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Durham Museum to celebrate 40-and-40: Forty years as train station and four decades as museum


There was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed Omaha was hell-bent on tearing down its history.  All manner of historic structures were razed: the old United States Post Office ; the Fontenelle Hotel, a huge tract of warehouses in Jobber’s Canyon, the Medical Arts Building. Thank God more jewels were saved than lost: the Old Market district; the Orpheum Theatre, the Rose Theater; Union Station, Burlington Station, the Brandeis Building, Joslyn Castle, the Storz Mansion, the Mastercraft, Omar Bakery, the Livestock Exchange Building, St. Cecilia Cathedral and many more that have been protected, renovated, and repurposed.  Some of those survived narrowly escaped being razed.  It took agitation, activism, vision, and purpose by determined people to save some if not all of those treasures.  The tension between new development and historic preservation continues, as witnessed by the recent loss of the apartment buildings just east of Midtown Crossing and the Johnson & Johnson Mortuary on South 10th Street.  One of the most signifcant saves was Union Station ,which today goes by the name Durham Museum to reflect its adapted reuse as a museum charting Omaha’s and the nation’s history.  My new story about the Durham for Metro Magazine (/www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) explains how that building has now reached the same number of years, 40, in its role as a museum that it served as a passenger rail station for Union Pacific Railroad.  It is one of those grand structures, certainly  by Omaha terms, that never fails to mesmerize and impress me by its sheer size and grandeur.  My eyes automatically fix on the far upper reaches of that proletarian palace.  I never met or caught a train there, but I recently had the privilege of delivering a lecture there and I hope to have the opportunity to do so again in the near future.

 

 

Durham Museum to celebrate 40-and-40: Forty years as train station and four decades as museum
Dual milestone for historic landmark thriving in new use
Museum’s growth spurred by champion and namesake
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (/www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)Forty years. That’s the length of time the former Union Station in Omaha operated as a passenger train center and come 2015 that same Art Deco-style building marks 40 years as the Durham Museum.

It’s not often a grand public space celebrates a dual legacy with a shared milestone of service. From 1931 to 1971 millions of rail passengers passed through. Starting in 1975 the old Union Station became a cultural-historical venue that millions more have visited.

Much like the history it celebrates, Durham Museum was not built in a day. Neither was its home, Union Station. Union Pacific began construction on it in 1929, the year the Stock Market Crash triggered the Great Depression. The Gilbert Stanley Underwood-designed structure opened in 1931, the year when a congressional resolution officially made the “Star Spangled Banner” America’s national anthem.

As soon as Union Station closed in 1971 the site’s future lay in doubt. Its survival looked bleak the longer it sat abandoned and untended. Even after UP donated the place to the City of Omaha in 1973, most officials regarded it as a burden or albatross, not a gift. Many called for the “eyesore” to be torn down. Enter a group of preservationist-minded private citizens who formed the Western Heritage Society as a vehicle for reopening the former train station as a museum. If not for their efforts this monument to Omaha’s vigor may have gone the way of other historic buildings that got razed rather than saved.

Originally known as the Western Heritage Museum, the institution was resource-poor its first two decades yet managed to give new life to the old digs that had seen far better days. Most importantly it built a formidable body of artifacts related to early Omaha, including the Byron Reed Collection of rare coins and documents and the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection of late 19th century-early 20th century photographs. It also originated events, such as Christmas at Union Station, that became community traditions.

Durham executive director Christi Janssen admires the vision and fortitude of those angels, including Itey Crummer, Emi Baker and Ron Hunter, who made the old train station a museum.

“Their challenges were way different than our challenges today,” she says. “They were really fighting hard to raise money to turn the lights on essentially.”

 
Chuck to the rescue
Then, in the mid-1990s, the struggling museum that long postponed much-needed renovations and improvements for lack of funds was gifted with tens of millions of dollars through a Heritage Services drive. That campaign also brought the museum one of its greatest champions, the late Charles W. “Chuck” Durham, who grew HDR Inc. into a national engineering firm and became a major philanthropist.”Fortunately, Chuck Durham showed up with a keen architectural and engineering instinct. Walking into this Union Station Chuck could see beyond the collapsing roof, the peeling paint and the tarnished light fixtures and envision its magnificence with the right amount of money and the best of architecture and construction firms,” recalls Heritage Services President Sue Morris.

As an active museum board member Durham committed himself to helping it reach its potential and restoring the building to its former glory. His children note their father saw great value in the work the museum did and in the history the building represented.

Daughter Sunny Lundgren says, “He thought this is Omaha’s history and we need to preserve it and so the first thing he did was give money to this place and then he started knocking on doors and saying, ‘Do you know what an important building this is? It’s part of Omaha, we need to restore it.'”

“He led the charge in raising dollars from community leaders who responded generously,” daughter Lynne Boyer adds.

Among those Durham reeled in was then-Kiewit Corporation CEO Walter Scott. His support was recognized when the museum’s most iconic space was renamed the Suzanne and Walter Scott Great Hall.

