‘The longest childhood’: Robert Cole of South Lake Tahoe
Robert Cole grew up in a castle. At least that’s what the rock house on Ski Run Boulevard and Aspen Avenue seemed when he was 8 years old.
In some ways, little has changed.
“I have the longest childhood on record. That’s the joke about me. It took me a long time to grow up,” Cole said.
The family lived in Oakland before the castle. One day, Robert’s father, Hal Cole Sr. walked into the family home and told the them he bought a house. They were moving to Tahoe.
On Thursday, sitting in a chair he built out of old skis in the Rock House Discount Ski and Snowboard Rental shop he now owns with his wife Deena Cole, located just next door to the Rock House, Robert said his life had come full circle.
Robert and Deena have been back in town for six years, following a journey filled with crossroads and artistic flurry. During three decades when Robert was away from Tahoe, he played guitar for rock bands and crossed over to writing songs for Muppets. His journey took him to Sacramento, Davis, the Bay Area and Nashville.
But the adventure began in Tahoe, in the companionship of his brother Hal Cole, now Mayor of South Lake Tahoe and a Tahoe that was much different than it is now.
Robert spoke about the wide-open spaces and untamed woods, of going out, getting into trouble, being brought home by the sheriff and doing it all over again.
“I look back on my childhood now and it was kind of like Tom Sawyer,” Robert said.
“We had a little gang, and we’d get in trouble. It was all pretty mischievous type stuff. It was like growing up in a Mark Twain novel.”
With his group of friends, Robert would venture into the woods. Often, his father would drop him off at a location, give him a dime, and tell him to call when he was done with his trip so he could pick him up.
Those years the town was connected largely by dirt roads, and many parts of the wilderness were unrestricted. The first harmless run-ins with the sheriff where when Robert and his friends would ride around on minibikes. The ordeal would usually consist of having the bikes confiscated temporarily and a call home for his father to come get him. At age 14 his father would let him drive the family’s Army Jeep, a great vehicle to explore dirt roads and trails around the area. But the youngster, from time-to-time, would also run in with the sheriff or his deputy.
Robert’s young adventures, however, were not always structureless.
Basically since his arrival in Tahoe, Robert was a skier. He wasn’t good with schoolwork, partial dyslexia limited his abilities, but he was always a creative person and good at sports. Skiing was his first passion, and his father pushed him to pursue it.
Hal Sr. entered Robert in the race program, and within a year he made the A-team. He continued growing as a skier in the following years and went to the Western States championships, which meant he was in the top five in the state.
At about 18, on the cusp of ascending ski levels from junior to amateur, Robert reached a crossroads. He evaluated the competition, and made a decision.
“It wasn’t so much that they were better than I was, they worked harder than I did. I could see it,” he said.
“I was pretty good at it but, was I good enough to make it on to that next level? I don’t know. I don’t know that I had that dedication. That dedication went to music instead.”
That shift into music came honestly. Robert’s mother was pianist. At 14, she played for a San Francisco ballet and was already considered a talented pianist. His father played the drums and played with bands during World War II.
“To be honest, I probably saw that girls like guitarists more than ski racers, too,” Robert said as he chuckled.
In the Late ’70s he was invited to jam with his brother Hal’s band in Davis. He was invited to stay, and that’s when his musical adventure began. It was during his adventure with The Skins that he met Deena.
“It was just one of those moments, I’ll never forget. She walked into the room and I was just like, ‘wow! Who’s that?’”
She was the younger sister of the second guitarist’s wife. The two have been together for more than 30 years, and the first two of decades revolved around music.
The Skins toured the western states and at times opened for bands such as Journey and Tower of Power. They were close to making it and were being followed by a record label and investing time in the studio, but the band never really took off. Robert’s music adventure also included The Movers, a band he formed with Don Bosson and for which he reached moderate popularity in Tahoe. But his time with The Skins was what led Robert and Deena to what Robert refers to as his favorite job of his life. That roughly 10-year affair with The Skins did open new doors, however. The label approached him and told him they liked his writing. The new opportunity led Robert and Deena to Nashville, Tenn.
“In the meantime, I found out I could make a pretty good living writing for Muppets,” Robert said.
The idea came after Deena, who worked with children, asked Robert to help her write songs for the children.
“She kind of got me into writing for kids … I never would have thought, on my own, that I could write for the Muppets,” Robert said.
The couple received good feedback, and Deena contacted producers at Sesame Street for an opportunity, which led them to work for “Bear in the Big Blue House,” a children’s show that aired on the Disney Channel.
“The joke was I finally found a way to make my immaturity pay,” he said.
“It was a blast. The funnest job I’ve ever had, writing for a big furry bear.”
But the course of the Bear in the Big Blue House eventually ran out of steam, and with the introduction of online sharing technology in music, the market for writers took a sharp turn.
“I just got to the point where – you know what, I’ve done this long enough. I’m going home,” Robert said.
Robert and Deena returned to South Lake Tahoe, to live in the castle – the rock house. After the owners of the ski shop next door, located on their property, could no longer make rent payments, they decided to start their own shop.
“It had been a ski rental business for 30 years, probably, so I just said, ‘I’ve been a skier my whole life, let’s try it,” Robert said.
“You could start an antique store, but people would pull into the parking lot wanting to rent skis.”
The business has gotten better every year, and Robert has found a good fit. He still regularly skis and enjoys working at the shop, where he gets to talk about skiing and meets people from all over the world.
But Robert’s creative side is still alive and well. He is currently working on a screenplay about a fictional story based on different parts of his life, many in Tahoe.
“Especially growing up here – It’s who I am – I always knew I’d be back here,” Robert said.
“Tahoe is one of these places where, it’s hard to get it out of your blood.”