Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald; Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Ella, the dramatic musical revue of the life of American songbook diva Ella Fitzgerald at the Omaha Community Playhouse, reveals the anguish behind the legendary performer’s sweet voice and carefree persona.
Call it kismet or karma, but the woman portraying her is veteran Omaha chanteuse Kathy Tyree, whose ebullient, easy-going public face has similarly disguised her own torment.
The high points surely outweigh the low points in their respective lives but Tyree’s experienced, much as Ella did, her share of failed relationships, including two divorces, and myriad financial struggles.
“I’m in a much better place now,” Tyree says.
Known for her bright spirit and giving heart, Tyree’s usually worked a regular job to support her and her son. Currently, she’s program manager at Omaha Healthy Start. A few years ago she used all her savings and 401K to launch her own production company and after a rousing start one bad show broke the business.
The enigmatic Fitzgerald died in 1996 at age 79 with few outside her inner circle knowing her private travails because her handlers sanitized her regal image as the First Lady of Song.
As Tyree researched Fitzgerald’s life for the role, which director Susie Baer Collins offered without an audition, she identified with what Ella did to separate, if not always reconcile, her private and public sides.
“She was very weak and very strong at the same time,” Tyree says of Ella. “She had all these secrets and these hurts, all this internal pain, but she always held it together. She was at the top, she was international, she was the goddess of scat.”
Fitzgerald was respected for her dignified demeanor, the purity of her well-modulated voice and her perfect elocution, though some criticized her for being too precise, too pristine, too white. All of it helped to popularize jazz.
Tyree says the adoration that flowed Ella’s way was due to her talent but also to “how she carried herself as a black woman,” adding, “She wasn’t Lady Day (Billie Holiday), she wasn’t drinking and popping pills and going through all these changes publicly. That takes a lot.”
Before getting the role Tyree was lukewarm about the singer. Her favorite female artists were Diana Ross, Patti Labelle and Cher. After months listening to the Ella canon, Tyree says ,”I have a completely different appreciation for her. Now I am a fan. This woman was a walking instrument. She could do just amazing things with her voice.”
Because the script peels back the layers of myth around Fitzgerald’s antiseptic image, Tyree now feels connected to the real woman behind the silky voice and prim and proper mask
“There’s so much more to her than was allowed to be shared with the world. She definitely has a story, she definitely was singing from a place of pain. In rehearsals I began seeing a lot of the parallels between us.”
Both grew up fatherless and both lost a sister. By their mid-teens both were mixed up in the wrong crowd. Just as performing saved Fitzgerald, it gave the “rebellious” Tyree a purpose and discipline she’d lacked. She began singing in church, at Morningstar Baptist, where she still attends today, and at Omaha Technical High School. Outside of her faith, performing is Tyree’s spiritual sanctuary.
“For me theater and music are my therapy but from everything I’ve learned about Ella it was more like her drug. For me it takes me to another place and it gives me a peace and a calm. I leave everything outside. It’s like this is a whole other world.”
Just as performing helped Tyree cope with insecurities, she guesses it did so for Ella, whose character in the show says, “I’m always OK when I’m on the stage. When I’m not working, I turn off, I get lost.”
Tyree’s usual reticence about her own turmoil isn’t to protect a well-manufactured facade, but a personal credo she inherited.
“I shared with Susie (Baer Collins) in a read-through that in my family we have a rule – you never look like what you’re going through. Though I’ve been through a lot, I’ve had a lot of heartbreak and heartache, I never look like what I’m going through, and that was Ella.
“It’s a pride thing. I was raised by strong black women. These women had to work hard. Nobody had time for that crying and whining stuff.
It was, ‘Straighten your face up, get yourself together, keep it moving.'”
She says what she doesn’t like about Ella is “the very same thing I don’t like in myself,” adding, “Ella didn’t have enough respect for herself to know what she deserved. She didn’t have those examples, she didn’t have a father. People always say little boys need their fathers, well little girls need their fathers. too. They need somebody to tell them they’re beautiful. They deserve somebody in their life that isn’t going to abuse them. When you don’t have that you find yourself hittin’ and missin’, trying to figure it out, searching for that acceptance and that love. That’s very much our shared story.”
That potent back story infuses Tyree’s deeply felt interpretations of Fitzgerald standards. Tyree’s singing doesn’t really sound anything like her stage alter ego but she does capture her heart and soul.
Tyree, a natural wailer, has found crooning ballad and scat-styles to conjure the spirit of Ella. Tyree makes up for no formal training and the inability to read music with perfect pitch and a highly adaptable voice.
“My voice is very versatile and my range is off the charts,” Tyree says matter-of-factly. “I can sing pretty much anything you put in front of me because it’s all in my ear. I’ve been blessed because they (music directors) can play it one time and I get it.”
She considers herself a singer first and an actress second, but in Ella she does both. She overcame initial doubts about the thick book she had to learn for the part.
“It’s a lot of lines and a lot of acting and a lot of transitions because I’m narrating her life from 15 years-old to 50.
But after months of rehearsal Tyree’s doing what she feels anointed to do in a space where she’s most at home.
“This is where I get to be lost and do what I do best, this is where I don’t miss. I think it’s because it’s coming from a sincere place. My number one goal is that everybody in the audience leaves blessed. I want to pour something out of me into them. I want ’em to leave on a high. It’s not about me when I’m on stage. This is God-given and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it to deliver.”
This popular performer with a deep list of musical theater credits (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Beehive) feels she’s inhabiting the role of a lifetime and one that may finally motivate her to stretch herself outside Omaha.
“I’m still like blown away they asked me to come do this show. I still have goals and dreams and things I want to do. As you go through your journey in life there’s things that hinder those goals and dreams and they cause you to second guess and doubt yourself – that maybe I don’t have what it takes. I’m hoping this will instill in me the courage to just go for it and start knocking on some of those doors.”
Ella continues through March 30. For times and tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunity playhouse.com.
Matched Set: Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck Share a Life and Career Based in Theater at the Omaha Community Playhouse
An Omaha asset know far and wide outside the city and the state of Nebraska is the Omaha Community Playhouse. With the possible exception of the Joslyn Art Museum, it owns the richest history of any Omaha arts and cultural organization. I mean, we’re talking serious pedigree here. So it’s no small thing to hold a ranking position on the artistic staff there. That a former husband and wife hold the artistic director and associate artistic director posts there and have done so for many years intrigued me and the result of my curiosity is the following story soon to appear in the New Horizons newspaper. Carl Beck and Susan Baer Collins have been making theater together for decades and they’ve gone right on working at the Playhouse even after their divorce. They’ve made this unusual situation work and after the 2013-2014 season they will finally be going their separate ways, but there’s a lot of theater ahead of them yet. If you’re a theater fan then check out my many theater stories on this blog, including a history piece on the Omaha Community Playhouse and features related to the Brigit St. Brigit, Blue Barn, John Beasley and other theaters. You’ll also find quite a bit about the Great Plains Theatre Conference.
Matched Set: Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck Share a Life and Career Based in Theater at the Omaha Community Playhouse
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in the New Horizons
A shared passion for theater has kept Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck joined at the hip despite countless moves and significant life changes.
If they were a production, Collins-Beck would be a sensation for their show-must-go-on endurance. A year-and-a-half from now their decades-long run as a dedicated theater team – he’s artistic director and she’s associate artistic director at the Omaha Community Playhouse – will end when they retire from those positions and they finally go their separate ways.
Their love story is not just with dramatics. Back in the early 1970s they fell head over heels for each other while working in the theater – they were even introduced on stage. They began living together, traveling far and wide pursuing their dream, including two stays in New York City, where they made audition rounds trying to break in on Broadway. There and at other stops they worked regular jobs to support their stage aspirations. With nothing tying them down, these theater vagabonds went wherever the work took them.
Beck recalls, “We were exceptionally lucky along the way. We had connections that kept taking us to a different step. We remained very open. We were constantly moving, sometimes three or four times in a year, to different cities. So everything had to fit in a Volkswagen Beetle. You lived a very strange life but it was always interesting.”
They’ve performed in every conceivable situation, from grand venues to under a leaking circus tent in a driving rainstorm to a cattle auction barn to the Nebraska State Penitentiary, where one group of inmates was on their best behavior while another group heckled the performers the entire time.
Dinner theaters became their mainstay.
“One of our trips took us to Atlanta where we were in a fantastic theater that did nothing but big musicals – Hello Dolly, Fiddler on the Roof,” says Collins.
That Southern metropolis became home when Turner Broadcasting hired them to work in front of and behind the camera for its WTBS superstation.
