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Window into Yosemite's past

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Window into Yosemite's past

Postby ERIC » Mon Aug 20, 2007 3:15 pm

Window into Yosemite's past
Tom Bopp tells timeless tales of Yosemite as he softly tinkles the grand piano.

By Guy Keeler / The Fresno Bee
08/19/07 04:33:06 ... morephotos

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK -- Tom Bopp smiles as he settles in for another evening of music and musing behind the grand piano at the Wawona Hotel. It's 5:30 p.m. on a summer Thursday, and three people have found seats in the parlor off the lobby. Not an overwhelming audience by concert standards, but perfect for what Bopp does best -- sing and talk about one of the most majestic places on earth.

Tom Bopp sings and plays the piano at the Wawona Hotel. He has performed in
Yosemite since 1983.

As a musician, Bopp, 49, can play everything from Victorian ballads to ragtime to big-band tunes. But it's the historian in him that keeps guests close to enchantment every time he sits down to play.

Ever since he came to the Wawona back on May 25, 1983, Bopp has been in love with the hotel and Yosemite National Park. Over the years, he has amassed a large collection of old sheet music, photographs and stories related to the hotel, park and meadow -- all of which he uses to charm modern guests with tunes and tales from long ago.

It was more than 150 years ago -- May 25, 1857 -- that the first tourists bound for Yosemite are believed to have stayed overnight at a cabin near the present site of the Wawona Hotel. Today, Bopp brings this century and a half of history alive at the hotel from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays throughout the tourist season. During winter months, he performs at the Wawona on weekends and plays a couple of nights a week at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley.

His style is friendly and unhurried, like a favorite uncle home for Thanksgiving to play at a family sing-along. He uses no music and follows no playlist. If the audience feels like talking, he'll spin stories -- then play music inspired by the conversation.

People drift in and out of the parlor all evening. Some listen while waiting to dine in the hotel's restaurant. Others come in after dinner.

By 8 p.m., the room often is packed, with those who can't find seats sometimes sprawled on the floor in front of the piano.

But at 5:30 p.m. on this Thursday, most of the sofas and chairs are empty.

Bopp warms up with "The Entertainer," a ragtime classic by Scott Joplin, then plays "Wawona Moon," a 1925 tune written by Kenneth Hall, which was the theme song for the Wawona Hotel dance band.

"I got the sheet music from one of the band members," he says, sipping a cup of ginseng tea.

The Wawona Hotel has no air conditioning, and Bopp sits by an open window, where he can wave to passers-by and take requests.

"I'm the drive-up piano player," he quips.

Bopp reveres Yosemite and its beauty, but he loves to laugh, and reinforces the point a few minutes later by playing the "Wawona Waltz," a tune written by his friend Don Neely of Petaluma.

Neely's lyrics include " ... to stay here is to live history, I feel like I'm a ranger in paradise, Wawona, you are heaven to me."

Bopp grins at the song's conclusion. "Nobody can quite forgive Don for that 'ranger in paradise' line."

As Bopp's music draws more visitors to the parlor, he mentions an e-mail he received years ago from a woman whose daughter was thinking about taking a job at the Wawona.

"The mother wondered if the old buildings might be haunted," he says. "I told her I hadn't ever seen any ghosts, but there is one ghost I'd love to see."

Bopp nods toward the parlor's south wall as he tells the story of Estella Hill Washburn, who married hotel owner John Washburn in 1885.

"There used to be an upright piano on that wall," he says. "The corner room was John and Estella's bedroom, and this was Estella's private parlor. Every evening, she'd swing the doors open and play the piano for guests."

Although Thomas Edison had invented the phonograph in 1877, sheet music was still king in the 1880s, and it was common for people to make their own music around a piano.

Bopp says members of the U.S. 4th Cavalry were sent to Yosemite every year to enforce regulations against logging and grazing in the days before there were park rangers. The soldiers camped about a mile north of the hotel and would have been among those gathered around Estella's piano.

"They'd tie up their horses out front and come in wearing full-dress uniforms," he says. "They'd sing along with the other guests."

As for the music Estella played, Bopp posed that question years ago to Wawona Washburn Hartwig, Estella's granddaughter.

Hartwig, who died in 2000, remembered a tune her grandmother liked to hum around the kitchen, and Bopp recognized it immediately.

"It was the big hit of 1885, the year John and Estella were married," he says, playing the opening bars to "Love's Old Sweet Song."

The guests listen intently and some smile as Bopp finishes the verse and slips into the familiar chorus:

Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low,

And the flick'ring shadows softly come and go,

Tho' the heart be weary, sad the day and long,

Still to us at twilight comes Love's old song.

Applause fills the room as the last notes fade. Bopp smiles, as if hoping the ghost of Estella might float down beside him at the keyboard.

Instead, the room grows quiet as listeners anticipate another story.

"Wawona was born in the hotel on June 17, 1914, in room 204," Bopp says. "The guests downstairs heard the baby cry and said, 'Oh, it's little Wawona.' "

Although Estella Florence was the baby's given name, people persisted in calling her Wawona, and the name stuck.

It's hard to imagine a place more suited to old songs and stories than the Wawona Hotel parlor. Even Bopp's piano has ties to the past. It was made in 1906 and for years was used to entertain guests on the stage at Camp Curry, in Yosemite Valley at the base of Glacier Point.

