Ribald comedies are old hat in Hollywood. If prostitution is the oldest profession, than comedies with a good dose of sexual intrigue in them, whether you call them romantic comedies or screwball comedies, comprise one of the oldest genres since the dawn of the sound era. However, it’s one thing to use sex as a comic lynchpin or prop – I mean, anyone can do that – but it’s quite another thing to go beyond being merely risque or naughty and fashion a really good story to support the old nudge, nudge, wink, wink, as a Monty Python bit put it, and present three-dimensional characters. As my story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) argues, Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic Some Like it Hot miraculously turns what would essentially be a one-joke premise or sketch in the hands of most filmmakers into a satisfying two-hour farce tinged with pathos. Wilder’s great script. expert direction and perfect cast pull it off. Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford is reviving this gem for one night only on the big screen, April 24, at the Joslyn Art Museum. Introducing the film will be Kelly Curtis, a daughter of Tony Curis, the magnetic who was never better than in this tour de force performance in which he plays the straight man for most of the picture until his character wondefully imitates Cary Grant in order to seduce Marily Monroe’s Sugar Kane. Curtis and Lemmon are great in drag and Monroe is never more fully Monroesque than in this film, where her voluptuous figure, sensual power, and emotional fragility create a most alluring combination.
Hot Stuff: American comedy classic ‘Some Like It Hot’ pushed boundaries
Tony Curtis’ daughter, Kelly, to introduce film in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in April 2015 isssue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The 1959 gender-bending film farce Some Like It Hot came at an interesting juncture in the careers of writer-director Billy Wilder and stars Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe.
For each legend it marked a career boost. It reaffirmed Wilder as a comedy genius after a succession of mediocre mid-’50s.dramas and comedies. It further stretched Curtis. It began Lemmon’s long, fruitful collaboration with Wilder. It represented Monroe’s last great comic role.
Paying tribute to a classic named the funniest American movie of all-time by the American Film Institute is a no-brainer for Omaha impresario Bruce Crawford. He’s presenting a one-night revival April 24 at Joslyn Art Museum as an Omaha Parks Foundation benefit.
“Some Like It Hot is to film comedy what Casablanca is to film romance,” says Crawford.
Casablanca found a magical mix of perfect casting, memorable lines and universal themes to make its wartime romance work for any generation, Hot miraculously made a one-joke men-in-drag-meet-sex goddess premise into a timeless romp of provocative puns, innuendos, sight gags and set pieces.
The 7 p.m. event will have special guest Kelly Curtis, the oldest daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, introduce the picture. Her sister is actress Jamie Lee Curtis.
Kelly accompanied her late mother to Omaha for a 1994 Crawford event feting Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho. This time she’ll share reminiscences and insights about her father, who died at age 85 in 2010. In a recent Reader interview she spoke about how Hot came at a crucial time in his Hollywood ascent.
Starting with Trapeze, Sweet Smell of Success, The Vikings, The Defiant Ones and on through Hot and Spartacus, Curtis showed a heretofore unseen range in rich, demanding parts of enduring quality.
“I think he wanted to prove to himself and to the world he was more than than just a pretty face and those films gave him a great opportunity to do that,” Kelly says. “He loved that he was given a real gift in Some Like It Hot to be able to show his comedic talents as fully as he did. Doing comedy like that is very difficult.”
The plot finds two down-on-their-luck Depression-era Chicago musicians, Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon), needing to skip town after witnessing a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre-style slaying. The only open gig is with a touring female band and so they pose as women musicians. Aboard the Florida-bound train they fall for the band’s woman-child singer,s Sugar Kane (Monroe), only Joe’s more determined to bed her once they hit the beach.
Kelly says her father’s idea to impersonate Cary Grant within the context of his character posing as a millionaire in order to seduce Sugar Kane, reveals much about the man who became Tony Curtis.
Born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx to Hungarian parents, he grew up running the streets with a gang. Talent agent-casting director Joyce Selznick discovered the aspiring actor at the New School in 1948. His quick rise to movie stardom as a Universal contract player was the American Dream made good. Kelly says it only made sense he would pay homage to Grant because the actor was his model for learning how to court women and to project a sophisticated facade.
“Once he had money my father really took to the trappings of being a suave, debonair, European-style playboy. He loved fine houses, fine wines, fine cars. He loved living the life of an Italian count. That was one of his personas and stages he went through. So I think jumping into a role like that to woo a woman is what he’d been playing at his whole life. Even back when he was in a Hungarian Jewish gang, he used his black hair, blue eyes and olive skin to pass as Italian so he could spy on the rival Italian gang I think he always pretended to be something he wasn’t just to survive.”
Much as Grant transformed himself from his poor Bristol origins as Archie Leach into the screen’s most desirable gent, Kelly says, “Tony Curtis was an avatar – it’s the man he invented for himself, which was an amalgamation of all his parts, yes, but it definitely was not Bernard Schwartz.” She adds, “Tony of the Movies is what he liked to call himself and that’s what he aspired his legacy to be.”