On far right are Carl Beck and Susan Baet Collins, ©netnebraska.org
“Maybe the biggest departure was an opportunity for us to write and perform on a children’s television show for Turner Broadcasting called Superstation Funtime. I was on the show and Carl was a writer,” says Collins. “We worked for three years, in and out of production of this show and in other positions at the network.”
TV was a decided change of pace for the theater artists.
“There wasn’t the same degree of comfort, of knowledge, of want to work in television as there was in theater,” says Beck. “I just always felt I would be scrambling to catch up in television, but my roots, my base is more theater-driven, and that’s what we would both prefer to be doing.”
Ironically, Collins has gone on to do extensive work as a voice talent for network TV children’s shows (Street Sharks, Archie’s Weird Mysteries, Liberty’s Kids, Horseland, Strawberry Shortcake, Dino Squad). She also does narration for commercials, documentaries and corporate videos.
Perhaps the couple’s most memorable performance came for British royalty.
“We wrote and performed a live show for the Prince of Wales at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta,” Beck explains.”Prince Charles came there as part of a U.S. tour. We had just opened a comedy improv group there with other Nebraskans and were kind of a new topic.”
Atlanta rolled out the red carpet for the royal. “I ended up as the master of ceremonies,” Beck says. “Gladys Knight and the Pips were the big entertainment.” Collins appeared in a sketch quizzing Charles on his knowledge of Southern slang. She got to meet him backstage and was charmed by his droll flattery.
Theater is the couple’s life. Upon marrying in 1977 they followed, in their own humble way, the tradition of more famous husband and wife stage teams such as Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne or Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.
The couple have a son together, Ben Beck, who is a playwright and actor in Omaha. Though Collins and Beck divorced in 1996, they’ve remained friends and colleagues, managing to amicably, successfully work side by side at the Playhouse. Their parallel careers long ago brought them there. Beck came first. When Superstation Funtime was cancelled he “jobbed in” to direct for the Playhouse’s touring company, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan.
“Then we got the call that (then-executive director) Charles Jones was looking for an associate director to help him because the Playhouse then was undergoing a large expansion, so we moved up there with a 6-month old baby and I became associate director,” says Beck. “That was 1983.”
When Jones suffered a stroke in ’96 Beck became artistic director and Collins associate artistic director. They’ve remained in those positions ever since.
“We feel absolutely incredibly lucky to have stumbled into the positions that we have that allow us to live a very pleasant, normal life in a community like Omaha being able to make our living doing something we both feel very passionate about,” says Beck.
Between them, they helm most of the theater’s mainstage shows, particularly the big musicals that are the theater’s stock-in-trade moneymakers.
Their professional alliance has endured dating, marriage and divorce. “We’ve been joined at the hip professionally most of our lives. It’s kind of unusual,” says Collins. When their wedded bliss was no more they looked past their differences to focus on what was best for their son and their career. “It couldn’t work any other way,” she says. “We celebrate holidays together, we’ve taken trips together.”
She’s been married 13 years to an attorney from Norfolk, Neb., Dennis Collins, who performs at the Playhouse and has been directed by her ex.
“It’s an odd little family, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Susan says.
Having lived and worked together so long, the pair connect deeply.
“It’s definitely a relationship you cultivate, especially after a divorce,” says Beck. “You realize the important things. We certainly don’t want to make anyone we work with or are friends with choose sides. Our single greatest focus was to continue to raise our son and both be very much a part of his life. No one was going anywhere.”
Because they’ve shared a life together, the two artists enjoy a bond that goes well beyond what most associates share.
“We obviously do know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and have grown very comfortable over a period of time with being able to support or cover one another or when one’s fired come to the rescue,” says Beck.
They had each others’ backs in 2009 when Beck was asked to resign by Playhouse president Tim Schmad in the midst of a budget crisis and Collins promptly resigned to show her support for her ex. That riff with management was resolved when Playhouse supporters expressed indignation at Beck’s dismissal and Schmad had a change of heart. The artists patched up their differences with administrators and Beck and Collins resumed their posts.
The pair perform similar but separate roles at the Playhouse, where they form a conspiracy of hearts and minds that is all about mutual support.
“We rarely work on the same project together,” says Collins, “What we do is kind of go to bat together in front of the board or executive committee for what we think is necessary to maintain or add to our productions here.”
Just as the couple found enough common ground after their divorce to remain friends and colleagues they found a path to come back to the Playhouse after that celebrated flap with their bosses. Healing the wounds from that severing was crucial if the Playhouse were to thrive.
“It was a very intense period for absolutely everyone,” recalls Beck. “Those of us that were most affected by it came to realize this was very detrimental to the Playhouse and hurting the institution and that, differences aside, we all very much loved this organization. And for that reason we sat down and started coming to terms with one another because the institution was much greater than the individuals involved and the incident that happened.”
Collins says, “Everybody came bearing an olive branch all at the same time.”
Still, there was an awkward feeling-out period.
“Everyone had to find their way after that point and very carefully move forward because you were trying to absorb different people’s attitudes and what had taken place,” says Beck. “It was a gradual process.”
A direct benefit from all of that was that the division that previously existed between the art and business sides of the Playhouse was eliminated. Instead of operating independently as they did before, with little discussion or appreciation of what the other did, the two sides began communicating.
When the couple first joined the Playhouse the artistic and financial decisions were made by one person, Charles Jones. Eventually, those duties were divided among different people. It just made sense.
“I think it’s safe to say there’s a lot more collaborative decision making that happens then when we first came,” says Collins. “At the time artistic and financial decisions were pretty much managed by the same person. A lot of theaters operated in that way until they started splitting the responsibilities.”
But over time the two camps became isolated and mistrustful, all of which contributed to the 2009 fall-out.
Collins says, “When we first came back from that Tim (Schmad) and Carl and I would have at least weekly meetings, which is something we’d never done. We reported to each other a lot and you could watch both parties start to see what life was like for an arts administrator in the middle of a big recession.”
She says where before she and Beck never gave much thought to money matters they now routinely ask themselves, “How do we help justify the budget?” She adds, “And now he (Schmad) sees what is really necessary for all this programming to take place. It’s admirable to watch because before we were seeing the other side as the enemy. Before the ‘dust up’ I never went to a financial committee meeting or a board meeting. I go to everything now. It helps you see what we’re facing.”
Part of what the Playhouse faces is a changed environment in which it is no longer the only show in town.
“When we first came if you wanted to see a big musical in Omaha you went to the Playhouse,” says Collins. “Now you can see a first national touring production of Memphis or see The Lion King sit down here for six weeks. That never happened before. There are more theaters now, too.”
She frets that what makes the Playhouse special is lost on some.
“There are people I worry who don’t see the value in nurturing this part of the art form with theater as an avocation. I want to keep in everybody’s brain how important this centrally located community theater is to the nurturing of new talent and new audiences.”
The theater is having to adapt to stay relevant.
“Audiences are changing,” says Beck. “The old rules don’t necessarily apply anymore. People don’t buy season memberships the way they used to.
There are so many more options for their arts dollars today. So we’re becoming less membership oriented and more reliant on single ticket sales.”
To better appeal to different audiences the Playhouse now promotes a slate of traditional and nontraditional offerings.
He says, “We’ve rebranded our theater as having two very separate spaces. We call it, ‘Find Your Stage.’ We have a more traditional mainstage theater and an edgier, more contemporary theater, the Drew.”
Collins says a big challenge is getting capacity seating up in the mainstage.
A Christmas Carol
Theater’s been the glue that’s kept the couple together and so it shouldn’t be a surprise the two met as actors with the Nebraska Repertory Theater in Lincoln. She’d moved with her family to Lincoln after growing up in Detroit, Mich. and other places. She was a University of Nebraska-Lincoln theater major. He gravitated there from his hometown of Shreveport, La. by way of theater studies at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Tulsa.
After stints with dinner theaters and rep companies around the nation and that three-year hiatus in TV, they ended up back in Neb. and here is where they’ve stayed. Collins and Beck have faithfully continued the Playhouse’s rich tradition that extends back to its 1924 founding and that includes notable alums Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire and state of the art facilities.
The Playhouse has become their theater home.
Each feels they’re exactly where they’re meant to be but after giving so much for so long they’ve also put in motion their leaving the Playhouse at the end of the 2013-2014 season. Their rationale for parting ways is simply wanting to move on to do other things. Then there’s the fatigue factor of time and energy spent mounting shows. Announcing their resignations so far in advance has as much to do with their love for the institution and giving it time to find the right replacements as it does leaving on their own terms. After all, they’re in good health and they don’t want to wait and be forced out due to illness.
They make no bones about what a special place the Playhouse is and the special place it holds in their lives.
