Archive for August 19, 2011

When Safe Isn’t Safe at All, Author Sean Doolittle Spins a Home Security Cautionary Tale

August 19, 2011 2 comments

I realize there are bigger name authors in the crime fiction genre, but I find it hard to believe there’s a better writer in the bunch than Omaha’s own Sean Doolittle, who has mastered the form in a string of books that catapult you along without sacrificing depth. The following story for The Reader ( is about Doolittle’s novel Safer and this blog contains an earlier story I did about his novel The Cleanup. I heartily recommend these and anything by the author. It’s been a couple years since I’ve read anything by or written anything about Doolittle, and so I have a feeling there’s a new Doolittle story I need to catch up to as a reader and a writer, which means you should expect a new Doolittle post sometime this year.





When Safe Isn’t Safe at All, Author Sean Doolittle Spins a Home Security Cautionary Tale

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (

Sean Doolittle lives a life of crime. In his head. The Omaha crime novelist (Rain DogsThe Cleanup) commits imaginary transgressions to the page that explore the consequences of deceit, greed and other deadly sins of omission and commission.

His new work, Safer, is billed by publisher Delacorte Press as “a novel of suspense.” Like the best crime fiction it transcends genre, in this case studying social patterns gone awry and primal emotions under duress.

Paul, the smart alleck English Lit prof protagonist, is suspected of an offense he didn’t commit. While no saint — his judgment’s not always sound — he’s no killer either. The suspense hinges on his desperate attempts to clear his name. The closer he nears the truth, the more leading citizens are implicated in a conspiracy. He may not survive the telling.

After a brief set-up Doolittle starts the book with Paul being jailed. The author then alternates past-present passages with Paul describing what led to the charges being filed and his frantic, against-all-odds search for justice. The approach grabs and holds us but only came to Doolittle much struggle.

“This is a book where the narrative structure is what really ended up opening the book up for me,” he said. “I started writing it as sort of a very linear start-at-point-A and go-to-point-Z narrative and I just could not find any traction that way…I couldn’t see ahead. I’d been stuck at like the same spot for a long time.”

Then it came to him. Finding his way into the story meant plunking Paul into the soup earlier than envisioned. It works, serving as the knot whose unraveling reveals the underlying mystery.

“That’s the first time that’s happened that way,” he said. “Usually the structure is not quite so important to the way the story plays out, but the structure is the essence of that undoing sort of quality.”


Sean Doolittle, ©photograph by Scott Dobry



As Doolittle exposes layer after layer we see the seemingly idyllic setting Paul and wife Sarah occupy in their new Midwest home has a dark side. Despite a break-in, the couple’s suburban cul-de-sac residence appears safe due to the ever vigilant neighborhood patrols and monitoring done by an ex-cop neighbor, Roger.

Only Paul discovers Roger’s benevolent facade and keen interest in keeping the block a closely-watched, hyper-guarded, tight-knit community masks something more than the tragedies that took his son and wife there. Something sinister. As the outsider, nonjoiner Paul questions Roger’s manipulation of his neighbors. Roger sees himself as their protector. He plays on their sympathies and weaknesses to maintain control. Paul sees it as creepy, intrusive.

Doolittle said the structure “underscores” the theme of people distorting information and perceptions to their own ends. As readers we learn, along with Paul, what’s behind Roger’s avuncular front, why he’s so security-conscious and how far he’s prepared to go to prevent anyone from outing him.

Roger’s a microcosm for those who use extreme measures in the name of security. Draw what analogies you will with certain geopolitical events.

“It wasn’t my intention to write an allegory for Iraq or something like that,” said Doolittle. “Whatever parallels are there are there, but it was reducing that giant global complicated issue to a neighborhood that interested me.”

Roger’s warped POV justifies his actions. “That’s what ultimately it always comes down to — it’s within your own mind what you think is appropriate to protect yourself or your family or your neighborhood,” said Doolittle.

