Thursday, March 17, 2016

An interview with Valley Youth Theatre's Bobb Cooper, celebrating 20 years at VYT!

Bobb Cooper
by Gil Benbrook

This Sunday, March 20th, marks the 20th anniversary for Bobb Cooper becoming the Producing Artistic Director at Valley Youth Theatre (VYT). Originally from Michigan, and having lived and worked in New York City for a number of years, Bobb and his family made their way to Arizona in 1996.

Under his leadership (with the help of his close partners, Karol Cooper and Mark Fearey, who are also both celebrating 20 years at VYT this year) VYT has produced over 150 productions, moved into a larger theatre and won numerous honors, including nearly 100 National Youth Awards. It is the only youth theatre of its kind to be a member of the prestigious Theatre Communications Group, a national organization fostering growth of professional nonprofit theaters.

Bobb has established a learning environment that ensures there are no racial or social barriers. Through the combination of education and training, engagement and excellence in the performing arts, Bobb and the VYT staff help young performers achieve their full potential.

Alumni who have gotten their start at Valley Youth Theatre include Oscar nominated actress Emma Stone; Max Crumm, who is currently on Broadway in Disaster!; Kimiko Glenn who stars on the hit tv show Orange is the New Black; Grammy nominated singer and actress Jordin Sparks who appeared on American Idol; and Chelsea Kane, star of the ABC Family/Disney series Baby Daddy. They and thousands of other performers have realized their potential under Cooper's guidance and direction.

Over 40,000 children and family members a year attend a VYT performance, workshop, camp or development program and since 1994 more than 75,000 children have participated in their Literacy and the Arts program, which provides at-risk students from inner-city school districts the ability to attend a VYT performance.

I was honored to ask Bobb some questions about his experience before coming to Phoenix, his favorite experiences at VYT over the past 20 years, as well as what the future holds.

Let's first go back before you came to VYT.  I know you worked in New York, but where were you born and where did you go to school?

"I was born in Detroit, Michigan.  I graduated from Hazel Park High School in 1981 and studied theatre/tv/film privately."

Did you know from a young age that you wanted your future to be in the theatre?

"Yes indeed!  I wrote my fist play in 5th grade and was directing the neighborhood children in reenactments of popular TV shows starting at the young age of 10."

That's pretty impressive to write your first play at just ten. Did you have any youth theatres like VYT that accepted you, challenged you and gave you a place to learn and grow?

"Unfortunately not. I sorta carved my way by talking my elementary and junior high schools into doing theatre. I was very fortunate to have one of the best high school theatre programs in Michigan at the time. My mentor was a man by the name of James F. Baird.  He was amazing and I learned so much from him. Our curriculum was his college curriculum.  His standards were very high and he expected a lot out of us. Fortunately for me, I was a natural and was cast in every show they did. It was a three year High School, with your first year being your sophomore year. The first show I auditioned for was a play called Design for Murder and I was cast as the lead. This was unheard of that a sophmore would get cast, let alone the lead. I also auditioned and was cast in several shows with a local college while I was in high school.  In 12th grade I auditioned and was cast in two shows with a professional repertory theatre."

Mark Fearey, Karol Cooper, Emma Stone, and Bobb Cooper in New York City, 2014
photo courtesy Valley Youth Theatre
I know you told me previously that you went to New York from Michigan, but how did you decide to come to Phoenix and VYT?

"After high school I followed my dream of moving to NYC. I moved in to the city on a Tuesday, I auditioned on Wednesday and was cast in a show on Friday. I did a couple of shows off off Broadway at the River West Theatre in the Village. I then was cast in a summer stock season at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan. I gave up my apartment in NYC and made plans to head back to Michigan. Shortly before leaving for the summer the producers pulled out and my contract was canceled. I was disappointed to have lost the opportunity and that I gave up my apartment in NYC. I had no choice. I had to move back to Michigan.