“It’s a long history,” says Beck. “We came as actors. We then grew into what we became. We had a deep strong appreciation for its strengths and an understanding of its weaknesses. Moving into management and directing positions we were able to maintain the strengths we always appreciated and went to work on things we felt we could improve. It’s been embraced by the Omaha community for 89 years and when you work here as we have you become entrenched in the history of the organization.”
On the other hand, he says, “we’ve been doing it a long time. We’ve been living in a rehearsal hall a long time. You reach a point where you realize new blood is a very positive thing and a transition for the Playhouse is a growth.”
Collins says, “We’ve seen a lot of people go out of here on walkers or in ambulances. We didn’t want to be those people who say with a last gasp, ‘I have one more show in me…’ Because as much as this is what we love to do rarely do you have a day away from the Playhouse, You’re here days in the office but then you’re back from 6 to 10 o’clock in rehearsal. Weekends, forget it. It kind of runs your time.”
In an unusual move, they announced their impending departure in August 2012, a full two years before their resignations take effect.
“We were having discussions about it probably two-and-a-half years ago and we both came to the conclusion we were both ready to do it and doing it at the same time made a lot of sense,” Beck says.
Besides, he adds, “it’s time to do something else and to structure your life in a different way. We’re both wide open. I have a lot of family in the South and in all likelihood I will relocate and spend more time around a beach.”
Collins, meanwhile, intends staying in Omaha, where she’s planted deep roots as an actress, director, playwright and voice talent.
“I probably won’t leave Omaha and I will be a part of the theater community but it’ll be more my timetable and I’ll pick my projects. Carl and I in these positions take on the most potential income-producing projects of the season, which means we do the big musicals with the mega casts. Back when I first came here I was more like our resident director Amy Lane where I would get to do the funky quirky little plays in the small theater that we know aren’t going to make money. It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to play with some great piece of writing in a small room with seven or eight actors.
“I would like to do that and I would like to do a little more performing.”
She’d also like to write more. She and her late partner, composer Jonathan Coles, wrote three widely performed musicals for young people.
An inevitable consequence of announcing their retirement so early, she says, “is people are thinking we’re retiring tomorrow. We kind of get, ‘Are you still here?'” A big part of giving such long notice was affording the Playhouse ample time to find successors who are the right fit for unusual jobs at what is a singular institution. Once their replacements are found, Collins and Beck fully expect to help train or advise them in order to ease that transition.
“We know what’s involved. It’s just a very different thing, so you have to have knowledge of the place,” says Collins. “So we’re hoping whoever comes in can give us time before he or she just kicks right in with their first production.”
Not only are there multiple productions to mount each season there’s the great elephant in the room that must be constantly fed – the Playhouse’s annual mega production of A Christmas Carol. Besides its long mainstage run in Omaha, it’s performed by two companies of the Nebraska Theatre Caravan in tours that take the show to the east and west coasts.
“A Christmas Carol is a huge component of why we are able to sustain ourselves. It’s both tour and resident production,” says Collins, “and it isn’t like you could come in tomorrow and just direct the show.”
“It’s a machine,” says Beck. “We rehearse three productions at the same time. You come in at 9 a.m. and you leave at 10 at night, juggling all three, and the intricacies of that.”
“It has a legacy. There’s an integrity about this production,” Collins says.
That production is the adaptation that the late Charles Jones gifted the theater with after his arrival there. Jones, a consummate Southern gentleman who oozed charm, was one of the most charismatic figures the couple has had the pleasure of knowing.
“Charles Jones had an amazing capacity to talk anybody into anything, be it corporate donors, be it actors, whomever. Charles was an impresario. Working for him, working around him was daily an education,” says Beck.
“There’s the kind of teacher who takes you down to nothing and then lets you try to stand up again and I was never able to respond to that very well,” says Collins, “but I have always thrived under someone who says, ‘I think you can do anything’ or ‘I think you can do more with than you know,’ and that was always Charles. When I first came here he gave me lots of encouragement as a performer and then came a day he decided I should start directing and I hadn’t directed anything outside a class. I’ll always be grateful to Charles.”
Education is a major aspect of what Collins and Beck do whether directing a show or conducting workshops and classes. By its nature, Beck says, community theater means working with casts filled with people who have dramatic training or stage experience as well as those who’ve never appeared in a play “and your job is to get them all to the same level.” He adds, “You’re constantly learning, constantly starting from square one with each project and each group of people. You’re dealt a different hand every time you go off.”
“In every cast I would love to have one very young, inexperienced, eager, talented high school student because they are so genuinely excited to be there and they become the heart and soul of an entire company,” he says. “You can bring a person along and nurture someone. I’ve had two this year.”
Similarly, Collins says “it’s the process” of creating theater she most enjoys.
“It’s going to that audition and your heart’s kind of in the pit of your throat because you’re not sure you’re going to find the people you’re looking for.” More often than not she does. “We get criticized for casting the same people but I challenge anybody to name a play where we haven’t introduced someone new to the stage.”
Discovering new talent is a side bonus.
“Julia McKenzie in All Night Strut is my latest, Oh-my-gosh, where-did-you- come-from? find. This young woman that none of us knew just showed up at our auditions and she’s proven to be a phenomenal dancer, with personality out her toes and she can sing, too. We have been nothing but thrilled with her since the day she walked in.
“There was a little girl we cast long ago in A Christmas Carol named Caroline Iliff. I knew her mother, who said, ‘Oh, my daughter’s auditioning for A Christmas Carol,’ and in my mind I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, yeah, who isn’t it?’ And this little girl was darling and we put her in the company and over the years she became such a poised, amazing, capable young performer. She ended up playing Annie in the musical Annie. She went on to play my Wendy in Peter Pan and developed this impeccable British accent.
“Now she’s a grown-up person playing Belle in A Christmas Carol and off in Texas studying music theater and I feel, ‘That’s my baby.'”
Collins and Beck also enjoy immersing themselves in the world of a play.
“You do a play about Helen Keller or Ann Landers or the music of the 1930s and 40s and you learn a whole bunch of stuff. Each play is its own little being,” she says. “I want to steep myself with as much information as I can get about the subject matter. Then you try to see it in your head and then some actor comes along and maybe changes your mind or takes your suggestion and runs with it or takes it further than you imagined. It’s just a lot of fun.”
Beck says, “Every two to three months you’re faced with a new set of challenges and starting back at square one with casting, with putting a piece together, with finding your way. It doesn’t allow room for getting dull.”
He says mounting a community theater production is a balancing act.
“You make the rehearsal process as positive an experience as possible.
You don’t abuse. You realize these people get up the next morning and have to be at work, so you’re careful in how you use them.”
He says one reason why the Playhouse attracts top talent show after show is that it offers something no other theater in town can match.
“Cast are featured in a very professional setting with top notch costumes and sets and sound and orchestra and all of the trappings and so it’s a wonderful realization for a performer. It’s a remarkable facility.”
Collins and Beck are quick to add they don’t do it alone.
“There would be no way we could feel this pleased about the work we get to do if it wasn’t for the production team and the people we have the privilege of working with every day,” says Collins. “These people are under a lot of pressure and yet they will go the extra mile every time and they’re right there at your side.”
And they’re all under one roof – props, costumes, scenic design, sound, music.
“That’s a really fortuitous thing,” she said.
Almost as fortuitous as Collins and Beck enriching the Omaha theater scene for 30 years.
- Regional Theater of the Week: Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland, Ohio (cleveland.broadwayworld.com)
- Salem Area Theatre (willamettelive.com)
- Location Spotlight: First United Methodist Church (artsforallinc.wordpress.com)
- Opera Omaha Co-production of’The Magic Flute’ Casts Enchanting Spell (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Upcoming Local Auditions (artsforallinc.wordpress.com)
- Opera Omaha Enlists Jun Kaneko for New Take on ‘The Magic Flute’ – Coproduction of Mozart Masterpiece Features Stunning Designs Setting the Opera World Abuzz (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Generosity at Core of Anne Thorne Weaver’s Life, Giving Back to the Community Comes Second Nature to Omaha Woman Whose Live-out-loud Personality is Tempered by Compassion and Service
Generosity at Core of Anne Thorne Weaver’s Life, Giving Back to the Community Comes Second Nature to Omaha Woman Whose Live-out-loud Personality is Tempered by Compassion and Service
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in Metro Magazine
Anne Thorne Weaver has known privilege and pain but like a real-life Auntie Mame she views the world as a banquet to be sampled.
A giving heart
The adventurous traveler and enthusiastic hostess says, “I’ve had a really a good life. I’m one of these few people that would go back to the beginning and live it all over again.” The generous Weaver has spent her adult life volunteering with local service clubs and nonprofits in order to better her adopted hometown.
