While many workers may be counting down the days until retirement, Harvey Cocks thinks of his work with the area’s young people as a 35-year retreat.
I never will retire, the 88-year-old says, laughing. I’ll work as long I can. I’ll be here until I drop dead.
Cocks is the writer and director of Fort Wayne Youtheatre’s production of Santa in Oz, which premieres today.
As Santa Claus enters the land of Oz, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man set out to help him bring their whimsical world its first Christmas.
However, they will have to convince the reluctant half-bear, half-tiger clan known as the Kalidah Tribe by putting Santa on trial.
Cocks says he wanted to combine ideas that have been consistent crowd-pleasers in previous Youtheatre productions inspired by the Land of Oz books, which brought an imaginative spirit to the stage that parents and children have enjoyed.
It’s all about make-believe. It’s an imaginative situation that allows people to escape, Cocks says. People are always looking to escape and be entertained for a moment. They don’t have to think of their problems for a while. That’s why theater, films and books have gone on.
The play incorporates characters from L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the first of what would become a much-loved 14-book series.
Youtheatre Executive Director Leslie Hormann says the Land of Oz series is full of interesting characters beyond those made famous in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.
We’re all familiar with the Hollywood movie, but it’s a rich story, Hormann says. There are so many characters that it’s worth it for anyone to dive into the original series.
Cocks says it took seven months to write the story and another three months to revise the plot for the stage.
After a large turnout for auditions, he says he is pleased with the 40 young people who make up the cast.
It’s wonderful. It’s going so well that I’m afraid to say it, he says. When I hear them open their mouths and interpret the lines, it’s a great thrill. It’s an ego trip.
I’m having a wonderful time seeing the characters come alive through the young people. They work very hard.
Cocks was born into show business, he says. In his early days, he watched as his father, Harry Sr., ran theaters across the country, from the front of the house to backstage. The transient family officially settled in Fort Wayne in 1939 and soon became ingrained in the area’s theaters.
After high school, Cocks took off for New York and became a Broadway actor, working with Helen Hayes, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Danny Kaye during the 1940s and 1950s.
It was during his Broadway years that he discovered his passion for working with children.
For one show, we went to an orphanage in the Bronx to take pictures and work with the children, and I just loved working with them, Cocks says. I went to the director and said, Since we don’t have a performance on Sunday, I’m going to go back to help out there.’
That was the beginning, he says. I gave up the rest of it just to do that. It’s been very fulfilling.
Cocks moved back to Fort Wayne to take ownership of Quimby Village Theater, which had been owned and managed by his father until he died.
By 1977, Cocks had sold the business and was directing his first Youtheatre show, I Will. He became Youtheatre’s executive director in 1978.
Hormann, who took over as executive director in 2011, says having a performer with Cocks’ wisdom and experience continues to benefit the organization every year.
He’s a wonderfully kind, super role model, she says. The children love working with him.
With a life full of stories of old Hollywood, Cocks says he is always ready to cook up some new tales for the new generation.
I hope they (Fort Wayne Youtheatre) ask me to write another play, he says, laughing. I’m always writing something.