For anyone of a certain age, shopping at the downtown J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store in Omaha was a pinnacle experience for the sheer size, opulence, and wonder of it all. Any city of size had its equivalent, but I didn’t grow up in any city, I grew up in Omaha, and Brandeis was all I knew when it came to mega department stores. It was my Macy’s or Gimbels or Marshall Fields. This two-part story is my attempt at taking stock of the Brandeis legacy, which eventually grew to include many stores in many locations, although the downtown flagship store was always the one people remembered. I certainly did. I used to go there as a kid with my mom. It was always an occasion. The family that owned the downtown store and ultimately a whole chain of stores and other business enterprises lived liked royalty, and my story is as much about them as anything. Whether or not you grew up with Brandeis as I did, I hope you will find this interesting if for no other reason than the larger-than-life qualities of that store and that family. My story originally appeared in the Jewish Press and served as the basis for a script I wrote on the same subject for a documentary film.
Although most remnants of the Brandeis department store empire are long gone, the jewel in the crown, namely, the downtown store building, remains intact, though retrofitted as a condominium tower. I know a man who lives atop that building in the fabled penthouse, but that’s a story for another day perhaps, another forum, not on this blog.
The Brandeis Story: Family-Owned Department Store Empire of the Great Plains
Part I: On Becoming an Institution and Tradition
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
There was a time when every great downtown featured an immense department store. New York had its Macy’s and Gimbels. Chicago had its Marshall Field’s. Further west, smack dab in the middle of the Great Plains, Omaha had Brandeis. As local family dynasties go, few evoke the nostalgia the Brandeis name conjures. That’s because for a century J.L. Brandeis & Sons ruled the department store market in Omaha, serving hundreds of thousands of customers each year.
In its heyday, the symbol of the company’s and the family’s success was the downtown store. Period advertisements billed it as “the greatest store in the West.” Modeled after Marshall Field’s, nothing quite as elaborate as Brandeis could be found from the Windy City to the Rockies.
Another exterior shot
“Any city of any pretension, any city of any caliber developed a huge department store,” said Omaha historian Dennis Mihelich. “When Brandeis built that store…Omaha was the 20th most populace city in the United States. That meant a city had arrived. It’s kind of like saying you’re a major league city today…If we go back to the turn of the century, what gave a city cachet…one thing would be that symbol. ‘Look where we get to shop.’ They were architectural symbols in the city.”
Designed by John Latenser Sr. in the Second Renaissance Revival style, the half-million square foot, brownstone edifice included ornate ceilings, Corinthian columns and marble floors. Its vast, sweeping spaces contained every imaginable good and service. So distinct was the store, it became a destination stop for anyone visiting Omaha. Its sheer size, fabulous amenities, everything under-one-roof selection and first-rate customer service set it apart from the competition.
“Brandeis was really the source of most of the things you wanted. It was where you bought your first suit. It was where you went to have dinner with your friends…it was 10 floors of just a wonderful array of things,” Omaha historian Barry Combs said.
All things have their seasons and as downtowns lost their competitive edge to suburban malls in the 1950s and 1960s department stores began to feel the pinch. Many closed in the ensuing years. Omaha and Brandeis were no exception. As the suburbs beckoned, Brandeis followed — building a mall, opening outlets.
At its peak in the early 1970s, the family-owned retail chain grew to 15 stores, 3,000 employees and $100 million in sales. As fewer folks shopped downtown the flagship store became a drag. When, in 1980, Brandeis closed the downtown store as part of a general downsizing, it marked the end of an era. A leaner Brandeis became profitable again by the time Younkers bought it in 1987. More than 100 years of Brandeis retailing was no more.
The dynasty dates back to company founder Jonas Leopold Brandeis. This family patriarch set The Great Man precedent. Born in 1837, the Austrian-Jewish immigrant was a tanner by trade in his native Prague. J.L. came to the U. S. in his late teens, part of a flood of immigrants helping settle the frontier. His self-made success story in America began as a merchant in the wilds of Wisconsin, where he traded with Indians. He married Fanny Teweles of Milwaukee and the couple made a life for themselves and their family in Manitowoc.
A sportsman tradition that runs through the Brandeis family began with J.L., whose prowess with a gun became legendary.
He next set his sights south on Omaha, a booming transportation, mercantile and livestock hub with excellent rail and river access. He, Fannie and their four children, Sara, Arthur, Emil and Hugo, moved to Omaha in the early 1880s. J.L. built the first of what would be several downtown Brandeis merchandising enterprises. The first retail venture, The Fair, opened at 506 South 13th Street. By 1888 J.L. and his boys were full partners when they rented a new site at 114 South 16th Street, calling it The Boston Store, a then-popular name for retail outlets. The J.L. Brandeis & Sons name first appeared over the door there and would appear, on building plates, on all future Brandeis stores.
Business soon outgrew that location and in 1891 the family built a second Boston store on the northwest corner of 16th and Douglas, near what would become the anchor spot for the burgeoning Brandeis empire. J.L. was determined to succeed and not even the total loss of the building in an 1894 fire could deter him. He built a new, larger, better store on the same site.
It didn’t take long for the mutton-chopped J.L. to make his mark, drawing much attention with lighted store windows at night and illustrations in newspaper ads. Every Saturday he released a dozen balloons containing coupons redeemable for a free suit of clothes. Thus, from the very start, Brandeis was known as a pacesetter and innovator. These qualities would distinguish the company and the family members who ran it throughout the 20th century.
“It seemed like Brandeis was always very progressive with the things they did,” said Omahan Ted Baer, whose father, the late Alan Baer, was a great-grandson of J.L and the company’s last owner/president.
As a savvy merchant, J.L. knew a prospering city and Jewish community meant more good will and business for Brandeis and so he and his wife immersed themselves in civic pursuits. He was involved in helping establish one of Nebraska’s first synagogues. He, along with Carl Brandeis, a relative he brought to Omaha, actively worked to create a chapter of the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith. An Omaha chapter was founded by Carl, who remained active in Jewish activities.
Fannie organized a sewing class for Russian Jewish immigrants and led efforts to establish the area’s first Jewish hospital — Wise Memorial — as a sanctuary from bias. When Fannie died the hospital board paid tribute to her with a resolution:
“With patience and perseverance, undaunted by discouragement, she courageously carried forward her plan of founding a permanent institution…open and free to the afflicted without distinction as to creed or race.”
Fannie and J.L. were also on the committee that promoted the largest event in Omaha history — the 1898 Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition, a five month-long fair of more than 4,000 exhibits on 108 city blocks that drew 2.5 million visitors. The Brandeis’ also served on the city parks commission that extended the system of parks and boulevards.
By the early 1900s the Brandeis name owned currency with customers and vendors. His sons were already running things and they embarked on the family’s biggest expansion to date, construction of the giant Brandeis store, between 16th and 17th and Douglas Streets. Work began in 1906 and the $1 million building opened to much fanfare in 1907, displaying the latest goods from the post London and Paris trade centers. Eleven-year-old E.John Brandeis — Arthur’s son — was accorded the honor of laying the cornerstone.
Originally 8-stories, the building qualified as a skyscraper by that era’s standards. Later additions brought the structure to its present height, complete with an Art Deco-style penthouse bungalow atop the 10th floor.
Ads ballyhooed the new store as “absolutely fireproof,” a reference to the fire that destroyed The Boston Store a dozen years earlier.
Brandeis pulled out all the stops to assure the public this store was unlike any before it. Elaborate window displays drew lines of spectators. Mihelich said, “Those window displays were virtual museum exhibits. They would change regularly and would reflect the seasons and the holidays. They were used to entice people in. People literally did window shop.”
Former Brandeis VP Gene Griffin of Omaha said it was a showplace: “People came from near and far to see what was going on…”
Gleaming glass counters and mirrors, polished marble floors and overbrimming bins filled the cavernous interior. “The display was key,” Mihelich said. “Christmas, of course, would be the most important of all.” At Christmas the 10th floor was transformed into Toy Land, a Santa’s workshop-inspired seasonal display that thousands of children and parents visited. Lines of kids waited to sit on Santa’s lap and to have their picture taken with Old Saint Nick. Ex-Brandeis VP Vic Mason of Omaha said, “People looked forward to going downtown and shopping at the store, especially at Christmas time, when they had those fabulous displays on the 16th and Douglas corner and the big Toy Land up on the 10th floor.”
