Archive for September, 2011

Tired of being tired leads to new start at John Beasley Theater

September 30, 2011 10 comments

  • If you’re a return visitor to this blog, then you may recognize that the subject of this next story, the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in Omaha, is one I’ve written about a number of times. If not the theater itself, then I’ve written about its productions, and if not productions then I’ve written about founder and president John Beasley. This time around I write about some recent financial woes the theater’s been experiencing and how with the help of friends and strangers the organization now has what it needs to go on with the 2011-2012 season, which was in jeapordy until John Beasley went public with the need. As a niche theater that largely but not exclusively produces work by African-American playwrights – with its current production of Radio Golf the theater’s now staged the entire 10-play cycle of African-American life that August Wilson wrote – the JBT presents a slate of work that otherwise might not be produced in Omaha. The theater is a labor of love for Beasley, a stage-film-television actor who views his enterprise as a way to bridge cultural differences and as a forum for black actors to learn their chops in a white majority city that has traditionally not embraced its black community and not provided many theater opportunities for aspiring, emerging or even established black theater artists.




Tired of being tired leads to new start at John Beasley Theater & Workshop

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (


John Beasley got tired of being tired.

By now, you’ve likely learned the John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s urgent appeal for funds to relieve its financial distress has been answered and the once endangered 2011-2012 season saved. But you probably don’t know the back story of its troubles or why founding namesake and president, John Beasley, is putting himself out there to share these travails and to make the case for the theater’s continued existence.

Ever since launching the theater in 2000 the stage-film-television actor has largely bankrolled the nonprofit himself. Year after year, with no real administrative staff and fronting a board short on resources and contacts, the theater’s only barely scraped by. This despite strongly reviewed work, some outright smash hits, including shows held over for extended runs. Its niche producing African-American plays, most notably the August Wilson repertoire, has distinguished it but not always helped it either.

The kindness of strangers, an occasional grant, meager season-ticket sales and box office receipts from a 100-seat house only go so far. It’s left Beasley holding the bag, writing personal checks to make-up the shortfall.

“I’ve underwritten most everything we’ve done, but it’s been at the point for a long time now that I thought the theater should be self-sustaining rather than to just keep going in my pocket,” he says. “I’m not getting anything financially out of the theater.”

There have been times, even quite recently, when there wasn’t enough in the theater’s coffers to pay his son, artistic director Tyrone Beasley, or directors’ fees, much less vendors. So he paid Tyrone and creditors himself.

Even the theater’s performing home in the LaFern Williams South Omaha YMCA at 3010 R Street, where the old Center Stage Theatre used to operate, was no sure thing.

“We were going through a period there where the oral contract we had with OHA (the Omaha Housing Authority agency that owned the building before the YMCA acquired it) had expired. Without that space being donated we wouldn’t have made it,” says Beasley “That was a big consideration at the end of that contract. It was up for renewal and the YMCA was saying, ‘What can you pay?’ and I told them we’re really in a situation where we can’t pay anything, They worked out a really nice arrangement for us and I’m really grateful to the YMCA for the use of that space.

“Without that, I think we would have closed.”

He acknowledges that in some ways he’s ill-prepared to run a theater, but he’s stuck it out because by his reckoning the whole venture is a calling.

“I didn’t set out to open a theater. I thought it was put on me for a reason. I believe things happen for a reason, so I’ve always talked to God in this way: ‘If you want me to be here, you’re going to have to provide the way.’”

Divine providence was necessary, he says, “because we came in here without any grants. OHA gave us the space but they didn’t give us any money to go with it, and not ever having a board that would raise funds for me, it’s been a struggle. The fact we’ve managed to stay here as long we have is a miracle in itself given I never had any experience in theater administration.

“But, you know, God has been good and has allowed us to be here 11 years and I don’t think He’s brought us this far to say, Ok, it’s over now. We haven’t completed our mission and we still have a ways to go, and I still have a vision for the theater.”

That vision, which encompasses a second theater he wants to build from the ground up in North Omaha as a regional attraction, has often seemed far off.


