Author Archive

Firmly Rooted, the Story of Husker Brothers

September 29, 2015 Leave a comment

Yes, I am the guy who writes about art, film, theater, literature, journalism, culture, African-American Omaha, a hundred and one other subjects, and, oh yeah, sports, too. Here is the promo for my new Hail Varsity cover story about brothers who have excelled in football at Nebraska. That’s followed by an excerpt from the piece. To read the whole thing now, you’ll need to be a subscriber of the magazine or purchase this issue at a newsstand. I will be posting the entire story be the end of the weekend.

Brotherly Bond Highlights New Issue of Hail Varsity

on September 28, 2015 at 10:22 am

The bond between teammates is strong. The bond between brothers is even stronger and the Huskers have had a number of them wear the scarlet and cream over the years.

Writer Leo Adam Biga shares some of those brothers’ stories in the cover story from Volume 4 Issue 10 of Hail Varsity. The cover features a cut-paper illustration by our design director, Quentin Lueninghoener. The latest issue of Hail Varsity ships this week.


Other highlights from the issue:

>>In a new feature that will appear in each issue during volleyball season, Nebraska defensive specialist Sydney Townsend gives us an inside look at the Huskers’ volleyball season with her first player journal.

>>He’s a punter now, but if everything goes according to plan Sam Foltz will get his pilot’s license and be a crop duster some day. He explains why in our Q&A.

>>Which former Husker quarterback had to run a timed 40-yard dash through the hallway of his high school to impress the Nebraska coaches? That player is the subject of our latest Legends of the Fall.

>>Columnist Chuck Sinclair tells the story of returning a Nebraska jersey — the jersey Sinclair got as a walk-on in 1969 — to its rightful owner.

>>Editor Mike Babcock provides some context for the one-game resurgence (so far) of the the fullback at Nebraska.

The latest issue of Hail Varsity will be arriving on newsstands and in mailboxes soon. Not a subscriber? You can remedy that here.


Firmly Rooted, the Story of Husker Brothers


When Husker Football Sometimes Truly Becomes a Band of Brothers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Hail Varsity Magazine.
Nebraska recruits football players where it finds them. sometimes even in the same family. Several brother combos have played for NU. Once in a while they’re part of the same recruiting class but usually they arrive a few years apart.

Once in a great while a set of twins plays for the Huskers, including Josh and Daniel Bullocks (2001-2004). The 2015 recruit class includes another pair in Khalil and Carlos Davis, whose uncle is former Husker Lorenzo Hicks. The two freshmen are redshirting this year.

More than a few uncles, nephews and cousins have shared a familial Nebraska football lineage. There’ve been some father-son sets as well as father-son-grandson combos.

Some Husker brother duos have achieved fame on different sides of the ball (Grant and Tracey Wistrom) but most left their mark on the same side of the field, usually defense. Clete and Jim Pillen, Toby and Jimmy Williams, Christian and Jason Pete were all defensive stalwarts as were the Craver, Shanle and Booker brothers. In most cases, brother sets have been solid contributors rather than stars. That’s true of the Cottons, only that clan added a generational element. The patriarch, Barney, played at NU and sons Jake, Ben and now Sam have suited up for the Big Red. He coached two of them.

Waves of brothers come and go. The 1998 through 2003 classes saw a bumper crop. There was a dry spell until Jake and Spencer Long and the Cotton boys came long. More than a decade passed between Kris Brown and his much younger brother Drew playing for NU.

Saturday’s gridiron warriors are the subject of intense scrutiny at a Nebraska. When siblings wear the scarlet and cream, one’s success creates expectations for the other. It doesn’t always happen but more often than not success does carry over.

Four sets of siblings emblematic of this family heritage tradition are the Craigs (Curtis and Roger), the Makovickas (Jeff and Joel), the Ruuds (Barrett and Bo) and the Kelsays (Chad and Chris) Standout players, all. The Craigs and Makovickas did their thing on offense, while the Ruuds and Kelsays did theirs on defense. In each case, a younger brother followed an older brother’s lead. Their stories reveal genetics play a role, as do shared traits and values. Having a brother precede you or be there helps, but you still have to earn it yourself.

Curtis Craig was a Big Deal at Davenport (Iowa) Central High in the early 1970s. The all-everything back selected NU over other powerhouse programs. Bothered by a nagging high ankle sprain suffered at the end of his prep career, he never played I-back in Lincoln but found his niche at wingback.

By his senior year, his little brother Roger was making hay back in Davenport playing for the same coaches, Jim Fox and Jack Leabo, who mentored him. Separated by almost five years, Curtis was conscious of being a model for those behind him.

“I’m the oldest of seven kids,” he says. “The younger ones were watching me because they looked up to me, so I felt I had to step up and set the example. All I was doing was giving back what was given to me. That’s kind of how the tradition is. Whatever you learn in your time you look to give back to those trying to follow your footsteps.”

Roger took careful note of his big brother.

“I always followed him. He was kind of like my hero as a kid growing up. He was a great role model for me. He did all the right things. Without him I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Roger, who starred at I-back and fullback at NU before a Hall of Fame-worthy NFL career.

Roger credits hanging around and playing pickup games with Curtis and his buddies for helping mature him beyond his years.

“I watched how he trained and practiced and I got in there and did things with him.”

Curtis says he was motivated to earn a college scholarship because his folks couldn’t afford to pay for school. His experience exposed Roger to NU coaches and provided an inside look at the program.

“I told him this is what’s going to happen, this is what you need to do.”

Curtis didn’t have that luxury when he arrived at NU.

“I didn’t have anybody to tell me what to do when I got there. I had to just kind of figure it out and then go from there.”

When Curtis was a senior he was still putting Roger through his paces

“He worked with me. He was like a coach,” Roger says.

Big brother touted his little brother to Husker coaches.

Curtis recalls, “I knew he was going to have the possibility to do more than what I did. I said to the staff, ‘ You need to go look at my brother, he’s going to be a good one,’ They did and the rest is history. When you come from a family that has a scholarship athlete the coaches always go back to try and recruit your siblings who are good athletes, too.”

As a tribute to Curtis, whose No. 33 was retired at Davenport Central, Roger wore that number with the San Francisco 49rs.

“I carried Curt with me in the NFL,” Roger says. “I have a lot of respect for my brother.”

NOTE The other brothers profiled in the piece are Chris and Chad Kelsay and Jeff and Joel Makovicka.

Father Ken Vavrina CROSSING BRIDGES News

September 26, 2015 Leave a comment

CB Interior Chapter 11 V SMALL SIZE with album and front cover 08_14_15

Father Ken Vavrina CROSSING BRIDGES News:

My new book with Father Ken Vavrina, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden,” has been selling out at The Bookworm. It’s available there, at other select bookstores, on Amazon and Kindle and through Uplifting Publishing at

The November issue of the New Horizons newspaper will carry my cover story about Father Vavrina.

Thanks to the pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Omaha, Father Mike Eckley, for referencing the book in the parish newsletter. I’ve copied Fr. Eckley’s message to the congregation below, He uses the book’s subject – Fr. Ken’s life serving the poorest of the poor as a missionary for Mother Teresa and for Catholic Relief Services – as a jumping off point to discuss matters of charity and poverty.

You can order the book at the link below.

“Before I started writing this on Labor Day afternoon, I went through the mail I received over the weekend. Among the mail there was a package with a book, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden. It was a gift from Fr. Ken Vavrina, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Omaha, who is also the author of the book. Last week I was at the Priest Council Meeting in Schyuler. It was a 2 day meeting and on Monday night, we were sitting around telling stories. It was mentioned a few times to one of my brother priest who was telling some extraordinary stories that he should write a book. Fr. Ken has actually done it. He has had an extraordinary life working among the poor both here in this Diocese and throughout the world. I’ve heard some of his stories and look forward to reading his book. He has worked among Lepers and has worked hand in hand with Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.

“Blessed Teresa, Fr. Ken, Pope Francis and many others among us show us their faith not only in there model of prayer but in their actions. St. James in today’s Second Reading talks about the relationship of our faith to our works. He states, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Our faith must come forth in the way we choose to live our lives. It is not just about coming to celebrate the Eucharist or praying regularly but also how those things influence how we live and most importantly, how we reach out to those in need.

“The film, Mother Teresa, shows her looking over a house being prepared for the nuns in San Francisco. A priest narrates, “I was gently informed that the springs could go, the mattresses could go, the carpeting …” A workman then explained the workings of the building’s hot water heater, and the nun lightly tells him, “I don’t think we will be needing it. For us to be able to understand the poor, we must know what poverty is.”

“I know for myself I would not be able to live without hot water, especially during the winter months. As I write this I’ve been on the phone with Cox Communication because the new boxes they put into the rectory are not receiving ESPN and I wanted to watch the Ohio State Game tonight. I’m feeling very put out at the moment. Watching a football game on cable is definitely a luxury and I’m not happy. It is hard to imagine living without a necessity, which I consider hot water to be one of those necessities. I admire and am challenged by those who radically live their faith.