She says the multifaceted man she knew took his off-screen work as a painter, photographer, assemblage artist and sculptor seriously.
“It was much more than a hobby. He was constantly creating and he exhibited and sold his art late in his life.”
His heritage was important to him, too.
“My father was a lot more a Jewish man than he presented himself to the world. I think he had a deep sense of Jewish values and a deep love for Judaism. I think he wanted to be more religious but with his lifestyle and interests it just wasn’t to be.”
Kelly worked with her father on the Emanuel Foundation in raising money for the restoration of cemeteries and synagogues in Hungary damaged during World War II.
“It’s something he was very committed to and proud of and during that time we got very close. It was a very good time for us.”
Despite a “libertine” way of life as a notorious Hollywood wild man, she says her father was a staunch American patriot and conservative Republican. Yes, she says, he fell prey to the excesses of fame with his multiple marriages (six), infidelity and substance abuse problems, but he appreciated how far America allowed him to rise.
“Here’s this immigrants’ child who made it, who became rich and famous, which is why he considered himself an American prince. It’s why he loved America as a land of opportunity. The possibilities are endless. He said you just have to want it bad enough, have the talent to back it up and really go for it.”
She says her father’s career descent after The Great Race and The Boston Strangler was largely self-made.
“He didn’t transition very well into New Hollywood. He wanted to but he wasn’t really interested in letting down the facade of the young virile guy by playing older roles. It bothered him until his death he wasn’t asked to do more but he burned a lot of bridges. He went through a lot of dark years in the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. That could have been a lot riper time for him had he not fallen to prey to his demons.
“Here was this gorgeous man getting older, going through a mid-life crisis and perhaps an existential crisis of trying to figure out who he was and what he was. It was a very troubling time for him.”
There were a couple bright spots (The Last Tycoon, Insignificance) but mostly Tony Curtis was an artifact from a long gone Hollywood. He did live the last several years of his life sober. As his old studio peers died away and his own health failed, he could take solace in having made several stand-the-test-of-time films.
He thought enough of Hot to write a book about its making. Kelly says the movie allowed him to show “his chops” as an actor. He wrote that during the shoot he had an affair with Monroe, whom he claimed was his lover years before. Kelly says, “I don’t know if it’s just one of my father’s stories, but I would love to know.”
Tickets are $23 and available at all Omaha Hy-Vee stores.
For more info, call 402-926-8299 or visit http://www.omahafilmevent.com.
So, everyone has a story, and that’s certainly true of two Omaha native music talents, one now passed, Julie Wilson, and the other, Dominque Morgan, whose future seems bright after some dark days. Julie Wilson performed on and off Broadway, in movies and television, but she made her greatest mark as a cabaret singer in New York City. Life wasn’t always roses for her, though. A marriage to a famous theater figure didn’t work out. Her folks back here got ill and stopped her career to care for them. Her two sons went through some wild times, including right here in Omaha. One of her boys died young after years of drug abuse. In more recent times Wilson suffered health problems that affected her voice. But she was one tough broad who wouldn’t give up. She was only human though and after fighting the good fight she died the other day at age 90. I only interviewed her once and she was a hoot. I also interviewed her actor son Holy McCallany, who spoke lovingly about his mother. The subject of this story though is a musical artist of a very different kind, Dominque Morgan, who is only his 30s and has a modest career as a R&B, soul and hip hop artist based in his hometown. Dom, as his friends call him, spent some years behind bars for bad decisions he made as a young man and he lost both his parents. But he’s all in these days with doing the right thing by his life and music. He’s very active as an advocate in the gay-lesbian-transgender community. My profile of him for The Reader (www.thereader.com) reminds me that we all carry baggage, we all experience heartache, we all long to express passion. He and Wilson couldn’t have been more different, yet they both loved performing music and sharing their gifts with others.
NOTE: Later this week I plan posting the interviews I did with Wilson and her son Holt as a kind of tribute to her.
Passion Power: Dominique Morgan’s voice will not be stilled
Singer-songwriter doesn’t let travails slow his roll
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
R&B and soul singer-songwriter Dominique Morgan, 33, has emerged as an urban music force with multiple Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards nominations for his Love Chronicles album.
His tunes of love and loss come from personal experience: an abusive relationship, homophobia, both parents passing, incarceration.
Alfonzo Lee Jones, founder-president of Icon One Music, the local label Morgan records on, says the artist has “absolute determination.”
Music is Morgan’s passion and sustenance. When he bravely came out at 14, he leaned on music for solace.
“It was an important part of my secret life. I spent a lot of time in my room listening to music.
No one knew this was my salvation, this was my safe space,” Morgan says. “I was very closeted about music. I didn’t sing in front of people. But I had this desire to perform. I wrote songs in a notebook I hid under my bed. I was just very insecure and being a performer is the ultimate exposure.”