Any time of year the main floor mezzanine was a take-your-breath-away sight with its gilded columns, hanging chandeliers, copper-plated ceiling and brass-fixtured elevators hand-operated by white gloved attendants. A large clock near the 17th Street entrance was a popular meeting spot. A mosaic-tiled balcony offered secluded shopping and custom services. The bargain basement floor attracted teeming crowds. An arcade included an array of eateries — the Pompeian Room, the Tea Room, Hamburger Heaven and a cafeteria.
“…there was a certain elegance to the department store. You had a shopping experience that you certainly wouldn’t have in a big box store today,” Omaha historian Harl Dalstrom said. “…just the surroundings, the showcases, the decor inside the building, the majestic construction of the buildings themselves, the high ceilings, the display of merchandise and, of course, the windows…”
The Brandeis brand stood for something special, representing an ultimate shopping experience unequaled in these parts. A one-time Brandeis VP, the late Sam Marchese, may have put it best when a newspaper quoted him saying:
“When my grandfather came to this country he could speak only three words of English: ‘Hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ and ‘Brandeis.’ From Omaha there are only four real institutions in the state: the University of Nebraska, the Omaha World-Herald, Creighton and Brandeis.”
More than a flagship, the downtown store was THE center for commerce. It’s where people shopped and dined and caught up with friends or associates. It’s where you went to be seen. Where big wigs did business, sealed deals, made plans. Brandeis hosted fashion shows, parties, receptions, graduations and meetings.
Dalstrom said, “You would find going to the big department stores such as Brandeis part of an overall urban experience. When you look at the Brandeis experience you need to consider it too as part of an overall orientation toward during important things downtown..,and so downtown shopping was very much the thing.”
Not to be overlooked, Brandeis was viewed as one of Omaha’s own.
“Locally-owned. Local ties. That was different than all the other department stores. It was kind of funny growing up because everybody I knew either had somebody in their family who did work or had worked at Brandeis,” Ted Baer said.
Every city has its movers and shakers. Big wheels turned early Omaha from a prairie town outfitting Western Plains settlers into a modern metropolis of railroad, meatpacking, livestock, banking and mercantile interests. The names of those who made it happen — Kountze, Storz, Joslyn, Dodge, Reed, Hitchcock, Clarkson, Millard, Doorly — adorn streets and public places. The Brandeis name lives on, too.
The executives guiding the company were more than merchants. They were part of the elite inner circle that called the shots. Through the years Brandeis family members filled the top executive slots in the company, but with its growth Brandeis increasingly looked outside the family. Family or not, the Brandeis name opened doors. When Brandeis spoke, people listened.
“At one time, Brandeis ran this town,” said former VP Helmuth Dahlke. “… in the heyday Brandeis pretty much controlled every corner of downtown Omaha, strategically, so that no one could move in. They controlled the real estate…owned the buildings, the properties. When we wanted something we called and one minute later they called you back. We had muscle.”
“Yes, the Brandeis family and other major corporate executives of Brandeis provided substantial leadership in the business community, in civic affairs, in philanthropy,” Mihelich said. “They did it individually, serving on things like the board of governors of Ak-Sar-Ben…In all of these numerous kinds of activities the Brandeis family and the Brandeis company certainly for the better part of a century were as influential as any of the other major Omaha players.”
Befitting their means, the Brandeis family lived like Midwestern rajahs with their mansions, stables of horses, recreational activities, parties, appointments, titles, world travels and charitable work. Newspapers detailed their comings and goings. Cousins George and E. John Brandeis cut dashing figures with their good looks and active pursuits. Fellow sportsmen, their exploits made much news: George with his prized horses and hunting of fowl in western Nebraska; and E. John riding, yachting, hunting on one of his big-game safaris or squiring eligible young women.
“The Brandeis family were like rock stars,” Ted Baer said. “One of them was on the Titanic. E. John lived like the young Howard Hughes, playing polo, flying all over the place and doing pretty much anything he wanted to do.”
There would be many stars in the Brandeis firmament, but none quite as bright as J.L. By his death in 1903, the company was already viewed as a linchpin in the local economy. An Omaha Bee article proclaimed:
“…its prosperity has been a part of the growth of the city and its faith in the city has been shown by its constant endeavor to grow within the city.”
Even in death, J.L. continued giving, as his will directed generous gifts to several charities, including the Creche, the Omaha Benevolent Society and Temple Israel, beginning a long tradition of charity by Brandeis heirs and descendants.
Following in his footsteps, J.L.’s sons continued as community stewards. Arthur, Hugo and George each served on the Ak-Sar-Ben board of governors. The family’s association with the civic-philanthropic organization would last generations.
After J.L.’s passing, his three sons found their niches. Arthur, the visionary, assumed the presidency. Emil, the builder, handled supervised construction and maintenance of the company’s early building projects. Hugo, the retailer, sent buyers to foreign markets and managed the store’s sales policies.
Cousin George Brandeis joined them at the department store, first at J.L.’s urging and later at Arthur’s. George’s presence proved invaluable when a series of tragedies struck down J.L.’s boys, leaving George to take over.
The first of these tragedies befell Emil. The lifelong bachelor had concluded his annual overseas trip in the spring of 1912, touring the European continent and Egypt with his niece and her husband. For his return trip, he boarded the Titanic as a first-class passenger and died in its sinking. He was 45. His body was recovered on an ice floe by the MacKay Bennett. He was wearing a dark suit, brown shirt with blue stripes, black shoes and silk socks. Among his effects were diamond cuff links, a gold knife, a platinum and diamond watch chain, a gold pencil case, a gold ring, a gold cigarette case and match box, a pearl tie-pin and a 500 francs note.
Personal accounts of the disaster to reach the Brandeis family placed Emil at a card table when the “unsinkable” luxury liner struck the iceberg that spelled its doom.
An old friend who survived the sinking, Mrs. Henry B. Harris, wired the family her own account of her and her husband dining with Emil on the ill-fated maiden voyage and how he proudly boasted to them of his recent travels. Once the ship was damaged and the evacuation begun, Mrs. Harris was put safely out to sea on a jampacked lifeboat and watched Emil and Mr. Harris remain among the throng of men on deck, stoically awaiting their fate, she reported, “without fear.”
Emil was remembered as a solid citizen in a statement issued by the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben published in the Omaha World-Herald:
“In the consideration of his distinguished services in the upbuilding of Omaha and in appreciation in the loss of his loyal devotion to her interests that his home city has sustained in his tragic death, we…have called a public meeting in memory of our late fellow citizen, Emil Brandeis…”
Upon his death, Emil’s will directed funds to the Visiting Nurses Association, an organization the family continues supporting today.
Only months following Emil’s death, brother Hugo died, after an operation, leaving Arthur as the only Brandeis at the helm. Soon, Arthur cast his eye to diversify Brandeis interests with development of the Brandeis Theater, which opened up next door in 1910, joining the spate of motion picture houses downtown.
Meanwhile, Arthur’s son, E. John, began learning the business as a boy, occasionally accompanying his father on buying trips overseas.
With the loss of his two brothers, Arthur turned to cousin George, then manager of the Boston Store in Chicago, to join the family empire. By 1914 a restless Arthur left the store’s leadership to George in order to attend to his extensive realty holdings and to become vice president of Stern Brothers dry goods store in New York, where he took up residence. When Arthur died in 1916, his will left in excess of $1 million in personal property and real estate, in a trust, to his son, E. John.
As a boy E. John had laid the cornerstone of the Brandeis department store. E. John had worked under his father at Stern Brothers, but at 21 was not yet deemed ready to take over the reins at Brandeis, where George remained in charge as general manager. E. John would have to learn the business from the ground up. George mentored the heir apparent.
George’s tenure at the top lasted longer than anyone’s in Brandeis history. He grew up in Lieben, Austria. His uncle, old J.L., was already a success in America when he visited Lieben in the early 1890s. Impressed by his uncle’s tales of riches, young George returned to America with J.L., who put him to work at the family’s Boston Store in Omaha. George began humbly enough — checking parcels for customers.