North Omaha 24th Street Plan

Rendering of the revitalized North 24th and Lake St. corridor where Beasley wants to build a new theater


“It’s always been a day to day thing. You can’t imagine what it’s like getting up every morning with this on your mind, wondering — how are we going to take care of this? how are we going pay these people?”

The recession hasn’t helped matters.

“Revenues have been flat and our expenses keep mounting. The box office only pays a little bit of the expenses. Our small house is not a big revenue source. It will pay some bills, but then you’re scrambling where you’re going to get the money for this and that. Attendance numbers are down because of the recession. These are entertainment dollars and with discretionary spending theater might not be at the top of the list.”

In noting that other theaters have dropped prices, he says, “we’ve looked at doing the same thing,” hastening to add, “But it wont necessarily guarantee our attendance will go up, and I’ve always felt that if people think it’s too cheap, they’ll assume its probably not worth it.” He’s heard grumbling in the black community his theater’s too pricey, an opinion he disputes. “We weren’t overcharging,” he says, noting that people don’t think twice about plopping down considerably more money to see touring gospel plays.

“Our work might not be as glitzy but the quality is as good as any that comes through as far as the acting is concerned, because I see what comes through and I don’t think there’s a lot of talent sometimes.”

The theater’s woes extended to marketing and publicity, which have been largely limited to post cards and print ads, leading Beasley to doubt it was even reaching its audience in this online social media age.

Approaching the start of the 2011-2012 season, kicking off with August Wilson’s Radio Golf, Beasley decided he’d had enough.

“I told the board that going into this season I needed $20,000 for the first show and I wouldn’t greenlight it until I received $10,000. And I asked the board, ‘Who’s going to lead this?’ I didn’t have any volunteers because my board is more of a working board. They’re willing to put in the work but they’re just not fundraisers, and that’s just the way it is. So out of frustration I said, ‘Well, alright, I’ll do it,’ and so I stepped out. I didn’t know how I was going to do it but I believe when you step out in faith good things happen, they just happen. God or whatever provides a way.”

John Beasley



He laid out the precarious situation to friends of the theater with, “This is a crossroads for us. If this doesn’t happen I can’t just go along with this kind of pressure anymore…”

Then he went public Sept. 1, posting a Facebook appeal that spelled out in dire terms the make-or-break scenario confronting his South Omaha theater. His message stated flat out the JBT would close unless $10,000 was obtained. KETV, the Omaha World-Herald and other media picked up the story.

By mid-September $30,000 was either donated or pledged, meaning the season was on and the theater’s future, at least for now, secured. For Beasley, whose fierce demeanor and brickhouse physique belie a soft heart, the outpouring has taken him aback and given his theater mission a new lease on life.


“The best thing about going public is to receive the love from Omaha we received  from people we didn’t know. When I found out all you had to do was ask and people would respond…” he says, his voice trailing off in wonder.

“It’s put us in a place where I’m really optimistic about not only the season but about the future of the theater. This has given some breathing room we have never had before. It’s given us a budget, and that budget will take care of a lot of things. It will also help us pay off the vendors we owe.”

He says the community’s embrace has come from both long-time theater supporters and individuals with no connection to the organization. Support has come in amounts as small as $20 and as much as $5,000. The Myth bar in the Old Market threw a fund-raising party Sept. 20 that raised about $1,400.



Beyond the money collected, there’s new blood cultivated. As a result, he says the JBT now has a circle of volunteers with the skills to build a stable enterprise.

“I’ve put together a committee of people I’ve never had in place before,” says Beasley. “These people know what it’s all about.”

Development professional Jeff Leanna is the new executive director. He, along with management communications specialist Wendy Moore and her real estate executive husband Scott Moore are heading up marketing, solicitation, subscription campaigns and beefing up its online presence. Beasley’s in the process of “weeding out” some inactive board members and replacing them with energetic new members. Taken together, he says, the JBT has people in place to “take care of the administrative things and business part of it, and that’s such a relief. We’ve been really lacking in that end of it. My son and I are creative people.”