“I’m not suggesting we turn off the hot water heaters at home or throw out our beds. What I am suggesting though is if we are serious about living our faith, we should look at ways we can simplify our daily lives and be more attentive to the needs of others. As James says, “Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.” For those who would like to order Fr. Ken’s book, you can go to All proceeds of the book will go to Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Omaha.”


Order your copy of Crossing Bridges at

Blank bookcover with clipping path

Blank bookcover with clipping path

Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad: Creative Siblings Move Past Labels to Make Their Marks

September 15, 2015 Leave a comment

Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad are so over being known as openly gay siblings and that is of course a credit to them and how it should be.  But if you’re a journalist assigned to cover them as I was for this story then that facet of their identity and being, even though it’s just one facet, has to be addressed.  Why?  Well, it is a part of their humanity.  It is also a point of curiosity and interest that cannot be denied or ignored or wished away.  And so so this story about Jocelyn and Deven attempts to strike a balance in its portrayal of them, neither spending too much space or giving too much attention to their sexual orientation nor avoiding it.  In fact, I decided to broach the subject and their matter-of-fact, it’s-no-big-deal attitude about it right up front.  My Omaha Magazine ( profile of this dynamic brother and sister – he is a champion dancer and she is an emerging singer-songwriter – hopefully establishes them as compelling, destined-for-big-things individuals you should know about not because they happen to be gay siblings but because they have much to offer with their talent and intellect.  Something tells me we will be hearing from them as time goes on and as they hone their fabulousness and reach ever greater heights.




Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad

Creative Siblings Move Past Labels to Make Their Marks

August 26, 2015
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (

Since coming out a few years ago, Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad have been known as “the gay siblings.” But as a LGBT Nebraskans profile put it: “That’s one of the least interesting things about them.”

Jocelyn’s a promising singer-songwriter with an old-soul spirit. A May graduate of Millard South, where she was named prom princess, she can be found performing her sweet-sad love tunes on Old Market street corners and at open mic nights around town. Her from-the-heart work, some featured in YouTube videos, has attracted the attention of the music industry. She recently sang during open mic sessions at the legendary Whiskey a Go-Go in L.A. and the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. She plans to return to L.A. this summer.

Her goal is to write hit records. She’s currently creating songs for what she hopes is her debut album on a major label.

Deven has been selected as a touring performing artist with The Young Americans, a nonprofit group founded 50 years ago to promote understanding and goodwill through the arts. The charismatic junior-to-be at Midland University in Fremont recently helped his school’s competitive dance team win two national titles with his dynamic hip hop, jazz, and pompom routines.

In high school he starred in musical theater before becoming the first male dance team member and being voted Mr. Millard South. At Midland he was crowned Freshman Homecoming Prince.

These creatives fiercely support their individual expressions and dimensions. For a long time it was Deven who sang and Jocelyn who danced. As kids they became determined to swap lives.

“What I love about us is that I know she’s the singer of the family and she knows I’m the dancer…and we kind of leave it as is,” Deven says. ”We do our own thing, we have our own thing, so we don’t get jealous of each other. But we also love to share what we’re doing.”

The siblings not only identify as gay, but also Caucasian, African-American, and Chinese. They have encountered racism, both subtle and overt. Through everything, including a childhood when their father wasn’t around much and they made do with less than their friends, these two have been simpatico. Of course, the siblings also sometimes stole each other’s clothes.

“We feed off each other and we respect one another,” Jocelyn says. “We’ve always had each other. We have this bond. He’s always pushed me. He’s very real, very blunt. He’ll tell you what’s up.”

Though brutally honest about her first vocalizing attempts, he worked with her. Most of all, he reminded her they come from a loving family that supports whatever interest any member follows.

“He showed me there’s no such thing as trying,” she continues. “You do it or you don’t do it. That’s what he’s done with his dancing. He’s very inspiring. I look up to him a lot.”

Tough love is necessary if you expect to get better, Deven says. “That’s why I’m hard on her on some things and that’s why people are hard on me. I love being pushed, I love reaching for a new goal.”

Though not surprised by Jocelyn’s success, he’s impressed by how far his little sister has come since picking up the guitar less than three years ago.

“She’s growing up really fast. She holds herself very well. She’s different every time I listen to her. It’s literally a whole new voice. Jocelyn is making strides like it’s nobody’s business. She’s doing what she feels she needs to do to succeed.”

Jocelyn has surrounded herself with veteran musicians who’ve taught her stagecraft and the business side of music. She considers the defunct Side Door Lounge, where she played extensively, “the best schooling I’ve ever had in my life,” adding, “Just being there experiencing everything, meeting musicians, having jam sessions—that one venue changed the rest of my life.”

Deven’s refined his own craft through dance camps and workshops.

“I know if I want something in life I have to work for it,” he says. “I love that the things I have are because I worked my ass off for it. I’m very appreciative of what I have. That’s really shaped who I am.”

As life’s grown more hectic between rehearsals, school, and work, the release that comes in dance, he says, is more precious than ever.

“It kind of makes me forget about everything going on in life,” he says. “It’s the one thing I love to do.”

When the vibe’s just right during a set, Jocelyn gets lost in the music, deep inside herself, connecting with the audience.

“It just makes you feel your highest self,” she says. Jocelyn feels the chances coming her way are, “happening for a reason. You create your own destiny and your own luck.”


Tim Christian: Changing the Face of Film in Nebraska

September 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Tim Christian may not look the part of a revolutionary figure in his three-piece suit and with his button-down manner, but what he’s doing in the film space in his hometown of Omaha is provocative enough to be considered far on the fringe stuff.  Well, at least it’s breaking new ground and shaking things up in this relative film financing wasteland.  My Omaha Magazine ( profile of Christian and what he’s doing that’s getting people’s attention follows.  Watch for a future story about Christian and his film endeavors on this blog. I have a distinct feeling I will be writing about him and his film projects for years to come.



Tim Christian

Tim Christian

Changing the Face of Film in Nebraska


September 9, 2015
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (

Nebraska lacks an infrastructure to support a film industry. Omaha Creighton Prep graduate Timothy Christian is trying to change that. After years away pursuing a music industry and new media career, he’s returned to base his feature film financing and production company, Night Fox Entertainment, here.

Where most local film ventures are micro-sized with no-name talent, Christian backs real projects with $10 million-plus budgets boasting recognizable cast and crew. Case in point, Z for Zachariah. Shot in New Zealand, the post-apocalyptic drama stars Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine. It’s directed by Craig Zobel, whose 2012 Compliance made waves. Z netted strong reviews at Sundance and will get a 2015 theatrical release.

In post-production now is the thriller Headlock starring Andy Garcia, Justin Bartha, and Dianna Agron.

Night Fox further limits investor exposure by only financing pictures with strong pre-foreign sales, capping individual contributions, and spreading capital around several projects. That model is securing local movers and shakers to buy into projects, including Tenaska’s recently retired Paul Smith, also a Night Fox partner.

Christian says film financing can be a “tough sell to people who are of a conservative investment nature,” adding, “They need to see kind of black and white what you have, what you’re doing, how the money looks, so we have to make sure the approach is right.” Once it “makes sense,” he says investors “are all interested in being part of growing a business not prominent in Omaha.”

Besides, having a piece of a project with stars, premieres, awards, trailers, and posters has a “cool” factor other opportunities don’t offer.

More than anything, Christian says people invest in him.

“People have to like you. Even if they don’t like the other people involved, they have to like you. If they don’t like you, they’re not going to want to work with you or give you their money.”

Being a Nebraskan helps him relate to investors.

“They like to deal with someone away from that Hollywood mindset. They want a straight shooter, someone who they deem as honest and down-home who has Midwest values. That goes a long way.”

Upon meeting him for the first time, some folks reveal surprise that he’s African-American.

“Once they understand I know the business, I know what I’m talking about, I know how to protect their money, then all that goes out the window.”

As a Nebraska film financier, he’s already an outlier. As an African-American doing it, he’s pushing new boundaries.

“From a cultural standpoint I think it’s really significant because it gives some hope to other young African-Americans in terms of what they can do. That means a lot.”

Christian, married with one child, mentors at Jesuit Middle School in North Omaha.

An advantage to being in Nebraska (Night Fox also has an office in L.A.) is giving investors first shots at projects otherwise being shopped only on the coasts.

His next step in making the state a film player is East Texas Hot Links adapted from the Eugene Lee play. Omaha’s own John Beasley is a producer and actor in it. Samuel L. Jackson is an executive producer. The film may shoot in-state. If not, Christian’s committed to bringing future projects here as he believes film production can be an economic engine that employs people and boosts tourism.