The introduction of a wild card like Paul upsets Roger’s carefully arranged order. As Paul notices things are awry, the utopia’s threatened. In Roger’s eyes Paul’s a problem needing removal.

A dark obsession acted out requires elaborate subterfuge to conceal the misdeed. Doolittle said he’s fascinated by how “your actions stay with you the rest of your life. What is Faulkner’s line? — ‘The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.’ Something I’ve sort of inadvertently come back to in more than one book,” said Doolittle, “is the idea of lying and what it takes to maintain a lie. It’s that mounting desperation of Roger trying to keep a grasp on things that eventually undoes it all.

“The thing that’s so fascinating to me is you hear about some outlandish thing somebody’s done, and you think, ‘How do you get to that point?’ That’s always the question. It’s not a new concept but it remains compelling. Each step you take, each time you do something you didn’t think you’d do, it makes it easier to take the next one, and easier to take the next one…”

Crossing boundaries.

Safer represents new territory for Doolittle. It’s his first hard-cover book. Delacorte’s pushing it hard. Odds are a novel by Doolittle, who’s earned praise from crime lit superstars, will eventually be a best seller. One’s sure to end up on the big screen, too. A major Hollywood agent who’s a huge fan shops his work around the studios. The author isn’t quitting his day job just yet but with each project, including the revenge novel he’s working on now, he’s closer to cleaning up. For the time being though he plays it safe.

Song girl Ann Ronell

August 19, 2011 4 comments

I understand that a long overdue honor will be accorded Ann Ronell when she is posthumously inducted into the Omaha Central High School hall of fame. The recognition should draw new attention here to one of the most accomplished popular music composers of the 20th century, male or female, and shed light on groundbreaking work she did in Tin Pan Alley and in Hollywood when she was one of very few female composers.  Her career intersected with that of many legendary musical artists, some of whom she collaborated with. I came across her story as the result of my association with the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, whose director, Renee Corcoran, alerted me to the fact the author of a new book about Ronell had done research about the artist in the Society’s archives. The following story for The Reader ( details some highlights about Ronell and her remarkable career and includes comments about her by  the book’s author, Tighe Zimmers.



Ann Ronell



Song girl Ann Ronell

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (

Native Omahan Ann Ronell was a swing era flapper whose songwriting skills made her a Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood name in the male-dominated field of composing. Her versatility extended to writing English adaptations of classic operas.

Her collaborators and friends included such legendary figures as George Gershwin, Lotte Lenye, Kurt Weill and Leonard Bernstein. She’d already worked with the Walt Disney studio when she met Hollywood producer Lester Cowan in 1935. She went on to contribute music to several features produced by her husband.

Before she was through she made history as the first woman to: compose scores for Hollywood feature films (Algiers, 1939, One Touch of Venus, 1948); write both words and music for a Broadway musical (Count Me In, 1942); and earn Oscar nominations for best song (“Linda”) and best score (The Story of G.I. Joe, 1945). She wrote songs for films as diverse as Jean Renoir’s The River and the John Wayne Western, Hondo. She’s best known for the bluesy standard tune, “Willow Weep for Me,” and the novelty song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Her success is chronicled in the new book, Tin Pan Alley Girl, A Biography of Ann Ronell (McFarland), by American popular song buff Tighe Zimmers, an ER physician at West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, Illinois. He got hooked on the great American songbook at Highland Park’s Ravinia Festival. He collected autographs of jazz greats. The idea for the book came after he purchased a collection of Ronell papers in 1999. The 24 boxes of materials underscored an unusual career that saw Ronell straddle the worlds of low brow and high brow music.

Zimmers found most “impressive” her eclectic interests and ability to work in different genres with diverse artists. “I think it speaks to her talent, intelligence and charm. People liked working with her.” She could also be what a Ronell relative described as “a steel fist in a velvet glove.” Ronell attributed her success to “perseverance and stick-to-it-iveness.” Said Zimmers, “I think that’s what she had and I think in some situations she had to really push to stay in that world.”