When most persons her age defer to the next generation, she’s still an active board member and patron with various organizations, including the Salvation Army, the Museum of Nebraska Art and the Nebraska Methodist Hospital Foundation. Her work on behalf of causes earned her the 2011 Junior League of Omaha Distinguished Sustainer Award and community service awards from the WCA and Methodist Hospital Foundation. On June 5 the Women’s Center for Advancement’s 25th Tribute to Women recognizes her community philanthropic efforts.
“It came as a big surprise to have been selected,” she says.
She’ll arrive at the program from her summer sanctuary in Okoboj, Iowa. As soon as the evening’s over, she’ll head straight back to her beloved lakeshore cottage. It takes a lot to get her to leave the retreat, where she’s known to throw a party or two. Not even weddings or funerals can pry her away, unless it’s a close friend or family member, “For this though I’m leaving Okoboji, that’s how honored I am,” she says.
Plaudits are not why she helps others but if her example can spur others to follow her lead then she’s glad to be in the spotlight. By responding to needs she gets something in return more meaningful than any accolades. “When you give, everything is given back,” she says Besides, she adds, “I enjoy the people with whom I work a lot, I really do. I’m not going to do something if I don’t enjoy it. I only work on it when it’s going to be fun.”
Some of her favorite things
Knowing first-hand the critical difference volunteers make in fulfilling the mission of nonprofits, she says, “just imagine what this town would be like without volunteers. I mean, everything would be closed – the libraries, the hospitals…” She credits the Junior League for its volunteer training and placement activities.
Refined in many ways, she’s also never outgrown her tomboy nature and love of nature. “My big passion is the Humane Society,” she says. Still an “Iowa girl” at heart, she enjoys the simple pleasures of the state fair.
Her appreciation for both fauna and the finer things is seen in her Loveland neighborhood home, where art objects share space with pets. She’s devoted countless hours to supporting the arts. “I am on the opera board and the symphony board and I love them both,” she proclaims. A relative newcomer to the Omaha Community Playhouse board, she says, “I’m finding it really interesting.”
She previously volunteered with the Joslyn Women’s Association and the Durham Museum, whose original board she served on.
“Another one of my great loves is the art center up there,” she says, referring to Pearson Lakes Art Center in Okoboj, where she supports several things close to her heart. Nearby Spirit Lake is home to a favorite worship place, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. “I really love that little church,” she says. Weaver belongs to Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Omaha.
A helping hand
She likes aiding people get where they want to go, too. In her work with the Patriotic Committee of the National Society of Colonial Dames she helps award scholarships to Native American nurses serving reservations and helps send an essay contest winners to a Congressional Seminar in Washington D.C. “It’s a wonderful opportunity and a life changing experience for these kids,” she says.
She chaired the volunteer bureau Junior League Omaha once co-sponsored. For JLO’s Call to Action program she served on a team of ombudsmen. “We had to learn where everything was in Omaha that could assist people. If somebody had trouble or a dispute, we would tell them where to go to get it resolved.”
Her giving back is an expression of the saying that to whom much is given, much is expected. Born into a Mayflower family of self-made and inherited fortunes in Des Moines and Chicago, she harbors deep respect for American history and ideals.
As a child she was immersed in history living at Terrace Hill, a circa 1860s mansion with 90-foot tower overlooking downtown Des Moines. The home was once the residence of the Hubbell family, whose late tycoon patriarch, F.M. Hubbell, is her great-grandfather. The National Historic Place home is now the Iowa governor’s residence. She’s pleased it’s well preserved. “They’ve done a beautiful job on the restoration. It never looked that good when we lived there. It was just home.”
After her folks split she was shuffled between two sets of grandparents. “They were two totally different worlds,” she says. “In Des Moines I could wear blue jeans and men’s shirts. But in Chicago I couldn’t leave the house without wearing a hat and gloves and having my nose powdered.”
Her grandparents set a model for philanthropy she’s followed.
Despite being an only child, she recalls Terrace Hill as anything but lonely. She had the run of the place and its extensive grounds. Adventure was everywhere.
“It was just a wonderful home to grow up in. My cousin Patty and I spent a lot of time together. We’d run up in the tower and hop out on the roof. We just jumped all over the place. We spent quite a bit of our time in the pool. We were like fish.”
For company there were also the servants, “and I loved them,” says Weaver. “Two couples had been there 40 years, so they were my family. I’d take my meals with them in the dining room.”
A life well lived
Not everything’s been rosy. Growing up, her parents were largely absent. Her only marriage ended in divorce, though she and her ex remained friends. One of the couple’s four children took his own life at age 21.
Today, she’s alone but hardly lonely. She entertains at home. She attends social and civic engagements galore. There’s her volunteer activities. Breakfast with the girls. Doting on her pets. She goes on excursions whenever she feels like.
“I don’t know where the time goes,” she says.
Her bucket list includes touring the American West’s national parks and Ireland.
A matriarch in age if not spirit, she recently celebrated her Almost 80 birthday bash with friends in Des Moines. The progressive party moved from the botanical gardens to an art center to a country club to Terrace Hill.
“The joy to me is, they say you can’t go home again, but I can.”
As part of an unbroken lineage of service she feels responsible “to prepare whoever follows you to do an even better job than you have done.”
For Tribute to Women tickets call 402-345-6555 or visit http://www.wcaomaha.org.
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A Queen Gets His Day in the Sun: Music Director Jim Boggess Let’s It All Out in His ‘Jurassic Queen’ Cabaret
Covering the Omaha arts-culture scene as I have for some 20 years I’ve met a lot of people doing a lot of fine work. There are always newcomers to the scene, of course, whom I meet in completing assignments. But there is a surprising number of veterans on the scene who for one reason or another or for no reason at all I miss connecting with all these years until the fates align and I subsequently meet them for the first time. Jim Boggess is one of these. He’s done a bit of everything in music and theater and I finally caught up with him on the eve of his doing a one-man diva show, Jurassic Queen, a couple years ago. I think you’ll like Jim as much as I did for his warmth and honesty and absolute determination to be himself, no excuses or apologies, thank you.
A Queen Gets His Day in the Sun: Music Director Jim Boggess Let’s It All Out in His ‘Jurassic Queen’ Cabaret
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha Community Playhouse Music Director Jim Boggess likes big, brassy numbers. Sundays, he indulges his penchant for belt-it-out show-stoppers directing the Freedom Choir at Sacred Hearth Catholic Church. His dynamic, stand-up-and-shout lead at the piano cues the choir to make raise-the-rafters gospel sounds.
He’s been an “MGM kind of guy” since growing up in Estherville, Iowa, where his flamboyance fed off the movie musicals he watched at the Grand Theatre. He set his sights on show biz after seeing a high school production of Carousel. Being gay in a small, conservative Catholic community spelled trouble. Songs he’s written for his new cabaret at the P.S. Collective, Jurassic Queen: A One Diva Show, touch on those years.
“‘Gotta Go Away’ is about how I felt in that little town. I had to get out of there. It was not a safe place for me to be,” he said. No matter how ugly things got, he found refuge within his big Catholic clan. “My family was always wonderful to me.”
There’s a tribute to Barbra Streisand, long a figure of infatuation and inspiration. The diva’s music transported him beyond narrow-minded townies. “Listening to her when I was a kid got me through a lot of crap,” he said. He pokes fun at his over-the-top exuberance seeing her in concert for the first time last year.
One tune satirizes Catholic school. Two personal songs bracket the show. The opening title number “Jurassic Queen” defines him as “a survivor with a sense of humor who’s not afraid to talk about the amount of hair growing out of my nose.”
The closing ballad “is about never giving up the fight and about friends who are gone who can never die as long as you remember them,” he said. “I’ve lost my parents. I’ve lost friends – some to AIDS, one to suicide. I think about them every day. I miss them every day. There’s a period in you life when you really feel like you’re Typhoid Mary because everybody you know is dying. That’s a damn hard time to get through.”
The show is a declaration of what it means to be an aging gay man in America. Boggess insists it’s not some self-righteous polemic but a celebration of a rich life.
“I’ve had a helluva time and I’ve got some great stories to tell and some great songs to sing that aren’t just mine,” he said. “And I’ve got some funny stuff, too. There isn’t anything more boring than somebody coming on the stage and going, ‘I am gay and you must respect me.’ You have to have a sense of humor about yourself.”
The show also expresses the defiant attitude Boggess has cultivated. “I really just don’t give a damn what anybody thinks,” he said. “I mean, I care what my friends think but as far as total strangers and large legislative bodies I don’t.”