He got up enough nerve to sing in Benson High’s mixed chorus and to audition for its Studio Singers show choir.
“I was frightened to death to audition. I didn’t know how to dance in time, I didn’t know how to read music, I felt so behind.”
He made the cut anyway.
“It was the first time I had been chosen for something and somebody saw something special in me. That experience was amazing. It opened me up to discipline, group dynamics, being a leader.”
Though his parents accepted his sexual identity they didn’t want him dating. At 16 he got involved with a 21 year-old man. Full of rebellion, Morgan left home to live with his partner.
He says he silently suffered abuse in that co-dependency before finally leaving at 19.
“I really had no self-esteem. The relationship tore that completely apart.”
Broke and feeling he had nowhere to go, he lived a gypsy existence between Omaha and Lincoln
“I did not want my family to see me.”
He committed nonviolent crimes – stealing cars in a valet dodge and writing bad checks. He slept in the cars and attended to his personal needs in public and dormitory restrooms.
“It was how I was surviving.”
His desperation led to many poor choices.
“I have this need for people to like me and to want to be around me. I was constantly putting myself in precarious situations because of that.”
He let friends think he was going to school.
“I had to keep up a facade with them.”
He did the same with a local boy band, On Point, he joined.
“It was my first experience recording in a studio and performing outside of high school. It was bittersweet. I was enjoying it but I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew eventually it would blow up in my face.”
The pressure of maintaining the illusion grew.
“Those internal thoughts are hell. All these balls i was juggling. I found myself in a cycle. I didn’t want to face how bad of a situation I was in.”
Once again, his only comfort was music.
“It was how I got through each day. It was just peace for me.”
Wracked by fear and blinded by denial, he says, “I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t go on much longer like that. I just didn’t know what the stopping point was for me.”
Getting arrested in Lincoln in 2000 was that point. Assigned a public defender, he pleaded no contest to several counts of forgery and theft. Unable to make bail, he sat in Lancaster County
Jail months awaiting sentencing. The judge gave him eight to 12 years.
Morgan’s reaction: “My life is over.”
His next tour months were spent at the state correctional system’s Diagnostic and Evaluation Center.
Life in stir came as “a complete culture shock,” he says. “I couldn’t let anybody know I was frightened because you can’t show any weakness. Besides, I was out. I was young, gay and black – three strikes against me. So I came in fighting. I wanted them to respect me. I was watching boys get raped, people be sold, stabbed, beaten with padlocks. I was like, I just want to make it home.”
He didn’t pursue an appeal – “I thought if I fought it I was going to go crazy” – and instead accepted his lot.
He served in Omaha, Tecumseh and Lincoln facilities, sometimes segregated from the general prison population, for his own safety he was told. Other times, he mixed with convicted murderers and rapists.
While incarcerated his father died suddenly. He’d been Morgan’s only regular visitor. Morgan stopped calling home. Hearing freedom on the other end only made his confinement worse. “It was too much for me.”
He turned to music to cope.
“It was like this wall burst in my head and these words, these songs, these melodies just flooded out of me. I thought, One day I want to sing my songs. Music kept me going. It was my saving grace.”
He wrote the songs in long-hand, with a pen, in notebooks and on kites (internal request forms). He utilized mics and mixing boards in prison music rooms, buying access to the gear via handmade checks he covered with the $1.21 a day he made working in the kitchen. He earned a culinary degree he uses today as a caterer.
In a prison talent contest he revealed music chops he’d kept on the down low. The prospect of using those chops on the outside kept him sane. After serving eight-plus years, he got out February 2009 and cared for his ill mother until she died that December.
“It was devastating.”
His youngest sibling, Andrea, came to live with him.
He tracked down Icon One’s Alfonzo Lee Jones and began writing songs for the label. Jones admires “the soul and feeling” Morgan puts into his writing,” adding, “Dom paints a vivid picture with every song he composes. You can feel the emotion. That’s powerful.”
Morgan says in Jones he’s found “more than a producer – he’s like a brother to me.”
Meanwhile, Web and radio hosting gigs brought Morgan to the attention of East Coast artists he’s now working with.
His music took off as a recording artist and live performer, he says, once he stopped trying to position himself as a gay singer-songwriter. That transition came with his outreach work for the nonprofit LGBT advocacy group, Heartland Pride.
“I am a singer who happens to be gay. I can still be myself through that but I let the music speak for itself.”
His life and career were rudely interrupted last fall when informed he’d not served the mandatory minimum for one of his charges. He found himself detained four months at the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center.
“It was like watching my life die. It almost killed me wondering how much of my life is slipping away while I’m gone.”
A parole board review set him free in February.
During that limbo he was removed from the Pride board for not disclosing his criminal past. That prompted a Facebook post by Morgan laying out his troubled journey and hard-fought redemption.