A few years ago Zimmers’ research brought him to Omaha to sift through the small Ronell collection maintained by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society. Those holdings will soon grow as Zimmers is donating his entire Ronell collection to the NJHS. In addition to handing over the materials, he’s coming to speak about Ronell’s legacy for a 7 p.m. program on July 15 at the Jewish Community Center. Tuffy Epstein and Emily Meyer of Omaha will perform selections of Ronell’s music. Ronell memorabilia, including personal music sheets and photos, will be on display. A book signing and reception will follow. The event is free and open to the public.

“Ronell’s life and music is still very attached to Omaha. She still has friends and family here. It should be a wonderful night filled with memories and music,” said NJHS executive director Renee Corcoran.





Born Ann Rosenblatt in 1905, Ronell was a dancing, songwriting prodigy. She composed the class song for her 1923 Omaha Central High School graduation. She performed on a local radio variety show broadcast on WNAL. After a stint at Wheaton College she transferred to Radcliffe, where she bloomed. A meeting with George Gershwin led to her becoming his assistant and protege and some say lover.

Her early work was performed and recorded by many top swing era bands and vocalists, including the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Ruth Etting and Billie Holiday. She wrote special material for an amazing roster of singers and artists, ranging from Eddie Cantor to Louis Armstrong to Ella Fitzgerald to Judy Garland to Andy Williams.

She’s in the National Association of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame. On one of her few visits to Omaha after making it she performed a concert of her own songs at the Paramount Theatre in 1934. She died in 1993 at age 88 in Manhattan.

“I think she just had an absolute universal love of music and dance and it shows up in her career in many things,” said Zimmers.

Crowns: Black women and their hats

August 19, 2011 8 comments

Actress and playwright Regina Taylor’s fine play, Crowns, celebrates the tradition that finds many African-American women wearing hats at church. The following story for The Reader ( is largely based on interviews I did with cast members in a John Beasley Theater production of the Taylor play. The women comment on what’s behind the whole hat thing and it turns out these crowns represent and express all manner of things. I think you’ll find the story insightful and entertaining, and if you get a chance to see the play by all means do, because it says more than I could ever hope to say about the subject.





Crowns: Black women and their hats

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Regina Taylor’s musical drama Crowns celebrates the ties that bind African American women in the black church. Faith and fellowship rule, but the hats proudly worn by these grandmothers, mothers, daughters and sisters soulfully express their solidarity and individuality.

The female cast of Crowns, in performance February 23-March 18 at the John Beasley Theater, well relate to the hat queens they portray. Millicent Crawford, who plays Mother Shaw, said the parts “just fit.” After all, she and her fellow players come from a long line of church-going, “hat wearing divas,” said Brandi Smith (Yolanda). If there’s one thing “we all learned growing up,” said Janet Ashley (Velma), “it’s that you don’t go to church without something on your head.”

From wraps, rags, scarves and caps to turbans to berets to formal head attire, hats are legacies that unite women over generations of sacrifice, ceremony, joy and sorrow. “That’s just a traditional thing in our culture,” said Smith, who plays the central character Yolanda, “and it goes all the way back to Africa, when women would wrap their heads with the gelees. So, we are still covering our heads today.”

A woman’s head should be adorned, the Bible says, and in black culture that means some serious crowns come Sundays. Bare heads do not belong in the Lord’s House. It’s traditional, historical, scriptural, familial. In this largely hat-less era, not every black woman wears one to church anymore, but chances are her mother or grandmother does. When women of a certain age meet, as Mother Shaw, Velma, Mabel, Wanda and Jeanette do in the play, their hats represent a lifetime of experiences. When the wounded Yolanda arrives in their midst, their circle envelops her to share proverb-like stories and songs. In a rite of passage that resounds with spirit, the defiant girl becomes a woman and willingly joins in, learning to find the joy that lives beside her pain. Hats become a metaphor for the unbroken circle of life and the passing down of lessons.