Upon returning to Omaha to help manage Brandeis he told a reporter:
“It was one of the surprises of my life to find…Omaha has grown to such a thriving city. And I was also greatly surprised at the enormous amount of business my cousin is doing. Why, they are selling higher class goods here…than in Chicago.”
On his watch George is credited with growing the store’s market share. The growth continued despite the Great Depression and two world wars. Just as Arthur Brandeis brought George on board to guide the company, George brought in a key lieutenant of his own, only this time someone from outside the family, Karl Louis, a German immigrant. Brandeis and Louis met at Chicago’s Boston Store, where the two men forged a professional and personal relationship that lasted 36 years.
Louis got the nickname “Cyclone Kid,” as his arrival coincided with the horrific Easter Sunday tornado that laid waste to miles of Omaha on March 23rd, 1913.
Louis was George’s top aide and eventually made vice president and general merchandise manager. Helmuth Dahlke has fond memories of Louis. “He was a great merchant. He was a great guy. He ran the company all those years — under George — but he ran it. Longer than anyone else. I was in total awe of him.”
With Louis looking after the store, George Brandeis turned his attention to developing Omaha’s downtown business district. Always looking to consolidate the store’s position and spur growth around it, George directed the Brandeis Investment Company in providing the land and the impetus for construction of the Fontenelle Hotel, the Omaha Athletic Club, the Elks Club and the Medical Arts Building. All became fixtures on the vital downtown scene.
As Ak-Sar-Ben president George swelled the organization’s membership and led the drive to give Omaha toll-free bridges across the Missouri River. He was crowned King of Ak-Sar-Ben in 1931. Ak-Sar-Ben bestowed on him the honorary office of chairman of the board. Active in the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, George’s leadership extended to serving as a director of Omaha’s Union Stock Yards Company, operator of the world’s largest livestock market, and head of the Central Land and Cattle Company.
Mihelich said, “George Brandeis…was a mover and shaker…with a vision and a passion for his city…His name was associated with virtually everything going on.”
George raised and trained show horses on his farm west of Omaha. Many of his saddle and harness horses won ribbons on the show circuit. He also owned a prized thoroughbred gelding, Hal Mahone, once valued at $20,000. Long before media titan Ted Turner invested in Nebraska’s rich ranch lands, Brandeis purchased a 30,000-acre Sand Hills spread, the T-O, south of Valentine, where he raised cattle.
When Brandeis died in 1948 he was memorialized by newspapers as “a merchant and civic leader” and more:
“Mr. Brandeis’ civic-mindedness reached into all corners of Omaha life. The story of George Brandeis…is the oft-told tale of the immigrant who achieved great business success. It is the story of a man who worked to build his community while building businesses.”
With George gone, cousin E. John installed himself as president. His early immersion in the family business was interrupted by military service during World War I. E. John was assigned a machine-gun unit at Camp Funston, Kansas and later made inspections of aircraft production. After the war he returned to the fold, opening Brandeis’s New York office, from where he networked with big Eastern jobbers and traveled to European markets. He remained in the Army Reserves, retaining a captain’s commission. On many of his store buying trips — to acquire textiles, chinaware and leather goods — his companion was the “Cyclone Kid,” Karl Louis.
In 1924 E. John came into possession of the Brandeis store and investment company held in trust for him since his father’s death. Confident in cousin George’s management ability, he leftwell enough alone and remained a background figure. E. John bided his time, waiting for his chance at the top. t came in the late 1940s. He would guide Brandeis through the early 1970s.
A dynamic man with a penchant for high living and the outdoors, he spent most of his time at his ranch in California, where he moved in elite social circles. While on the coast or off on one of his many jaunts around the world, he received regular briefings on Brandeis affairs. On monthly visits to Omaha he attended to business. So it was this largely absentee owner oversaw the company at its time of greatest growth.
Change was in the wind, however, and Brandeis would meet new opportunities and challenges that forever changed the company and hinted at its fate.
Arthur, George, and E. John Brandeis
The Brandeis Story: Family-Owned Department Store Empire of the Great Plains
Part II: The Dynasty Has It’s Last Hurrah
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
By 1948 Omaha department store J.L. Brandeis & Sons ruled the roost with its grand downtown emporium. Founder Jonas Leopold Brandeis built an empire that his three sons, Hugo, Emil and Arthur, and a nephew, George, grew. Arthur’s boy, E. John Brandeis, took over as president/owner following George’s death in ‘48.
When E. John assumed control Brandeis was still the only game in town. Its 10-story store was bigger, more impressive and offered more goods and services than any competitor around. Downtown was still the center of everything and Brandeis dominated that retail market. Things pretty well remained that way for the next decade. But the winds of change were blowing. By the late ‘50s-early ‘60s Brandeis faced an altered landscape. The new playing field changed the company’s status and forced a whole new way of doing business. Navigating Brandeis through this transition was E. John and his successor, nephew Alan Baer.
Each Brandeis titan exerted his own style and influence. Without a doubt, E. John proved the most flamboyant. Start with his California retreat, the Open Bar Diamond ranch, whose house was a replica of his favorite big game hunting lodge in Kenya, Africa. A man who indulged his passion for the outdoors, he worked the spread himself. He lived most of the year at the ranch, but stayed in his Omaha penthouse atop the 10th floor of the Brandeis building on monthly Omaha visits. He held court there, playing bridge and hosting parties. The penthouse, appointed in Native American art and big game head trophies he collected, was featured in an Architectural Digest spread. Its interior was inspired by his ranch’s rustic decor.
Despite spending much time away from Omaha and leaving daily operations to others, E. John professed a love affair for his hometown:
“I’m a million percent loyal to Omaha. This is my life. I’ve traveled everywhere, hunted everything, but I still love to come back to Omaha and the store. I was born and raised here and I’ve got a confidence in the Midwest.”
In an address he once made to store employees he spelled out just how closely Brandeis’ and Omaha’s fortunes were aligned. What set Brandeis apart from its competitors, he said, was its local-ownership and community-mindedness. He articulated how Brandeis ties to the area reaped loyal customers:
“This is the only Omaha store owned by Omaha, owned by Brandeis. Nobody can even touch us because we are Omaha and Omaha is Brandeis. All the other stores take it out of Omaha, but we put it back into Omaha and Nebraska. That’s why this is the best store. We are the only store that has EVERYTHING.”
The store that has everything became a mantra. For much of the store’s history it carried full hard and soft lines, from furniture to clothes, including all accessories and assundries. If Brandeis didn’t have something a customer wanted, it got it. No excuses. No questions asked. E. John made the policy crystal clear:
“…if I find we haven’t got EVERYTHING, we must have it…”
“We were very, very keen on making sure we had what the customer wanted,” former Brandeis vice president Helmuth Dahlke said. “Anytime a customer would come to the store and something wasn’t available our clerks had to write it down on a slip and it came through a system to central. It was typed up and then brought back to the buyer with the order, Buy this. The other thing is, we shopped our competition all the time for comparison.”
E. John’s disciplined habits found him riding and playing tennis most days. He was a regular at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, then the center for tennis in the U.S., and at Omaha’s Dewey Park courts. On the coast his playing partners included top pros and movie stars. When he wasn’t recreating, he was off on one of his hunting jaunts to Africa, India, Alaska or some other exotic locale. He bagged lions, tigers, rhinos, bears. He was on safari in Africa when word reached him the U.S. had entered World War II. At his request he went back on Army active duty, serving in the Transportation Corps at bases on the west coast. By war’s end he’d made the rank of lieutenant colonel. He remained on reserve status for years afterwards.
When at his California ranch, he called daily to get sales reports. A top-line man, he always insisted on 10 percent increases across the board, regardless of conditions. E. John declared:
“…I want the store to be running 10 percent ahead because if you don’t run 10 percent ahead you’re running behind…”
The bottom line and details didn’t interest him. He spent an average of one week a month in Omaha, where he conducted inspections, chaired meetings, presided over special functions and hosted guests. No big changes in the company happened without his approval. Said Dahlke, “There wasn’t anything major that would happen when E. John wasn’t around, without E. John giving his blessing. He would call every morning from wherever he was and want to know how business is. He knew exactly what was going on.”