He expects fund-raisers, grant applications, membership programs and marketing-development campaigns to happen year-round. “That’s part of the plan,” he says. “We’re even reaching out to Oprah now,” he says, and hints that overtures may be made to actor-director Robert Duvall, whom he acted alongside in the The Apostle.

Now that the JBT is on more solid ground, he says, “I’m glad I went public with it. People now are aware of the need of the theater.” He says telling the theater’s story has also laid to rest some myths — like the city was funding the venue. “There was a misconception that we had everything we needed,” he says, and that he had limitless deep pockets.

“I think we had to hit bottom before we could have this turning point. I think this really was the catalyst to take us to that next level.”

For a proud man like Beasley airing his plight is not easy. But he sees it as the only way to explain why the theater is worth fighting for in the first place.

“At first I had some reservations, because you don’t want people to think you’re struggling or failing, but then I came to the realization we serve a purpose. Who else is going to do August Wilson or Suzan-Lori Parks or Eugene Lee or even Ted Lange? And where are the opportunities for up and coming black actors?

“Through the years we’ve touched a lot of lives. We’ve changed lives. We’ve got some good people we’ve brought along. Andre McGraw first came on the stage in our theater — now he’s going to school to study theater at UNO. TammyRa (Jackson) is an outstanding talent I’m going to lose soon — she’s talented enough to work out of town. I’m just so proud of her. Dayton Rogers is another fine actor coming up. Phyllis Mitchell-Butler is in a production at the Playhouse now. Where else would they have gotten this opportunity?”

The JBT’s also offered a window into the black experience that’s given white Omaha a perspective sorely lacking outside that prism.

“I guess I’m most proud of the exposure to black culture we’ve given Omaha,” he says, adding that “75 percent of our patrons come from West Omaha.”

Fear or loathing of other cultures, he says, is less likely when there’s communication and knowledge.

“The more you learn about something, the more you understand something — then you can’t hate it. I think we’re bridging gaps.”

He says the divides that stymie America plague the city as well, and the arts and theater, perhaps his theater especially, can serve to heal.

“The country can’t move forward because of politics and ideologies. Nobody’s trying to understand the other side, there’s no compromise. If you can understand the other side then you can create a dialogue. If you have a dialogue then things can happen. That’s true nationally and it’s true in this city. The disparity between blacks and whites in this city is the worst than any place in this country.”

Among the reasons he’s hung his theater on the back of August Wilson’s body of work is the playwright’s cycle of 10 plays revealing the arc of African-American life in the 20th century as seen through the eyes of Pittsburgh’s Hill District denizens.



August Wilson visiting Pittsburgh’s Hill District



“I love August Wilson’s work because it’s a true reflection,” says Beasley, whose extensive credits include productions of Wilson plays in major regional theaters. “I know these people. One of the goals when I opened the theater was to introduce Omaha to August Wilson, because he’s such an important part to my whole career and has created work that will keep middle aged black men working forever. I can do Wilson till I’m ready to die. It’s just a rich legacy he’s left black actors and the world for that matter. His stuff crosses all lines.

“You’ve known people like Troy Maxon (Fences). I’ve had people come up to me wherever I’ve done this and say, ‘That was my dad’ or ‘I knew that guy.’ You know these people and these situations, the relationships between sons and fathers. Life has passed them by and they haven’t dealt with it very well.”

With Radio Golf, the last in the cycle, the JBT’s now performed each of the 10 Wilson plays, including some (Fences, Two Trains Running, Jitney) staged multiple times. Radio Golf’s look at gentrification efforts in a historical black neighborhood has particular resonance for Beasley and the new North Omaha theater he envisions. Leo A Daly is nearing final designs for the unfunded project, which would not replace the existing site, but rather complement it. It’s a project personal to Beasley on several levels.