Regina Taylor

Regina Taylor





The rich material busts out with the exuberance and ritual of a black Baptist church’s praise-and-worship, call-and-response service. It is funny, revelatory, sad and buoyant. Voices, spoken and sung, are raised on high to consider hats in all their gospel-inspired glory and the various ways women use them to shine.

“You must have the right attitude to put certain hats on. It’s hatitude,” Ashley said in the flamboyant style of Velma.

“There’s some hats you can wear and some hats you can’t. You have to have the right hat,” said Crawford, whose Mother Shaw is a willful preacher’s wife and the group’s wise matriarch. “You put on a wide-brimmed hat that’s got some feathers, you better be able to pull that off because you’re making a bold statement and people can see it. It takes confidence to wear certain hats. You’ve got to be able to work it.”

“You know from the second you put a hat on whether it’s you or not,” said Phyllis Mitchell Butler, who plays Mabel, the Hat Queen with a litany of hat etiquette rules. “You know either that’s your hat or it’s not.”

“I think one of the women in the play says, ‘You can tell a lot by the hat a woman wears. About who she is,” said Crawford, adding a woman can say things with a hat. “A hat can be very flirtatious or not.”

Ashley said Velma reminds us a hat can reveal or conceal.” “It’s like a mask,” Crawford said. A pastor’s wife off stage, Ashley dips the brim of her hat on Sundays,  she said, so the congregation “can’t see anything on my face.” Conceal or not, a big hat is just right for some women. “You see, I wear big hats because little hats don’t look good on my head,” Ashley said. “I’d rather do a big hat” Crawford said, “because you walk in the room and it’s like, Wow! That hat is bad!”





Some women are so defined by their hats, that without one, Crawford said, it’s like “something’s missing — she needs a hat on.” “It wouldn’t be right,” said Ashley, adding the anticipation of what a hat queen will wear is a spectator sport for “hat watchers. There are certain women that you know when they come through that door they’re going to have on a hat and you want to see what hat is she wearing.”

Hats are style-status symbols. A poor woman may take a plain hat but adorn it splendidly or she may spend all she has for a lavish one. The play refers to Mabel’s mom fussing over a simple hat so that it “changed the whole look,” Ashley said. “We look at how the hat is made. We look at those details. The details are important.”

Crawford said some women, like Mother Shaw, will not buy a hat they love if “they don’t think it’s worth paying a lot of money for. But there are women that will pay an arm and a leg as long as they know no one else is going to wear that hat.”

“That’s right,” Ashley said. “Not just in the play either…My sister shops where she knows no other woman in Omaha will shop because she’s going to make sure she’s not going to see her hat on anybody else.” “We really do that — we don’t want to see our hats” on another woman, Crawford said. Call it being a hat cat.

As a fine hat costs dearly, it’s to be treasured. “You’re going to be taking care of those things you worked hard for,” Crawford said. That’s why an unspoken but well understood hat rule states — “nobody messes with my hat” — which Crawford said hat queens like her mother make emphatically clear. “You don’t go near her hat. Don’t knock the hat, don’t touch the hat. My mom, she will lay down the law.”

Showing off a hat is half the fun. Women really step it up for special occasions. Then, a “hi-ya” or “hit-ya” hat isn’t enough. Coordinating a whole outfit, plus accessories, is required. “You go to one of the church conventions or gospel workshops or whatever and these women are going to be decked out, as they said back in the day, from head to toe,” Crawford said. “Hat, purse, shoes, dress, jewelry. Everything matched. They’re going to be dressed to the nines.”

“It’s like the lamp with the shade,” Ashley said. “You have to have that right top and that bottom to go with it.”

The play suggests a hat queen’s collection of crowns can number in the hundreds. “No exaggeration,” Crawford said. The lone male voice in the play, provided by John Beasley, observes to his hat crazy wife, “You ain’t got but one head.” Ah, but a heavenly crown awaits to adorn that sweet head.


The Delaware Theatre Company’s production of “Crowns,” written by Regina Taylor and directed by Kevin Ramsey, could use some sprucing up.


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