Tim Christian 2

FINDING HOME: With its own home, the Blue Barn completes a long road to creating edgy theater

September 1, 2015 Leave a comment

Omaha has institutional-type theaters and grassroots-type theaters.  For most of its life the Blue Barn Theatre has been of the grassroots variety but now that a major capital campaign has allowed it to build its first permanent home, the Blue Barn is suddenly in a far more secure position than ever before.  Of course, that “suddenly” only came after decades of passion, struggle, invention and equity in building community capital.  And once the theater called in its chips and started rasing funds for the project, great pains were taken to retain its edgy, independent, homemade spirit in the beautiful new digs.  On a personal note, fate decreed that I write three stories about the Blue Barn’s momentous move into this new space, and for three separate publications no less, and all this after years of not writing about Blue Barn.  This is the second of those pieces and it appears in the September 2015 issue of The Reader (

FINDING HOME: With its own home, the Blue Barn completes a long road to creating edgy theater

Past, present, future converge in new space

Appeaing in the September 2015 issue of The Reader (

Until now the Blue Barn Theatre has been like Omaha’s many other small stage companies by operating on a shoestring in makeshift spaces. This grassroots passion project was born of a band of New York drama school transplants afire with the idea of starting their own troupe. Relying more on creativity, charity, thriftiness and ingenuity than real budgets, they mounted plays in rented and borrowed spaces.

Suddenly, Blue Barn’s done the unthinkable for such a by-the-seat-of-your-pants endeavor by parlaying years of scommunity equity and creative capital to build its own space. It’s Omaha’s first purpose-build independent theater to go up in decades. The arresting new digs at 10th and Pacific are the result of Blue Barn staying the course, remaining true to itself and letting philanthropists catch up to the edgy aesthetic that’s gained it a loyal following.

The theater occupied several improvised spaces from its start in 1988, never really securing a place to call its own. It did find stability at the 11th and Jackson Old Market warehouse site where it was housed the last several years. Though hamstrung by cramped quarters not really suited for theater and lacking amenities, Blue Barn made the intimate environment – exposed vents and all – work. Blue Barn personalized it with help from artists designing original posters and custom fixtures.

The new theater – part of a mixed used site with residential units, a restaurant and a public garden – features enlarged, upgraded facilities and a flex indoor-outdoor space opening onto the garden. As an ode to its name, the exterior evokes a hand-raised barn via weathered steel walls framed by rebar poles and the roof’s pitched gables. The interior captures the old Blue Barn in hand-crafted floor and wall elements. The theater seats are from the former site. The way the audience enters the auditorium follows the flow of the old space. Splashes of blue recur throughout.

The new theater is the culmination of a vision shared by original Blue Barners’ Kevin Lawler, Hughston Walkinshaw, Nils Haaland and Mary Theresa Green. Some took turns at the helm. Each moved on, though never breaking ties. All but Green attended the SUNY-Purchase theater school. Her then-marriage to Lawler brought her into the fold. As the legend goes, Lawler was visiting Omaha when Old Market denizens embraced his theater dream and offered space to realize it in. He got Walkinshaw and Haaland to come join him. Clement-Toberer arrived a year later. She’s now led Blue Barn longer than anyone.

Kevin Lawler

The group’s deep, familiar kinship was evident one August morning at the new space. Emotions ran high during a tour and roundtable discussion. All agree the site fulfills what they once only dared imagine.

“Yes, it is the embodiment of a dream,” Lawler said.. “It’s just glorious to see. When we were in school in New York we’d go to these small off-Broadway places and see incredible theater and I grew up in Minneapolis where there are a lot of small incredible theaters just like this. So that was always a dream and to see Susan be able to make that happen for the Blue Barn in Omaha is amazing.”

“Every dream we’ve had in our entire existence is embodied in this building and we can keep dreaming,” Walkinshaw said.

Realizing that dream has been replete with challenges, including one space that burned down and people who burned-out.

“It’s been a road,” Clement-Toberer said.

Keeping it going meant digging into personal finances.

“A lot of sacrifices, big life sacrifices,” Lawler said. “There’s blood, sweat and tears in here. Nobody at this table has a retirement account. Nobody at this table probably has a savings account. We’ve all given our adult lives into making this art. The rewards have been with each other and the people we’ve been able to share stories with, and you couldn’t ask for more than that. So, yeah, there’s a lot invested.”

Susan Clement-Toberer

Susan Clement-Toberer

They say it’s all been worth it, given how far Blue Barn’s come.

“There were times we were homeless and there were times where there was a real chance the theater wasn’t even going to survive.,” Walkinshaw said. “Now it has, and I’ll tell you what, I breathe a lot easier, I don’t have to worry about the Blue Barn sustaining. I feel relieved now – like the Blue Barn way will continue now permanentlyand all the sacrifices we made and the passion we gave now will live.

“We survived long enough that the town made this happen. It made Film Streams happen, it made Saddle Creek (Records) happen. It found those art forms a little bit earlier. Now it’s made this happen.”

For Clement-Toberer it means, “now we know we have a home that we can create in where we can dream big, we can dream in ways and forms of storytelling we were never able to do before.”

Walkinshaw said the new building is “the final stage” of Blue Barn’s evolution “in terms of having a permanent place to live, but this permanent place to live also has endless possibilities for what the Blue Barn can do in terms of storytelling and play production.”

“To have your own space is pretty phenomenal,” said Haaland, who acts there. “There’s a long list of people that have definitely helped us out. I can’t help but have tremendous respect for all those who have sort of paved the way. Mary and Kevin saved it a number of times out of their own pocket. Hughston stood up and was the leader for a long time. Kevin led for a very long time. And then I’m truly just humbled by what Susan has done. It does take one person to lead and she has done just an exemplary job. I mean, we are very fortunate to have her.”

Hughston Walkinshaw

Green said, “I’m very moved just by the generosity of everybody coming together to put this together. It’s breathtaking, really, the scope of how beautiful it is. It’s gorgeous. It’s a testament to the community’s support for the theater all of these years.”

The Blue Barn’s long been a darling of Omaha tastemakers, with the likes of Alexander Payne among its fan-support base. But it only recently got corporate sponsors such as Omaha Steaks and donors such as developer-philanthropist Nancy Mammel to buy in.

Despite many lean years the theater gained enough credibility to launch a capital campaign to fund construction of the new site as well as raise funds for an operating budget and endowment.

Clement-Toberer said that in the process of Blue Barn gaining its first permanent home her main concern was maintaining the theater’s funky, grassroots identity and intimate relationship with patrons.

“The biggest struggle for this building in creating our home has been to keep the Blue Barn voice clear and pure to who we are and to how we create theater. Everybody thinks they know what a theater should be and how we should produce theater. Even with this major transition of moving into our own space there have been times where people say, ‘But that’s not how you do that in theater, you need to do it this way.’ Well, we don’t have to do it that way.

“If we want to change something after we’ve opened, we change it because it’s not instinctually, organically right for the story.”

Cover Photo

Mary Theresa Green said the Blue Barn way is a process born of freedom, exploration and seizing inspiration where you find it, whether repurposing materials or calling in favors for props and set pieces.

“To me, it means producing something very organically and from a place of love and hope,” Green said. “Like the found objects and somebody who just happens to know somebody who has free things we can use and put together. Because everyone is so creative and imaginative and free and almost very childlike in creating the pieces, they become these deeply beautiful shows that really affect and touch people, way beyond just basic entertainment.

“I mean, a Blue Barn show to me is something where each audience member will take their own personal journey inside of themselves and connect with it on a really deep level personally.”

“A lot of times we are still scrapping, getting what we can to put up last minute stuff,” Haaland said. “But I think it’s really evolved now in that it’s much more methodical. With age there’s so much more experience, wisdom and maturity.”

Nils Haaland

 Nils Haaland

Lawler, now Great Plains Theatre Conference producing artistic director, described Blue Barn’s guiding ethos.

“There’s a certain type of show I think we all just loved when we saw it and if I had to put it into words, it’s like what any great work of art will do when you see it or partake in it, you walk away from it being cracked open as a person and looking at and feeling the world differently. Even if it’s an incremental amount of growth, it happens, and it’s very distinct. You can ask all of us and we all knew then this is what we wanted to facilitate with every show we put up.

“It’s like, we don’t have any money, all we have is ourselves, but somehow we’re going to get to the heart of this story so deeply it will facilitate this experience of opening up a compassion, and the people who come and share in the story will have that experience. That to me has been the seed of the whole thing from the beginning.

“And then all this has happened around it,” Lawler said.

Clement-Toberer, who with managing director Shannon Walenta built the theater’s business side to balance the artistic side, believes she knows why the community’s repeatedly come through with support.

“I think it’s pretty simple – it’s our mission. What we do on stage has not changed over the years. Matured a little bit, which I think is good. But I think it’s the stories we tell and the way we produce theater. And the way we built this theater is the way we also produce theater – the Blue Barn way, which is found objects that become magnificent and sets we build at cost but create a great vessel to tell a story. Our budget’s a little higher but I’m still digging through dumpsters.

“I think this building is a great manifestation of the history all of our work over the ears and of our training at Purchase. It’s been the common thread and people have connected to that. We know how to tell a great story and how to produce a show without forgetting the heart of the piece.”