I knew that I needed to figure out something to tide me over until I could save enough money to head out west to Hollywood. I saw an ad for a restaurant that was looking for a clown. The job paid $5.00 an hour and minimum wage at the time was $3.10. I thought, 'heck I can retire on this kind of cash!' Now I had never been a clown and I had never done magic or made balloon animals, etc. When I got to the interview there was a line of clowns going down the street but that didn't stop me. I went into the interview, I was a good actor so I told them that of course I did magic, balloons etc. etc. Well I got the job! I immediately went to the magic store and bought some magic tricks and a bag of balloons and I just figured it out myself.  They never had any idea that I had never done it before.  They loved me and I worked there for a while.

the cast of West Side Story
Valley Youth Theatre - 2014
Photo: Barry Smith
After a short time, I found out about an audition for a national tour in Chicago. I drove to Chicago and auditioned. I got the lead role!  It was a  tour of David Copperfield.  I flew to Phoenix to rehearse for the tour.  After several weeks of rehearsal, we set out to different parts of the country and ended up in Los Angeles where I actually wanted to be in the first place. While in LA I auditioned for a couple of different theatrical shows and I was cast in the Tiffany theater's production of Mr. Roberts and several other shows. I took a job at Universal Studios as a security guard so I could learn whatever I could about the film business. I studied privately taking commercial classes, voice over classes. I got an agent audition. I actually signed with the William Morris Agency. And was cast in several movies and television shows and I also did some voiceover work. I  became a member of AFTRA and the Screen Actors Guild in 1985. As you know in the entertainment business or film and television business you're working and then you're unemployed until you get your next job.

Shortly after I arrived in LA I met someone who owned a party planning service and he told me after  I mentioned to him that I was a clown he could pay me $50 an hour.  I thought Jiminy Cricket if I thought I can retire on five bucks an hour I could certainly do that on $50 an hour.  He told me if I had animals in my act he'd pay me $75. Of course I told him I did even though I didn't.  I never worried about saying I could do something because I learned at a very young age not to say "can't." I actually have been supporting myself financially since I was 13 and on my own since I was 15. I went out and bought an encyclopedia of Dove Magic and Included doves and live bunnies in my act. I started doing some gigs for him in between my TV and film jobs  and after a short while, I became very successful doing this for him and then I went out on my own and started my own company. Karol, my wife, joined me when we got married in 1989. That is when we created Bobbo and Kookee.

Bobb Cooper and Ian Gray on stage at VYT 
rehearsing for Pinkalicious - 2016
photo courtesy Valley Youth Theatre
I actually wanted you to talk about Karol and "Bobbo and Kookee," but let's hold that topic for later. How did you get from LA to Phoenix?

Well, we had a very successful career.  However we went through the fires, the floods, the riots and the 1994 earthquake, which was quite devastating to us personally and professionally.  Our business took a big blow and Karol had an opportunity to come to Phoenix to go back into the field that she was in before we got married which was in the professional beauty industry. We came to Phoenix and I still ran my business from Phoenix, what was left of it anyway. I had written several children's video and television shows and I got an idea to find a job at channel 3 here in Phoenix. I saw an ad in the paper for a program manager for the station. It was through a temp agency and went to the temp agency passed all the tests got the interview at channel 3. I  ended up getting the job. My idea was to get in there and  I could meet the right people to get my show produced on channel 3.  The job was full of responsibility - much more than I thought a temp worker should be challenged with - and I didn't really make inroads that I thought I needed to.   I did however meet Carolyn McBurney who was with WB 61's Kids Club and I took her to lunch before I left my position and asked if I could work with her writing and producing for WB 61 kids club.  She said she would love to have me but they couldn't pay for it.  But she also said that she was on the Board of Directors for an organization called Valley Youth Theatre  and with my background, it would be a perfect opportunity for me. She introduced me to Hope Ozer and the rest is history. I took over as Managing Artistic Director at the age of 32. When I came on board we barely had a $100,000 budget, and that included Circle K giving us $50,000. And we were performing in the basement at Tower Plaza Mall.  Within a few years we were at a $1 million budget  and we did our very first show, Annie, at the Herberger Theater Center in 1997.  Subsequently we have done 37 more shows there.  Little Mermaid will be 39 and we will open our 2016 / 17 Season celebrating our 40th production Center Stage at the Herberger.  We currently are at a $1.4 million budget."