“I can’t be OK and love who I am now and be ashamed of such a large portion of what made me who I am,” he says. “I felt I needed to own my story. I wanted people to really know where I came from.”
He’s since co-founded Queer People of Color Nebraska. It seeks to start conversations in the African-American community and larger community about the challenges of being black and gay in America.
His advocacy for equal rights led him to co-direct a recently released “Black Lives Matter” video.
“I want to do it loud and proud,” he says.
The release party for his new album, Loveaholics Anonymous – Welcome to Rehab, is April 25 at The 402 in Benson.
Follow Dom at http://www.facebook.com/dniquemorgan.
Mike Whye and I did a panel on freelance journalism this morning at the Society of Professional Journalists Region 7 Conference at UNO’s Community Engagement Center. The audience was made up of students, working professionals and educators from Nebraska and surrounding states. It was fun talking sharing craft and business aspects of freelancing. That’s Mike on the left, me in the middle and moderator Jonathan Garcia on the right. Thanks to Chris Bacon and Jeremy Lipschultz for the photos and thanks to Rob McLean for the invitation to participate. I enjoyed meeting Mike (mwhye.home.radiks.net), Jonathan and Rob and I enjoyed seeing my collleague Jeremy again. Doing events like this help remind me why I do what I do, the way I do it. FREElance = Indpendence.
In January Opera Omaha went rogue again with its annual gala, this time infiltratiing a section of the Crossroads Mall for a swank sit-down dinner given a theatrical going over with surrealist set dressings inspired by the contemporary opera, A Flowering Tree. Live excerpts from the mythic opera were performed tableside for a rapt audience that sometimes felt as if they were a part of the dramatic and transformative experience. A Flowering Tree’s staged production in February at the Orpheum Theater gave audiences the full measure of this beautiful and imaginative work whose ending is one of the most sublime artistic expressions I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing. If you didn’t know it already, Opera Omaha is one of America’s leading opera companies and its reputation only grows with time.
Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala with A Flowering Tree
Hidebound event transformed to mirror opera’s dramatic, theatrical world
Breaking the mold to build new audiences
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)
A contemporary opera all about transformation got its legs at an unconventional site slated for rebirth, the Crossroads Mall, during the January 16 Opera Omaha Gala.
The gala featured glimpses of A Flowering Tree, a 2006 opera by American composer John Adams, who adapted its romantic, mystical story from an ancient folktale from India. This saga of love, betrayal, sacrifice and redemption set in an enchanted land unfolded in a 20th century space normally associated with shopping.
A 10 p.m. after party for the millennial crowd followed the gala.
Unlike the best known works in the Adams canon that draw on historical, politically-charged events, such as Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic, A Flowering Tree is purely metaphorical. Adams co-wrote the libretto with Peter Sellars.
Kumudha is endowed with the magical gift of morphing into a flowering tree and returning back to human form. When a prince secretly observes her transformation he’s smitten and marries the enchantress. His obsession with her gift and his sister’s exploitation of it drives the couple apart. Bereft without her, the prince loses everything, even himself. Kumudha gets stuck in a hideous in-between state that makes her a curiosity. The couple can only be reunited, so the folktale goes, if true love leads them to find each other again.
The Adams Touch
Wunderkind director James Darrah, who at 30 is a rising star, says, “It is a fabulous story and a fabulous piece of theater. It’s entirely based in storytelling, with large overarching themes of humanity.”
Musically-speaking, Darrah says, “The orchestral writing of Adams is just unbelievable – he is giving an audience an entire soundscape in the way he employs instruments and chorus and voice. The way he writes for the human voice is operatic and virtuosic and familiar in that way but also really surprising and beautiful. At times it can fluctuate from feeling incredibly intimate and simple to virtuosic and cinematic.
“He has the ability to both understand and interpret the immense musical history that comes before him and to be on the exciting electric edge of innovation. He creates these worlds of sound that are sometimes totally unexpected but rapturously beautiful.”
Opera Omaha General Director Roger Weitz calls Adams “one of if not the most important American opera composers living today,” adding, “I saw a performance of Flowering Tree at Chicago Opera Theater and I was blown away by the music, by the drama, by the potential for magic and transformation on stage. I really fell in love with it.”
Snatches of the opera on gala night happened amid the empty storefronts of a closed section of the ill-fated Crossroads Mall – specifically the two-story glass atrium at the north end. The mall is slated to be razed to make room for a new mixed-use village.
A Flowering Tree will have its main stage full production February 13 and 15 at the Orpheum Theater. The same team mounting that production produced the gala – Los Angeles-based director Darrah and a cadre of collaborators. They also designed last year’s gala featuring bits from the early Handel opera Agrippina as well as that work’s main stage production. After making the nontraditional space of the Omar Baking Building into a retro Roman banquet experience inspired by Agrippina, the team’s repurposing a symbol of American consumerism into a mythological garden inspired by A Flowering Tree.