She found the right interpreters to articulate these things in the building in Joshua Dachs from New York-based international theater space planning and consulting firm Fisher Dachs and in architect Jeff Day of the Omaha and San Francisco-based architectural firm MinDay.

Jeff Day

“I think she sensed I would understand where she was coming from, which I did,” Dachs said. “When I visited the Blue Barn it was clear it’s a kind of artisanal handmade theater company. The old space had amazing show posters designed by artist friends – beautiful woodcuts and lino-prints – as well as handmade ceramics by Susan’s husband (Dan Toberer) and a hand-carved wood counter by an artist friend.

“The whole place had this wonderful, very specific spirit. And the biggest fear she had and that I wanted to help her avoid is that in moving to a new building it would somehow get sterilized and become generic and no longer reflect the spirit of the company and the character of the place it’s built up over many years.”

The very things bound up in Blue Barn drew Dachs to the project.

“What captured my imagination was the special quality and character of the Blue Barn,” he said. “It’s incredibly unique. The sort of mythology of how it was born and all of the artists that have played a role in making it what it is. The idea that this kind of artisanal theater company was going to make itself a home and fight the urge to become grand and formal and all of the things that happen a lot.”

Dachs admires the uncompromising stand Clement-Toberer’s taken to stay true to Blue Barn and not go for the slick or the inflated, like the 300-seat theater some pressured her to pursue. The new theater accommodates about the same number of patrons, 96, as before.

“It takes a really strong leader to fight that inclination and to stay within your means and to build something that’s right-sized, so that it can endure and sustain itself into the future. That’s really hard to do. But she’s really smart.”

Architect Jeff Day said, “There was a very strict sense of budget, so we knew from the very beginning how much they could spend on the building, and Susan was really on top of things to make sure this was achievable. We had to cut things out here and there. She was willing to make sacrifices on things they don’t really need.

“It’s not a showy building in the sense of being super-refined. It’s really a place for improvisation. We’re trying to leave a certain amount of open-endedness to it. The intention is that the building will allow them to grow into it and modify it over time. It’s really an evolving space. We thought of it as a framework for them.”

Mary Theresa Green

Just as Dachs did, Day found the project appealing because of how the theater does things.

“Blue Barn likes to think of itself as experimental and challenging,” Day said. “They’re not afraid of doing edgier things that might shock people or cause people to think. Obviously for an architect that’s exciting because it sort of gives us justification to do things that are unfamiliar as well, which we love to do.

“From a planning standpoint probably the most unique feature is that the back of the stage can open up to the covered outdoor space – we call it a porch yard. Then that opens up to the garden, so you really get continuity from theater to city. They can close the doors and have an acoustically-sealed space that will work like a black box or studio theater or they can open it up and have these events with really unique stagings.”

Many ways were found to give the new site the handmade qualities that distinguished the previous venue.

“There’s a lot of character in that theater which draws directly from the Blue Barn’s old space,” Day said. “It was really an attempt to break away from the neutrality of the black box theater type. For example, the old Blue Barn had this warehouse column structure and without replicating we brought some large timbers into the space to help create a framed area around the seating.”

Clement-Toberer calls it “the nest.”

Blue Barn Theatre Omaha's photo.

“It brings the scale down to just slightly bigger than the old Blue Barn,” Day said. “It gives the sense of intimacy they’ve had while creating a sense of texture and character.”

Since collaboration is a hallmark of the company, the theater commissioned artists in different media to contribute their talents. The heavy timbers used in the new theater’s eight columns were salvaged and milled by Dan Toberer, a ceramist who collects felled trees and sawmill scraps he variously repurposes or uses in his wood-fired kiln.

“We identified different elements that could be turned over to artists and they weren’t working necessarily under our direction,” Day said.

Toberer also created original ceramic pieces and built the sinks in the bathrooms. He also sourced scrap wood that contractors used to clad the theater box in.

Omaha artist Michael Morgan did a piece of the lobby and vestibule in dark grey bricks with blue glazing.

Kris Kemp from the Hot Shops fabricated the enormous rear door that opens onto the green space.

Jim Woodhill of Kansas City, Mo. did lighting elements and furniture.

For Day, everything works together to create a mystique.

“I think of it as it almost being a character in a play. You can’t escape the fact this is the Blue Barn Theatre when you’re in there.”

Joshua Dachs

He said the theater’s been designed with the eclectic character of its delightfully messy residential-commercial surroundings in mind.

“It does replicate sort of in a way some of the forms you might find in this neighborhood, which is really mixed up. So the idea was to make this complex of buildings feel like it’s part of that.”

Much thought was put into the theater’s setting since it’s now part of a robust South 10th Corridor with the Old Market, the Durham Museum, the House of Loom, KETV, Little Italy, Cascio’s. No More Empty Cups and the Bancroft Street Market. Vic Gutman’s coming Omaha Market will be just to the south of the Blue Barn-Boxcar complex.

“It’s a site in the city that’s very prominent,” Day said. “It could be a demonstration for other ways Omaha could think about development. The fact that we essentially have three projects on one site all working together is quite unique. We’re thinking of this as a microcosm of the city that has public space, nonprofit cultural space and private space. We sought to design this as kind of an urban arts hub.”

Even with the new theater, Clement-Toberer’s wish list is not quite complete where the Blue Barn’s concerned. She said the family-like dynamic she and the founders used to fire their work together is something she’d like to recapture there.

“It makes me wish for an underwriter to underwrite something here like the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky, where we all could be under this roof daily, creating. I’m waiting for the corporation in Omaha progressive enough to realize their connection with art will make whatever it is they do grow as well. I’m waiting – they’re out there.”

Blue Barn opens its 27th season on Sept. 24 with The Grown-Up. For details and tickets, visit


Omaha’s Culinary Culture Rises: Dedicated Local Chefs Elevate Your Dining Experience

August 30, 2015 Leave a comment

I don’t know if thinking about food a good deal of the time and preparing things from scratch once or twice a week qualifies me as a foodie, but in truth I am somewhere between the eating to live and living to eat camps.  Wherever I fall on the spectrum, I do know enough about good food to know when I see it and taste it.  And while my resources don’t allow me to dine out nearly as much as my curiosity and palate would have me, I try enough of the local culinary scene and read enough about it too to have a fair appreciation for what’s happening in terms of the players, the cuisines, the menus, and the venues that are trending hot.  Anyone with a pulse who’s paid attention and sampled even a small portion of Omaha’s culinary culture the past decade knows that the city is in the midst of a food renaissance of sorts that’s seeing more and more highly trained chef owners taking the farm to table movement seriously and serving up diverse offerings that highlight local, fresh, seasonal ingredients and products.   In that spirit, here is a new Reader ( feature story I did that explores some of what’s making the Omaha culinary culture a much discussed topic.  I sounded out some chef movers and shakers making it happen as well as others with a perspective on this fluid, dynamic scene.

Omaha’s Culinary Culture Rises

Dedicated Local Chefs Elevate Your Dining Experience

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the September 2015 issue of The Reader (

If you’re an Omaha foodie who believes as many do the local dining out experience has never been better, then you can thank an infusion of original chef-driven and chef-owned eateries for it.

Not coincidentally, many of these places are steeped in the locally-sourced, organic, farm-to-table, artisan, and made-from-scratch movements. Classically trained culinary artists have built relationships with area growers and producers, in some cases designing seasonal and even daily menus around what’s at its peak of freshness and flavor.

Grey Plume chef-owner Clayton Chapman, a strong adherent and leader of the sustainable model, says there are about 50 grower-producers he works with on a regular basis.

“It’s a good healthy number. Some folks grow seasonally, some grow year-round. Some are local, some are in western Nebraska, and some are in Iowa. We work with a few as far as Jefferson, SD and Caledonia, Minn. I feel like our list is vast and it continues to grow.”

The Omaha research and design collaborative, Emerging Terrain, helped bring chefs and purveyors together at two events; 2010’s Stored Potential’s Harvest Dinner and 2011’s Elevate, which some point to as tipping points.

“Those events were so ambitious, so crucial in interconnecting the community,” says Chef Paul Kulik, the driving force behind the Boiler Room and Le Bouillon. “I know we were introduced to a bunch of new suppliers and growers that were extremely helpful. That’s when I really saw through the looking glass.”

 Emerging Terrain dinner

The Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society holds similar events, including the annual Producers Choice and monthly Sustainability Happy Hour.

Metropolitan Community College’s marriage of its well-ranked Institute for Culinary Arts with its Horticulture Department is considered cutting-edge. MCC instructor chefs like Brian O’Malley champion a local foods infrastructure. ICA graduates permeate the local restaurant scene.

Chapman took things to the next level with his Grey Plume Provisions store which opened last summer.

“It only increases our network of farmers because of the volume we’re purchasing. We really wanted to be able to provide the Grey Plume quality of food – the marmalades, the jams, the preserves, our house-roasted coffees, our series of hand-crafted chocolate, the charcuterie – but in an every-day accessible retail format for the home consumer.”