“The building and I have something in common. We were both ‘born’ in 1931,” Scott says. “Many years later it was Chuck Durham who introduced me to its role as a museum. He convinced me to help him establish the museum’s relationships with the Smithsonian, Library of Congress and National Archives. Chuck had a vision for what the Durham Museum could become, and I think he’d be pleased to see the board and staff have realized a good part of his vision.”

Sue Morris says Durham was persuasive enough that the Heritage Services-directed campaign raised more than $30 million for the museum. The funds underwrote a major 1996 project that entailed constructing a new parking deck, installing a new roof as well as new mechanical and electrical systems and creating new office spaces, classrooms and permanent exhibits. The Great Hall was repainted and restored and interactive sculptures added. A 22,000 square foot addition was built over Track #1.

A new name and mission
In recognition of Durham’s efforts, the museum was renamed in his honor in 1997 as part of a general rebranding.”It’s always been centered on Omaha’s history and western heritage,” Janssen says, “but as the museum has evolved we have aspired to be much more than that. We want to be a gathering place. The events we host are a great way to celebrate traditions. Beyond Omaha’s history and its western heritage our mission is to share the nation’s story. We are a significant piece of that. We mirror the national story in terms of rail travel and the industry that built this community. So we have broadened our scope quite a bit over the years. Thus, we’ve been able to tap into a new audience.”

Janssen says “a very strong education focus now takes front and center,” adding, “We get into school classrooms, we host school field trips and summer camps down here, we offer a scholars in residence education series that is much sought after.” The museum does special programming around various history months, such as Black History Month (February), Women’s History Month (March), Jazz Appreciation Month (April), National Hispanic Heritage Month (September) and Native American Heritage Month (November).

The lecture hall is fully outfitted for distance learning. Presentations made there are regularly fed to classrooms, community centers and other sites around the nation. A mobile video camera unit allows educators to focus on various architectural details of the Great Hall, for example, as part of distance learning history curriculum.

“We continue to look for ways to engage people and to make the museum a presence wherever we can,” Janssen says. “We want people to realize it’s not just about the permanent and traveling exhibits, it’s about lectures, films, concerts, the Ethnic Holiday Festival, Christmas at Union Station, the authentic soda fountain and more.”

As the building transformed from dusty relic to gleaming palace once again and the museum grew its programming, attendance increased. In the first decade of the new millennium Chuck Durham contributed a generous match to new philanthropic gifts that funded several more infrastructure needs and the building of the Stanley and Dorothy Truhlsen Lecture Hall.

Public trust and uninterrupted growth
From that point forward the museum has seen its greatest growth in terms of attendance, membership and donations, Janssen says.”I think the thing that gets people to invest in us is a proven record and we have that now because of the growth we’ve enjoyed and the hard work we’ve been doing. We can get their attention because they see something happening here. They see we’re actually going to do what we say we’re going to do. That’s foundational for us – we never say we’re going to do something and then don’t. We’re intentional to always under promise and over deliver.

“But I think the thing that continues to get people excited about the museum is that everyone leaves with an appreciation for the history and the experience they find here. We are a repository of stories and we share those stories through our artifacts and our programs. We have been able to capture and retell those stories, and again this building speaks louder than words.”

With the museum’s finances stabilized and the institution becoming an affiliate of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution (in 2002), whose popular traveling exhibits show there, Durham was pleased by how far things had progressed and how bright the future looked.

“My father enjoyed watching the museum come alive with outstanding programs and exhibits which attracted large numbers of visitors from all over the city, state and country,” Boyer says. “It gave him a sense of great satisfaction to know the museum would continue to educate and entertain visitors of all ages for generations to come.”

Right up until his death in 2008 Durham, then wheel-chair bound, made a point of visiting the museum as often as he could.

“He enjoyed coming to the museum,” Janssen says. “Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that we had ice cream. He appreciated the opportunity to visit the soda fountain. He loved to eat a sundae.”

The Durham family remains involved. Lundgren formed the museum’s guild and served as its president one year. She supports various education efforts there and still volunteers at events. She says her family’s Christmas is not complete without visiting the museum.
Boyer enjoys taking her grandchildren there, saying, “When I visit the museum with them I view it through their eyes and gain an even greater appreciation for all it has to offer. It is an educational gem.”

Janssen says the Durham could not have blossomed without the generous support of individual members, families, corporations and foundations or without the committed work of board members, docents, volunteers and staff. She says the museum has been fortunate to have both good leadership and stewardship.

The Durham has become a major attraction – welcoming a record 204,000 visitors in 2013 and on pace to record a similar number in 2014. Its household membership base is over 7,000.

 

 

New directions and neighbors
That kind of support, she says, “just changes the way we can do business.” There’s no time to rest on laurels. “Our job is always to take it one step further,” Janssen says. “A big focus going forward is incorporating technology into the experience, both in digitizing our photo archive and in making our gallery exhibits more interactive.”

