I defy you to name a nicer person than Harvey Cocks.
It simply can’t be done. A particularly impressive feat considering he happened to be a Broadway star in the 1940s and 1950s and is one of Fort Wayne’s most prodigious name-droppers.
Born 88 years ago (his birthday is in two weeks) in Glen Cove, Long Island, Cocks grew up in vaudeville. His father, a theatre manager, took his young son to rehearsals. “They called me ‘the Boy on the Box,’” he says. “They put a box in the wings for me, and I would sit and watch the performers.”
His earliest memory was a 5 a.m. vaudeville rehearsal in Boston. “I was four years old,” says Cocks. “A man came out onstage and sang. I asked my father, ‘Who was that man with the funny voice?’ It was Al Jolson. He said, ‘Remember that name. He’s going to be somebody.’ He was very nice to me.”
With his upbringing, a career in theatre seemed a natural progression. But he now attributes the lure of the theatre to his innate shyness. “I moved around a lot,” he says. “I didn’t have any friends. I was the outsider. I didn’t want to be a movie star. It was always the theatre. The theatre actors were untouchable.”
His family moved to Fort Wayne where his father managed the Embassy Theatre, and soon after high school graduation he moved to New York. Astonishingly, the 18-year-old booked a Broadway role on his first audition and was soon offered a role in the long-running hit Life with Father.
Cocks became a triple threat, thanks to cast mate Nancy Walker (who went on to star as Valerie Harper’s mother on Rhoda in the 1970s). She asked him if he wanted to make the stage his career, and he said he did.
“She said, ‘Well, you’ve got to sing and dance,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘I do?’ She said, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ So the very next day she took me to her voice and dance teachers.”
For the next five years he worked steadily and exclusively in musicals. “Pal Joey and Finian’s Rainbow were my bread and butter,” he says. “I jobbed myself out to every summer stock theatre on the East Coast in those two shows.”
Although Walker’s advice helped pave the way for a long acting career, he says the person most influential to him was playwright and director Howard Lindsay, who wrote Life with Father.
Lindsay and his Anything Goes co-writer Russel Crouse heard that Cocks was interested in playwriting. “So Saturday mornings before the matinee, they would take me to their office,” he says. “I wrote scenes and they would critique them.
Even the stage manager took him under his wing. He heard that Cocks was interested in directing as well, so he pulled the entire cast together to rehearse a show at 11 a.m. before every Saturday matinee for eight weeks.
When it came time for the performance, Cocks laughs, “I was terrified! Katharine Cornell [one of the great stage actors of 20th century American theatre] walked in, saying, ‘Is this where the play is being performed?’ The Lunts were there, Helen Hayes ... They were Howard [Lindsay] & [cast mate] Dorothy Stickney’s friends.”
Quite the directorial debut for a young man in his 20s.
He paid this generosity forward as well. He spent his Sundays teaching theatre to orphans in the Bronx (“My career at the Youtheatre was almost forecast,” he muses). As a director, he says, “I gave a lot of work to a lot of set designers and props people. I was always trying to give work to people.”
He also discovered Oscar and Tony Award-winning actress Sandy Dennis, an apprentice at the summer stock theatre he ran. “She studied with Lee Strasberg,” he says. “She was very natural. She was in Diary of Anne Frank, and she wanted to do all the normal things [onstage], like scratch and stick her tongue out. Very realistic. But we weren’t into that [acting style] yet. We had arguments all the time, but I was very impressed with her.”
Another actress who impressed him was Jean Hanson.
Immediately upon return from two and a half years of Army service in Europe, Cocks booked a Broadway lead. To steel his nerves, he decided to visit his voice coach and singing teacher (a mother and daughter team) at their New York apartment.
“I waited in the hallway, and I heard a voice singing in the room,” he says. “I waited my turn and just listened to this voice. And then she started talking. This throaty, wonderful voice. And I think I started to fall in love right then.