Punctual to a fault, he expected the same from others, especially for the noon executive meeting or the two o’clock tennis game.
“If you were delayed, if it was even 12:01, you would not dare to enter the executive dining room,” Dahlke said. “If you got to the court at 2:01, you wouldn’t play. I mean, he was fiendish about it.”
E. John’s military-style inspections of the downtown store were legendary. With operations manager Ray Powers and other execs in tow, Brandeis would begin his tour on the 10th floor and work his way down to the basement, setting a brisk pace, alert to any speck of dirt or anything askew.
“He marched. He literally marched,” former VP Gene Griffin said. “And the executives that were with him — just making sure to keep up. If they saw something out of place they’d try to hide it before he got to it.”
“He was totally fanatical about cleanliness. I mean, if he saw anything amiss, he’d let you have it,” Dahlke noted.
Always immaculately attired and groomed, he expected the same from his employees, who could expect a stern dressing-down if they didn’t look just right. Knowing he despised long hair on men, managers scrambled to hide, out of sight, personnel with offending locks. Even worse was if he overheard an employee say the store didn’t carry a certain item.
And one never balked at an E. John order or request. “My predecessor made a big mistake one time,” Ray Powers recalled. “Mr. Brandeis was talking to him about something and this guy said, ‘Well, that’s not my job.’ I thought, ‘Oh, he’s dead,’ and he was dead,” Fired. On the spot.
“He was quite a formidable man, and you didn’t walk up to him just to say hello,” said Marcia Baer, whose late husband Alan Baer was E. John’s nephew and the man who succeeded him as president.
Dahlke saw another side of E. John. “He was a very direct, very strong, very firm leader. He was a dominant person but a good person and the most loyal person,” he said. “In those days we had some people that needed to be let go…and he would not allow it. He was very loyal to his people.”
As in any kingdom, Brandeis also had department heads who ruled over their territories like lords. Maury Aresty had the Bargain Basement. Meyer Reuben, “The Famous Fifth,” where high-trafficked hard-lines were sold. Lester Marcus, the main floor. Turf wars were common on the sales floor. It’s what came with high-pressure jobs, strong personalities and rivalries to see who sold more.
“These were the merchandise managers. They were tough guys. Brandeis was a rough-and-tumble environment. We had people working there that were big shots. I mean, they were kings,” Dahlke said.
Away from the fray of the sales floor, things were more serene — usually.
Much as George Brandeis immersed himself in shaping Omaha, E. John made it a point to convene meetings with fellow movers and shakers. These confabs, held in a private executive dining room at the downtown store, would bring Brandeis together with titans of commerce and industry. Their discussions put in motion projects to revive a restructured downtown amidst rapid westward expansion.
Dahlke recalled, “At Brandeis you made it when you became a member of the private dining room and I worked very hard to get there…You would have E. John Brandeis, Alan Baer, Peter Kiewit, Leo Daly, the head of At & T, the head of the World-Herald, and these people ran this town, period. It was a working lunch. Basically, they discussed the city. They discussed projects.”
In line with post-war trends that made Americans more dependent on creature-comforts, E. John, with Karl Louis and Ed Pettis now as his right-hand men, began a modernization program that saw the installation of escalators and air-conditioning. Responding to Americans’ love affair with their cars and a tight parking situation downtown, E. John ordered construction of the 18th Street parking garage.
Affordable vehicles and gas meant greater mobility, a vital economy meant more disposable income, prompting the Great American migration to the suburbs. All of which led Brandeis to look at expanding beyond downtown. Omaha’s mid-town Center Mall was a harbinger of the future. Brandeis kept a close eye on it. When VPs Karl Louis and Ed Pettis broached the idea of leasing land on the outskirts of Omaha, at 72nd and Dodge, for a future outlet, E. John approved the acquisition. Louis and Pettis drafted plans for a dramatic new chapter in Brandeis history.
“They had that property, which was pretty much the end of Omaha. That’s where the streetcars and the buses stopped. It was nothing but cornfields. And they were very nervous about it,” Dahlke said.
Ted Baer, a son of Alan and Marcia Baer, said, “That was pretty progressive thinking…Stores didn’t have outlets like that back in that time. There weren’t malls yet really. They probably took a lot of heat for it, too.” Marcia confirmed the skepticism, saying, “Yeah, it was, How crazy can they get to think this would work?” But it did work.
Brandeis took the plunge in 1959 qirh construction of the $10 million Crossroads Mall, anchored by the first new Brandeis store in half-a-century. Crossroads opened in 1960 to a lukewarm response before the mall caught on with the public.
“We were very disappointed with the grand opening and the initial performance of Crossroads,” Dahlke said. “It was so new, so different. But then gradually it took off and it became a $36-$40 million anchor store for us and a very, very successful shopping center for us.”
The project set in motion an era of unprecedented expansion, including the purchase of Gold’s department store in Lincoln, Neb. and construction of a massive distribution center in west Omaha.
“…the Brandeis family saw that expansion was necessary, that anchoring the entire business on the one store downtown was not likely to continue,” Omaha historian Dennis Mihelich said. Fellow Omaha historian Harl Dalstrom said it showed “Brandeis could and did adapt to the changing times.”
Guiding much of the later expansion was Alan Baer, the next generation to rise to prominence in the Brandeis dynasty. A nephew of E. John and a great-grandson of J.L., Baer was an Army veteran. He grew up in the San Francisco area. On summer visits to Omaha he got a taste of the retail trade. After the war E. John invited Alan to take a greater role in the store’s operations. Alan moved to Omaha and learned the ropes under Karl Louis, his mentor. With Louis’ death in 1959, Baer’s influence in the company grew. More and more, E. John deferred to Baer.
“They had a tremendous relationship,” Dahlke said.
Considered a visionary, Baer became the chief architect of Brandeis expansion with the addition of new stores in north, south and west Omaha, and for the first time — in out state Nebraska and in Iowa. Dahlke recalled, “Alan would have more ideas in an hour than most people have in a lifetime. He was an amazingly mentally agile person.” When E. John was still in charge, Baer would pitch him ideas, pushing for new stores, new ways of doing things. Not everything Baer proposed made the grade but enough did to keep Brandeis ahead of the curve.
“Basically the guy that would sell it to him was Alan Baer. He would sell it to him and he know how to sell it to him and many times he had to…” Dahlke said.
E. John put into words and Alan Baer put into action the Brandeis motto:
“We have to keep rolling. If you don’t go ahead, you fall behind.”
In his last few years, E. John’s active involvement waned except for pronouncements, groundbreakings, ribbon cuttings. He was more ceremonial figurehead than CEO. He continued making inspection tours. He also gave generously: $60,000 for construction of the Hanscom-Brandeis Indoor Tennis Center; and animals and big game trophies to the Henry Doorly Zoo.
Where E. John had little input in day-to-day business, VP Ed Pettis did. “He was a crusty old guy. Very strong,” Dahlke said of Pettis.
Pettis carried on the tradition of Brandeis executives involved in civic affairs. Dubbed “Mr. Omaha,” Pettis chaired the Golden Spike Days celebration in 1939 and directed Omaha Industrial Development Council activities. He lent his expertise to 4-H, United Community Services and Creighton University. He’s best remembered as general chairman of the College World Series when the popular event was still in its infancy. Pettis, along with advertising giant Maury Jacobs and Omaha mayor Johnny Rosenblatt, made the early CWS a success.
“Ed Pettis was the one who really got the College World Series going. Without him and Maury Jacobs, it wouldn’t have happened,” said former VP Vic Mason.
When Pettis died in 1963, Brandeis executive Jack Diesing Sr. assumed many of his duties, among them chairing the series. Diesing is credited with building the CWS into a national phenomenon and keeping it in Omaha. Today, his son, Jack Diesing Jr., heads College World Series, Inc.
“…I think Brandeis had a lot to do with the College World Series being here. There’s a lot of things Brandeis did as a community service,” Ted Baer said.