After years of being an outlier the Durham’s poised to be one of many anchor attractions along a revived South 10th Street. It can partner with such new neighbors as the House of Loom, the resurgent Little Italy district, KETV, which is moving into the restored Burlington Station, the new Blue Barn Theater and the coming Omaha Public Market. That’s in addition to North Downtown, the Capital District, the Old Market, Lauritzen Gardens and the Henry Doorly Zoo.

All of it, she says, speaks to “a new vibrancy” in the area. “It’s not just about us anymore. It’s about everybody around us. We can do so much more if we do it together and we become a destination corridor.”

Follow the 2015 anniversary events at durhammuseum.org.

 

A Look Into and Back at the Many Diverse Faces of Leo Adam Biga’s Blog (leoadambiga.wordpress.com): “I write stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions”

January 3, 2015 Leave a comment

      • A Look Into and Back at the Many Diverse Faces of Leo Adam Biga’s Blog (leoadambiga.wordpress.com): “I write stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions”

       


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Charles Ahovissi brings West African culture to the Heartland: African Culture Connection uses dance, music to tell indigenous yet universal stories

December 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Here’s the story I wrote for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) about the African Culture Connection and its founder-artistic director Charles Ahovissi in advance of their Dec. 8 production at the Omaha Community Playhouse. Pam and I went to that show expecting we would be thoroughly entertained having seen the company perform before and if anything our expectations were surpassed. There may be more positive energy and life-affirming love in a single ACC show than there is in a season’s worth of shows by other troupes. Combine that with the fact that there just isn’t anything else like what the ACC does in these parts and you have the makings for a singular experience that as my story tries to communicate is a rich cultural immersion not to be missed. It was a packed auditorium and those of us in the audience returned the energy and love received with our own warm, good vibes. By the way, the ACC show on the 8th was part of an alternative programming series the OCP offers. The programs are free and a welcome change of pace from the usual.

 

 

 

Charles Ahovissi

 

 

Charles Ahovissi brings West African culture to the Heartland

African Culture Connection uses dance, music to tell indigenous yet universal stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

Art often expresses culturally-specific stories but until the Omaha-based African Culture Connection surfaced in 2006 West African tales were rarely if ever explored here.

Led by Benin, West Africa native and veteran dancer-choreographer Charles Ahovissi, ACC’s dedicated to presenting the vibrant rhythms, movements, colors and costumes of African tribal tradition and culture.

In upcoming appearances he and his troupe will enact lively interpretations of African proverbs through song, music and dance. On Friday they perform during the Ethnic Holiday Festival at the Durham Museum. On Saturday they offer dance instruction at the South Omaha Library. On Monday they present the story of the Iroko tree in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s Alternative Programming Series.

Alternative well fits ACC, whose programming nearly stands it alone among area arts groups. As a Nebraska Arts Council (NAC) touring artist, Ahovissi brings his cultural showcase to schools and youth serving organizations, where African studies are negligible.

“It is a very unique program,” he says. “You don’t see it in this state. You cannot get what we teach kids in a library. In schools kids barely get the cultural activities we provide them. That’s why it’s very unique, very special and engaging.”

Omaha Girls Inc. executive director Roberta Wilhelm says, “Charles has helped our girls learn about Africa in ways they simply never would in a classroom or from a textbook. The girls connect to the lessons in a very visceral way. He and his team help the girls ‘feel’ Africa when they drum and dance. They prepare and taste African food, create printed fabric to wear while they dance and hear African stories. They also learn lessons about creativity, collaborative work, self-expression, delayed gratification, responsibility and pride of accomplishment.”

At the free 7:30 p.m. Playhouse show the featured Iroko dance imparts a lesson through a cautionary parable about the dangers of putting self before community and not respecting nature. In West Africa the Iroko tree is held sacred for supposed mystical powers and medicinal properties. In the dance a young woman ignores a prohibition to cut the tree and goes mad as a result. After being saved by the village’s purification ceremony she vows never to violate the Iroko again.

Ahovissi says, “”There’s a reason why we do any traditional dance and drumming. Every life aspect in Africa has a specific dance, rhythm, music, so at the same time I’m teaching a dance I’m also teaching the culture, the tradition, the story behind that dance and music. For example, when it comes to farming in Africa there is preparation and celebration. How we pick the fruit, why we pick that fruit is dance movement that has a story.

“Another example is the special music and dances we do for the initiation of youth in a village. When I’m teaching kids here the initiation dance I’m also teaching this story, this culture, this way we do things.”

Between the beating drums and the whirling dancers the energy rises to a fever pitch at ACC performances. The nonprofit’s on quite a roll, too. In late 2012 it became one of only a dozen organizations in the U.S. that year and the first ever in Neb. to receive the National Arts & Humanities Youth Arts Award. It’s a major honor for any group but particularly one as new as ACC.

Ahovissi, ACC’s ebullient founder, president and artistic director, accepted the award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. Additionally, ACC received a $10.000 grant to support and expand its programming. This came on top of winning the Nebraska Governor’s Arts Heritage Award.