“Of course, I’d been engaged several times before this,” he says with a chuckle. “I fell in love with every ingénue I appeared with.”
The teacher introduced them, and he asked her to dinner on the spot. “She must have thought, ‘Who is this nut?’” he laughs. “I knew then that was the girl I was going to marry.”
This was in 1952. They married six years later and remained married until her passing in 1994.
In 1971 they moved to Fort Wayne to help his father run Quimby Village during his ill health. He intended to stay for just a few months, but his wife had already fallen in love with the city.
“Jean had been a successful dancer,” he says. “She had a contract to be in the original Gypsy but broke it to stay in Fort Wayne.
“My wife and I never would have stayed if there were no philharmonic, no ballet, no theatre,” he says. “This is such a unique town.”
After his father died, Cocks sold Quimby Village and took a public relations job for a local hospital. But migraines that plagued him during times of stress forced him to quit. When Youtheatre President Roberta Daniels called and offered him the role of executive director, he jumped. He has remained with the Youtheatre for the past 35 years, although he stepped down as executive director a few years ago.
Over the years, some 16,000 students have been through Youtheatre classes or productions. One of those alumni is now the Youtheatre’s new executive director, Leslie Hormann. “You can’t find a single community show that doesn’t have a Youtheatre student in the cast,” she says.
Cocks estimates that at least 50 of his former protégés are now working professionally in theatre on both coasts. And he says a week doesn’t go by that he doesn’t run into one of his former students.
Given Cocks’ years of helping foster the talents and careers of actors, directors and technicians of all ages, it seems only fitting that he should be the first recipient of whatzup’s H. Stanley Liddell Award, presented at last week’s Whammy Awards.
Liddell, a business owner much like Cocks’ own father, owned the Marketplace of Canterbury and Piere’s, which became the area’s premier nightlife hub, bringing life to the Fort Wayne music scene. Not only did he bring national acts to Fort Wayne, he showcased local talent. Like Cocks, he recognized the talent Fort Wayne had and believed in fostering that talent to help improve the community.
“It really is wonderful they named this award after Stan,” Cocks says. “He truly put Fort Wayne music on the map.”
In presenting the award, Hormann recalled her first meeting with Cocks in 1976 when he first took the Youtheatre position. “I was a Youtheatre student,” she says. “I was this ugly adolescent, this crazy, loud, obnoxious 13 year-old with a mouthful of braces. The teenagers were all abuzz that the new director was a Broadway star. And he made a point of telling me how wonderful I was. It meant so much to me.”
It’s connections like these, more so than the glamorous career and famous friends, that mean the most to Cocks. He says his Youtheatre years have been the best years of his life.
“It’s been a labor of love,” he says. “It’s kept me young.”
by Jennifer Poiry-Prough
Thursday, April 27
Click on the headings below for full calendars
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Community Unity — Community dinner, games and prizes, and neighborhood safety forum, 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, April 26, Jennings Recreation Center, Fort Wayne, free, 427-6028
Issues and Ales — Panel of experts discuss important issues in the community with audience Q&A , 7-9 p.m. Wednesday, April 26, Calhoun Street Soups, Salads and Spirits, Fort Wayne, free, 456-7005
Click header for complete On the Road calendar
Click header for complete Music & Comedy calendar
Chris Worth — Variety at Nick's Martini & Wine Bar, Fort Wayne, 7:30 p.m., no cover, 482-6425
Fort Wayne Comedy Connection — Comedy at Latch String Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., no cover, 483-5526
Hubie Ashcraft — Acoustic at River View Tavern, Decatur, 7-10 p.m., no cover, 724-3500
Open Mic — Hosted by Mike Mowry at Pedal City, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 415-6167
Click header for complete Karaoke & DJs calendar
Classic City Karaoke w/Bryan Lee — Karaoke at Pine Valley Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 8:30 p.m., no cover, 490-9464
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Brian — Variety at AJ's Bar and Grill, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m., no cover, 434-1980
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Josh — Karaoke at Columbia Street West, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., no cover, 422-5055
