Mike Tharp: Multitalented musician will perform with Preservation Big Band at reopening of majestic Merced Theatre

March 3, 2012 

How cool is it to find, in the 26th-largest county in California, yet another Renaissance man?

Natives and longtime residents know at least a couple themselves, women and men who excel in many fields, whose talents light up several arenas.

Here's one more.

Eric Stephen Bocks.

He grows almonds. He once grew figs. He hunts with falcons. He opened for James Taylor and Kenny Loggins in L.A., singing and strumming his guitar. He's written a children's book. And he's composed original lyrics for songs and music for stage productions.

He'll perform with the Preservation Big Band at the renovated Merced Theatre's grand reopening April 21 in downtown Merced. The band, known for its jazz performances for decades, will open what promises to be one of the most important nights ever in Merced's cultural history.

With John Albans, Cheryl Lockett and Brad Reed, Bocks will perform a musical history of the theater, starting from when it opened in 1931.

"This is our best gig," Bocks says. "The acoustics (of the renovated theater) are fabulous. They haven't spared any cost -- the sound and light are as good as anything in New York, L.A., London. You sing and it comes back at you. The amount of sound is just top-notch."

Growing up in San Jose, Bocks played Robin Hood and Daniel Boone while flailing toy swords in his back yard. He wrote his first song at 13 and worked at the Civic Light Opera there. He studied classical voice "but my heart has always been in jazz and pop musical theater. I always wanted to be a songwriter."

Twenty-three years ago his dad called him. He'd bought one of the biggest fig farms in these parts. "You want to come run it?" he asked.

Bocks felt that his singing, playing and songwriting career in L.A. "had started to wane -- as an industry will do to you if you don't have a strong constitution."

He moved to Merced County. He's spent time on a tractor ("a good place to think"), but as a manager/owner, he decided seven years back to concentrate on almonds. His and his wife Lorraine's house sits amid groves of them in Le Grand. Their children, Daniel and Elizabeth, have performed in some of his musicals.

He just finished his children's book, "Wing Over Wendover," and it should be published within a couple of months.

Several years ago, he started hunting with falcons. The first time was from horseback and "we caught a jackrabbit right off the horse."

Today's he's got Wendover, a 2-year-old tercel falcon, and Bessie. This week, he watched them in the yard, tethered to their ground perches, ripping off strings of pigeon meat. They'd stopped hunting pheasant when the season ended last month. They also hunt quail, grouse and ducks.

"The basics of nature are the things that pull me back to what falconry is about," says the musician and almond grower. The biggest change in falconry has been the ability, with monitoring devices, to track the flight of the bird.

"Other than that, it's the same as a guy in the 16th or 17th century," he says. "There's got to be something to be said for nature, tempered with the willingness to pursue excellence -- and the humility which will soften the blow of failure."

Lisening to a conversation with Bocks, who can read music but plays by ear, is like trying to diagram the riffs of a jazz improv. Like the falcons he loves, he turns and turns in a widening gyre -- from music to writing books to growing almonds to ... whatever comes next.

"I try to be as passionate as I can," the 53-year-old says, "so people can enjoy it. My golden age might be in the next several years. If you don't give up or quit, you can make a lot of damned things happen."

Last year, he told Jim Kocher of Playhouse Merced (for which Bocks wrote the musical, "Heart of the Lion," which has been produced all over California and even in Romania) that he was working on several other musicals, including one based on "The Picture of Dorian Gray," a novel by Oscar Wilde.

He told Kocher in an interview, "I'd love to get 'Heart of the Lion' produced professionally. Maybe even get the darn thing to Broadway."

It's probably no coincidence that Eric Stephen Bocks, at the gala celebrating the renovation of the Merced Theatre, will sing Frank Sinatra's classic, "Come Fly with Me."

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com.

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