Even Ahovissi finds it hard to believe his organization did what none of the state’s larger, more established arts programs managed doing.

“I just don’t know how we got here,” he says. “It was surprising.”

NAC director of programs Marty Skomal says, “No other arts group in Neb. has succeeded in demonstrating ACC’s masterful combination of high artistic quality with genuine and significant community engagement. Each time I see the troupe perform, I am impressed by the level of dedication, attention to detail and commitment. It becomes contagious. Kids can sense this authenticity, and respond to it instantly. ACC is able to do what its name implies – make a connection.”

Ahovissi appreciates the positive feedback he gets from teachers, administrators and program directors about the immersion experience he provides. He says the glowing evaluations “confirm that after we work with kids they learn how to respect and how to behave and some kids who were shy become engaged in the classroom,” adding, “All the teachers tell us thank you for making a big impact on kids’ lives.”

He says the rituals and lessons taught have deep, universal meaning.

“We say it takes a whole village to raise a child. From generation to generation we pass on the culture. In Africa everything kind of ties together.”

In a real sense he’s carrying on traditions handed down to him in Benin, where dance and drumming were part of his growing up..

“My mom took me from village to village to the ceremonies,. I just picked it up from that.”

In his early teens he joined a local arts group. “They taught me how to be more professional,” he says. He then won a competition that enabled him to perform with the National Ballet of Benin beginning in 1984 at age 16. “That allowed me the opportunity to travel and perform with that company. I was very honored to be selected.”

Later he joined the Super Anges dance troupe. He was touring the U.S. with that company when he met his wife. The former Karen McCormick, an Omaha native, did a Peace Corps stint in Africa, including service in Ahovissi’s native country, Benin. In Omaha she volunteered with the La Belle Afrique presenting group that brought Ahovissi’s dance company to Omaha in 1999. The two met, fell in love and married. They have two children together. Ahovissi moved to Omaha in 2000 and became an NAC touring artist in 2001.

He conducts NAC residencies around the state.

“I know all the cities and towns in Neb. I just pack my car with my costume and drum and travel one week, two weeks at a time. I cannot count how many places I’ve been to. I’m grateful for that because I do love teaching, performing and sharing my culture.”

He trains teaching and performing artists to join him at some venues.
His multicultural troupe present African music and dance and the stories behind these traditions. He feels American children need to expand their knowledge of diverse cultures in this ever shrinking world.

“It is so important for them to learn about other cultures. They have to open their minds, they have to allow themselves to appreciate other cultures, they have to accept their friends who are not like them. Since Omaha is becoming more diverse we need to be more diverse, too. We all need to be together and move forward.”

He says as Omaha’s welcomes migrant populations from around the world “there is a need for global understanding in our community. It’s not just African culture – we need to be learning about all these different cultures. You teach me about your culture, I teach you about mine, and we share it. That’s how we become open-minded and free and live in a peaceful way.”

Ahovissi’s still deeply tied to Benin, so far spared from the raging Ebola epidemic. He sends money back every month to his large family living there. “I’m they’re hope,” he says. They’re his roots and inspiration.

Visit africancultureconnection.org.

 

 

Charles Ahovissi's photo.
Charles Ahovissi's photo.
Charles Ahovissi's photo.
Charles Ahovissi's photo.
Charles Ahovissi's photo.
Glimpses from the Dec. 8 performance of the Iroka legend dance

 

What do Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne and WBO world lightweight boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford have in common?

December 2, 2014 Leave a comment

What do Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne and WBO world lightweight boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford have in common?

These newsmakers share the same hometown of Omaha, Neb. but more than that they share an unflinching loyalty to their roots. Payne could elect to or be swayed to make films anywhere but he repeatedly comes back to Omaha and greater Neb. to create his acclaimed works, often resisting studio efforts to have him shoot elsewhere. Crawford doesn’t get to call the shots about where he fights but for his first two title defenses he did convince Top Rank and HBO that Omaha could and would support a world title card. Besides, it’s tradition that a world champion gets to defend his title on his own home turf. And when there was talk his first title defense might move across the river to Council Bluffs, he wasn’t having it. Now that he’s been proven right that Omaha is a legitimate market for big-time fights and is a formidable hometown advantage for him, he will undoubtedly press to fight here over and over again and opponents will certainly resist coming into his own backyard. As he moves up a division and the stakes get higher, there may come a time when the CenturyLink and Omaha can’t provide the same pay-day that a Las Vegas and one of its mega venues can. Whether Omaha could ever become a main event host for fighters other than Crawford is an open question. The same holds true for whether Neb. could ever attract a major feature film to fix its entire shooting schedule here outside a Payne project. The only way that will happen, it appears, is if the state enacts far more liberal tax incentives for moviemakers than it currently offers. But that is neither here nor there, as Crawford’s done right by Omaha and his adoring fans have reciprocated, just as Payne has done right by his home state and his fellow Nebraskans have responded in kind.