The sustainable, farm-to-table culinary ethos is nothing new. It’s been around since the time of Escoffier, but largely dissolved in America, only to be rediscovered by Alice Waters in California in the late 1960s-early 1970s. In Omaha the trend never quite took hold until recently. Now local chefs such as Chapman, Kulik, and Bryce Coulton of the French Bulldog, are earning national attention for their rigorous and creative applications of old and new philosophies.

“It’s really supply and demand,” Chapman says. “It’s the demand of chefs because we want the best ingredients available. We want to know where our ingredients are coming from. We want to know the farmers, ranchers, and growers raising these products. I think there’s a lot of guest requests for us to procure these items. They want to see them on the menus, too, and it’s because the dining public has never been as educated into what they’re eating, and the health benefits of eating organic, local, or seasonal as they are now .

“There’s so much more attention to it in the media that it’s really kind of come full circle from consumer to chef to farmer, and it’s really kind of putting us all on the same playing field, which is neat.”

 Clayton Chapman

Whether Omaha truly has a signature culinary culture is debatable, but what’s not is that a city long pegged as a steakhouse town, albeit with some continental fine dining spots thrown in, has changed its profile. It’s hard imagining Omaha has ever boasted this depth of culinary talent and diversity of highly executed cuisines before. This critical mass of good food, served in settings that range from fine dining to ultra-casual, and found in virtually every part of the metro, comes just as customers are more discerning and demanding.

“There are a lot of wealthy Omahans who travel domestically and abroad and they see these things happening everywhere and they want it here,” says Dante Ristorante Pizzeria chef owner Nick Strawhecker, an evangelist for wood-fired Neapolitan pizza. “We have so many regulars, they’ve seen the light and they will not go back to the dark again, and it’s fantastic.”

Omaha is developing distinct dining districts to complement its one holdover, the Old Market. A local food tourism industry is in sight as Downtown, Midtown, Dundee, Benson, South Omaha and West Omaha roll out ever more interesting restaurants and food stores.

It’s a happy convergence of trends for diners, who have far more good options today than even five years ago. There is promise of more to come as some sous chefs and line cooks working at top end places invariably launch their own concepts.

“Because you are seeing more and more Omaha restaurants worthy of that type of apprenticeship or up to that sort of training challenge, it really creates a kind of self-sustaining circle of chefs,” Chapman says.

 Paul Kulik

Kulik agrees, saying, “They’re going to take these work habits into their take on a new place. This is why I think it’s not a flash in the pan but a durable change. You have enough people realizing that as an investor, you can probably make money in a restaurant that cares.”

Kulik has a long history on the Omaha culinary scene, and like many of his peers he left here to hone his craft under top chefs across America and Europe. He may best sum up the state of then and now with, “It’s really tough to say 10 years ago there was anything relevant to the national food conversation coming out of Omaha at all. The kind of dynamism and enthusiasm happening now is a trend I expect will continue. It’s just about as significant a turnaround as you can imagine.”

He suggests the culinary evolution has caught up with the arts-cultural-entrepreneurial growth that’s witnessed a more confident, vibrant city.

“About 20 years ago the conversation around town amongst people who cared about cooking and restaurants was whether Omaha was ready for this or for that. Fifteen years later we opened the Boiler Room and that conversation hadn’t changed one iota. The reality is, much like any professional field, it is incumbent on the professionals to maintain the highest level of continuing education, curiosity, development, enrichment, energy, focus and drive to keep the conversation moving forward.

“The food scene cannot simply wait for the sea of change to happen from the customer first, it has to be driven by professionals.”

His declaration of principles, or food manifesto, is shared by many.

“We’re trying to update the dining culture to make it so that it’s kind of entered into the 21st century and in some ways returned to the 19th century, which is to say going back to real products,” Kulik says.

He believes it didn’t happen earlier here because of “a prevailing sentiment in the market to simply continue on and customers settling for what they were accustomed to getting. I think that lethargy of curiosity bled over to the culinary, professional side, where any white table cloth, continental cuisine kitchen was essentially serving the same dish, buying product from the same two or three vendors, with almost no thought about the distinguishing traits of regionalism, of raw products, of raw food techniques, which is taking food that came of the earth that day and maximizing its potential on the plate.”

Life many of his contemporaries, he’s excited by the sophisticated beverage and craft cocktail programs to have emerged in Omaha. He says until now “beverage programs tailored to menus didn’t exist here,” adding, “So now what’s really thrilling is you have determined, in some cases courageous or stubborn cooks and chefs offering the food and the menus they feel most passionate about and are most excited to offer their guests.”

“You don’t go to every restaurant and expect to receive an identical menu,” Kulik says. “Restaurants now can be distinguishable from each other. When that happens you have specialization of labor. Someone can do a particular brand or type of food enough times to become a true expert at that skill set. This is what’s happening now and it’s happening to such a degree that you’re not only getting the chefs doing this but the rest of the kitchen staff. It’s having the ability to do a product thousands and thousands of times, whether it’s the right kind of bread or pizza crust or house made pasta or charcuterie or butchering whole animals or working with farmers.”

Bryce Coulton

Bryce Coulton, whose French Bulldog has won awards for its charcuterie, brought authentic influences here from training he did abroad. He’s bullish on the quality of diverse culinary traditions available.

“We now have Omakase (style of sushi) in Benson. Charcuterie is quite commonplace and has more options than just old-school butcher options African cuisine is now within reach. Pastas are handmade and dishes are just as would be found in Italy, and I lived in Puglia for five years. The whole animal concept is a matter-of-course and it’s not just ribeye, New York strip, et cetera as our steak options. This diversity is part of what has made the culinary scene better. That we’re focusing on local products is another aspect that forces cooks to be more aware of the seasons and prepare a menu and dishes accordingly.”

Bosnian native Dario Schicke, chef-owner of Dario’s Brassiere and Avoli Osteria, has seen a big difference since moving to Omaha in 2002.

“You’d have a really hard time even finding fresh mozzarella on the market. Now restaurants are serving more fresh ingredients we can get from either coast shipped overnight and utilize them in our menu as soon as the next day. That’s a huge improvement in the aspect of all ingredients being available to us. More farmers are being more restaurant-oriented and it’s kind of pushing local chefs, including myself, to use better, fresher local ingredients.”

Dario Schicke


Kukik describes the benefits a diner like himself experiences at a place featuring this considered, well-articulated approach.

“I’m someone who loves to get taken care of at a restaurant, and I love to be able to have a conversation with the sommelier or the bartender about what beverage makes sense with this, what’s on their bar back, why are they pouring this, why are they into sour beer or cider. These are all parts of the conversation I get to have now because they cared enough, they spent enough time

and energy and money to educate themselves for my benefit.”

“For me, as a diner I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than going to a place and understanding that the people working there care more about my experience than I do. Now there are all these people who are so committed to their craft that it matters deeply and personally if they haven’t given the experience the guest wanted. This is such a huge change compared to before, when after service everyone was partying until 4 in the morning and dragging themselves back to work the next day to deal with the rigors of service or being in the industry, throwing around those terms like a badge of courage – when the challenge is to be excellent despite all the pressures not to be.”

It’s not that Omaha’s past food scene was bereft of quality or care. The now defunct French Cafe, Cafe de Paris, Old Vienna Cafe and Marino’s Italian Restaurant, for example, delivered countless great meals. Mainstays like M’s Pub continue long traditions of excellence. Overall, though, it was a spotty scene and in some instances things began slipping as cooks or owners turned to “shortcuts.”

“A lot of Italian restaurants got away from using real, authentic, high quality ingredients,” says Schicke.

Kulik says, “A lot of white table cloth places became sort of really derivative and unmotivated and there was almost no room for thoughtful casual places.”

Fine dining can be found at select steakhouses, French and Italian restaurants and Asian spots. High concept casual places, especially those doing killer fresh, from-scratch comfort food, abound.

Chefs, along with veteran area food writers Nichole Aksamit and Summer Miller, say the real difference from then to now are the new chef-driven and chef-owned places that display an enthusiastic, even obsessive embrace of well-prepared fresh foods that don’t skimp on technique or flavor. Free of corporate pressures, these chefs truly are the masters of their own kitchens as well as the front of their houses and therefore they can stay absolutely true to their vision and passion, including working closely with purveyors to get the best ingredients for their in-house creations.

Brian O’Malley

Brian O’Malley says rather than a culinary culture, there is an identifiable Omaha culinary school.

“If I were to give it four words to define its primary tenets, they would be: Rustic, honest, beholden and Brave. Omaha’s food is getting better because Omaha’s craftsmen are getting better. We are growing from the knowledge and skills handed to us, and beat into us, by the craftsmen that came before us. We are not magic. We hold no newer, grander philosophical approaches to food than did our predecessors. We are stewards of the craftsmanship we cherish.”

“We have more and more people that care a great deal about their food. This pushes the producers, chefs, and restaurateurs in a loving way to be more respectful of the ingredients and how they are prepared.”