“We’d like to put it between 25th and 24th Streets in that Lake Street corridor. It would be right off the Interstate. If you build up it, they’ll come. That would be my field of dreams. We want to be a destination and an anchor to the cultural revitalization of this district. I grew up in this neighborhood, it’s my neighborhood. I was here when they tore it down and burnt it down. I remember giving a little speech here to rioters — ‘Why you tearing down your own neighborhood? If you’re that angry, go downtown.’ It was opportunistic hoodlums that did that stuff and then you have that mob mentality.

“I just want to be a part of rebuilding the neighborhood. It’s changed. Regentrification is happening.”

Should the new theater come to pass, it would be another piece in the resurgent  arts-culture district slated for the area, where the Loves Jazz & Arts Center and Great Plains Black History Museum already operate and where Brigitte McQueen’s Union for Contemporary Art is due to locate.

None of it means the JBT is out of the woods.

“I don’t want people to think we’re OK, we’re not OK,” says Beasley. The influx of funds, he says, “is a start, but I’m looking for a $200,000 budget for this season. We appreciate any donations.” As a thank you to the community the theater offered free admission for its season-opening, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, weekend.

Visit for donation and season ticket info.

From the Archives: Former Omaha television photojournalist Don Chapman’s adventures in imagemaking keep him on the move

September 29, 2011 2 comments

Arriflex S 16mm Film Camera:


Here’s another story from the dust covered archives, this time about Don Chapman, who was already a veteran commercial filmmaker when I did this Midlands Business Journal profile of him in 1990. He came out of the ranks of early television photojournalism to launch his own commercial production house and when I caught up with him he had already made the transition from film to video and analog to digital technology,  in what was still very much a transitional time in his industry, and how he talks about one versus the other is quite interesting given how ubiquitious the video-digital platform is today. He clearly saw it as the new standard for his field and wasn’t fighting this new format, though he did express some regret about losing the romance of working in film. He covered some big stories as a newsman and once made news himself when he was detained in Cuba during the height of the Cold War. Most of his career was much more prosaic than that, but he had his share of adventures and he established himself as a journeyman imagemaker for large corporations.



Kelly: Omahan was in picture with JFK when history was made, was later grilled by Fidel

Don Chapman with the famous photo of John F. Kennedy taken in Omaha in 1959. Chapman is the photographer just to the left of Kennedy. A year later, Chapman survived explosions on a ship in Cuba and was questioned by Fidel Castro. ©Courtesy Omaha World-Herald



From the Archives: Former Omaha television photojournalist Don Chapman’s adventures in imagemaking keep him on the move

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Midlands Business Journal


Have camera, will travel.

Don Chapman has lived by that intrepid code since the U.S. Navy made a photographer out of him during his 1953-56 tour of duty.

The owner and president of Chapman & Associates, an Omaha film, video, slide and multimedia production company, paid his professional dues as a WOW-TV photojournalist in the late ’50s. He followed news trails throughout the Midwest, learning to tell compelling stories through pictures. The reporter became a newsmaker when, as a freelancer, a case of bad timing led to his becoming a political prisoner of a hostile Latin American government.

Ah, adventure!

Since 1961 he’s applied his newshound instiincts, storytelling knack and adventuresome spirit to commercial photography and film production, which have taken him to Mexico, Spain and other parts of the world.

After a 20-year partnership with former WOW-TV colleague Robert Spittler, Champman formed his own production house in 1981. Chapman & Associates serves a national, mostly industrial client base. Video editing, optical and computer graphics design, slide processing and sound recording facilities are located at Chapman’s two-story location at 1912 California Street,. The site contains 10,000 spuare feet of office and studio space.

About 90 percent of the firm’s photography is shot on location, including some pretty far-flung places. Chapman handles a large share of field assignments himself.

“I still really enjoy going out and being busy in the field, no matter what it is,” Chapman said. “The most fun is doing the work, not everything else…I hate the drudgery of politics. One of the things about this business is that you start out with new challenges every day. Every job we do is a little bit different, and that’s probably what keeps us in the business.”