 

 

The Crawford parallel to Payne goes even deeper. Just as Payne maintains a signifcant presence here, living part of the year in his downtown condo, serving on the board of Film Streams and bringing in world class film figures for special events, Crawford lives year-round in Omaha except when he goes off to train in Colorado and he owns and operates a boxing gym here, the B&B Boxing Academy, that’s open to anyone. Just as Payne looks to grow the film culture here Crawford hopes to grow the boxing scene and each has made major strides in those areas. A major Hollywood film besides one of his own still hasn’t come to shoot here, though he’s lobbied the state legislature to give studios and filmmakers the incentives they need. No world-class fighter has emerged here yer as a protege of Crawford’s or as someone showing promise to be “next Bud Crawford.” Similarly, “the next Alexander Payne” hasn’t announced him or herself yet here.

Another way in which these two Omaha figures – each so different on the surface, wth one the product of white privilege and the other the product of Omaha’s poor inner city – are similar is that each has been embraced and endorsed by the Omaha establishment. They’ve been honored with the keys to the city, feated at banquets and preened over by the media. When Mayor Stothert showed up for a photo op with Bud at his pre-Thanksgiving turkey giveaway and Warren Buffett appeared at his most recent title defense, you knew that Crawford had made it.

I don’t know if Payne and Crawford have met, but I would enjpy the intersection of two different yet not so different Omaha’s meeting. At the end of the day, after all, each is in a segment of show business or entertainment. Each is a professional who has reached world class stature in his profession. Each has worked and sacrificed for his craft and been rewarded for it.

I have been covering Payne for going on 20 years, I have been covering Crawford for two years. I admire both men for having come so far with their passion. I congratulated Payne on his latest achievement, the film Nebraska, one in a long line of filmic successes. And I now say congrats to Terence “Bud” Crawford on defending his WBO world lightweight boxing title in his hometown of Omaha for the second time in five months. The 11,000-plus fans on hand Saturday night at the CenturyLink arena were there to support their own and they roared and cheered and gave shout-outs to Bud, who’s become a much beloved folk hero here. Feeding off their energy he displayed a full boxing arsenal in thoroughly dominating a very tough challenger in Ray Beltran. Every time the pressing Beltran tried to trap Bud along the ropes or in the corners, the champ used his superior quikness and agility to turn the tables on Beltran with sharp counterpunching, By the last few rounds Bud was doing the attacking, thwarting the few rallies Beltran mounted and frustrating his foe at every turn. It was an impressive boxing display and further proof that the talk about Bud being pound for pound one of the best fighters in the world today is no hype. He’s the real deal and almost certainly the best prizefighter to ever come of Nebraska. As I articulated above, the fact that he remains rooted to his community and brings his success back home reminds me of what filmmaker Alexander Payne does in another arena, filmmaking.

The main event turned into a love-in and as much love as the crowd gave to one of their own Bud gave it right back. It’s a beautiful thing that’s happening in what can be a brutal sport and a heartless game.

Look for my new story about Bud in the Jan./Feb. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine. I’ll have something in a upcoming issue of The Reader as well. Meanwhile, you can read my previous stories about Bud at these links:

http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/bud-rising-bud-crawfords-tight-family-has-his-back-as-he-defends-title-in-his-own-backyard/

http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/in-his-corner-midge-minor-is-trainer-friend-and-father-figure-to-pro-boxing-contender-terence-bud-crawford/

http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/terence-bud-crawford-in-the-fight-of-his-life-for-lightweight-title-top-contender-from-omahas-mean-streets-looks-to-make-history/

You can find excerpts of my many stories about Alexander Payne on my blog. You can also buy my book, “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,” which is a collection of my extensive journalism about the artist and his work. You can preview the book at, www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga,

North Omaha Summer Arts Presents: Gospel in the Park

June 17, 2014 2 comments

My beloved, Pamela Jo Berry, has a big heart for her community.  It’s what led her to found North Omaha Summer Arts, an annual festival that infuses different art forms into the underserved North Omaha community she grew up in and still resides in.  This is the festival’s fourth year.  Saturday, June 21 NOSA presents a gospel concert at Miller Park.  Like all NOSA events, it’s free and open to the public.  Details below.  Before Pam and I became a couple, I profiled her and her passion behind the festival for The Reader.  You can find that story, Matter of the Heart: Pamela Jo Berry’s Love for Her Community Brings Art Fest to North Omaha, on this blog.  The link to it is: http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/pamela-jo-berry-brings-art-fest-to-north-omaha-artist-and-friends-engage-community-in-diverse-work/

In addition to the concert, there is a women’s writing workshop in progress.  On Friday, August 8 from 6 to 9 p.m. there will be an Arts Crawl up and down a swath of the North 30th Street Corridor featuring works by some of Omaha’s leading artists. Venues to be announced.

