite National Park as a national treasure."

Transitioning quickly between Celtic folk music to traditional jazz to whatever else he happens to be into at the time, Bopp is always careful to read the crowd and react.

"My brain is always clicking — I go in trying to read the audience and trying to find a connection," says the 51-year-old performer.

For more than 26 years, Bopp has connected with a steady stream of regulars, many of them San Francisco-area families who come back again and again to the rustic hotel that has no TV and spotty cell phone service, just to get convivial with a piano player who really knows how to work a room.

"We get a range of people coming back for generations," says Bopp, who also received recognition several years ago from the Wawona’s corporate owner, Delaware North, which gave him its "Legacy Award of Service Excellence." "I get guys coming in who were babies when their parents started listening to me."

Married for the last 14 years to a former Beverly Hills High art teacher — whom he met while on the job — and residing full time in the Yosemite area, Bopp has added a loose, improvisational style to the more regimented repertoire he studied at UCLA several decades ago.

Early on in his tenure, the Bruin music man says he was a "music snob" who would sometimes sneer at requests, while donning a bowtie and fedora to fit his early vision of what a piano-bar player at an old hotel should look like. Over time, however, he lost the gimmicky look, as well as the attitude. In fact, he'll try to entertain requests for anything with a vintage flavor, which hasn't been bad for career longevity.

"That all ties into my attitude," Bopp explains. "I'm trying to communicate and create a human face for the Wawona Hotel."

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