More than anyone except E. John, Jack Diesing Sr. became the face of Brandeis. From the early ‘60s through the early ‘70s, the executive team of E. John, Alan Baer, Diesing, Vic Mason, Lester Marcus and Ray Powers charted the course. Where E. John and Diesing were public ambassadors, the others were classic behind-the-scenes men.
Much as George Brandeis did with Karl Louis, E. John found in another German emigre, Helmuth Dahlke, an ambitious young man brought into the Brandeis sphere. As the trusted assistant to Alan Baer, Dahlke became an important cog in the Brandeis machine. He would remain with Baer long after the stores were sold.
E. John’s 1974 passing brought an end to an era of bigger-than-life leadership. A newspaper described him as “a fascinating and colorful figure.” In his eulogy, Rev. Carl Reinert said:
“Brandeis believed the God-given pleasures of this world are to be enjoyed with zest….He showed a fatherly concern for the large family of Brandeis employees.”
He was also a major supporter of the Pratt Institute for Individual Instruction. He left an estate valued at $12.7 million, half of which went to the E. John Brandeis Foundation, now the Alan and Marcia Baer Foundation. He also left $1.5 million to nephew Alan Baer, who took full control of Brandeis upon his death.
Where E. John was a fashionplate who lived large, Baer was an introspective eccentric whose austere, frugal, bargain basement tastes fit his simple lifestyle. In his unconventional way, Baer might plop himself down on the floor during a business meeting. “But that’s the way he operated. A little eccentric. But a brilliant mind,” former VP Gene Griffin said. “Totally disarming. He was what I call an ice-breaker,” Dahlke said.Where E. John made a show of inspections, Baer made himself inconspicuous, passing himself off as a shopper. His door was always open but he wasn’t always in his office. He might be out on the floor or playing tennis — he loved the game almost as much as his uncle — or traveling to some exotic spot.
By the late ‘70s Baer saw the changing retail landscape and realized it posed a threat. The emergence of national discounters like Target and the inroads made by departments store chains like Dillards and Younkers squeezed the market, cutting into Brandeis’ share and putting the Omaha company at a competitive disadvantage. A great booster of downtown — just as J.L., George and E. John were — Baer adored the flagship store but realized consumers preferred shopping at suburban malls. The times were making the giant downtown facility a white elephant.
“He was very interested and he was way ahead of the crew because he felt department stores as they existed in the ‘60s were dinosaurs,” Mason said, “and he was kind of right.”
“Brandeis was a big deal locally, but when you looked at it in the big picture, Dillards was ten, probably, a hundred times bigger,” Ted Baer said. “Brandeis could compete with a Dillards or with a Younkers, but we really couldn’t compete with both of them at the same time.”
“It was very apparent that going forward a private company like ours would have a tough, tough time staying in business with the big boys — the national companies,” Dahlke said.
In a move to streamline operations and maximize profits, Alan brought in new management teams from outside Omaha, the first led by Jim Gibson and the second by Sid Pearlman. Departments were scaled back. Hard line, big ticket items dropped. Brandeis could no longer afford to be “everything to everybody.”
The resulting staff downsizings were tough. Tougher decisions followed, none more so than the 1980 closing of the downtown store — the monument of the whole Brandeis empire — along with closing three other stores. The announcement made headlines. The downtown store’s last close-out days drew huge crowds. Generations of customers and employees expressed their nostalgia. It was like losing a beloved family member or dear friend.
The building remained as a mixed retail and office center but with Brandeis gone the tradition was lost.
The Brandeis store at the Crossroads became the chain’s new flagship. Renovations were made. But try as company officials might, it just wasn’t the same anymore. The oomph and awe were gone. Baer’s decision to close downtown was not made lightly. It meant letting go people who in some cases worked there decades. In larger terms, it meant abandoning the very core of what Brandeis represented. But as much as he wanted to keep the downtown store alive, he couldn’t.
Ted Baer recalled, “It definitely was not a popular decision, either in the Brandeis community or within the larger community, because Brandeis was really one of the last stores to hang on and keep downtown, downtown. I know it was a very, very tough decision for him. Gut-wrenching. It was a tradition, Brandeis.”
Still, Brandeis moved on and rebuilt its financial health. A fifth generation family member, Ted Baer, was being groomed to take over one day. Just as Alan and Marcia did, Ted and wife Kathy met working at Brandeis.
When Dillards and Younkers tendered attractive offers to buy the company, Alan Baer ran the numbers and decided to sell the family business to Younkers in 1987. The sale price: $33.9 million. It was a classic case of head over heart. He wanted to keep the stores that were his family’s legacy but Brandeis neither generated the profits nor owned the capital to stay competitive.
Once the deal was struck he didn’t look back, except to offer a hint of regret that Brandeis hadn’t parlayed its success to become a regional giant like Younkers.
He told a reporter: “My goal had been to hang in there until I died. If we had the bucks behind us…if we’d had the finances and the courage, we could have done what Younkers is doing.”
Alan kept ownership of Brandeis Food Service and began Alan Baer & Associates, an umbrella company for wide-ranging business interests — from coffee and nuts to travel services to publishing to sports teams to butterflies. Ted and his father’s longtime assistant, Helmuth Dahlke, joined Alan in the new venture, which gained a reputation for turning around small companies..
Dahlke remains a bit in awe of Alan Baer: “He was a man of incredible curiosity and quick wit. His energy was endless. Alan would ask lots of questions and, to be sure, he knew all of the answers…Alan was a networker. He always worked. He was always on the phone, always talking to someone. He was always exploring something. He went after everything. An uncommon common man.”
Father and son continued the family’s sportsmen tradition: Alan as an avid tennis player and Ted as a championship-level amateur bowler. They bought an amateur hockey team, the Omaha Lancers, that became a phenomenal success under Ted’s guidance. After his father’s death Ted went on to own a second amateur hockey franchise, the Tri-City Storm. He’s since divested himself of his hockey interests to concentrate his sports holdings in bowling with the Thunder Alley and Thunderbowl centers.
Another Brandeis tradition, philanthropy, has continued. “Alan and Marcia were very generous. A lot of their generosity got no publicity,” Dahlke said” Countless examples abound, he said, of them quietly paying the rent or medical/dental bills of Brandeis employees in need. As it has for decades, the Alan and Marcia Baer Foundation grants monies to local cultural, educational and health initiatives.
To the end Alan Baer searched for new endeavors to engage him, always on the look out for businesses to invest in, new challenges to overcome. It’s why Baer & Associates had a piece of so many different things.
“You know what I always thought it was? It was like Brandeis, but not under one roof, because we had everything. We did everything,” Ted Baer said.
Baer, who died in 2002, lived the credo that was the Brandeis slogan under his uncle. E. John Brandeis:
“To build a business that will never know completion, to create an enviable reputation and be worthy of it, to satisfy every customer individually, through quality merchandise and friendly service.”
Marcia Baer admits she doesn’t know much about early members of this fabulous family she married into. “I don’t know anything about them, except they obviously built a place called Brandeis,” she said.
The solid foundation J.L. laid down, and that successive generations added onto, stood Brandeis alone, at the top of the heap among retailers and the city’s leadership. All things have their season, and after a century of success, Brandeis left the scene. Except it will never quite be gone. The downtown building where so much of its history was made still stands. It still goes by the Brandeis name. A dynamic new use for it is under way. Then there are the memories, which never quite seem to fade.
Ted Baer said, “When we run into an old Brandeis employee it’s like we’re seeing an old family member we haven’t seen in awhile. It’s like old home week.” “Yeah, it’s like suddenly a step back in time, but it’s a good step back,” Marcia said.
“Yeah, it’s a very nice warm feeling,” added Ted.
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About a decade ago I became reacquainted with a former University of Nebraska at Omaha adjunct professor of photography, Rudy Smith, who was an award-winning photojournalist with the Omaha World-Herald. I was an abject failure as a photography student, but I have managed to fare somewhat better as a freelance writer-reporter. When I began covering aspects of Omaha‘s African-American community with some consistency, Rudy was someone I reached out to as a source and guide. We became friends along the way. I still call on him from time to time to offer me perspective and leads. I’ve gotten to know a bit of Rudy’s personal story, which includes coming out of poverty and making a life and career for himself as the first African-American employed in the Omaha World-Herald newsroom and agitating for social change on the UNO campus and in greater Omaha.