 

North Omaha Summer Arts's photo.
North Omaha Summer Arts presents a joyous, music-filled occasion-
Gospel Concert 4

Saturday, June 21
5:30-7:30 pm
24th and Kansas Ave. (next to the old ballfield)
Free and open to the public

Bring a picnic dinner and blanket or enjoy free grilled hot dogs and cool refeshing lemonade courtesy of Trinity Lutheran Church for this family-friendly concert featuring some of Omaha’s most gifted performers.

Featuring-
Eric and Doriette Jordan
Trinity Lutheran Choir
Sudanese Worship Band
Cadence
New Bethel Church of God Choir
and more…

“…for the Lord is great and greatly to be praised.” Psalm 96:4

For more info, call NOSA founder Pamela Jo Berry at 402-502-4669.

 

Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones

January 18, 2013 2 comments

The Old Market in Omaha is a both major attraction and a laidback state of mind that’s made up of the places and personalities, past and present, expressed there.  Two of this historic arts and culture district’s longest sustained restaurants, M’s Pub and Vivace, share the same owners and executive chef, and in 2013 these each of these eateries celebrates a milestone anniversary.  M’s Pub is 40 years old and Vivace 20 years old.  Owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson discuss their successful enterprises in the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and along with Old Market pioneer Roger duRand they look back at the force of nature who started M’s, Mary Vogel, and who personified the visionaries and characters that have made the Market the singular destination and experience that it is.

 

 

 

 

Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Signature Old Market spot M’s Pub celebrates 40 years in business this year. It’s a milestone for any independently owned restaurant. But reaching four decades takes on added meaning because when M’s opened in 1973 (a planned 1972 opening was delayed), the fledgling Market’s survival looked unsure.

The Market though went from counter culture social experiment to mixed use success story. M’s owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson doubly appreciate a thriving Market as their highly reviewed eatery is a fixture along with a second respected restaurant they own there, Vivace, which marks its 20th anniversary this fall. The establishments are emblems of the district’s sustainability and growth.

The well-connected woman who founded “M’s” and was its namesake, the late Mary Vogel, wanted to be part of the emerging Market scene. She commissioned architect John Morford from the Omaha firm headed by Cedric Hartman, who designed the French Cafe, to transform the former Sortino Fruit Company warehouse into a sophisticated, cozy environs inspired by her favorite dining-drinking nooks from around the globe, particularly the pubs of England and Washington DC. Some argue M’s is more bistro than pub but whatever it is M’s owns a reputation for quality food, superior service and laid-back charm that’s both cosmopolitan chic and homespun Midwest.

The small space is dominated by a three-sided green marble topped bar, exposed white brick work, a high ceiling, large mirrors, which make the room seem bigger, and picture windows that provide a glimpse of 11th Street on the east and peer into Nouvelle Eve on the south. The open kitchen is about the size and shape of a train’s dining car and overflows with activity, though the culinary action mostly happens in the downstairs prep rooms.

“It’s just a great open plan,” says Samuelson. “Timeless. And that’s why we don’t change anything about it because we see a lot of fads come and go and as tempting as you might be to say, ‘Well, it seems like that’s what everybody’s doing today – maybe we should try that,’ it’s not going to work here.”

 

 

 

 

M’s is indelibly of the Old Market. Like its neighbor shops it resides in a historic, 19th century building that exudes character earned with age. It adheres to tradition. It pays attention to detail. Its personality can’t be replicated or franchised.

“I don’t think we could take our sign and throw it in a place out west or anywhere else really,” Samuelson says. “I just don’t think it would transfer.”

The affable, attentive, knowledgable wait staff wear crisp white and black uniforms with none of the attendant starch.

Samuelson says, “We’ve worked really hard for a really long time to position ourselves as a place where you can come sit by side with the table that has a $150 bottle of wine and a couple steaks and you can have a beer and a Greek sandwich and not be treated any differently by the waiter. A lot of our people have been around here for a really long time. We have people that we trust.”

When Vogel sold M’s in 1979 to Mellen’s parents Floyd and Kate Mellen she stayed on as hostess and matriarch. Ann Mellen began working there around then and she soon grew fond of this force of nature.

“She would sit at the bar every day after lunch and count how many drinks we sold,” Mellen says of Vogel. “She was a trip. A very energetic lady, very world traveled, very knowledgable, very opinionated. But very helpful – when things went wrong here she knew who to call.

“She had a passion for this place. She knew exactly what she wanted it to be and she did it right. She totally designed M’s after her favorite places all over the world. She was like the mother of M’s pub. It was her baby.”

Market pioneer Roger duRand writes:

“Mary Vogel was a dame, A socialite with a heart of brass (polished). Mary was equal parts Mayflower pedigree, finishing school gloss and ribald cocktail raconteur. When she courageously cast her lot with the Old Market demimonde of 1972, she found a welcoming environment among the artists and adventurers. Her vision of a tearoom for ‘ladies who lunch’ that doubled as a bistro for ‘lads who lust’ became the elegant and reliably satisfying M’s Pub that remains little changed from its first days.”

