PHOENIX — Before he became a leader and the artistic director at Valley Youth Theatre in Arizona, the same theater that produced stars like Emma Stone and Jordin Sparks, before he received the Inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award from the Governor's Arts Awards, and before he was beloved by thespians across the state, Bobb Cooper lived a life few could imagine.
Cooper, who has worked at Valley Youth Theater for 25 years, grew up in Michigan where he says he lived in a violent home with an alcoholic father.
“Just a lot of abuse, mentally, physically, verbally,” Cooper said. “It was crazy. He was the nicest man in the world when he was sober, but give him a couple of drinks and he would just turn. He was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
Alone for the majority of his childhood, Cooper says he turned to television for entertainment. Watching musicals like The Wizard of Oz inspired him. And by the time he was in fifth grade, Cooper had written his first play -- his own version of his favorite movie, Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town.
“I just knew the story so well,” Cooper said. “I put it into words, I cast it… I played Kris Kringle.”
By the time he’d entered junior high, Cooper’s love for theater had only grown.
“There was something innate about theater that just, it was the place for me. Theater fueled my soul,” Cooper said. “If it wasn’t for theater, I wouldn’t be here.”
Cooper recalled a particular night where he was beaten so terribly by his father, he thought he was going to die.
“He just beat the hell out of me,” Cooper said. “I was beaten to a pulp.”
The following day, Cooper’s school principal intervened, sending the then 11-year-old to Pontiac, Michigan, where Cooper entered a home for abused and neglected children called The Children’s Village, he says.
Knowing he would not be safe at home, Cooper decided to stay in the home, and he eventually entered the foster care system.
“This was my chance to get free from this life that I lived from the time I was born until I was almost 12 years old,” Cooper said.
But his new life was no easier than the one he left behind.
Cooper lived in the Children’s Village, went to three different foster homes and was eventually adopted by his sister, who was only five years older than Cooper.
“It was just a difficult situation,” Cooper said.
At 15, Cooper branched out on his own. Even though he barely graduated, Cooper says he was the first in his family to graduate from high school.
Then came New York. Within five days of moving to the Big Apple, Cooper had booked a part on an off-Broadway show.
“I lived in an apartment on 45th Street,” Cooper said. “All these theaters were on my street. I’d died and gone to heaven.”
And Cooper stayed in his little slice of New York paradise working odd jobs to support himself as an actor. He ultimately left New York and continued to find acting jobs on the side, all in the pursuit of keeping his saving grace, the theater, in his life.
Once he was a clown. Another time he worked as a security guard at Universal Studios. He and his wife, Karol, even created two clown characters named Bobbo and Kookee and performed around the world for the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Whoopi Goldberg, Nicolas Cage, and Harry Hamlin.
Bobb and Kookee became an outlet for Cooper, who wanted to share with children and young adults that he understood them and the challenges they faced.
“I’ve been fighting my entire life for being an advocate for children,” Cooper said. “Giving them a place, giving them a voice, helping them strive to be the best that they can be. So Kookee and Bobbo performed for children across the country, promoting messages like “Believe in yourself. It’s okay to make mistakes. Everyone needs a friend,” Cooper said.
But there came a time to leave Bobbo and Kookee behind, and that’s when Cooper moved to Arizona in 1996 for an opportunity at Valley Youth Theater.
“I started March 20, 1996, in the basement of Tower Plaza Mall,” Cooper said. At the time, the budget for Valley Youth Theater was $100,000 and the production quality was, well, awful, according to Cooper.
But Cooper took a chance on Valley Youth Theatre, and they took a chance on him. Within one year of hiring Cooper, the budget for Valley Youth Theater grew to $250,000. Within five years, they had reached $1 million.
“And the rest is history,” Cooper said.
Despite his success and storied leadership at the Valley institution, Cooper remains humble.
“We’re not here to make the best actors in the world, we’re here to just give young people a place where they can dare to be themselves and where they can learn and grow.”
And it’s that outlook that’s kept Cooper at Valley Youth Theatre for 25 years, earning him the Governor's Arts Awards inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021.
“I don’t do what I do for recognition. But to receive that type of recognition was quite extraordinary,” Cooper said. “For the kid that could have [been] a statistic to be able to have the opportunities that I’ve created for myself and to be recognized in such an incredible way, was extraordinary.”
In the age of COVID, Cooper remains optimistic. He spoke with ABC15 to discuss ‘They Chose Me!’, a musical about adoption and foster care through the eyes and voices of children.
“It’s essentially vignettes of stories and songs of children who have gone through the foster care system who were adopted,” Cooper said. “These are real stories that can resonate with anyone who’s been in the foster care system.”
On April 9 and 11, Valley Youth Theatre will stream the play online.
“It’s funny, and it’s emotional, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful story,” Cooper said.
And because he went through the foster care system himself, Cooper says he feels ‘They Chose Me!’ shines a light on the reality so many children go through.
“When I first saw the idea of the show, I loved it, but I thought, ‘Who’s going to come see the show?' But it’s so important those stories from those children. You really get an idea of what a child goes through when they’re in the foster care system, and when they’re adopted or not adopted, and their hopes are up that they will be adopted. And all they want to do is be loved, and be accepted and be included, and to be taken care of.”
“The thing about ‘They Chose Me!’,” Cooper said, “It’s even better, or it can be viewed as better because you were actually chosen. It didn’t just happen biologically. You are picked out. And that can be very special.”
Tickets for ‘They Chose Me!’ are available at VYT.com. ‘They Chose Me!’ will stream Friday, April 9 at 7 p.m., and Sunday, April 11 at noon.