Some local culinary stars are leading the way, and nearly all have come up through the ranks of Omaha’s finer dining establishments.

“Five years ago Paul Kulik down at the Boiler Room was kind of a lone wolf in regards to his sourcing and his menu practices,” Chapman says. “Then we opened and a lot of other people opened after we did, but the availability and the accessibility of those ingredients when we first opened was far less significant than it is now.”

Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society executive director William Powers says, “Numerous chefs have really gotten behind this idea of an Omaha food culture that works hand-in-hand with local farmers who embody the idea of community and culture. Clayton Chapman at Grey Plume, Nick Strawhecker at Dante Ristorante Pizzeria, Joel Mahr at Lot 2 and Paul Kulik of Le Bouillon and Boiler Room are leaders in this good food revolution.

“OverEasy, Kitchen Table, and Block 16 are all great examples of new restaurants embracing this food culture. At the root of this is a sustainable agriculture predicated on supporting local and craft ideals. Farmers and chefs continue to cultivate the relationships through conversations that, in too many restaurants. never happen because the sourcing unfortunately is not as important. But a good chef, like a good farmer, knows the value of creating and growing a product representative of the ideals and culture they’re trying to create.”

Kulik says, “If it’s not the Boiler Room at the tip of the spear then it’s Dante. It’s people coming back in the midst of the economic downturn or Grey Plume opening and offering another white table cloth experience with an overt and extremely full-throated support for local purchasing and sustainable farming practices. It’s Bryce (Coulton) at the French Bulldog with his charcuterie program. Or it’s (chef) Joel Mahr and (owners and sommeliers) Brad and Johanna Marr at Lot 2 being a little bit fresher and more progressive in a revived Benson. Or it’s the Duggans (Colin and Jessica) moving back from San Francisco and opening Kitchen Table.

“All these things coincide with each other but it starts when somebody says, “I’m not going to dilute the message of my product.'”

Several chefs applaud the camaraderie present on the scene.

“Due to the collaborative nature of the culinary environment here, we share experiences, knowledge-technique and farmer-rancher contacts,” Coulton says. “Unless we’re resistant to new ideas, we’re bound to take input from other cooks and further develop ourselves professionally, which leads to dishes that possess a bold creativity, yet with a Midwestern reserve.”

Chapman says, “We’re all kind of rooted in some type of approach. A lot of what we do is rooted in French technique but we combine New American type flavors or presentations. I think it’s allowed everybody to develop their own styles but it’s also created a universal thread. It’s helped build the expectation for the guest, which is probably the most important thing. When we say Contemporary American or New American it just help gives the guest insight into what we do.

“A lot of it is diner or guest awareness. The more educated the home consumer, even the more they cook meals from scratch themselves at home, the more they’re going to appreciate meals from scratch when they go out to eat and the more they’re going to look for it. I think that’s huge and I definitely think that’s where the market is headed.”

“But really what drives it is the reward, the satisfaction you get for giving a value-added experience that’s appreciated,” Kulik says. “When enough guests say, ‘I had no idea it could ever be like this,’ boy are you ever emboldened and want to step it up. It’s like a drug and you so desperately want to offer that experience all the time.

That’s how it really pushes the expectations higher.”

Nick Strawhecker, ©photos by Dana Damwood from the book New Prairie Kitchen by author Summer Miller

The recognition some Omaha chefs have received, including James Beard nominations, can rub off on others.

“I’m a firm believer in a high tide raising all ships,” Chapman says.

“As one chef gains acknowledgment for a job well done, it forces the rest of the chefs to want to step up their game as well,” Coulton says.

Kulik says where only a few years ago he struggled naming even a few places to steer big city visitors to, he has a ready list today.

“What’s awesome now is I can say, ‘You need to go here for brunch, here for lunch, here for dinner, here for this kind of meal, there for that kind of meal, this place is great for this or the other thing.’ There’s like 12 to 18 places I can recommend, from rehabilitated places like V Mertz that’s turned this corner and become a really interesting and inspiring restaurant, or Taita, the best restaurant in town nobody’s heard of, Lot 2, Kitchen Table, Block 16, the French Bulldog, Avoli, Dario’s, the Boiler Room, Le Bouillon, the Grey Plume, Dante…”

Other spots getting love include Mark’s Bistro. DixieQuicks, Le Voltaire, Laos Thai, China Garden, Taqueria Tijuana and Metro’s Sage Student Bistro. Enzo’s and Mouth of the South are new players in underserved North Omaha (Florence).

“What are you in for? Where are you staying? That’s the whole point right? That there’s food to be had all over town that’s going to stay with you,” Kulik says.

Strawhecker says, “I’m definitely a lot more proud about our culinary scene than before. When I was in Chicago I balked at moving back because I was like, ‘There’s no place for me to eat’. It was kind of bleak. Now there’s like 10 joints I go to on a regular basis that are fantastic. That’s just from a personal standpoint but that overlaps professionally because of the discerning guests who have to have certain things we now have in Omaha to offer.”

Omaha may be an emerging regional food destination but everyone agrees it has room to grow in terms of more markets and eateries that feature fresh products and authentic ethnic choices.

“If there’s food tourism coming then that’s because we’re not only participating in the national conversation about food but in fact we’re also directing a portion of that conversation,” says Kulik. “That’s where I hope we can take what we do here.”

Vic Gutman, the man behind the metro’s largest farmers markets, is planning what may be the next big catalyst on the local food scene – the Omaha Market, an under-one-roof fresh foods hub.

Life comes full circle for singer Carol Rogers

August 28, 2015 Leave a comment

Cover Photo

A good portion of my life is spent interviewing and profiling artists and creatives of one type or another.  It’s a good challenge for me to try and give readers an authentic representation of the subject and his/her persona, spirit, character, and voice without reducing them to stereotype or generic personality.  I really strive to have you feel and hear the individual as I come to know them.  My encounters with these talented folks are often rich experiences for the lively give and take that happens as I more or less give them free rein to be themselves.  I want them to express themselves without holding back or self-censoring  One of my more recent experiences along these lines was with singer Carol Rogers and I thoroughly enjoyed our time together.  She is all positve love, light, and energy and she has a distinctive way of expressing herself that is poetic and soulful, earthy and esoteric, all at once.  I believe I’ve captured her many colors in this new cover piece for the September 2015 New Horizons.  Look for it at newstands or call 402-444-6654 for a free subscription to the monthy paper.  Make the call and you’ll have the issue with her story and every forthcoming issue sent to your home or business.

NOTE: For the same newspaper, New Horizons, I profiled Carol’s mother, singer-pianist Jeanne Rogers, and some other Omaha black women in music.  Jeanne was the music director and pianist at one of my regular places of worship in Omaha, Church of the Resurrection.

Here is a link to that earlier story on my blog-

Life comes full circle for singer Carol Rogers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the September 2015 New Horizons

Since putting down Omaha roots again after years away pursuing her music career, free-spirited singer Carol Rogers is sure she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be.

This hipster hails from a revered musical heritage family that’s done great things with their craft. Like her brothers Donnie, Ronnie and Keith, she made a name for herself here but enjoyed her biggest success elsewhere. Her big break came earning a spot singing and recording with Brazilian star Sergio Mendes. It meant performing in English and Portuguese across myriad musical styles. Her virtuosity has inspired some in the biz to call her “a vocal god.”

Her stage persona and song interpretation can be sweet, salty or sultry. She can scat, sing jazz, R&B, soul, blues, country, pop, rock, even heavy metal. She once covered “Rage Against the Machine.”

Her association with Mendes put her in the company of celebrities and dignitaries. That heady period fulfilled a lifelong desire to feed the beat-of-a-distant-drummer leanings she’s always felt.

Despite growing up surrounded by the sounds of Motown’s black divas, Rogers said, “I used to think I was Doris Day. I would come down the stairs, ‘Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be,’ and my brothers would wait for me at the bottom of the stairs to pummel me with, ‘Who do you think you are? Wake up, you skinny chicken head, wake up.’ So I kind of lived in a fantasy land. I never really saw myself like everyone else looks at themselves. I like to do things differently. I kind of was a hippy without the drugs because I liked the way they dressed.”

“Even as a young woman I couldn’t look like everybody else. To this day I feel most comfortable when I have on lots of colors.”

Her funky sensibility extends to a window treatment in her home that has a gingham curtain with a paisley print against a red wall, though she said she’s self-conscious enough to wonder if visitors think “I’m decorating like a crack-head in a brothel.” At the end of the day, she said, “I just want to celebrate and excite as I go and come.”

It’s why after dying her hair she’s let it go gray, proudly wearing the beauty of her age in dreadlocks that frame her queenly features.

“I began to embrace my gray. It’s a crown of righteousness if it’s accompanied by good works.”