Weitz has charged the company with making its galas singular events that go beyond the standard sites and programs for such events. The Omar experiment was such a success, he commissioned Darrah and Co. to surpass it at another unexpected site – the soon defunct mall.
Darrah says. “If you’re doing something different you want a space that architecturally and energetically has flavor to it as a set. If you go to a big empty room you have to put everything in there to give people some sort of feeling. You have to create atmosphere from whatever you put into it. The thing I loved about the mall when scouting it is that even without us doing anything to it, it had this eerie energy of all these people that had been
“It’s this place that had a different purpose and now it’s this empty thing. It had so much to do for me with the socio-political stuff John Adams writes about America, and the mall is such an American icon that is changing and morphing. I like the idea of using it in a different way. This piece is all about transformation and new beginnings and new growth. The mall is going to be torn down and I love the idea we can see the echoes of what it once was.”
Then there’s the bold move of bringing opera to where people shop.
“I also think it gives us the right narrative of audacity. After last year’s success everyone was wondering what it was going to be. Well, I don’t think they knew what we’re going to do. They probably never expected what we did last time and, and they wouldn’t recognize this either. Parts of what we design felt like a sheik chic, elegant gallery. [People would] walk in and be totally in a dream.”
©CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
The idea is to so fully immerse audience members in this re-imagined environment that they find themselves inside the live performance. Because opera scenes will seem to spontaneously happen around them, guests will be intimate, active participants, not merely passive witnesses to the spectacle. Darrah says the same folks you have cocktails with before dinner may suddenly break into song or dance. It’s all about shattering the walls between performer and viewer so that everyone, actors and guests alike, becomes joined in the experience.
“I like the breaking of barriers in that way,” Darrah says. “It’s the whole point of the John Adams piece, and that’s what it all comes back to. It’s not about showing people the design of A Flowering Tree, it’s about saying this team has been hired to do this massive new production and if you listen to John’s music you will be exposed to the qualities of innovation.”
Darrah says the excerpts on display at the gala were intended to give guests a sense for his organic treatment of the opera.
“I didn’t want this to be a project where three singers and dancers move around them as they sing. I want people not to know who the singer is and who the dancer is.”
He feels privileged to have worked with a stellar roster of creatives interpreting it, including Andriana Chuchman as Kumudha, Andrew Staples as the Prince and Franco Pomponi as the Storyteller.
“It’s an unbelievably fantastic cast – a world-class, formidable group of people,” Darrah says. “I think of them as actors first who happen to have powerhouse, awesome voices. They’re all theater people who are also aware of art and culture. I love artists that have that kind of awareness and bring a lot to the table, that listen to Billie Holiday as much as they listen to opera.
When you get these well-rounded individuals willing to throw themselves into new ideas, they bring a really good energy. They fit very well with my team. Like minds do very good work.”
His team includes associate director Zack Winokur, set and lighting designer Cameron Jaye Mock, set and properties designer Emily Anne MacDonald, projection designer Adam Larsen and costumer designer Sarah Schuessler. All but Winokur worked with Darrah on last year’s Agrippina gala and production. Together, they used lights, sets, music and dance to turn a banally familiar existing space into an enticing dreamscape for the gala.
“[We were] not going to treat the stores – [we left] all the stores as dark, empty things, though we used certain storefronts for things like cocktail hour and catering,” Darrah says. “Beyond the tangible, this (was?) is a surreal dream you walked into.”
Atmospheric videos added to the trippy vibe.
©CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Darrah says Adams took a keen interest in how the opera would be teased at the gala and produced at the Orpheum.
“He knows about this and he’s been very helpful and involved and supportive with the team and the choices. He’s very humble, so he’s not overly controlling. He answers questions. I sat down with him and he told me a bunch of things about why he wrote it, what he thought about. He’s been really great. He told me, ‘Do your thing.’”
Darrah and his team create harmony from collaborative give-and-take.
“So much of everything designers choose to do affects what a director is able to do on stage,” he says. “At the same time a director can choose moments that actually give designers lots of opportunities to create. I think the interconnected qualities of that are something that aren’t often talked about but are absolutely true.
“Here in Omaha, for many reasons, including the time and resources we’re allotted, we actually get to explore that a lot more than normal.”
According to Darrah, Weitz’s vision and enthusiasm are attractive to talents like himself and his colleagues.
“For artists like us, Roger is an incredibly adventurous, interesting, proactive part of assembling the team, crafting, casting, all these things.”
Weitz, in turn, says Darrah has taken Omaha by storm.
“The community has really embraced him and is really interested in his work. I think he feels a lot of support here and feels like this is a place where he can do what he wants to do. We’re talking about next season right now and we’ll keep dreaming. I mean, there will come a day when he’s too big for us but I hope by establishing this relationship early on Omaha will always be a special place to him.”