Shortly after you started at VYT is when the move to your current theatre happened. I'm sure finding a permanent location for VYT was important but was the decision to be housed in downtown Phoenix important as well? And was the process in finding your current home easy or difficult?

"Well, I started on March 20th of 1996 and I was not a huge fan of the basement theatre in the shopping mall where VYT had been performing, so, getting out of there was on the top of my list.  By October of 1997 we did our first show, Annie at Center Stage at the Herberger. We got notice in the spring of 1998 that we had to leave the mall and find a new home.  Our founding board chair and I looked at just about every assembly space in the greater phoenix area - no joke. We met with Margaret Mullen of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership and she introduced us to Charlie Donofrio who owned the building we are in today.  We got a great deal. A five year lease with the first two years free and the final three years we just had to pay the taxes The catch was there was  no running water, no HVAC, no electrical.  We were dreamers and doers and knew we could make it happen.  We reached out to the community and did the $750,000 project for less than $250,000.  Downtown was going through a redevelopment and we were a part of that.  We won the DREAMR (Downtown Revitalization Effort Award of Merit and Recognition) Award in 1999. This award was for a program or project that serves as a magnet to attract people to the downtown. It was a huge honor! We love the central location of Downtown and were happy to make it our new home."

Nathan Doonan and the cast of High School Musical
VYT's 2006 / 2007 Season
photo credit: IBSProductions

As far as the productions you've presented - what has been the most successful VYT production - Artistically? Commercially?

"Wow, tough question.  Commercially - High School Musical was the highest grossing show of all time.  We just about sold out 752 seats at the Herberger for 17 performances over four weeks to the tune of over $225,000.

Artistically it is tough...  there are so many that I am proud of.  Some of the top contenders would be West Side Story, Titanic, Aida, Cats13, Into the Woods, Sound of Music, The Secret Garden, The Wiz, Beauty and the Beast (with Phoenix Theatre) Shrek, and of course The Wizard of Oz!  oh heck... this list could go on and on....

Which one was your favorite and why?

"So hard to pick one!  They are all so special to me in so many different ways."

the cast of Titanic
VYT's 2003 / 2004 Seasonphoto credit: Hope Ozer
I know when we last spoke you mentioned how your production of Titanic was a game changer. Why that production so important to VYT?

"It was a huge undertaking - both artistically and technically.  It really challenged us as a company and it was such a great opportunity to challenge our actors."

Were there any shows  that didn't go over as well with the VYT audiences as you thought it would?

"We have received some flack for shows like Legally Blonde and 13 because of content. Mainly because we put a disclaimer that the shows had mature content and some of our fans were angry that we did shows that needed that type of notice. Also for Daddy Warbucks saying "Damn" several times and for Peter Pan saying "you silly ass!". But nothing really too bad."

But there have been many shows that we have produced that were simply amazing that didn't attract an audience that we hoped.  But we were challenged and those shows gave great opportunities for our young actors. So, the experience still satisfied our mission."

What did you learn from those experiences?

"You can't please everyone!"
Sam Primack in Into the Woods
Valley Youth Theatre 2015
Photo courtesy

Any shows you've been dying to present but haven't been able to get the rights to yet?  

"I'd love to do Newsies!"

Of all of the awards and recognition that VYT has received, what is the one that meant the most to you?

"I guess I would say the DREAMR Award.  Because we were able to dream big and make it happen.  This is what we inspire the young people who come though our doors to do."

VYT is big on their training and community partnerships and outreach programs. Your Sponsor-A-Seat program provides the change for at-risk youth to attend a free performance, and your Literacy and the Arts program encourages inner-city students to improve their literacy skills as well as develop an appreciation for live theater.  Why do you think programs like these are important and do you see growth in these areas in the coming years?