Her righteous energy found expression in a Ladies Sing the Blues concert at Loves Jazz & Arts Center when she arrived in character as an elder negotiating a walker to the stage. Once there, she shed costume, wig and prosthetics to reveal her youthful, high-octane self and sleek legs. She then proceeded to tear up the joint with a full-throated, hip-swaying, table-topping blues performance in the spirit of Big Mama Thornton and Shemekia Copeland.

“Coming in with the girls, I knew I was going to break it down into something completely different,” Rogers said. “Yeah, I’m an entertainer. I think that’s what makes me different from other folks. I’m not afraid to put on fake boobs and a fake butt and act a little silly. I want to explore my uniqueness as an entertainer and to never compromise my professionalism.

“I don’t fit into anybody’s mold and I will not acquiesce.”

Rogers in stairwa (reduced)

During the kinetic A Happening concert she did at Carver Bank with new age musician Dereck Higgins she adorned herself in head band and glitter to help affect just the right groovy mood for this retro rave.

She feels certain her bohemian spirit is divinely directed, saying. “God was deciding my mind frame to think outside the box.”

The family matriarch who made music a family inheritance for Carol and her brothers is their mother Jeanne Rogers. She was a woman who did her own thing as well. Jeanne sang with area big bands and gigged as a jazz pianist-vocalist. A talent for music didn’t fall far from the tree, as Carol and her brothers have all made a living in music and joined their mother as Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame inductees.

Carol’s four children “all have voices,” too. Bethany, a recording sound engineer by trade, is especially gifted. Mom proudly watched her daughter “tear it up” one Sunday at One Way Ministry Apostles Doctrine Church, where the family worships.

Even when Jeanne became an Omaha Public Schools educator and administrator, she never left music behind. Indeed, she used it as a tool to reach kids. Carol, who as a girl used to accompany her mom to school to help her and other teachers set up their classrooms, followed in her footsteps to become a teacher herself, including running her own “kindergarten school of cool” that all her kids went through.

Carol, 61, also grew up under the influence of her grandmother Lilian Matilda Battle Hutch, She remembers her as an enterprising, tea-totaler who on a domestic worker’s wages managed buying multiple homes, subletting rooms for extra income. She sold Avon on the side.

“She could see opportunity and she was on the grind all the time. They called her ‘The General’ because she’d rifle out her demands – You comn’ in? I need you to go in the backyard and weed some stuff.'”

When Jeanne developed dementia, Carol’s trips back home increased to check on her mother and eventually take charge of her care. When Jeanne could no longer remain in her own home, Carol placed her in nursing facilities. She rests comfortably today at Douglas County Health Center. Carol’s since come back to stay. She and two of her kids reside in her mother’s former northeast Omaha home.

Carol with her mother Jeanne

As a homage to her educator mother, Carol has a kitchen wall double as a chalk board with scribbled reminders and appointments.

“Chalk is how she relayed things,” Carol said of her mom.

Both sides of a living room door are also chalk boards, only Rogers calls them “blessing boards. She has guests leave inscriptions and affirmations on one side and she writes scriptural passages on the other side. She calls it “seasoning” the door.

There in her home, one August morning, Rogers recounted her personal journey as an artist and a woman of faith who’s been born again. She recalled growing up in a bustling household on Bristol Street where she couldn’t help but be immersed in music between her siblings rehearsing and her mother and her musician friends jamming. That 24-7 creative hub imbued her with a love for performing.

“In the summertime it was just crawling with people because my brothers had instruments. In the basement they were always practicing. It got so I couldn’t study without a lot of noise. I still sleep with noise. If you didn’t get home in time and there was food you didn’t eat because the people who were in the house ate. It was first come-first served. That used to make me mad.

“But there was music. Folks would come. A typical weekend, Billy Rogers, not any relation, would come and jam. Everybody who was anybody came in and jammed. I didn’t know who they all were, all I knew there was always noise.”

The Rogers’ home was the place neighborhood kids congregated.

“My mother would boast that kids’ parents would say, ‘Why is my child always at your house?’ Because they’re welcome and there’s music. And so that’s just the way it was. That’s the way I remember the house. I didn’t have to go looking for people or excitement – it came to the house. There was always something going on.”

Her mother grew up near enough the old Dreamland Ballroom to hear the intoxicating rhythms of the black music greats who played there.

“That’s when she got bitten by the jazz bug,” Carol said. “She would go to sleep hearing the music playing at Dreamland.”

Carol enjoyed an even more intimate relationship with music because of the nightclub atmosphere Jeanne orchestrated at home.

“Oh, these jam sessions that mama would have. All I know is we would have to be whisked to bed. Of course, we could hear them at night. They would never go past 10 or so. Occasionally she would let us come down and just watch, which was a privilege. There’d be Basie Givens, who she played with forever, Clean Head Base, Cliff Dudley, the names go on of all the people who would come in. And they’d just jam, and she’d sing and play piano.

“It was a big party and to-do thing at the house. I would go to sleep hearing her and her friends play the jam sessions. Coming downstairs in the morning there was always somebody crashed out on the floor.

Rogers & board (reduced)

As a girl, Rogers was aware of the racism and discrimination that confined African-Americans to Omaha’s Near North Side.

“I didn’t venture past 72nd (Street) much.”

But she also saw how music broke down such barriers.

“Music was colorless and it brought everybody together. White folks would come into the neighborhood to play at my mother’s house. Italians, Jews were coming in. It was like a United Nations. Anybody could play, you came in.”

The diversity she was exposed to at home and at Omaha Central High School helped prepare her for the cultural smorgasbord she found with Mendes on international tours and in cosmopolitan Los Angeles.

It took a lot to finally get this restless singer to come back home to stay. She went through a stage when life was a series of gigs and parties. Then she settled down to raise her four kids as a single mom, eventually making her living as a much-in-demand vocal instructor.

She still works with artists today.

The truth is that even though Rogers is settled here now, there’s still a part of her yearning to go off somewhere. It’s why she’s in Rio de Janeiro this month working with an aspiring performing artist.

Now that she’s back home, she’s gigging at different venues around town. This is where it all started for her. Some of her earliest musical expressions came performing in youth Show Wagon concerts in Omaha city parks and in talent shows at the Omaha Civic Auditorium. She starred in Central High Road Shows. She appeared at Allen’s Showcase in North Omaha. She made her first television appearance on KETV’s Black on Black community affairs program.

The Omaha native first flew the coop as a teen with the Omaha Can Do Ambassadors on a tour to Greenland, Iceland and Canada.
Rogers, whose musical influences never seemed in synch with the times or her culture, as witnessed by her idolizing Judy Garland and Doris Day, eventually fixed on a suitable model.

“I wanted to be Diana Ross,” she said. “I wanted to stand up and sing, ‘Baby, baby…’ Yeah, that was my dream.”

She never found the solo career she craved but she did tour the U.S. with C.W, McCall in the wake of the “Convoy” hit record. Chip Davis later of Mannheim Steamroller fame, was the producer-composer-arranger. Playing red-neck honky-tonks with McCall she couldn’t be out front with her big personality because African-Americans weren’t always welcomed. Receding further into the background and having her spirit dampened was killing her.

She quit C.W. McCall and returned to Omaha, where she was the area’s most requested studio background singer for records and commercials, but she once again found the city too stultifying for her free spirit. This caged bird not only needed to fly but to soar far away.

She went out to Calif. to audition for Stevie Wonder but never really got a fair shake, not even meeting the famed artist. Dejected by that experience, she despaired what to do next.

“I was very depressed here because I knew I had to do something else. I said, I need something more. A true story: I was lying in bed knowing I should go to church – I hadn’t been born again at the time – when God’s voice told me to go back to California. There was no doubt in my mind who had spoken to me. I immediately put everything I wanted in my Volkswagen and left and and I haven’t had to look back. That mission was successful.”

She managed a face to face audition with Sergio Mendes, who needed singers for an upcoming tour. It came down to her and another girl and Carol won the spot. Rogers said it worked to her advantage she didn’t realize just how big a star Mendes was before trying out.

“Naivete was the angel’s wings I floated on with him. I had no idea how huge he was, otherwise I’d have panicked. I auditioned in the latter part of June 1976 and on July 4 he called to say, ‘If you want the job, it’s yours.’ I put the phone down and screamed.”

She said she reminded him that she’d earlier sent in an audio tape of her voice that he never acknowledged, to which he responded, “I never even listened to it and per that tape I would have never hired you.”

As the whirlwind touring commenced, she said she soon discovered like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Whew! But I was ready.” During nearly 25 years working together, she and Mendes became muses to each other.

“We fit because I was ready to totally immerse myself into something. I was fascinated with black people speaking another language. The ability to immerse myself in something and travel the world and get paid for it, well, it was a great education, it was a Ph.D.”

Rogers cover (reduced)

She got the adventure she sought but like many who get what they ask for, she found that career success alone didn’t complete her.

“I went through some things in L.A. Severely depressed for some years. Working top dollar but depressed because something was missing – I was separated from the Lord. I was still traveling with Sergio when I was reborn in 1980 coming off a long tour in Japan.