This year’s gala was chaired by Cindy and Mogens Bay. To learn more about Opera Omaha’s innovative approaches to performance based events, or to reserve tickets for performances of A Flowering Tree, visit operaomaha.org.
Omaha’s culinary scene is still more pedestrian than foodies would like, but there’s no doubt the city offers an ever expanding and interesting mix of restaurants. Many of Omaha’s best eating out options are chef-owned or chef-driven places that range from fine dining to relaxed operations. Many of the chefs making names for themselves here are heavy into and helping lead the farm to table movement. Good eats are a major part of Omaha’s popular cultural districts, including the Old Market, Midtown, Dundee, and Benson. Some star chefs do their best work at well-reviewed venues in those very same hubs. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Burbs have their share of worthy chefs and spots, too. Some great food can also be had at Omaha hotels and country clubs. In this Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) article I wrote you can read about the bold course that Happy Hollow Country Club executive chef Jason Hughes is setting there. I can’t say I’ve tried his food yet, but I look forward to it. Hughes is a lot like his peers on the culinary scene today in that he has years of academic training and practical experience and he strives to make the freshest, most flavorful, and creative dishes he can, all of it infused with love and, as as nod to his roots, a Southern twist.
Chef Jason Hughes setting bold course at Happy Hollow Country Club
©by Leo Adam Biga
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
Since assuming the executive chef position at Happy Hollow Country Club in 2013 Jason Hughes has emerged as one of the city’s new culinary stars, introducing a strong farm-to-table regimen there.
Not only has his cuisine earned raves from club members but last year he won Omaha’s Pinot, Pigs & Poets chef competition for his dish, “Heads or Tails.” The prize-winning meal featured braised pork cheek and pig tail croquette, house-cured bacon and oregonzola bread pudding, charred brussels sprout leaves with dried fruits and macron almonds, pickled watermelon rind and tart cherry mustard natural jus.
His entry represented the same locally-vended approach he takes at the club.
“I use a lot of local products,” he says. “I try to find out where things are raised. It helps to know where your food came from. I think it makes it taste better when there’s a story behind it or you’re helping out a small farmer and making a difference in their lives by supporting what they do.”
He’s developed relationships with local purveyors, sourcing everything from organic produce to poultry, pork beef, cheese and other dairy items from them. He takes advantage, too, of a chef’s garden on a dedicated patch of land next to the club’s golf course.
He didn’t always do food this way.
The Nashville, Tenn. native got his earliest cooking chops watching his mother prepare Southern comfort meals for his large family (he’s one of eight siblings). By 15 he was already working in the only industry he’s ever known. He rose up the kitchen ranks to become a trainer for Outback Steakhouse, opening several franchise sites in the mid-1990s.
He attended Western Kentucky University, where he met his wife Brandi (the couple have two boys), and they moved to Colorado, where his training went to the next level. He graduated cum laude from the prestigious culinary program at Johnson & Wales University. Then he learned under a series of top Colo. chefs, including Scott Coulter
“He kind of opened my eyes that food can be a lot different than just your standard corporation steakhouse or restaurant. That you can have an identity and be creative and do whatever you want to do with food. That there’s no boundaries.”
Hughes has occupied the private country club niche since the mid-2000s. He credits executive chef John York at the five-star Belle Mead Country Club in his hometown Nashville as his main influence.
“He kind of brought me to the level I’m at today. He made it a point to tell me there’s no reason I cant be doing what he’s doing and he gave me the private club chef head hunter that brought me to Omaha.”
Getting the Happy Hollow job required Hughes impress a search committee in the interview process and a Food Network-style blind cook-off that saw him prepare a gourmet meal for several folks on a tight deadline. He worked his magic with the ingredients provided, including cedar smoked pork tenderloin. He made a five onion bisque with smoked walleye and pike and grilled corn. He also did a beat carpaccio salad with cherries and smoked blue cheese.
His dazzling fare and Southern charm won over the committee and he’s been winning over members ever since.
“Jason’s impact has been astonishing. He’s elevated our culinary program and the culture of our club,” says general manager Jim Williamsen, who admires his passion. “This is just not what he does for a living, it’s clearly what he loves to do. He is a special talent.”
Hughes enjoys being in a niche where his abilities are appreciated.
“What I like about country clubs is you don’t have to be roped into one kind of cuisine. We have over 1,200 members here and there’s such a diversity of tastes and dislikes that we do different kinds of cuisines instead of just focused in on one,” says Hughes.
He recently returned from France and Spain with new recipes inspired by those national cuisines.
