By Kathryn Wilkens
When pianist Tom Bopp took a temporary gig performing at Yosemite National Park's Wawona Hotel, he was simply looking forward to a brief respite from his regular life in Southern California. "I thought it would be a nice lark," he says. But by the end of two weeks, when the hotel manager offered him a permanent post, Bopp had fallen in love with the place and readily accepted the job. that was 18 years ago, and he is still here. In fact, Bopp has become both a fixture at the hotel and a passionate preserver of history at the park he now calls home.
He entertains nightly in the Wawona's cozy Victorian parlor, helping to sustain the intimate atmosphere that guests have enjoyed since the hotel -- a collection of white-frame, wide-porch buildings surrounded by rolling meadows and towering pines and cedars -- opened in the mid-19th century. On a restored 1906 grand piano, Bopp segues smoothly from the classical compositions of Beethoven and others to ragtime and improvisational jazz songs by the likes of Gershwin. For cues on what to play, he often tunes into the crowd. "One night I was playing Scott Joplin's Solace in a slow and dreamy way," he says. "Halfway through, a group came in from the dining room talking and laughing, so I had to speed up to fit the new mood."
In between songs, he exchanges light banter with the audience: "When did you start playing piano?" a woman asked one night. "Oh, about 5:30," he quipped.
Of course, the real answer involves a much longer time frame. As a child, Bopp began tinkering on a $50 upright piano his father brought home, and soon he was playing songs by ear. At 11, he began formal lessons, and eventually he earned a bachelor's degree in music composition and theory from UCLA. After brief stints as a piano tuner and a performer in a chili restaurant, he found his niche at the Wawona.
The hotel has been the site of a few other significant finds for Bopp, too. The parlor where he plays is also where he met his wife, artist Diane Detrick, whom he married in 1994. Naturally, the ceremony was at the hotel. "We got married right in front of the piano," Bopp says. The couple lives in nearby Oakhurst, and Bopp has a "dream commute" through pine forests -- a drive that takes only 30 minutes, unless he gets sandwiched between a Winnebago and a tour bus. Living close by gives Bopp time to pursue other interests, including skiing, photography, writing and composing. And in the last decade, he has become a historian of sorts, researching an aspect of Yosemite lore that had long been overlooked -- its music.
Since 1990, Bopp has collected sheet music written at and about the park. Some of it was found in the Yosemite archives, and more has turned up in the personal piano benches of park visitors. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Bopp explains, "it was natural for musically inclined people who visited Yosemite to write songs about it." His collection of these compositions has become so extensive that he has recorded a CD, Vintage Songs of Yosemite, containing marches, cowboy songs and ragtime tunes -- a range of music that includes the 1874 Falling Waters of the Yosemite, the jazzy 1915 Toot Your Horn for Camp Curry and, Bopp's favorite, a 1945 romantic ballad called The Bridge by Yosemite Falls.
Bopp combines the music with images of the park's past and present in two slide shows -- Yosemite's Music and Wawona History -- he presents each week in the hotel parlor. He offers narration and sings vintage Yosemite songs as the audience takes in the sights and sounds that continue to draw so many people to the park and the hotel. As for Bopp, he doesn't plan to leave anytime soon.
Clips from Vintage Songs of Yosemite can be heard at Bopp's Website, www.yosemitemusic.com