Samuelson, who went to work there in 1986 after restaurant experience in Omaha, Texas and Colorado and then quickly partnered with Mellen, admired Vogel’s “indomitable spirit,” adding, “I think she was way ahead of her time. I think that’s probably why she got along with the Mercers so well. They needed people like that to incubate ideas and to establish a core of anchor businesses.”

Mellen’s parents, who’d never operated a restaurant before, bought it with the intent of their restauranteur son Joe running it  but when he passed Ann stepped in to lend her folks a hand. Her passion for the business bloomed.

“I liked working for myself basically,” says Mellen, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism grad who worked as a reporter and advertising copywriter before M’s.  “Then I came here and never left.”

She and Samuelson pride themselves on being hands-on owners. One or the other  or both are at their restaurants most days. A tunnel connects the two sites.

Though an institution today, M’s first decade was a struggle.

“Times were hard,” she says. “The Old Market was a totally different place then.

The Omaha (homeless) mission was just up the street. A lot of people were afraid of the Old Market. But even then it had a family, neighborhood feeling and I liked that a lot.”

“It gets under your skin,” Samuelson says of the Market.

By the early ’80s, Mellen determined the Market was here to stay.

“It just got busier and busier and we saw more tourists coming to the area. You could just tell it was an exciting, upcoming area.”

She and Samuelson, both Omaha natives, make a good team.

“We’re a good fit personality-wise and professionally,” he says. “We share the same passion for the Old Market and the same visions and goals for M’s and Vivace. It’s rare we have a disagreement about and when we do we do it respectfully.”

“I don’t want to seem like an old married couple but a lot of people think we’re married. We’re not,” says Mellen.

She does all the books. An acknowledged foodie, he deals more with the culinary side. Both partners enjoy engaging with people.

“We feel the same way about how to treat people – our clientele as well as our employees,” he says.

 

 

 

 

The fierce devotion of M’s regulars is appreciated but it can be too much.

“Somebody who’s been coming here for awhile may have an opinion about what you’re doing and if you don’t take their advice you can ruffle some feathers that way,” says Samuelson. “We listen to people a lot and we always end up making decisions based on the good of the whole, which I think is responsible ownership.”

He says that with M’s “in good hands” he and Mellen decided to launch Vivace in 1993 ” to fill a gap we saw in the landscape of the restaurant scene in Omaha for Mediterranean-influenced Italian food. We wanted to fill a niche for the community but also complement what we do at M’s.” He’s proud of its pasta and pizza.

Vivace’s larger space is perhaps warmer than M’s but not as intimate.

Executive chef Bobby Mekiney is in charge of both kitchens. “He’s young and kind of bridges the generation gap for us in a lot of ways,” says Samuelson. “He’s as talented a guy as we’ve ever had here. He makes it work.”

Samuelson’s proud that M’s Pub and Vivace express the same “meticulously adhered-to, single-minded vision of passionate, locally-owned” venues that make the Market “a community treasure.”

For hours and menus, visit http://www.mspubomaha.com and http://www.vivaceomaha.com.

Luigi’s Legacy, The Late Omaha Jazz Artist Luigi Waites Fondly Remembered

July 18, 2011 22 comments

I wrote the following two pieces in memory of the late, much-beloved Omaha jazz artist Luigi Waites.  I only met the man once and I only saw him perform a few times, but I knew a lot of people who knew him and his music well.  I had always meant to do a full-blown profile of him but it just never worked out.  These short recaps of his career will have to do.  I wish now I had pressed forward in doing something with him.  It’s a reminder that particularly with older subjects the time to interview them is now, because one never knows when they might be gone. And once gone, the wisdom of that elder goes with them.

 

 

Luigi’s Legacy, The Late Omaha Jazz Artist Luigi Waites Fondly Remembered

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine

The April 6, 2010  death of Omaha jazz percussionist, vibraphonist, band leader and music educator Luigi Waites brought an outpouring of tributes to this Classic Omaha Hep Cat.

Luigi, whose first name identified him for legions of fans, became an ambassador for jazz in his hometown of Omaha. Unlike the bombast of another local jazz icon, the late Preston Love Sr., Luigi was sedate. Contrasting personalities aside, these “brothers” came out of the same African-American social-cultural milieu to carve out careers.

The humble Luigi made friends wherever he laid down licks. It’s not surprising then his passing prompted memorials befitting a beloved hero. He touched innumerable lives with his timeless music and generous spirit.

Long ago divorced, the 82 year-old was survived by six children.

Wearing his signature floppy hat, Luigi exuded a Zen master’s inscrutable calm. His signature performance spot, Mr. Toad in the Old Market, lasted some 1,700 Sundays. Manager Rick Renn said what he’ll cherish most about Luigi is his “absolutely unique personality, adding: “He was just comfortable with everybody and he made everybody comfortable; he was one of these people who you met for the first time and you loved about a minute later; he was unusual, he was cryptic, he was always making you think.”

Whether playing a bar or festival, doing a school residency or giving private music lessons, Luigi was always teaching. Bandmates say he turned gigs into symposiums, encouraging an open exchange of ideas and approaches.