Omaha singer/actor Seth Fox, whose Royal Bohemian Productions is staging Jurassic Queen, said having the show at the P.S. Collective in Benson rather than a gay venue like The Max, where it previewed, makes a statement.
“It says we’re not afraid to be here and you have no reason to be afraid either,” he said. “This helps us to bring gay cabaret out of the gay bar into the mainstream. Make it less about being a gay-themed show and more about being a human interest show. Granted, some of the humor is going to cater to gay audiences but not all of it. There is something for everyone.”
“It’s not a drag show,” Boggess said. “I don’t wear a dress. I’m just who I am. It’s just me and a piano and a couple of cutouts.”
Besides, Boggess said, being gay is just one aspect of him.
“I’ve never ever defined myself by my preferences,” he said. “I define myself by the kind of person I am. It is certainly a part of me, an intrinsic part of me, but it is by no means all of me. There’s a lot more there.”
For a long time Boggess felt disapproval from the very institution that was supposed to love him unconditionally – the church.
“The exclusion of many different kinds of people made me very bitter towards the church. I never ever thought I would set foot back there again.”
But he did, finding “acceptance and inclusion” at Sacred Heart in north Omaha, where the gospel music he performs speaks to him. “It’s survival,” he said. “Show me any good gospel singer and I’ll show you somebody who’s survived.” The Freedom Choir he directs there is mostly white but they sure know how to get down with gospel.
“I’m as white as they come but I think there must have been some funny business in my family earlier because I feel a big affinity for it,” he said.
Versatility’s kept Boggess working steadily 35 years. He can sing, play, arrange and direct music. He acts. He came to Omaha in 1974, via the Mule Barn Theatre in Tarkio, Mo., to work in the Firehouse Dinner Theatre’s pre-show Brigade. He, along with Jim and Pam Kalal, formed the trio Best of Friends. Their dreams of Las Vegas revue stardom fizzled. He freelanced as music director at the Firehouse and the Upstairs Dinner Theatre. He toured two years with the Nebraska Theatre Caravan, composing two musicals with Cork Ramer. He played the pit at the Playhouse, where he also starred in La Cage Aux Falles. All of it, he said, proved “a great training ground.”
He’s held his present Playhouse gig for 11 years. His devotion to theater is a love affair. “You have to really have a passion for this to survive,” he said. He lives for those rare times when everything comes together.
“There are moments in shows and in music when it goes right, when it truly is an expression of you and the other performers and the chemistry and connection between you and the audience has an undefinable magic. It’s equal parts instant gratification and pride. Those moments don’t happen all the time but, boy, when they hit there ain’t nothing like them.”
He often collaborates on cabarets headlining others, including Fox, Jill Anderson and Camille Metoyer-Moten. He felt the time was ripe for his own one-man turn.
“It’s just another side of me that I thought I’d let out,” he said.
Better do it now, he thought, at age 55. “I mean, how long will I be presentable?”
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Dick Boyd Found the Role of His Life, As Scrooge, in the Omaha Community Playhouse Production of the Charles Dickens Classic ‘A Christmas Carol’
As hometown traditions and staples go, the Omaha Community Playhouse musical production of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol is a must see for lots of folks, and not just here either because the original production designed by Charles Jones tours nationwide courtesy the Nebraska Theatre Caravan company. This has been going on for two generations and I have to admit I’ve never bothered to catch the show. The closest I came was watching part of a rehearsal for the following profile I wrote about Dick Boyd, the man who portrayed Scrooge in the production for decades. He was still very much the voice and face of Scrooge here when I did the piece, but it wasn’t long after the story appeared that he announced his retirement from this role of a lifetime. I hope my article didn’t in some way hasten his abandoning the part he’d become so strongly identified with. As the story reveals, Boyd enjoys a very full life outside the Scrooge persona, which is of course far removed from his real demeanor.
Dick Boyd Found the Role of His Life, As Scrooge, in the Omaha Community Playhouse Production of the Charles Dickens Classic ‘A Christmas Carol’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
For generations of audiences Charles Dickens’ perennial classic tale A Christmas Carol has come to represent the transforming power of the Yuletide season. When the story begins, its lonely, tightfisted, bitter old protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, tyrannically administers to his cold, spare counting-house, running roughshod over cowed clerks, denying them the comfort of coal-fueled fires or even the courtesy of retiring early to be with their families on Christmas Eve. Only the plight of sweet Bob Cratchit’s crippled son, Tiny Tim, seems to move him. Otherwise, the craggy Scrooge dismisses the holiday and its celebrants with his trademark “Bah-humbug!”
But then, in a series of apparitions, ghostly visitors reveal to him the wayward, misspent path of his life. By the end, the stingy skinflint repents, expressing regret for hardening his heart and for coveting monetary gain over cultivating mortal kindness. Redeemed, Scrooge embraces life again, opening his coffers and rejoining the human race with renewed vigor. His being born again proves it’s never too late to change but also serves as a cautionary tale that the pursuit of material wealth can lead to ruinous end. So embedded is Scrooge in the popular culture that mentioning the name elicits an image of cold-hearted, penny-pinching avarice. The word long ago entered the lexicon as the embodiment of a “mean-spirited miser” — precisely how the American Heritage Dictionary defines it.
All of which brings us to Dick Boyd, the very unScrooge-like fellow who’s been portraying Ebenezer for 28 years now in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s candy-coated production of A Christmas Carol, a spectacular that’s become a holiday staple for generations of area families. The play runs now through December 21.
A veteran actor on area stages for many decades, Boyd, who along with his wife and sometime acting partner Miriam, are longtime Council Bluffs residents, has made the part his own. He’s played Scrooge in each of the nearly 700 main stage Carol productions performed since former Playhouse director Charles Jones first adapted the story and staged it in 1976. In all that time, covering all those shows, the trouper, a longtime educator in Nebraska and Iowa public schools, has never missed a single performance. When he launched the role he was a 53-year-old English instructor. Now a robust 81, he’s long retired from teaching and a grandpa many times over. In what is surely one of the longest-running theater engagements an actor’s ever had, anywhere, Boyd swears he never tires of the role.
“No, never, certainly not, or I wouldn’t be doing it 28 years,” he says in his basso profundo voice. “It’s a joy. There’s a lot of aspects that make it a joy. The people involved are probably some of the greatest people you’ll ever associate with and every year you get a few fresh new faces in there. Everybody brings something new to each part every year. There’s always different reactions, so it never gets stale.”
Back in 2000 rumors circulated he was wanting out of the role, but he says that was unfounded. “I don’t know who started that, but people seem to be surprised I’m still at it. People have been asking me about it. But as I told Carl,” he says, referring to Playhouse artistic director Carl Beck, “any time you get tired of me, let me know. I’ll go as long as I’m able.”
Besides being a richly-contoured part that allows Boyd to play a wide gamut of emotions before packed houses every night, there’s the side benefit of being rejuvenated by the character’s spiritual rebirth. “It’s the ultimate experience every night for me. Very few people get redeemed 20 or 30 times in a Christmas season,” he says, meaning the approximate number of times he plays the role each year. He feels it’s this quality of redemption that makes the Dickens story such an enduring classic and one retold over and over again in print and film and on radio, television and stage. “I just think people enjoy the spirit of the thing more than anything. They just really like the idea of somebody being renewed.”
Boyd’s association with the story goes back a long time, all the way to his childhood in Nebraska City, Neb. “As for the story itself, I’ve been involved with it ever since I can remember. I’ve always read the story…I always find something new in it. In the good old days of radio Lionel Barrymore did his annual interpretation (of Scrooge). We were always gathered around our old Majestic waiting for that to come on.” Reading the tale and playing the role as long as he has, Boyd’s developed a keen understanding of Scrooge, a symbolic figure he believes is too easily caricatured but one he finds all too human. “I, of course, have changed my opinion of Scrooge over these 70-80 years. Well, he’s a hard-nosed and flinty miser, but I’ve come to realize Scrooge is no different than the rest of us. He has his foibles and his protective devices he uses. His protective device is he simply withdraws from the people that have given him trouble and hurt him, to more of an extreme than most of us, but still, in all, he’s just a human being under all of it.”
In true Dickensian fashion, Scrooge’s coming of age reads tragic. “He’s taken back to his childhood, which shows he was kind of a cast-off,” Boyd says. “He apparently lost his mother at an early date and his little sister, whom he adored, died off in her early marriage. There’s a couple scenes where he’s left by himself in this boarding school, kind of a shabby one at that, and has to spend his Christmas alone and rely on himself. So, in his early youth a lot of things were taken away from him and not much was given to him. And, so, he got to the point where money and success were important things and relationships were kind of tentative. The money was something he could hold onto…the one thing he could grasp and keep without it fading away. His Scrooge behavior is all a defense mechanism to cover his hurt.”
