Wawona Hotel Pianist Entertains Holiday Visitors in Yosemite

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Tom Bopp has been playing piano at the Wawona for over 30 years. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

It's Christmastime at the historic Wawona Hotel in Yosemite National Park. Pine cones and berries gathered from outdoors hang off strings of soft glittery lights draping the high windows. Visitors nestle around a crackling fireplace, sip hot chocolate and hot toddies -- and listen to Tom Bopp.

Bopp runs through the classics, from "Silver Bells" to "Linus and Lucy" from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." He encourages the gathered visitors to sing along off lyric sheets that have been passed around.

"He does everything: from the '20s and '30s, to Irish tunes to show tunes, to Gershwin, a little classical. He does ragtime," says Bob Bradford, a local visitor. "You can ask him for about anything, and it's really hard to find something he doesn't know."

Before he started at the Wawona, Bopp played in venues in Los Angeles, including a novelty restaurant called JoAnn's Chili Bordello. He was 26 when he auditioned for the Yosemite gig. That was 1983. Two weeks later he was hired.

Carol and Tom Beamer make an annual trip to sing along to the carols. (Alice Daniel/KQED)
Carol and Tom Beamer make an annual trip to sing along to the carols. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

"This feels like home," Bopp says. "There wasn't a day that first summer that I missed being in Southern California, and I thought, 'Well, there's a sign.' "

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Now adults often come up to him and say they heard him play at the Wawona when they were children.

"It's nice being here for that long that I have generations, you know," Bopp says. "People who were kids are now bringing their kids to come and hear me."

The Wawona experience is a throwback in another way, too: There are none of the usual digital distractions of modern life, and visitors relish the opportunity to really spend time with one another.

"People are doing board games and they're talking and they're just hanging out," says Carol Beamer, who came up to Yosemite from Santa Barbara, as she and her husband, Tom, do every year. "It's become part of Christmas for us."

The highlight for the Beamers, of course, is Bopp.

"We're groupies, actually," Carol reveals.