"Gosh, children in our inner city and at-risk youth all over the valley need as much encouragement and opportunities we can provide them.  We feel 'to receive, is to give'  we receive so much financial support from the community and we make it our mission to give back.  These programs help to enhance and change lives.  Children inspire children.  By including them in our programs we hope they know that they matter!  They are important.  That there is a light at the end of the tunnel."

I have to say that many times when I've been at a VYT show there have been groups of children there from these programs. The last show I was at there were a group of foster kids there and the joy and excitement they displayed at being able to attend a VYT performance was inspiring. 

Looking to the future, what changes, if any, can people expect from the theatre itself and the productions on stage?

"Not sure about changes.  But they can expect that we will continue providing the best quality programming for young people both on and off the stage!"

the cast of Titanic, including Chelsea Kane and Emma Stone, as maids, at the top of the stairs
VYT's 2003 / 2004 Seasonphoto credit: Hope Ozer

You've directed many shows over the seasons at VYT, what was the one show that challenged you the most?

"Probably Titanic.  It was about a very difficult night in history a story told so many times over the years.  I had to make sure that I gave honor and respect to those souls who lost their lives that night and to the folks whose lives were forever changed.  The enormity of the production was challenging.  Once we got to the Herberger I spaced scenes for the upper decks on tall ladders.  It was a very dangerous production.  I had to make sure that I kept everyone safe at all times."

What are your future personal and professional goals for both yourself and the theatre?

"I hope to go back to acting someday when I retire or take a lesser role at VYT years from now.  I would love for the theatre to be run by mostly Alum from the past and that we would have all of our operation under one roof."

I know this is your 20th anniversary at VYT and, I believe, you and your wife Karol also recently celebrated your 25th wedding anniversary, and Karol has created many of the costumes, hair and make-up drains for VYT shows over the years. How did you and Karol meet? And how did you create "Bobbo & Kookee"?

"We actually will be celebrating our 27th Anniversary on August 9th. Karol and I were neighbors in Sherman Oaks, California. She was my upstairs neighbor.  I was dating someone else but I really liked her. We were great friends for several years. When I broke it off with my girlfriend and moved to a different apartment, I invited Karol over to see my new place. I was filling up my new waterbed and we decided to go get frozen yogurt.  Well, after chatting for quite some time, I suddenly realized that I was still filling the waterbed.  We dashed back and not a moment too soon....  that thing was ballooned up and about to burst. We laughed and had so much fun. After a short time we started seeing each other. Though she says I was not her type! Anyway, long story short, we dated for two months and got married.

Bobb and Karol Cooper as "Bobbo & Kookee"
Valencia Town Center's Kid’s Club Program - 1993
We got married in Vegas and our wedding video was on the very first America's Funniest Home Videos. When we got married, I had my own children's entertainment company and, as I mentioned before, was a very popular magical clown.  Karol wanted to be a part of it.  So.... we sat down and created Bobbo & Kookee.  We wrote and produced magical musical shows.  Every year we would create Christmas, Easter, Halloween and other type shows.  Incorporating magic with live animals, illusions and song and dance.  As part of our business we designed and created our costumes which consisted of ten different colors of Trico Lame cut into two inch square. all sewn together to create the fabric for our jackets. This is where Karol took what she had learned in home economics and her amazing creativity and put it to work.  She also designed and built the costumes for all of our performers that we booked at events and parties.

We were on the A-List in Hollywood and performed for a long list of celebrities including Jim Carrey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Whoopi Goldberg, The Bridges Family, Steven Seagal and more.   We performed with the LA Philharmonic, Louie Bellson Big Band Explosion and Nelson Riddle Orchestra.  We also performed for Royal families from all over the world that had homes in Los Angeles.  We were flown on the private 747 jet of the Sultan of Brunei for his 50th Birthday celebration in 1996 shortly after I came to VYT."

That's very impressive Bobb. Now, just a few rapid fire questions.

Favorite musical?

"Gosh... too many to list, sorry!"

Favorite play?

"I would have to say See How They Run or Noises Off.  I love farce!"

One thing about you that might shock people?

"Believe it or not, I am actually pretty shy."

For information on Valley Youth Theatre's shows, classes and other activities, click here

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