“You knew he was serious when you watched him play. You knew he was going, as the great ones do, into his element,. You’d sit and watch him on the vibes, the concentration on his face, but at the same time the fun he was having,” said Renn.

For years Luigi traveled the Midwest for the National School Tours program and Nebraska Arts Council. He provided music lessons, often for free, all over Omaha. His touring multicultural drum and drill corps, The Contemporaries, served at-risk kids. Professional side man and session player Arno Lucas credits his stint with the Contemporaries for saving him from the streets. He considered Luigi “a true mentor.”

For years, too, Luigi booked all the entertainment for the Summer Arts Festival downtown. He was also a clinician for Sonar, Trixon and Ludwig drums.

The lifetime learner never stopped being a student himself, whether teaching himself to play drums, later the vibes, or trying new things with his group, Luigi Inc.

He had some formal music training, courtesy a hitch in the U.S. Army and attending the Midwestern Conservatory of Music. Like many musicians of his era though he picked up his chops informally, traveling the country and Europe, but mostly in his hometown, where a vibrant live music scene back in the day saw him haunt the local night spots, sitting in on jam sessions galore and playing in various bands.

Luigi never lost his enthusiasm or curiosity. Late in life the amateur photography buff learned digital techniques from Omaha professional photographer Herb Thompson.

“He was always just very young at heart,” said Thompson, who mentored Luigi for a Nebraska Arts Council project that resulted in an exhibition.

Thompson said the only time he saw Luigi slow down was after the ailing musician underwent chemo treatments. The artist finally lost his battle with cancer, but till the end was making plans — for a new CD, for new photography projects.

 

 

 

 

A memorial service at Omaha North High School and the funeral at St. Cecilia Cathedral drew hundreds each.

“Neither of those was really a sad occasion, they were more a celebration,” said Thompson. “People just said how much they loved him, how much he meant to them. It was a cross-section of this city who celebrated the life of a man who had contributed so very much to his community. I don’t think there’s anyone in the black community of a certain age who hadn’t been touched by Luigi. Another thing that struck me is that it’s obvious he crossed racial barriers. It came out in almost all of the comments folks made at the tribute but also in the kind of racial mixture you had there.”

Playwright Monica Bauer can attest to Luigi gracefully defying social constraints. She was among many whites who took music lessons from him. In the 1960s he was teaching at Swoboda Music Center at 20th and Q. Few blacks worked in the heavily Czech area and despite some raised eyebrows from neighbors, owner Johnny Swoboda hired and kept Luigi, and the two became friends.

If anybody had objected to Luigi’s presence, Swoboda would have stood by his man. “We were buddies,” said Swoboda. “He made quite an impression on all kinds of people. It’s quite a legacy.” Swoboda’s children became the first white Contemporaries.

Bauer echoed the sentiments of many in describing Luigi as “a terrific music teacher” with a “kind and compassionate” manner. His students say he taught philosophical life lessons as much as music. She said she “learned how to be an artist” and a mensch from him. “Luigi always told me, ‘Be kind to everybody, and they will be kind to you.’ I took those words with me through two Ivy League degrees, three Master’s degrees, and a Ph.D.”

Her play My Occasion of Sin dramatizes Luigi’s social action of taking on white students in the racially tense ‘60s. He didn’t see it as making a statement. He was just being Luigi.

 

 

 

 

Luigi Gone But Not Forgotten

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

As much as the music he made. the generous spirit of iconic Omaha drummer and vibraphonist Luigi Waites is likely be remembered even more. Waites died early Tuesday morning at Immanuel Hospital. He was 82.

His 70-year performing career encompassed much of the Omaha live music scene but extended well beyond his hometown borders. He’s perhaps best known for the more than 1,700 Sunday night shows he and his group, Luigi Inc., performed at Mr. Toad in the Old Market. Luigi was also a fixture at the Dundee Dell. As a Summer Arts Festival board member, he booked the event’s entertainment.

As early as age 12 he began playing drums and soon gigged at local nightclubs, where his mother served as his escort. He studied at the Midwestern Conservatory of Music in Chicago and worked as a clinician for drum manufacturers. He influenced many youths through the touring multicultural marching corps he formed in 1960, The Contemporaries. He applied R&B rhythms to the traditional military-style marching band aesthetic. Professional musicians Arno Lucas and Victor Lewis “graduated” from The Contemporaries.

In a 2007 interview Lucas spoke for many when he said “Luigi was the guy who made it possible for me to stay focused and to keep out of trouble.” Lucas recalled Waites as a “mentor, teacher, step-father.”

For decades Waites did artist-in-the-schools presentations.

His many honors included 1996 Nebraska Artist of the Year from the Nebraska Arts Council and 2009 Best Jazz Artist from the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards, which previously honored him with a lifetime achievement award. Waites was also inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame.

The father of six leaves behind some recordings but mainly a legacy of teaching and sharing. He lives on in YouTube excerpts of his Mr. Toad shows.

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