After the spirits force him to confront everything he’s lost by virtue of his vindictiveness and to view the suffering his spendthrift ways might yet inflict on the Cratchits and their ailing son, Tim, Scrooge’s humanity surfaces, most poignantly in befriending the struggling family. “You see, his affinity to Tiny Tim is that they’re both cripples, really,” Boyd says. “I mean, he’s an emotional cripple and Tim is physically. They kind of mesh there.” It is the shock of recognition that turns Scrooge around. “As soon as he’s shown why he’s doing these mean things, he starts snapping out of it,” notes Boyd. “I guess the popular concept today is you go see a psychiatrist and he talks you through these past (traumatic) experiences, where Dickens uses the device of these ghosts.”
Still, the figure of Scrooge has become so identified with the image of an unfeeling tightwad that Boyd acknowledges “it’s kind of hard” to make him a real flesh-and-blood man rather than a stereotype. “After having done this role for so long I always ask Carl (Beck) to make sure that we’re not getting into any cardboard type of characterization. I know that we overblow the part a little bit. Of course, on the stage, you have to do that to get it across, but we try to steer clear of too much of that aspect. Hopefully, it’s a human portrayal.”
Touchingly human it is. When the part calls for it, Boyd dominates the proceedings with his early rendering of Scrooge as the mean, willful, narrow-minded old cuss. He groans, grouches, growls and grumbles with the best of them. But as Scrooge’s gaunt facade crumbles in the face of the cruelty he glimpses from his past, present and future, Boyd is appropriately nostalgic, afraid, exasperated and remorseful. At Scrooge’s most vulnerable, when viewing the wreckage of his life, Boyd essays a deeply wounded, apologetic soul.
The actor’s own bigger-than-life presence makes Scrooge’s fall and subsequent rise all the more telling. Boyd is a great lion of a man — from his mane of silver-gray hair to his impressive stature to his sonorous voice to his courtly manner, he carries himself with a certain majesty that only magnifies Scrooge’s callousness, making him seem smaller in the process, and that later elevates the character’s kindness, making it seem grander in comparison.
To his credit, Boyd avoids a cliched performance. Not by accident either. Rehearsals for A Christmas Carol began October 19 and ran through November 20 and during this stretch Boyd worked on both the broad strokes and fine nuances of his performance. In a mid-November rehearsal, he showed remarkable range in the scene where the Ghost of Christmas Past has him revisit his youth as an apprentice under dear old Fezziwig, who celebrated Christmas by treating all his friends, loved ones and employees to a big party. Face to face with the bright young Ebenezer, Boyd’s Scrooge acts overjoyed, as much by facial expression, gesture and carriage as by words, at the holiday merriment and warm human interaction he once indulged in. Forgetting he’s invisible, Scrooge joins the party, upset he cannot break through the bonds of time. When the ghost chides Fezziwig for his unrequited generosity, Scrooge defends his beloved old boss, practically sermonizing about how it’s better to give than to receive, before realizing he’s contradicting his own parsimonious ways.
When Scrooge looks at himself as the earnest young apprentice, he sees the promise for happiness he once held and that he foolishly squandered away in blind pursuit of wealth. He cannot bear it when young Ebenezer spurns the affections of a girl and the prospect of a happy life together for the toil of work and the tinkle of coin, desperately wishing he could reverse the lonely course his life took. Later, when it’s revealed what an object of derision he’s become to some and what a figure of melancholy he represents to others, Boyd expresses profound anguish in the contortions of his face, the collapse of his body and the caterwauling wail of his voice. Everything about him is heavy, slow, sad.
By the end, when a repentant Scrooge pledges in front of his own tombstone to reform — “I’ll be good from now on” — he’s a man reborn. His burden has been lifted. Everything about him seems lighter, brighter, bolder. This scene, along with the final one when he greets everybody with rousing wishes of “Merry Christmas,” are among the actor’s favorites.
Boyd, who makes a point of rereading Dickens’ original A Christmas Carol in preparation for the play, describes how his take on Scrooge has changed as his own experience has caught up with the character’s. “I like to think you get a little more understanding as you get older anyway,” he says. “You see some of the things underneath the outward appearances of people. I know more about Scrooge than I did 28 years ago. Quite a bit more about him.” For a long while, though, the actor didn’t suspect his characterization had altered from the start. “I thought I was pretty much the same as always until I looked at some tapes from past performances and saw there has been a little bit of growth over the years. I think I show more of a change from the earlier character to the redeemed character. I carry the last scene a little farther than I used to. I used to be within myself more and now I try to involve more of the other characters on stage…as many as I can get a hold of, and I think it shows a little more warmth than it used to.”
He credits Charles Jones, the man who originally adapted and staged the Dickens classic at the Playhouse, for emphasizing the warmth of the piece. “He saw all the joy that’s bound up in it and I think that’s really one of the reasons why this has become so successful around here,” Boyd says. “Nobody ever leaves that show feeling bad because he always gives them that lift.”
Something else Jones encouraged Boyd and his fellow actors in is developing back stories to anchor their characterizations in a context that provides motivation for their actions. Scrooge’s background is basically all there in the Dickens tale, but not so for supporting-peripheral characters, and it’s with these parts, Boyd says, that Jones made sure every actor, down to the last extra, developed a story that described, “Who are you, what are you doing, and why have you been doing it? It’s not just coming on the stage, it’s living the part,” is how Boyd explains it.
He says the production has not changed appreciably since Jones left the Playhouse in 1998. The approach still centers on making the drama as fresh and alive as any current event. That includes the authentic sets designed by set designer James Othuse. “One thing about James Othuse’s sets is that when you step on stage you feel like you’re in the place he’s trying to recreate. In other words, you feel like you’re on a street in Victorian London. James is probably a genius at this. Whenever you get the snow falling and the crowds moving and all the color with the shops in the background, it sets a mood.”
Like any performer, Boyd gets a charge from the high energy the cast and crew and audience give off during performance nights. “You can’t explain it. It’s kind of an electricity you feel.” He says working with a new cast practically every year keeps him on his toes. “A lot of if depends on who you’re working with on stage. If you get some dullards in there, it kind of drags things down, but that’s the nice thing about this one — we never get any of those. Of course, the kids have boundless energy. They’re ready to go every night. I guess we oldsters kind of feed off of that. I have a new Cratchit this year and a new Tiny Tim. Everybody has a little different approach to it and then of course you have to react to that.” As for audience reactions, he says, “It’s a horrible feeling if they’re not with you, I’ll guarantee you. You get feedback from them. It’s a give and take situation. If your audience is good, well, you may not be so good, but you act a little harder.”
Audiences anticipate his bellicose bellowing of that most signature Scrooge line, “Bah-humbug,” and Boyd knows it, so he plays to their expectations. “I listen to the audience.” he says. “It always gets kind of a snicker the first time it comes out. You can pretty much gauge if you’ve done it right.” He suspects that during hearing impaired performances the signer assigned to shadowing him on stage may “sign something other than bah-humbug,” perhaps an expletive “you wouldn’t exactly repeat in public, because the audience sure gets a snicker out of it.”
As closely identified as Boyd is with Scrooge, including being recognized on the street, the part hardly defines his performing life. His stage credits are impressive. He even has an award named after him at the Playhouse, whose most prestigious acting honor, the Fonda/McGuire Award, he’s won. Two of his favorite roles came as noble Atticus Finch in the Chanticleer Theater’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird and as curmudgeon Norman Thayer, opposite the legendary Mary Peckham, in On Golden Pond. He recently collaborated again with Charles Jones in a Grande Olde Players staging of The Three Penny Opera. Boyd and his wife of 53 years, Miriam, who appears with him in Carol, have been active members of the St. John Lutheran Church (Council Bluffs) choir and the Omaha Symphonic Chorus.
Although acting’s been an avocation, not a livelihood, it’s filled a large portion of his life. His performing days date back to high school in Nebraska City, where music became an early passion. After two years at Scottsbluff Junior College his university studies were interrupted by a three-and-half-year hitch in the Army signal corps that took him to the South Pacific during World War II. Upon returning stateside, he studied music and drama at Midland Lutheran College in Fremont, Neb. Already possessing a fine bass voice, he sang in the school’s touring a cappella choir, and it was on one tour that he fell for fellow choir member and future wife Miriam, whose father was the then-president of Midland. He eventually earned an education degree and spent the next few years teaching and serving as a school superintendent in Shelby and Ceresco, Neb. Miriam also became a teacher.