Doug Laidlaw Sr. and his wife, Jean, up from Los Angeles to spend a few days at the Wawona, take a seat on one of the sofas. They have listened to Bopp on previous visits and he greets them like old friends.

Laidlaw recalls visiting the hotel as a child in the 1930s and riding in the rumble seat of his father's car over a road that was so dusty he had to duck down to keep from choking.

"My parents looked around and, when they didn't see me, they thought I had fallen out of the car," Laidlaw says.

Bopp asks how the hotel has changed since the 1930s.

"They moved the shuffleboard court and the pingpong table, but, other than that, there are no changes," Laidlaw replies.

It's this changeless quality that keeps Bopp coming to work at the Wawona night after night from his home in Fish Camp, 15 minutes away.

When he was growing up, he never dreamed he would end up talking about history and playing piano in a place where there is no rush to keep up with the rest of the world.

His roots were in Southern California, where the pace was fast and so was the music.

He started playing piano by ear at age 7, began formal lessons at age 11 and thought it would be nice to make music for a living. One of his high school classmates in Torrance signed his yearbook with these words: "Tom, I hope you realize your dream of playing piano in a bar."

"I always wanted to be a musician," he says. "But I also wanted to live in the mountains. We used to take family vacations in the mountains, and I'd smell the pine trees and look at the people and wonder, 'Why can't I live here?' "

Bopp earned a degree in music theory and composition at the University of California at Los Angeles, but he realized he was not destined for the concert stage and figured he could make a good living by rebuilding and tuning pianos.

Then, in 1982, he got a chance to play piano at a place in Manhattan Beach called JoAnne's Chili Bordello.

"They were looking for somebody cheap," he says.

"All I had to do was play a half-hour of music and just repeat it."

To encourage rapid eating and a quick turnover of diners, Bopp was told to play fast and loud. Although he would have to alter his style when he came to the Wawona, he says playing at JoAnne's helped prepare him for his dream job, which he learned about a year later after a friend told him the hotel was looking for a piano player.

Bopp applied for the job and was invited to audition for a week.

"I was the first or second guy to try out," he says. "And when the next guy couldn't make his audition, they asked me to stay a second week."

Before the second week was done, Bopp was asked whether he'd like to spend the rest of the summer at the Wawona, and he has been there ever since.

Bopp says he'll never forget the first time he saw the hotel.

"As I came up the circle drive in my VW fastback, the Wawona looked like a riverboat on the Mississippi," he says. "Warm and inviting."

In addition to the inviting atmosphere, he also discovered a slower pace.

"I started out playing frenetic ragtime," Bopp says. "But they told me to play softer and slower. I hit it off with the guests. People would sing along and make requests."

Teacher/artist Diane Detrick of Pacific Palisades, who was teaching summer classes at the Art Activity Center in Yosemite Valley, was among those captivated by Bopp's music in 1983.

"I was teaching art at Beverly Hills High School and UCLA, and I'd come to Yosemite in the summers," she says. "I'd always spend a night at the Wawona, and I'd listen to Tom play. I became a huge fan -- a total groupie."

A few years later, Bopp and Detrick fell in love and were married in 1994 in the hotel, in front of Bopp's piano. They now live in Fish Camp.

Although people don't ordinarily visit a national park to hear music, Yosemite has a way of putting songs in their hearts.

John Muir once wrote, "In the Sierra I sang and whistled to the squirrels and birds, and they were charmed out of fear and gathered close about me."

People have been writing music about Yosemite ever since Muir, Bopp says. Some songs provide historical insights. "Toot Your Horn for Camp Curry," for example, was written in 1915 by Glenn Hood and came out at a time when Yosemite officials were trying to get more people to drive their cars to the park.

Other songs evoke bittersweet memories. The haunting "Indian Love Call" from 1924 often touches the hearts of visitors who remember seeing the Glacier Point firefall, which was discontinued in 1968. The song was sung at Camp Curry every night at 9 o'clock while a 3-minute waterfall of glowing embers was shoveled off Glacier Point's 3,214-foot cliff.

Bopp understands why it was necessary to discontinue the firefall to prevent environmental damage to the park. But he also understands why many people miss the ritual and its link to simpler times.

Bopp has created a video program featuring old photographs that illustrate many old Yosemite songs, and he has compiled 22 tunes for a CD he produced on the "Vintage Songs of Yosemite."

Because everyone brings individual memories and musical tastes with them to the Wawona, Bopp never knows from one night to the next what songs will resonate with listeners. That's why he's always willing to take requests.

Someone asks for a Maurice Chevalier song and he responds by singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" and "Mimi."

"It's impossible to do a Maurice Chevalier song without leaping into a bad Maurice Chevalier impersonation," he says, explaining how his voice suddenly developed a French accent. "It can't be helped."

"How many songs do you know?" asks a woman.

"Ten," Bopp replies with a straight face.

When the audience snickers, Bopp amends his estimate. "Maybe a thousand. I've never tried to figure it out."

Whether he's singing historical Yosemite songs or fulfilling requests, Bopp takes pleasure in knowing his music provides links to the past.

"I know the plaster is happy," he says, referring to the parlor walls.
The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6383.
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