“I baby sat a friend’s house and I needed something to read, so I went to a bookstore and got Billy Graham’s book, How to be Born Again. I read it and knew that when Jesus went to that cross he died for me, too, It absolutely blew me away. I spontaneously started writing Christian songs.”

The words and music came flowing out of her as if supplied by a higher source.

“You see, when you’re first born again the Lord sojourns with you and he talks to you. Today, my faith is now seasoned with trials and rejoicing in trials.”

She found great satisfaction teaching at a prestigious L.A. performing arts school. At a certain point she developed a sort of alter ego for her teaching role – Mama O.

“Mama O came about when I needed an identity to separate me from the students. Everybody respects mama, so I decided I’m going to be Mama. And Mama what?. So, Mama O, in deference to my time in Brazilian culture.

“That got to my psyche so powerfully that I felt more powerful as a teacher. I’m not just Carol Rogers, no, I’m Mama. When Mama tells you to do something, you better do it. Mama won’t loan you no money, because I’m not that kind of mama. Mama might give you a little lecture because that’s what mamas do. But Mama’s going to show you how it’s done and Mama’s going to ask you to do it exactly.”

She said that bigger-than-life persona is “the rock side of me, the metal side of me.” Since relocating back to Omaha in 2013, Rogers said, “Mama’s a bit quieter here because nobody believes her. After I start teaching again (which she plans to do at the collegiate level) I would like to be called Mama O again.”

Even with work and faith, the L.A. scene became trying.

“California became my Canaan experience. Friendship is hard to find. Backsliding is very easy. But if you’re called and you know you’re born again, nobody can pluck you from God’s hand. Now, the deeper story. Everything closed for me in my life. You know when God closes a door but opens another? That’s exactly what was happening to me.”

Cover Photo

 Carol with Dereck Higgins promoting A Happening.

She said though she was “a favorite, award-winning” teacher at the school where she taught, she endured a backlash from administrators because her forceful personality made her stand out. Students asked for her specifically.

“Kids would come thousands of miles from Europe, India, Japan and say, ‘We want Mama.’ They called me Mama. They were told, ‘Well, she’s taken, you can’t have her.’ I said, ‘Fix it, give me some more hours.'”

The young singers she worked with on all aspects of performance represented many vocal-music styles and Rogers determined she wouldn’t teach something unless she could do it herself.

“I had to do it all, even heavy metal. How can I tell to do something if I don’t show you I can do it? I was adamant about that and it set me apart from my contemporaries at school and for that reason the director of the school said, ‘You’re an easy target, we want everybody to be alike. But you stand out like a sore thumb.'”

As her situation there became tenuous, she was touched by students siding with her. But each time she spoke out, tensions only increased. She felt like the administration wanted to dampen her originality in order to make her conform.

“When my job began to become corporate, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t exercise my God-given uniqueness.”

So, she left, and in 2013 she finalized her move to Omaha.

“I didn’t want to come back to Omaha but I knew i had to come back for my mom because I became her guardian. I needed to be here in all of the Midwest’s mystery and awe and hummingbird moths and thunderstorms. I was telling my daughter during a beautiful thunderstorm that the lightning was God’s paparazzi.'”

She said she never imagined her two children living with her would ever take to Neb., but they have.

“They both marvel at the thunderstorms and the cicadas in the trees and the squirrels and wild turkeys running around. My oceans are the cicadas at night, the diminuendo and the crescendo.”

It’s not just her family who’s fond of Midwest living.

“If I describe this place to my Calif. friends – ‘Everything I need for a taco is running around free ‘ they think it’s paradise.”

She’s disheartened though Omaha now suffers from inner city woes like persistent gun violence that didn’t really exist back in her day. Like many from her generation, she longs for a return to the It-takes-a-village-to-raise-child culture she grew up in.

With some perspective now, she feels things worked out the way they were supposed to in bringing her back home to be with her mom. She never forgets the inspiration for her life’s journey in music.

“Mom gave us music and she gave us a house full of it all the time.”

Seeing her mom’s mental capacities diminish has been difficult. Seeing her no longer recall the words to songs she sang thousands of times, like “My Funny Valentine,” cuts deeply. No one is prepared for losing a loved one, piece by piece, to the fog of Alzheimer’s. All Rogers or anyone can do is be there for the afflicted.

“I’m glad I’m close by for her sake to remind her she’s loved and hopefully, even though she doesn’t recognize me, give her a familiarity.”

As if dealing with her mother’s odyssey were not enough, Rogers no sooner got situated here than the home she inherited from her suffered a disaster while she was away.

“I came back to find the pipes burst over the winter. The water in the basement was up to my knees. Then the tears began to roll because I’m thinking, You don’t know how much insurance will pay off. That winter was so terrible that they couldn’t get to me for five days. By the time they got to me this place stank of mildew and mold.”

There was insurance but it didn’t come near to covering the damage.

“I didn’t know what i was going to do but I knew God didn’t bring me this far for nothing.”

She attributes providence with bringing the home from disaster to rebirth and the blessings that came with it.

“A Christian couple to whom the Lord has given many gifts love my vocal ministry and they gave me $50,000 to put this house back together. The demolition guys came in like piranhas and took everything down to beams and joists. I could see the attic from downstairs.”

She was put up at a Residence Inn for five months while the heavy work was done. The result is essentially a brand new home.

“Everything is new,” she said. “As the guys were installing the appliances I was crying. Why? Because God has granted me favor beyond favor. The Lord impressed upon my heart the scripture that says, ‘In Christ, all things become new.’ It just doesn’t mean your spirit – you can get some new stuff, too. That’s OK.”

She’s given the home a Biblical name.

“I call my home Lazarus Resurrected because by the time they got to it, it stank, but Jesus resurrected it. My mission statement of this home is to serve. Just like my mother’s house did but with a little bit more decorum. Can’t just anybody get in and out of here.

“And once music begins I’m sure I’ll have more people coming through. Inevitably the basement will become my kick-it space like it was once before. I’ll be able to put instruments down and not fear water finding it’s mark again.”

Playing hostess will be new for her, she said, “because in L.A. I was too busy to have company. I’d come home after driving to and from and would want to collapse. So I’m learning hospitality and welcoming it. I look forward to it because this house is blessed, it’s anointed. It’s blessed me. It was an inherited blessing from my mother, it has to continue and it will. My kids are here.”

Rogers in chair (reduced)

She feels blessed, too, whenever she takes the stage.

“In this day in age when you’re inundated with the electronic ability to insulate yourself, I never ever count it anything less than a privilege to be heard by a live audience. That being the case, I have to prepare. I’m not so fast at learning things anymore, so it takes a long time to prepare these days,

“Yeah, it’s a privilege to be able to share my feelings and my life experience through my singing. Sometimes my nerves derail me but usually that means I needed to pay a little bit more attention to details.”

Just as she’s most alive when she freely expresses her uniqueness, she helps voice students find and nurture their own uniqueness.

The student she’s working with in Brazil has all the necessary vocal chops, Rogers said, but needs confidence in herself and in her ability to perform in front of live audiences. Rogers draws her own vast experience to try and get students to look at performing as a collaboration or communion. She likens it to a figure eight.

“The band is behind me and at the apex is me and then the audience is in front of me. Everything they do when I’m on stage comes through me and it’s just a circular exchange of credibility – we believe you, we give you our energy. And the band’s supporting me. What a privilege to have people backing me. They’ve got my back.

“To be in front at that apex, sharing it and feeling it come back to me through them is such a high. That is what I really concentrate on. It’s cathartic, especially as I’ve learned to sing the blues.”

Hanging on a wall of her home is a metal artwork depicting an after the club scene with unmanned band instruments and overturned chairs. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture her at the apex with a hot three-piece band behind her and a live wire crowd in front of her.

Rogers still records from time to time. On a 2011 visit to Omaha she met local jazz pianist, composer, arranger Chuck Marohnic at Countryside Community Church when she insinuated herself into a piece he was playing. He immediately asked her to be one of the singers from around the nation lending their voices to his Jazz Psalms Project that features original music for all 150 psalms in the Bible’s Book of Psalms.

“I’d never been asked to do something like this before,” she said, referring to jazz arrangements of scriptures. Ironically, her mother introduced jazz tinges to traditional hymns at Church of the Resurrection in Omaha when she was music director there.

For the Jazz Psalms Project Rogers said, “We did everything live. Oh, what a high. And the guys were great, including Chuck at the piano. It was absolutely amazing all of us playing together.”

Upon return from her coaching stint in Brazil she’ll no doubt grace various nightspots with her unique talents starting in the fall.

It’s a good time for Carol Rogers. She’s more comfortable in her own skin than she has been in a long while.

“Being home has helped. Having two of my kids here has helped. Also seeing God work miracles, ah, that’ll make you get your head right.”

This ever curious searcher just wants to keep creating and stretching herself. Her exploration, she said, “never done.”

Just don’t ask her to stay in the shadows.

“I want my light to shine.”

Follow the artist at


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