I have also come to know some members of his immediate family, including his wife Llana and their musical theater daughter Quiana or Q as she goes by professionally. Llana is a sweet woman who has her own story of survival and strength. She and and Rudy are devout Christians active in their church, Salem Baptist, where Llana continues a family legacy of writing-directing gospel dramas. She’s lately taken her craft outside Omaha as well. I have tried getting this story published in print publications to no avail. With no further adieu then, this is Llana’s story:
Gospel Playwright Llana Smith Enjoys Her Big Mama’s Time
©by Leo Adam Biga
When the spirit moves Llana Smith to write one of her gospel plays, she’s convinced she’s an instrument of the Lord in the burst of creative expression that follows. It’s her hand holding the pen and writing the words on a yellow note pad alright, but she believes a Higher Power guides her.
“I look at it as a gift. It’s not something I can just do. I’ve got to pray about it and kind of see where the Lord is leading me and then I can write,” said the former Llana Jones. “I’ll start writing and things just come. Without really praying about it I can write the messiest play you ever want to see.”
She said she can only be a vessel if she opens herself up “to be used.” It’s why she makes a distinction between an inspired gift and an innate talent. Her work, increasingly performed around the nation, is part of a legacy of faith and art that began with her late mother Pauline Beverly Jones Smith and that now extends to her daughter Quiana Smith.
The family’s long been a fixture at Salem Baptist Church in north Omaha. Pauline led the drama ministry program — writing-directing dramatic interpretations — before Llana succeeded her in the 1980s. For a time, their roles overlapped, with mom handling the adult drama programs and Llana the youth programs.
“My mother really was the one who started all this out,” Smith said. “She was gifted to do what she did and some of what she did she passed on to me.”
Married to photojournalist Rudy Smith, Llana and her mate’s three children grew up at Salem and she enlisted each to perform orations, sketches and songs. The youngest, Quiana, blossomed into a star vocalist/actress. She appeared on Broadway in a revival of Les Miserables. In 2004 Llana recruited Quiana, already a New York stage veteran by then, to take a featured role in an Easter production of her The Crucifixion: Through the Eyes of a Cross Maker at Salem.
Three generations of women expressing their faith. From one to the next to the other each has passed this gift on to her successor and grown it a bit more.
Pauline recognized it in Llana, who recalled her mother once remarked, “How do you come up with all this stuff? I could never have done that.” To which Llana replied, ‘Well, Mom, it just comes, it’s just a gift. You got it.” Pauline corrected her with, “No, I don’t have it like that. You really have the gift.”
“Them were some of the most important words she ever said to me,” Smith said.
Miss Pauline saw the calling in her granddaughter, too. “My mother would always say, ‘Quiana’s going to be the one to take this further — to take this higher.’ Well, sure enough, she has,” Smith said. “Quiana can write, she can direct, she can act and she can SING. She’s taken it all the way to New York. From my mother’s foundation all the way to what Quiana’s doing, it has just expanded to where we never could have imagined. It just went right on down the line.”
Whether writing a drama extracted from the gospels or lifted right from the streets, Smith is well-versed in the material and the territory. The conflict and redemption of gospel plays resonate with her own experience — from her chaotic childhood to the recent home invasion her family suffered.
Born in a Milford, Neb. home for young unwed mothers, Smith knew all about instability and poverty growing up in North O with her largely absentee, unemployed, single mom. Smith said years later Pauline admitted she wasn’t ready to be a mother then. For a long time Smith carried “a real resentment” about her childhood being stolen away. For example, she cared for her younger siblings while Pauline was off “running the streets.” “I did most of the cooking and cleaning and stuff,” Smith said. With so much on her shoulders she fared poorly in school.
She witnessed and endured physical abuse at the hands of her alcoholic step-father and discovered the man she thought was her daddy wasn’t at all. When her biological father entered her life she found out a school bully was actually her half-sister and a best friend was really her cousin.
It was only when the teenaged Llana married Rudy her mother did a “turnabout” and settled down, marrying a man with children she raised as her own. “She did a good job raising those kids. She became the church clerk. She was very well respected,” said Smith, who forgave her mother despite the abandonment she felt. “She ended up being my best friend. Nobody could have told me that.”
Until then, however, the only security Smith could count on was when her Aunt Annie and Uncle Bill gave her refuge or when she was at church. She’s sure what kept her from dropping out of school or getting hooked on drugs or turning tricks — some of the very things that befell classmates of hers — was her faith.
“Oh, definitely, no question about it, I could have went either way if it hadn’t really been for church.” she said. “It was the one basic foundation we had.”
In Rudy, she found a fellow believer. A few years older, he came from similar straits.
“I was poor and he was poor-poor,” she said. “We both knew we wanted more than what we had. We wanted out of this. We didn’t want it for our kids. To me, it was survival. I had to survive because I was looking at my sister and my brother and if they don’t have me well, then, sometimes they wouldn’t have nobody. I had to make it through. I never had any thought of giving up. I did wonder, Why me? But running away and leaving them, it never crossed my mind. We had to survive.”
Her personal journey gives her a real connection to the hard times and plaintive hopes that permeate black music and drama. She’s lived it. It’s why she feels a deep kinship with the black church and its tradition of using music and drama ministry to guide troubled souls from despair to joy.
Hilltop is a play she wrote about the driveby shootings and illicit drug activities plaguing the Hilltop-Pleasantview public housing project in Omaha. The drama looks at the real-life transformation some gangbangers made to leave it all behind.
Gospel plays use well-worn conventions, characters and situations to enact Biblical stories, to portray moments/figures in history or to examine modern social ills. Themes are interpreted through the prism of the black experience and the black church, lending the dramas an earthy yet moralistic tone. Even the more secular, contemporary allegories carry a scripturally-drawn message.
Not unlike an August Wilson play, you’ll find the hustler, the pimp, the addict, the loan shark, the Gs, the barber, the beauty salon operator, the mortician, the minister, the do-gooder, the gossip, the busy-body, the player, the slut, the gay guy, et cetera. Iconic settings are also popular. Smith’s Big Momma’s Prayer opens at a church, her These Walls Must Come Down switches between a beauty shop and a detail shop and her Against All Odds We Made It jumps back and forth from a nail shop to a hoops court.
The drama, typically infused with healthy doses of comedy, music, singing and dancing, revolves around the poor choices people make out of sheer willfulness. A breakup, an extramarital affair, a bad business investment, a drug habit or a resentment sets events in motion. There’s almost always a prodigal son or daughter that’s drifted away and become alienated from the family.
The wayward characters led astray come back into the fold of family and church only after some crucible. The end is almost always a celebration of their return, their atonement, their rebirth. It is affirmation raised to high praise and worship.
At the center of it all is the ubiquitous Big Mama figure who exists in many black families. This matriarch is the rock holding the entire works together.
“She’s just so real to a lot of us,” Smith said.
Aunt Annie was the Big Mama in Smith’s early life before her mother was finally ready to assume that role. Smith’s inherited the crown now.
If it all sounds familiar then it’s probably due to Tyler Perry, the actor-writer-director responsible for introducing Big Mama or Madea to white America through his popular plays and movies. His big screen successes are really just more sophisticated, secularized versions of the gospel plays that first made him a star. Where his plays originally found huge, albeit mostly black, audiences, his movies have found broad mainstream acceptance.
Madea is Perry’s signature character.
“When Madea talks she be talking stuff everybody can relate to,” Smith said. “Stuff that’s going on. Every day stuff. We can relate to any and everything she be saying. That character’s a trip. It’s the truth. One of my mother’s best friends was just like Madea. She smoked that cigarette, she talked from the corner of her mouth, she could cuss you out at the drop of a hat and she packed her knife in her bosom.”
Smith appreciates Perry’s groundbreaking work. “That is my idol…my icon. At the top of my list is to meet this man and to thank him for what he’s done,” she said. She also likes the fact “he attributes a lot of what he does to the Lord.”
Her own work shows gospel plays’ ever widening reach — with dramas produced at churches and at the Rose and Orpheum Theatres. She first made her mark with Black History Month presentations at Salem with actors portraying such figures as Medgar Evers, Harriet Tubman and Marian Anderson. Her mom once played Jean Pittman. A son played Martin Luther King Jr. She enjoys “bringing history to life.”