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/TJ — Variety at Chevvy's, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., ,
Karaoke w/Bucca — Variety at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Karaoke with Rooster — Variety at By: Belle Haven, South Whitley, 8 p.m., no cover, 866-716-9243
Shooting Star Prod. w/Stu — Variety at Office Tavern, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m., no cover, 478-5827
Shut Up and Sing — Karaoke at Duesy's Sports Bar, Fort Wayne, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 483-5681
Three Rivers Karaoke — at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 483-1311
Click header for complete Stage & Dance calendar
Little Shop of Horrors — IPFW Department of Theatre performance of Alan Menken-Howard Ashman musical comedy, 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, April 26-29, Williams Theatre, IPFW, Fort Wayne, $5-$18, 481-6555
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37th National Print Exhibition — Juried exhibition featuring contemporary printmakers from around the nation, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
41st SOCA Student Exhibition — Works from students currently enrolled at USF’s School of Creative Arts, daily thru April 30, Weatherhead Gallery, USF Rolland Art Center, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Echolilia — Works from Timothy Archibald and his autistic son, Eli, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Diane Allen Groenert — Exhibition of local artist’s Downtown Series and new works, Monday-Saturday thru June 24, West Central Microcreamery & Cafe, Fort Wayne, 415-9293
Expressions of Existence — An exhibition of works by artists through history, including Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Francisco Goya and others whose works have been influenced by disabilities, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Fort Wayne Artist Guild Exhibitions — Works by Alice Siefert at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Jennifer Caudel at Allen County Retinal Surgeons, Anita Trick, Citizens Square (2nd and 3rd floors), Darlene Selzer Miller at The Einhaus Group for Women’s Health, Patricia Weiss at Heritage of Fort Wayne, Emily Jane Butler at Ophthalmology Consultants (Southwest), Linda Binek at Ophthalmology Consultants (North), Carolyn Stachera at Rehabilitation Hospital of Fort Wayne, John Kelty at ResCare Inc. Adult Day Service, Wiletta Blevins at Town House Retirement, Karen Bixler at Visiting Nurse Hospice and Barb Yoder and Karen Harvey at Will Jewelers, thru April 30, fortwayneartistguild.org.
Fort Wayne Photographers Club — Exhibition featuring local photographers, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 30, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Glass: A Medium in Art and Automobiles — Dale Chihuly blown glass and fiberglass auto, daily thru Sept. 8, Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, Auburn, $7.50-$12.50, 925-1444
Jan Krist-Finkbeiner — Exhibition of ceramic reliefs, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
Kathy Funderburg & Diane Schafer-King — Acrylic paintings (Funderburg) and works in marbled paper and fabric (Schaefer-King), Monday-Saturday thru April 29, Orchard Gallery of Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 436-0927
Outdoor Sculpture Invitational — Fifteen outdoor sculptures from regional artists, daily thru April 30, School of Creative Arts campus, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Rhoda Gerig: The Hope of Eagles — Photographic images of eagles, daily thru June 4, Clark Gallery, Honeywell Center, Wabash, 563-1102
Sharon — An exhibition of Leon Borensztein photographs chronicling the struggles he faced raising his severely disabled daughter, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
SOCA Graduate Program: Student Highlights — Juried exhibition of works by students enrolled in USF’s School of Creative Arts graduate program, Monday-Friday thru April 30, Lupke Gallery, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Exhibition of works by IPFW graduation seniors, daily thru May 3 , Jeffrey R. Krull Gallery, Main Library, Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Senior thesis projects from Bachelor of Fine Arts candidates Brenda Drayer (sculpture), Derek Hibbs (printmaking), Ellen Mensch (painting), Nathaniel Morris (sculpture) and Kyle Snodgrass (sculpture), daily thru May 7, Visual Arts Gallery, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring Palette — New original works by more than 50 nationally recognized artists, Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment thru April 30, Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 426-6568