The photographer said crafting a well-told story via stills or moving pictures is what it’s all about. “It gives you a feeling you’re doing a good job. It can be anything from a freight train to a landscape – if the composition’s there and everything flows well, there’s a feeling of satisfaction and achievement.”

He said one of his favorite storytelling formats uses photography and music, minus any narration. In this way he recreated his 1976 white water trip through the Grand Canyon in a multi-screen show featuring 2,000 of his slides and music from Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. “I had all the right conditions — spectacular scenery, an action-packed subject, world class music scoring, and best of all, I didn’t have to get client approval. It was one of those things you do for yourself.”

Now in his 30th year as a film producer, the veteran photographer has traveled many varied roads in pursuit of images. In that period he’s seen video technology change the face of his industry, which like everything else in America is now computerized and online with our insatiable appetite for instant gratification.

Although he rues the lost romance of the old days, when he cut a dashing figure with his 35 millimeter Arriflex motion picture camera, he’s adapted to new realities. “We haven’t finished a project on film for a couple years. Everything is video now,” he said. “We’ve shot some projects in 16 millimeter but we always rank (transfer) the footage and finish it on videotape. It’s more client flexible.”

Serial killer Long before Nike made it fashionable, Chapman exemplified the “just do it” work ethic. He honed this work ethnic and storytelling ability while earning his color bars at WOW-TV, whose parent Meredith Publishing Corporation also owned WOW Radio. Because the stations shared a combined news operation, reporters like Chapman filed stories for both. Since TV was still in its infancy Chapman shot black and white still photos and motion picture film for later broadcast. The days of videotape and live feeds were far removed yet.

“We did our own motion picture processing and used the original 16 millimeter footage on the air,” he explained. “Many times we left stills in the hypo just long enough to let them fix, then pasted them against a board in front of a camera while they were still wet – just making the (live) news broadcast.

“It seems primitive today, but it was exciitng then because of the immediacy. You learned to react and make a decision, right or wrong. You didn’t have the luxury of time.”

Chapman and a colleague from those days, Bill Ramsey, often lugged around a 16 millimeter Bell & Howell movie camera, a Speed Graphic still photo camera and an audio tape machine to log TV and radio reports. “You were feeding a lot of different news purposes,” said Ramsey, president of Bill Ramsey & Associates Inc., an Omaha public relations firm. “Don was a good newsman.”

Together, they covered the Charles Starkweather murder spree and trial, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev‘s visit to an Iowa farmhoouse during his celebrated U.S. tour and John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. At a Kennedy campaign stop Chapman was indelibly linked with the future president when a French photographer snapped a picture of the candidate against a backdrop of paparazzi. Cropped for use on a campaign poster, the picture prominently featured Chapman poised with his camera behind the famous JFK profile. The picture’s been published countless times.

August 1959: Senator John F. Kennedy during session with the press in Omaha, Nebraska. Photo, Jacques Lowe.
August 1959: Senator John F. Kennedy during session with the press in Omaha, Nebraska. ©Photo, Jacques Lowe.






The unexpected is the companion of any photographer. It took a dangerous turn for Chapman in 1959 when, after a photo tour of Europe, he was returning home on a Liberian freighter. During an unscheduled stop at Havana, Cuba to unload cargo, an explosion rocked the ship. Soldiers rounded up suspected saboteurs. Chapman was arrested.

Communist Cuba, still aflame with revolutionary fervor, was testing its new found status in the Cold War in terms of how far it could push the United States and its allies.

He had the double misfortune of being the only American aboard and carrying expensive camera equipment, which was confiscated. “Here I was in the middle of a great story, and no camera,” he said. “I was held incommunicado and interrogated many times. One of his interregators was Cuban dictator Fidel Castro himself, who not long before had led his revolutionary guerrilla forces in deposing the U.S.-backed Batista regime.