It was in Shelby, in the early ‘60s, where Boyd first got greasepaint fever. The late artist Terence Duren recruited him to play the lead, opposite Miriam, in the Shelby community theater production ofDirty Work at the Crossroads. “I was the hero and she was the heroine,” Boyd recalls. A few years later, after moving their growing family to Council Bluffs, the Boyds, at Miriam’s urging, landed chorus parts in a Playhouse staging of Kiss Me Kate. “We went on from there and did quite a number of shows,” he says, encouraged by Omaha’s then leading arts mavens, the Levines. Joe Levine was the Omaha Symphony director and his wife Mary, a musician and theater patron. The Boyds also performed with the Omaha opera company. When the couple’s four children were quite young, they often accompanied their parents to the theater and concert hall, playing backstage. “Oh, they had a ball,” Boyd says. Three of their adult offspring have worked in theater, one on the technical end, another as a music director and a third as an opera singer.
By the time he went up for the coveted role of Scrooge in 1976, he figured he had no shot at it. After all, his stiff competition included accomplished actor and former vaudevillian Bill Bailey. When, to his surprise, Boyd bagged the flamboyant part, he never imagined he’d still be at it. So, is there any downside to being Scrooge? Besides a danger of “letting a little Scrooge creep into my other acting, no, none. It’s a joy,” he says. Any worries about typecasting? “Bah-humbug!”
Seventy-five years ago a fetching Florence Emelia Young (then Taminosian), took the stage in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s first production, “The Enchanted Cottage.” For the romantic fantasy the trained dancer landed the minor, non-speaking role of a sprite-like figure, but with her shapely legs, graceful movements, dark bangs and cute dimples she no doubt caught the eye of male admirers in the audience that night in 1924.
The glowing high school student, all of 17, had been urged to try out for the fledgling theater’s inaugural play by her neighbor, Henry Fonda, a quiet young man two years her senior. Fonda, who practically “lived at the Playhouse,” would later leave Omaha to find stardom. The star-struck girl appeared in a few more plays there. She made her mark though not as a performer, but as a devoted theater volunteer and supporter these past 75 years. Today, she is the benevolent grand dame of the Playhouse.
“I always thought she was a treasure,” said the theater’s former executive director Charles Jones, “because she was really willing to put herself out for the Playhouse. She was proud of selling season memberships and helping us move forward. She has this bulldog tenacity, but the most wonderful heart. She’s a glorious, caring person.”
Another bedrock Omaha institution in Florence’s life has been Dundee Presbyterian Church. Founded in 1901, she attended Sunday School there beginning in 1910 and was confirmed in 1918. She has been an integral part of the church’s life and it of hers. Dundee is where she wed, where her children were baptized, confirmed and married, where her mate of 61 years, Kenny, was eulogized, where she served as choir member, deacon, elder and Sunday School teacher. In 1991 she was ordained a Stephen Minister. Young-endowed scholarships are granted each year.
Florence has seen a century of change unfold. She’s outlived many who have been dear to her. In 1979 she buried her only son, Bob, after he died of cancer. Yet, her bright, buoyant spirit remains undimmed. Whatever has come next, she “took it in stride,” forging a life of infinite variety and enviable richness, one based in family, church and community. Her passions range from travel to cooking to the arts. Then, there’s her entrepreneurial side. She had her own public stenographic business and real estate broker’s license at a time when career women were scarce. Also a noted restorer of Oriental rugs, she continues plying the craft today.
Even now, this vivacious lady of 92 still works, volunteers and travels. Additionally, she spends time with her six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. She is clearly centered on the here and now, not the past.
“I have such a fascinating life,” she says.
She’s still very much the same charming girl who moved with the greatest of ease that night so long ago. She was recently back at the Playhouse visiting the set of “The Little Foxes,” the current offering in the Fonda-McGuire Series. Looking radiant in a flowing black gown topped by an aqua blue sequined blouse, her white hair set-off like a pearl, she was every bit a teenager again, primping and preening for a captive audience — in this case a photographer. A graduate of the Misner School of the Spoken Word and Fine Arts, she glided effortlessly through the set, posing on a staircase and reclining on a chaise lounge. Ever the trouper, she responded to the photographer’s every request, obviously enjoying the attention, her energy and enthusiasm belying her years. A picture of health — she takes no medicine and drives a 1986 Cadillac kept “in perfect running shape” — she believes age is just a number anyway.
“It is. It really is. I think attitude makes a lot of difference, no matter what your age is,” she says in a ripened voice full of eager anticipation.
Ask her what’s the best thing about being 92, she unhesitatingly quips, “Everybody is so nice to you.” The worst part, she adds, is “knowing you maybe only have about ten more years left, if that many, and so much to do. Every year goes so fast.”
Her long life is filled by so many telling incidents that in recounting it the tendency is to telescope events, but that would not do her justice. Her story, like the intricate rugs she restores, is a tapestry of interwoven threads that form the pattern of a life lived well and fully. The only way to get a true picture of her is to go back to the beginning.
Born at home in Omaha in 1907, Florence was the first child of John Isaiah Taminosian and the former Ellen Maria Andersson. A sister and brother completed the family the next few years. Florence and her siblings grew up in a house (still standing) on Chicago Street in Dundee.
Florence’s parents each emigrated to America. He from the former Asia Minor Republic of Armenia. She from Sweden. By all accounts, her father was a charismatic fellow with a history straight out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. “He has such a fantastic story,” Florence says.
Buoyed by a published interview he granted to a Mankato, Minn. newspaper in 1910, the dramatic circumstances of his coming over are known. As he told it then, he was ostracized by his family when he rejected Christianity (his father was a Congregational Church deacon) for Islam and became a dervish or kind of Muslim evangelist.
He escaped to Cairo, Egypt with the aid of a local prince. While living under the prince’s protection he was ordained an Islamic priest, but after time grew disillusioned with his new calling and yearned for his old life and faith. But, rebuking Islam invited certain death. Returning home was out since Armenians were a persecuted minority. So, he enlisted the aid of Western missionaries, who secreted him out of the region.
He arrived on U.S. shores in 1893, not knowing English or a single soul. After a year of struggle he landed the part of “the howling and whirling dervish” in the Barnum & Bailey Circus, traveling to 29 states in two years. His talent for proselytizing and performing, as well as his knowledge of Oriental rugs, would later be passed on to his daughter Florence. His circus days ended when, struck by a second religious conversion, he became a street corner preacher with the Volunteers of America, a Christian evangelical organization ala the Salvation Army. With his dark exotic good looks, wild gestures, musky voice and turban-topped uniform he cut quite a figure. So much so he was invited to appear at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi International Exposition in Omaha. Here he stayed, finding more mainstream work with Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Co. and meeting his future wife Ellen. Later, he began selling Oriental rugs.
The arrival of Florence’s mother is devoid of storybook intrigue but no less compelling. Purportedly descended from Swedish royalty, Ellen Maria grew up in privileged surroundings on a country estate, Borstad, near Vadsteima, Sweden. One of ten children, she attended finishing school and became expert in household maintenance, particularly sewing, a skill Florence would learn under her watch years later.
In 1903 Ellen Maria ventured alone to America, by ocean liner, and made her way to Mead, Neb., where an uncle lived. She learned English and moved to Deadwood, S.D., where she worked as a seamstress. Restless in the small town, Ellen Maria moved to Omaha and soon secured a position in the home of Herman Kountze, one of the city’s leading citizens.
“She was in charge of their upstairs maids and when the family entertained she helped with the serving,” Florence writes in a family history she’s compiling. “She was treated just like one of the family.”
It was at a Kountze soiree, Florence believes, her mother and father met. Although from vastly differing backgrounds, she guesses the attraction was mutual. “My father was a very handsome man. He spoke seven different languages. He was selling Oriental rugs and I imagine, even at that time, they were highly esteemed. And he was probably doing well by then. My mother was a very beautiful, talented lady. She was always very beautifully dressed. Everybody loved her.”
Even after becoming a family man and attending to business (he eventually acquired the Dundee Cleaning Co.), Florence’s father still preached on the side. She saw him speak once to some long forgotten congregation. By then he was no longer the flamboyant Great Dervish, but rather a sober, chastened man of God.
“He gave a very good sermon. I think he was a very good speaker. I was so proud of him as a preacher.”
In her mind, she can still see the occasion when her normally stoic father broke down after bitter news arrived from the Old Country. “The only time I saw my father cry is when he received notice his mother and father had been dragged to death by the Turks” in another round of atrocities.
