Bill ‘Papa Rocco’ McGinnes Books His Own ‘Jukebox Opera’ In Gulf Shores
Renowned tenor plays house concert for restaurant owner and some friends
By Fran Thompson
Tenor Arnold Rawls has performed at the Metropolitan Opera and has been praised for his unique combination of vocal and dramatic skills in performances from Seattle to Switzerland.
But he has rarely performed at a house party anywhere in the world, let alone in a beautiful home near the Gulf Shores Sportsplex.
But Rawls was there on September 10 at the invitation of concert sponsor Bill “Papa Rocco'” McGinnes, his 20-year-old friend.
Robin and Mark Frolich (owners of the Sassy Bass restaurants) provided a welcome atmosphere and exquisite food in their beautiful home, and McGinnes provided Rawls with his set list.
What followed was 60 minutes of ringing highs, creamy lows and beautiful Italian lyricism for about 30 guests.
Although he has performed in recitals outside the theater and participated in fundraisers for ‘jukebox opera’, Rawls said this is one of the few times he has given a house concert during his 40-year career performing at the Sydney Opera House. , the Dallas , Indianapolis, Chicago and Sacramento Operas, the Bregenzer Festspiele in Austria and the Theater St. Gallen in Switzerland.
He was even criticized in the New York Times as a tenor “whose voice has an easy flow in the midrange yet sounds exciting in the big, high-altitude moments.”
“Dad decided he wanted an entire concert with special requests. So here I am,” Rawls said before taking the audience on a fiery, expressive journey.
“We have been friends for twenty years. I was more than happy to do a jukebox opera show where Papa selected all the songs,” he added.
A transplant from Michigan himself, McGinnes said he first became interested in opera after purchasing a copy of Life magazine specifically to read about Dr. Christiaan Barnard who performed the very first heart transplant in South Africa in 1967.
That same issue featured a story about the eight greatest operators in the world.
“I was in my twenties, unmarried, and I was really impressed,” McGinnes said. “It was a very powerful article from a man named John Daily. “I wanted to know what he wrote about. So I went out and bought albums that these guys sang on. I never realized it covered such a broad spectrum. I didn’t like it all. But I discovered that I liked a really good aria.”
Dad would attend performances in Detroit if possible, but he earned his opera chops by listening to live performances on his Metropolitan headphones on Saturdays while watching his beloved Wolverines play soccer on TV.
“I like opera, but come on, I wouldn’t miss a football game in Michigan about it,” he said.
Shortly after opening Papa Rocco’s (home of hot beer and cold pizza) on Hwy. 59 in Gulf Shores, he began taking opera trips to Pensacola. He met people who became friends during the shows: artist directors, backstage staff and other enthusiasts.
He became part of the opera community and eventually a patron of Pensacola Opera. He even has a big star on the sidewalk outside the Pensacola Saenger.
“I have met a lot of good people through my collaboration with Pensacola Opera. That’s what I enjoyed the most. That part has been really good for me,” he said.
“That’s also what I liked most about Gulf Shores when I moved here,” he added. “When I moved here, it really was the Redneck Riviera. But all the other restaurant owners were willing to help me. These were people who had been there and done that. Believe me, I made it a point to listen carefully to what they were saying.
“I’ve been pretty lucky with my business. But I will never forget how others were so eager to help me,” he added.
Though a jeans and polo shirt man, McGinnes will dress up for trips to the Pensacola Opera, and he’s come to enjoy the well-dressed pageantry as he mingles for the show.
“I don’t really like German operas, but I like all Italians – La Boheme, Pagliacci, Paolitaze,” he said. “People ask me how I can enjoy it so much when it’s not even in English. Well “, I know the subject. And I ask them if they enjoy a good guitar part or someone blowing a great horn. You don’t need to know the words. The larynx is an instrument.”
Papa said it might seem a little eccentric to enjoy opera as much as you do old rock n roll, big band and country. But that’s not the point.
“It doesn’t matter what genre,” he said. “If it sounds good music to my ears, I’ll listen to it.”
The Scottish native opened Papa Rocco’s on March 15, 1985, after a 20-year career as a project manager for Modco, the largest cutting tool manufacturer in the world.
He wanted a simple menu. He wanted live music every night, even in winter. He wanted to serve food until midnight.
He knew it was a good idea to serve good pizzas. And he knew there was no other oyster bar open year-round in Gulf Shores.
He didn’t want to serve fried food. Customers could determine how crispy they wanted their wings to be by the number of times the wings went through the pizza oven.
None of that has changed in the nearly four decades that have passed since then.