Her Easter-Christmas dramas grew ever grander. Much of that time she collaborated with Salem’s then-Minister of Music, Jay Terrell, and dance director, Shirley Terrell-Jordan. Smith’s recently stepped back from Salem to create plays outside Nebraska. That’s something not even her mother did, although Pauline’s Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God did tour the Midwest and South.
At the urging of Terrell, a Gospel Workshop of America presenter and gospel music composer now at Beulahland Bible Church in Macon, Ga., Smith’s taking her gift “outside the walls of the church.” In 2005 her Big Momma’s Prayer was scored and directed by Terrell for a production at a Macon dinner theater. The drama played to packed houses. A couple years later he provided the music for her These Walls, which Smith directed to overflow audiences at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Wichita, Kansas. In 2008 her Against All Odds was a hit at Oakridge Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan., where she, Terrell-Jordan and Jay Terrell worked with some 175 teens in dance-music-drama workshops.
Against All Odds took on new meaning for Smith when she wrote and staged the drama in the aftermath of a home invasion in which an intruder bound and gagged her, Rudy and a foster-daughter. Rudy suffered a concussion. A suspect in the incident was recently arrested and brought up on charges.
Smith’s work with Terrell is another way she continues the path her mother began. Doretha Wade was Salem’s music director when Pauline did her drama thing there. The two women collaborated on Your Arms Are Too Short, There’s a Stranger in Town and many other pieces. Wade brought the Salem Inspirational Choir its greatest triumph when she and gospel music legend Rev. James Cleveland directed the choir in recording the Grammy-nominated album My Arms Feel Noways Tired. Smith, an alto, sang in the choir, is on the album and went to the Grammys in L.A.
Terrell’s been a great encourager of Smith’s work and the two enjoy a collaboration similar to what Doretha and Pauline shared. “To see how Doretha and her worked to bring the music and the drama together was a big influence and, lo and behold, Jay and I have become the same,” she said.
Smith and Terrell have discussed holding gospel play workshops around the country. Meanwhile, she staged an elaborate production at Salem this past Easter. There’s talk of reviving a great big gospel show called Shout! that Llana wrote dramatic skits for and that packed The Rose Theatre. It’s all coming fast and furious for this Big Mama.
“This is like a whole new chapter in my life,” she said.
The morning I went to interview then Salem Baptist Church Minister of Music Jay Terrell the first televised news reports of the 9/11 terrorist attacks were being delivered. The uncertainty and fear of those events cast a strange heaviness over our meeting, but we proceeded nonetheless. Later, I saw him lead the church’s acclaimed gospel choir in rehearsal and in performance. My story here, which appeared in the Omaha Weekly, tries capturing the charisma and energy and spirit of that choir. It’s the kind of writing challenge I much enjoy. I hope reading the piece gives you some joy.
Salem’s Voices of Victory Gospel Choir Gets Justified with the Lord
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Omaha Weekly
The rafters tremble and the worshipers quake whenever the 110-member Salem Baptist Church mass choir, Voices of Victory, raises their collective voices to the heavens to sing, full-out, a soul-stirring, old-time religion gospel tune like Amazing Grace. Singing with gospel’s characteristic depth of feeling, the nationally renown touring and recording choir produces a big, rich, reverberating sound that, like a cascading wave, sweeps over the sanctuary, sends shivers down the spines of the faithful and spreads the Holy Spirit in every energized air particle in the place.
Voices of Victory is the signature choir among five resident choirs at Salem, 3131 Lake Street, a large, prestigious black church with a rich gospel tradition. Gospel is an integral part of the revival black church, whose energetic services are like choreographed musical dramas. The vibrant music is used as a resounding proclamation of faith and as a crusading tool for ministering to worshipers’ needs. It informs nearly every aspect of the proceedings, creating a mood in some spots and building towards a climax in others. It punctuates the minister’s charismatic spoken words. The music rises and falls, working folks into a fervor one moment and bringing them back down the next. With the robed choir positioned on a stand at the back of the altar, all eyes go to them. Their spirited singing, backed by idiomatic percussion, bass and keyboard, provides the impetus for the congregation’s praise and worship.
Besides being the heart of the black church, gospel is also a well-spring for other musical styles. Its influence can be heard in soul, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll. Many of today’s artists — from Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston — got their start singing traditional gospel. As the tracks between gospel and commercial music have blended over the years, crossover forms have emerged.
Through all the changes, Salem’s gospel foundation has endured. The church has been a fixture at the Gospel Music Workshop of America, the nation’s most important yearly gathering of gospel artists. Original compositions by past and present Salem music ministers are performed in churches nationwide. Salem choir recordings have garnered wide acclaim, including the 1978 Grammy-award nominated album I Don’t Feel Noways Tired (Savoy Records), which the legendary James Cleveland, often referred to as the father of gospel music, collaborated on.
Now, after a hiatus of some 20 years, Salem has revived its recording activity under Minister of Music Jay Terrell, completing a months-long live recording project that culminated in the October-release of the new CD, They That Wait (2001, Blueberry Records), featuring guest soloist Bruce Parham.
Referring to the CD as “a sleeper,” reviewer Stan North of GospelFlava magazine writes, “Solid material dominates this album, as amazingly, every song grabs attention and merits props for both ministry and musicality. On this version of the classic Jesus Saves (from Jay Terrell, Rudolph Stanfield and Todd Harrison), the power of Parham is complemented by some terrific choir parts. Parham appears on just the one song, and while it is certainly the high point of the project, there truly are several other peaks.”
According to Terrell, a co-producer on They That Wait and a composer-arranger for many of its songs, “Salem has always been at the forefront in gospel music. We’ve had a track record for years. Prior to my coming here 15 years ago, Salem and its music directors were always part of the workshop. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s every Baptist church in America was singing at least one or two songs off the No Ways Tired album. A lot of churches still sing the music that comes out of Salem.”
Formerly known as the Inspirational Choir, Voices is respected for its exuberance and excellence. Omaha Symphonic Chorus director Cina Crisara, who’s worked with the group, said, “I’m a huge fan of theirs. I think it’s probably the most sincere music that happens in this town in terms of their meaning what they say and their saying what they mean. It’s from the heart. They absolutely become that music. It’s a spirited group. They move every audience-congregation that they’re ever in front of. You can’t help, if you’re listening to them, to become completely engaged by them. And the choir members themselves are so warm and friendly, and they work so hard. They’re open to expanding their horizons and learning new things.”
President of the Omaha Mass Choir, Jesse R. Sawyer, said Voices stands out from other gospel choirs in town “because they have a style all of their own” and “a harmony that is outstanding. They really do. They have an excellent musical staff. Jay Terrell, their minister of music, is an excellent musician, conductor and teacher. And they’re a very versatile choir. It’s fantastic what that choir can do. They can arise to any occasion.”
Sawyer, who has closely followed Voices and other gospel choirs in the area, said Salem first reached prominence in the 1970s under the late Doretha Wade, whose father J.C. Wade was its longtime pastor. Sawyer said many of today’s leading Omaha gospel singers and musicians, including himself and Terrell, “came under” the Wades’ influence. “We all grew up in this gospel thing together. If you’re part of one choir, you’re part of another choir.”
Excellence is no accident at Salem. Terrell said the church invests heavily in music, maintaining a staff who write, arrange, perform and conduct much of the repertoire the choir presents. “Salem pays a lot of money here for music,” he said. “I would say about 40 percent of the music we do here is original music that I and my staff write. Most other churches are not blessed to have writers on staff.”
He said such an investment brings heavy expectations. “They don’t pay you to mess up. They’re a five-star church and the music needs to be at that level too. You can’t just kind of throw it together. I tell our choir it’s really important for us to work and to perfect our craft. Much is given and much is required.” Choir singer Billy Jordan said the expectations extend beyond singing. “We are really held in such high esteem that we know when we leave these four walls that people watch us. That holds us accountable and keeps us in line.”