His prize-winning “Heads or Tails” dish in Omaha’s Pinot, Pigs & Poets chef competition
Braised pork cheek and pig tail croquette
House cured bacon and oregonzola bread pudding
Charred brussel sprout leaves with dried fruits and marcona almonds pickled watermelon rind
Tart cherry mustard natural jus
“There’s some people putting it out there in country clubs that could compete with anybody in any city,” he says,
He likes being in competitions to showcase his wares and “just to show that country clubs can cook, too.” He not only enjoys competing with fellow Omaha chefs like Clayton Chapman and Paul Kulik, but engaging them as peers. He finds the chef “camaraderie” here unique.
“Everybody’s really down-to-earth and wants everybody to do well. It’s not like they’re afraid to show you something or tell you about a product they’re getting. Everybody seems really friendly and wide open here compared to any other cities I’ve been. It’s just a cool scene as far as the chefs go in Omaha. It’s really neat”
Hughes also loves having a budget that allows him to hire the best staff – “I have a great team here” – and to fly in fresh seafood, for example, nearly every day from Maine, Florida, Hawaii.
His team extends to wife Brandi, without whose support and sacrifice, he says, “I would not be where I am today.” They love the outdoors and have their sons help in the garden. A year-plus in Omaha and Hughes is sure he’s found the right fit for him and his family with the vibrant culinary-culture scene, the warm people and the great schools.
“This place grows on you, for sure. It’s a great city.”
Project Interfaith was a passion project that a young Omaha professional, Beth Katz, thought up and ran with and during its run it made a lot of noice and connections in trying to foster greater understanding between people of different religious and spiritual beliefs. This story for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/) focuses on a program Project Interfaith inaugurated called RavelUnravel that gave people from around the country and even around the world a platform for sharing their personal faith experiences. No sooner had I completed the article and it went into production than Katz resigned and within three months of that the organization disanded, and presumably RavelUnravel ended with it. The official reason given for the disbanding was declining financial support, according to board president John Levy. I don’t believe Katz has yet to publicly comment on the reason for her departure or on her response to the organization she created and led having dissolved so quickly after she left. What is odd is that in my interview with her for this story there was no hint of her forthcoming departure or any internal problems with the organization. Whatever the reasons for her exiting and however she feels about the end of what she started and nurturted, this piece and an earlier one I did on her and Project Interfaith will make clear that she really was on a mission and that her organization really was making a difference. I have to believe in some way, shape, or form she will continue this good work in the future.
Identity gets a new platform through RavelUnravel
Religious-spiritual-cultural identity expression at heart of program inviting people to tell their stories via videos
Project Interfaith program ravels-unravels questions of who we are
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)
The Tri-Faith Initiative’s goal of creating a shared campus housing the three Abrahamic faith groups is not the only Omaha interfaith effort netting wide attention. Project Interfaith seeks to engage people in dialogue about their religious-spiritual-cultural identity and experience. What began as a one-woman crusade of founder Beth Katz to foster interfaith work in Omaha now reaches far beyond Nebraska.
Reflective of its 30-something-year-old founder and her even younger staff, Project Interfaith has embraced the digital age through its online RavelUnravel video program and other educational resources.
“We’ve always seen the potential for our work to have an impact on multiple levels and I feel we’re just beginning to fully realize that,” Katz says.
The RavelUnravel initiative began in 2010 when she and her team assembled volunteers to capture flip camera-recorded interviews with diverse people at various sites around the Omaha metropolitan area. Each participant was asked to answer four questions revolving around their religious or spiritual identity, any stereotypes they’ve encountered around that expressed identity and the degree to which they find this community welcoming or unwelcoming to their religious or spiritual path.
Individuals and groups wanting to participate so surpassed expectations the campaign was extended. The campaign’s since been opened to the general public. More than 1,100 unique videos can be viewed at ravelunravel.com today. The submissions, all screened for content and minimally edited whenever possible, are from folks identifying with a myriad of religions and belief systems including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, agnosticism, atheism as well as every imaginable variation that exists within each category. A wide range of ages and races are represented. Viewers are able to comment on their own and others’ videos.
She says the program reflects emerging trends, such as a growing segment of the population that does not affiliate with a particular religion or belief system.
“I think we’re seeing an evolution of how people articulate their religious and spiritual identities and experiences and how they connect to established religions and belief systems.”
The organization recently became a formal partner of the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, a joint initiative of the White House and the Department of Education, thus positioning it to actively solicit videos from across America. It’s going global, too.
“We’re in the process of entering into partnerships with some organizations outside of the U.S. who would incorporate RavelUnravel in their interfaith work. We’re excited about the possibility of having videos from beyond the U.S. being part of the project.”
She emphasizes, however, it’s really not about the volume of videos “that makes this a meaningful, impactful program, it’s what people do with the videos and how they respond. Certainly we want and invite as many people to share their stories as possible but it’s really about what the stories do when people watch them and talk about them.” Conversation kits have been developed to guide productive dialogue around topics typically considered taboo.
“Hopefully what they’re doing is inviting people to ask themselves those questions and to do some important self-reflection. Hopefully they’re giving people a tool to enter conversations with other people about these core questions that really drive our experiences and speak to this underlying humanity that connects all of us.”