The Taminosian home, a two-story wood-frame house, was always open to visitors and a melting of Armenian, Swedish and American culture.
“My mother had a regal quality, and yet our friends were always welcome in our house. There was always something to eat for them. On Sundays my mother would cook a big beautiful dinner and she and my father would invite their friends. I grew up with many different languages being spoken around me. The men would be in the living room after dinner and my mother and her friends would be in the kitchen.”
Leisure time then was less hurried, more social. Cheap too.
“It didn’t cost a lot of money to have fun in those days. As little girls we played jacks, hopscotch, hide and seek, things like that. When I was older a whole group of us might go dancing to Peony Park. I’ve always enjoyed dancing. It was just a lot of good wholesome fun. It was a lovely time.”
She loved silent pictures, especially romances. She enjoyed riding with her family in their horse-and-buggy en route to picnics at Carter Lake. Autos then were still few in number. The first car she rode in was a Model-T Ford. Of all the inventions and advances she saw, the most impressive were electrical power coming into her home and the advent of radio.
Summer nights meant sleeping on the second-story porch just outside her bedroom. Doors were never locked. She always felt safe.
She received her elementary education at Dundee School, which was not yet built when she started. Therefore, she attended kindergarten in Dundee Hall and first grade in the Dundee Fire Barn, where, in the middle of class, “the bell would go off and the firemen would slide down the pole.” She attended Central High School before heeding her mother’s advice (‘every girl ought to be able to earn her own living if she needed to’) and transferring to Technical High School, where she learned typing and shorthand, two skills she would put to good use.
But the familiar red brick Tech edifice on Cuming Street was still under construction, so Florence and her mates attended classes in converted storefronts along Leavenworth Street for one year before moving to the big new Tech High building. “It was wonderful. It was the only school in the city with a swimming pool.” She swam well too. Her other extracurricular activities included editing the school paper, dramatics, debate, chorus. A play she wrote, “The Stovepipe Hole,” was performed on the Tech stage.
Although long closed, Florence keeps her ties to the school alive as coordinator of the annual Tech High Reunion. She’s helped preserve and display school memorabilia and raise funds for a planned renovation of the building’s massive auditorium. Her 75th class reunion is next year.
As a young woman she helped out in her family’s cleaning business. Besides cleaning rugs, her family repaired them. Her father taught her mother all about Oriental rugs and it was under the tutelage of her mother, a master needleworker who did restoration work for individuals and museums, that Florence and her sister Eleanor became skilled.
“I apprenticed for over 30 years under my mother and I learned to be an Oriental rug expert,” Florence says. “She wouldn’t even let us touch a rug belonging to a customer. We had to practice on old ones.”
Along with her expertise, Florence gained a deep appreciation for the rugs, which are traditionally handwoven using the choicest materials.
“They’re the finest you can get. I have one rug that is 168 knots to a quare inch. All put in by hand. It has silk outlining in it. To me, rugs are like pictures on a wall, only they’re on the floor.”
She continues Oriental rug restoration today, refringing ends, reweaving holes and edging sides frayed from wear, pets or accidents.
“Even now, the Nebraska Furniture Mart sends customers to me who need a rug repair done. My sister has a big business doing it in Kansas City too. Neither of us ever advertise. Work just comes to us.”
Over the years Florence has had clients seek her services out from as far away as New York and California. She does most of the work at home, which these days is an apartment at Skyline Manor. For a large piece, she works at the owner’s home. One local couple had such an enormous rug, she says, “they built a room just for it and set-up a table for me to work on. Their cat had really injured this rug. I was there for weeks.”
According to Florence, the best Oriental rugs are made in Iran and before trading with that nation was restricted some years ago she laid in a supply of native yarn that she isn’t sure “anybody else has” in the U.S.
She says the quality of a fine Oriental rug is partly dependent on the area of the country it’s made. “The quality of the yarn produced is determined by the water the goats drink and the vegetation they eat.”
Her travels over the years took her to the Mideast, where she and Kenny bought many rugs. Native weavers working at their looms often remarked on how knowledgeable she was about their craft.
“When I was in Iran I put some stitches in a rug they were making and one of the men came way across the room and kissed me on the cheek, saying, ‘You’re an American, and you know how.’ He couldn’t believe it.”
Travel was one of her and Kenny’s greatest shared pleasures. Everyone who knew them say they were a perfect match.
“He was behind me in everything I did and I was behind him in everything he did. We admired each other so very much. He was a caring, intelligent man and it was just a privilege for us to live together.”
The two met in the late 1920s and married in a formal ceremony at her church. A civil engineer by trade, he had his own firm and worked for Metropolitan Utilities District. He was later properties manager for the Great Plains Girl Scouts. Knowing her abilities, he encouraged her to find work and, when the opportunity arose, they bought a public stenographic business for her to run. Under her leadership, it flourished during the Great Depression.
“I built that business up to where I had three offices with a manager in each one. I also did printing and mimeographing.”
She closed the company to raise her family. Once the children were grown she re-entered the business world as a real estate broker. She was a top seller. She and Kenny also built, sold and rented several homes. “We never lost a cent either.” She’s justifiably proud of her professional career.
“I liked business so much. I felt I had to be absolutely correct in everything I did because I was paving the way for other women.”
It pleases her her granddaughters have followed her path and become business professionals in their own right. Her daughter, Helen Margaret Bucher, is a school teacher in Iowa.
Motivated by a mutual curiosity about the world, the Youngs began their travels by seeing the U.S. They eventually made it to all 50 states. From the time they started going abroad in 1954 until his death 37 years later, they visited every continent but Antarctica and a total of 125 countries. She’s since added three Caribbean countries. About their travels, she says:
“Each one was so different, so precious. It’s been very interesting. We both enjoyed people so much. Other people’s customs, ways of living and treasures. You learn so many things. When we went to different countries we tried to learn a few of their words, and it made so much difference. The people knew we wanted to know them better. What was nice is Kenny and I traveled before everything became so Americanized.”
When their children were small the Youngs took them along. “It would be so exciting to see them excited about something and learning about something,” she says.
The highlights of her overseas journeys range from “the wonderful museums in Russia” to India’s Taj Mahal, which “was as perfect as advertised. We were allowed to go down in the tomb and see its exquisite workmanship.” Then there were the geysers Down Under, “the wonderful art and food” of Italy. In Sweden they stayed at the estate her mother grew up in. In the Mideast they visited a mosque her father sought refuge in.
“You kind of pinched yourself you were actually there sometimes. “
As an engineer, Kenny liked “climbing to the top of most everything — from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Great Wall of China.”
They cruised on the QE2. Soared on the Concorde. During a memorable tour around the world they had a driver and guide all their own. Florence will never forget their first European jaunt in 1954. They flew from New York to London, when flying across the Atlantic was still a leap of faith.
“It was a propeller plane and I think I stayed up all night long just to see that propeller kept going.”
Wanting mementos of her adventures, she began collecting rings and dolls from every country she visited. Her large collection of dolls, each outfitted with authentic native dress and made of indigenous materials, is proudly displayed in her apartment. The Youngs documented their tours via slides and presented public travelogues. She’s also lectured extensively on dolls and Oriental rugs, many of which she’s given to family members.
Sharing with others is something she’s always done. It’s why, even now, she counsels those in need as a Stephen Minister. “I really truly like people, and if I can help in any way to relieve their problems, I like to.”
Her ministerial work extends to her retirement community. She calls on a woman at Skyline every Sunday and often finds other residents opening up to her. “People often tell me their thoughts and problems.” Ask if she finds the work satisfying, she replies, “Well, you would get a great deal of satisfaction if you helped somebody, wouldn’t you?”
“Florence Young is a devoted, joyful servant of Jesus Christ. She’s an example to members of all ages of this congregation that one never retires from service to the Lord,” says Rev. William L. Blowers, pastor of Dundee Presbyterian Church. “She is a remarkable woman. An inspiration.”
Just as the church is the fabric of her faith, the Playhouse is the link to her love of make-believe. The continuity of her life will find her celebrating the church’s centennial in 2001 and the theater’s 75th anniversary in the 1999-2000 season. She’s been there for every step in the theater’s history.
“It’s a real part of my life. It’s wonderful to know I have been a part of something like this and to have done a few things to help it grow. It’s really almost a miracle the way it has grown.”
The Medallion Award for outstanding promotional service is named after her and Kenny. A top seller too for the symphony and opera, she still sells hundreds of Playhouse memberships yearly. She attends every play.
“I always feel I’m not so much selling, but offering a chance for a wonderful evening. Some plays produce messages. Others are just for amusement. Others bring back memories. It is a world of imagination, isn’t it? It’s such fun.”
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