Terrell feels the choir derives strength from the volunteers comprising it. He points to members’ “faithfulness, dedication, enthusiasm and spontaneity” and the fact that this choir, which is by-audition only, features the cream of the crop, vocally-speaking, around. “They don’t sound like a regular church choir. They sound like a professional community choir and what that means is you have picked voices, and when you have selected voices…it’s a different sound. And I think this particular choir does have a unique sound.”
He feels that sound results from the choir’s desire “to perfect the art,” adding, “That’s why they’re able to be a signature choir whose songs people sing all over the country.” That desire to get it right, Jordan said, comes in turn from Terrell, whom he describes as “a perfectionist,” adding, “He keeps us at it until we’re feeling what we’re singing. If we don’t feel what we’re singing, than we might as well stay home.” As Terrell said, qualifying for choir membership “isn’t so much, Can you sing?, as it is, Are you dedicated?”
Voices of Victory may indeed be the hardest working choir in town. In addition to singing twice every Sunday, at 8:30 and 11:30 a.m. worship services, the ensemble rehearses weekly and performs some 50 concerts annually, including statewide engagements for the Nebraska Arts Council and tour appearances outside the region.
Last summer, Voices performed in Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. As a testament to its devotion and discipline, the choir recreates the same glorious sound whether singing at a Sunday morning service before a house-full of worshipers or at a week night rehearsal before mostly empty pews or at a concert hall before gospel devotees and neophytes.
A typical rehearsal finds Terrell working over and over on the smallest details of songs with, at first, sections of his choir and then the entire company until getting it right. “Worship him, you ought a worship him. In B-flat. One more time, go. Worship him, you oughta…Good job. Now, the altos. Sit tall, sit tall. I need some intensity. Right now, from the top. Worship…C’mon, put something into it. Help me out, help me out, that’s all I’m saying. Thank you. Now, sopranos. From the top…pull it, pull it, pull it. You’ve got to worship…One more time. We’ve got to get this for Sunday. C’mon. Whoa! Good job. Have a seat.”
Omaha Symphony Orchestra resident conductor Ernest Richardson marvels at the choir’s “flexibility” in quickly adapting to other musical styles. At, say, a symphony Holiday Fanfare concert, Voices may perform everything from patriotic tunes to hymns to gospel songs to operatic selections and do them with equal aplomb. Making that versatility all the more impressive is the fact the choir learns and performs music using rote memory rather than sheet music.
More than a powerful performing-recording musical ensemble or a means of punching-up Sunday liturgy, the choir is a vital instrument in Salem’s evangelical ministry that seeks to save, embolden or otherwise heal penitents and is a showcase vehicle for representing the church and its mission in the community. Choir members take their music ministry role seriously, too.
As veteran or “seasoned” choir member Betty Hughes said, “Our responsibility as a choir is to help draw the people into the service. People come to church with many different problems. They come looking for refuge or just looking. They may not even know what they’re looking for. We’re not there to put on a show. We’re the vehicle that leads them into the service. The music sets the tone for the service. It sets the background for the minister. That’s why the music always comes just before he comes. And there’s a certain way you have to bring that music in for people to be ready for The Word. Sometimes the music just flows perfectly and goes right into the message and enhances the message and helps drive that fire home to the hearts of people.”
Or, as choir member Michelle McCain put it, “It’s all about ministering to the soul — feeding the soul with what it needs through song.”
Inspiration is the essence of gospel. As McCain said, it’s all about stirring the soul, opening the heart and lightening the load. The music, which developed out of slave chants, and found refinement in the meter hymns, spirituals and call-and-response traditions of the Pentecostal black church, is at its core a call to Christ and an expression of thanksgiving.
“It’s good news,” Terrell said. “Gospel music means good news. It’s a celebration of life. It’s going to inspire you, it’s going to lift you up, it’s going to bring you joy. It’s a music that will basically give you goose bumps. It’s going to leave you with a smile on your face. And if it doesn’t do all that, then it’s not gospel music.”
Because gospel is vital and life-affirming, it leaves plenty of room for expressiveness and spontaneity. Terrell, who describes himself as “very open and unpredictable,” encourages his choir to move as the spirit moves them. “I would say our choir is really spontaneous because we allow the spirit to come in and take control. We can plan to do a song a certain way but after we get into it and see how it works, and with the Holy Spirit guiding us, that can then take it to a whole other place. I hate a choir that does not grab me, whether vocally, visually or with their delivery. I need all that in the choir. I need all that energy.”
It all starts with feeling. “You can’t sing it, if you don’t feel it,” Hughes said. “As my minister used to tell me, You can’t talk about a place that you haven’t been and you can’t talk about a person you haven’t met. And, so, you can’t sing gospel songs if you don’t feel them.” Billy Jordan said, “If you’re just singing and there’s no feeling there, you’re not ministering — you’re just doing something for show.” That feeling, according to Salem singers, is an individual’s faith-based response to the message in the music. “There’s a message in every song,” McCain said. “I can always go to that music and find a song that’s going to minister to me and to help me make it through whatever it is I’m going through. A song like What A Friend We Have in Jesus comforts me because it lets me know that, even when I feel like I don’t have any friends, I always have a friend in Jesus.”
Choir member Charnella Mims said, “When I’m in a song and I really feel that song, It takes you to a different level and you forget about all the people watching you or sitting around you. It’s just me and my Lord. For me, the tears come, and it’s not tears of sadness — it’s tears of joy, tears of understanding, tears that reinforce the fact I do believe that I am saved.”
Sharon Reed, another choir member, said, “Especially in this time of uncertainty and fear that we’re going through now the music kind of gives us peace inside. When I reflect on a song like Trust in the Lord I’m not fearing what’s going to happen next. I’m not worrying about it. I’m putting my trust in the Lord and I’m going on with my life.”
Reed said when the music becomes a personal expression of faith it resonates with a vigor unlike any other music. “You have to apply it to your own life and then it becomes meaningful to you and then once it’s meaningful to you that feeling is expressed in a sound that touches hearts because it’s already touched your heart.” She said it’s precisely when she and her fellow choir members give in to this heartfelt emotion that the songs develop a life of their own and the singers become vessels for whatever the songs impart.
Before moving people, Terrell said, “you’ve got to get people’s attention.” In a big church like Salem, where a single Sunday service draws 1,300 worshipers of all ages, that means performing a repertoire ranging from old-school gospel to contemporary gospel as a way of trying “to reach not only the grandmothers but the kids.”
He said gospel has undergone “major changes” in recent years with the advent of “crossover” gospel, a movement perhaps best epitomized by Kirk Franklin. “Now we have R&B gospel, jazz gospel, Latino gospel. I mean, choose any aspect of music and they have gospel in that same style now. Personally, I don’t like the flavor of real contemporary gospel music, but it has its place. Here, we do a little bit of everything. And if that means doing some rap or some rhythmic R&Bish songs or going back to some traditional songs for our seasoned people, then we do all of that to get everybody’s attention. We might even do some things where we’re clapping our hands, we’re dancing, we’re doing the whole nine yards.”
Terrell has little doubt his choir and the music it performs moves people. But he cautions his singers not to expect every audience to go into a charismatic fit. “I tell our people, Don’t judge your performance on the crowd’s response because different people respond in different ways. I mean, just because we clap and scream and holler over here doesn’t mean they’ll do the same at a Catholic church, where they’re more likely to sit there and cry on you and be in awe. Some songs will do that, too — they’ll just make you spellbound.”
Meanwhile, Terrell has big plans in store for his showcase choir. An east coast tour is scheduled next summer to New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C. and a new CD recording project is in the works. The choir will also be featured at a Salem musical arts seminar next year that will explore, among other art forms, gospel music.
Terrell only wishes more Omaha radio stations would play gospel to provide a larger forum for the music. “There’s a big community of gospel music here. There’s talented singers and groups. But it’s hard to get the word out because, unfortunately, we don’t have gospel radio here. Our CD gets air play across the country, but not here. I wish I could hear it here. That would help.”
- Video: Harlem’s “Gospel for Teens” Choir (cbsnews.com)
- How Sweet the Sound Church Choir Competition Returns to Verizon Center (therogersrevue.wordpress.com)
- Saturday June 18 Tribute To Gospel Music Legends Panel At Fellowship Church, Salute To Sam Cooke (chicagonow.com)