The videos’ intensely intimate content is moving to Katz.
“I have been so honored by what people have been willing to share in their videos. This is not like do you prefer Coke or Pepsi. These are questions that really hit at the core of people’s identity and experiences as humans. There’s a video, for example, of an individual that talks about his identity as a gay Christian man and how for so many years that was something he could not reconcile. It drove him to try to commit suicide. He then talks about his experience of really finding peace with it and where that’s’ brought him to now.
“It’s some of the most personal information a person could share. I think all of us at Project Interfaith feel an incredible sense of responsibility and stewardship with these stories people are entrusting with us. Hopefully they’re presented in the most integrity-filled and authentic way possible. We want to use this as a vehicle to encourage and inspire others to share their stories.”
She feels the program is an antidote for this age of dislocation.
“There’s universal experiences that really connect us and I think Ravel Unravel illustrates those. I get struck over and over by how deeply human the videos are. When you see a person’s video it’s the next best thing to sitting across the table from someone because these aren’t scripted. It’s real people sharing their experiences and I think it just melts away so many of the labels, sound bites and preconceptions constantly being swirled around in our heads, in media, in advertising. I think there’s incredible power in that.
“What makes this work meaningful is that we have the potential to create new ways for people to connect and interact with one another.”
Katz is encouraged by more interfaith opportunities available today than when she launched her nonprofit nine years ago.
“It’s exciting to see all the different ways people can explore these topics and enter into these types of conversations.”
She says Omaha’s seeing increased activity with the Tri-Faith Initiative, progressive religious studies programs at local universities, open adult forums at Countryside Community Church and Urban Abbey and interfaith exchanges among synagogues, mosques and churches.
“I think it’s remarkable so much is going on here.”
On the other hand, she says, Omaha, like the rest of the nation and world, has a ways to go. “It’s still such a nascent and emerging field that I don’t think the idea of openly, respectfully talking and learning about a person’s religious identity and experiences is normalized. That’s really what we’re striving to do – to make this a part of people’s every day lives, so it’s a very comfortable process.”
She does like the direction interfaith efforts are going, however.
“There is a lot of innovative good work coming from a lot of different places. This is really about trying to elevate the quality of people’s lives and relationships and the strength of our communities and so it’s important we have a lot of different models we can look toward to find meaningful ways to engage each other and to work together.”
Technology both aids and hurts this movement.
“As we’ve seen with RavelUnravel it can be an incredible way of inviting access to these conversations, experiences and learning. The flip side is you also have a lot of misinformation circulating out there. Extremist and hate groups are extremely sophisticated in their use of social media and technology to present their message and galvanize their base. We need to really become creative and sophisticated in our use of technology and social media to present a counter-narrative that engages people in thoughtful ways and connects them with credible information.”
Interfaith efforts may be more needed today than ever.
“I feel like it’s the best of times and the worst of times for this work. 9/11 brought to the forefront a lot of ignorance and curiosity people had about religious diversity. We see in surveys the level of polarization, social hostility and government restrictions on religious freedom increasing. Some of the RavelUnravel videos call us to think about these really complicated, rich experiences in a more humane way. For a society to be really healthy and functional we have to have space for everyone to share who they are.”
As another way to spur conversation, Project Interfaith invited visual artists to respond to RavelUnravel. Fifty-two artists submitted and a jury selected works in various media by eleven from around the nation, including Omaha artists Molly Romero, Bart Vargas, Kathryn Schroeder and Paula Wallace. The exhibit, titled Unraveled, opened in Omaha and is traveling to sites in Neb. and other parts of the nation.
“Using the arts to engage people has always been a track of our work at Project Interfaith,” Katz says. “Now that it’s traveling to a diversity of institutions and communities it’ll be really exciting to get feedback from those host sites about how it’s being used and what people are responding to.”
The exhibit premiered at Omaha’s Jewish Community Center, whose art gallery director, Lynn Batten, says, “What makes this exhibit unique is its potential to develop community education and understanding around the concept of religious identity and how it permeates our every day lives and society as a whole. By asking the artists to represent their personal stories, the viewer begins to see the common denominator between them all. They begin to see that we are all universally connected beyond what our religious beliefs might be – that we are united through our experience of the human condition.”
“That’s part of what this is all about – trying to help people appreciate and delve into the complexity and the richness of identity and experience as it relates to religious, spiritual, cultural backgrounds and identities,” Katz says.
Unraveled’s next area stops include: Saint Paul United Methodist Church (Lincoln), Nov. 3 to Dec. 1; Iowa Western Community College, Jan. 12 to Feb. 6; and Countryside Community Church (Omaha), July 1 to July 31.
Follow Project Interfaith news at projectinterfaith.org. View RavelUnravel videos or upload one at ravelunravel.com.