A Cuban prison



Chapman watched helplessly during two trials, unable to communicate with his Spanish-speaking “defense attorney.” I stopped worrying about losing all my camera equipment. It looked like I might lose a lot more. Fortunately, American government officials were able to intercede and convince the Cubans that I was at best an itinerant photojournalist traveling overseas. In this case I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

While that close scrape stands out, physical danger is a professional hazard he’s encountered his share of times. On an aerial shoot in the mountains near Santa Barbara, Calif., Chapman was strapped in a helicopter mount. As the chopper skirted over the 5,000 to 6,000 foot peaks, he filmed panoramic scenes from his exposed perch. It was a position he’d been in many times before.

“On one sharp maneuver the pilot stood the helicopter on end and the mount slipped and fell into space about four inches. I was just hanging there by my straps, looking straight down at the ground. While the mount only slipped a few inches, it was enough to cause concern,” he recalled, laughing at his own understatement. “The mount was safety-bracketed in and the safety bracket caught, so there was not problem. But from my standpoint I didn’t want to do any more filming that day.”

Some Champman clients have operations in remote places, where the terrain is less than hospitable. An example is Union Pacific Railroad, which hired Chapman to photograph a 10-minute film, The Rivers of Steel, for exhibition at the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair, The job took Chapman and cinematographer Roger Mazur all over the U.S., including the mountains above Salt Lake City, Utah, where they went in search of snow scenes.

They found snow all right. Plenty of it. But the two men weren’t outfitted to negotiate on foot the deep snow fields they encountered. “We headed out to this area that was nothing but snow,” Chapman recounted. “Roger carried a 35 millimeter motion picture camera, which is not light, plus tripods. All of a sudden Roger finds himself in snow up to here,” he said, indicating his chest. Champman followed suit. “Every time we took a step we went down in to our armpits because of all the weight.” After wriggling free of the snow trap they “ended up going back to Salt Lake to buy snowshoes.”

According to Chapman, photographers are bound to “run across situations like that. That’s just part of the job. We’ve had to rent backpacks to get equipment into the back country.”

Not all jobs are rugged or dramatic. In fact, much exterior location work involves setting up equipment, followed by long periods of inactitivty waiting for the precise light that only Mother Nature can provide. “I’ve sat for hours in some pretty bad environments waiting for the right moement,” Chapman said.

Having waited out more than his share of sunrises and sunsets on motion picture shoots, Champman said clients could afford  a wait-and-see approach in the past.

“You’d go out and scout a day ahead of time to see where the sun would rise or set. Other times you had to guess where the sun was going to be. Sometimes it was exactly where you wanted it…that has to be instinct. Sometimes, though, the sun was a half-mile off – it didn’t come down between the two mountains the way your scripted it, it came down behind one of the peaks. That’s bad luck.”

When it comes to motion picture work today Chapman said most clients choose video because it is faster and less costly than film, key attributes in a leaner, faster-paced business age. He said video’s smaller budgets and shorter deadlines have diminished the maverick image and freedom motion picture photographers embodied. The romance of the old days is gone. “It’s not there like it was because everything is a rush today. There’s no playing around because there’s no budget to play around with. But I don’t think that’s anything unique to my business. The budget’s the bottom line of everything.”

He believes a major factor why video is the medium of choice today is the “instantaneous review” it permits. “There are a certain number of people who want to see results now. Managers don’t have the time to finish the project on film because it can take up to eight weeks. We can turn around a video project in less than a week in some cases.”

Chapman said the very fact that raw video footage can be viewed on a monitor in the field or back at the studio the same day has robbed photographers of the independence and mystique they enjoyed in the film era, when exposed celluloid had to be shipped off to be processed. Photographers were vagabond kings with highly specialized skills: few people could operate a 16 or 35 millimeter motion picture camera. The filmmaking process was regarded as equal parts craft, intuition and pluck and its practicioners were alchemists with film and camera.

Adding to their mystique was a lonewolf persona. As Chapman explains, “One man could go out and I still do on a motion picture shoot. You never worried about batteries or monitors. A lot of times you were so confident you didn’t even look at your footage for weeks. The clients trusted us. They never saw the results until they looked at the work print two weeks later. You just knew it was going to be. You knew you had something in the can. You were just very sure of yourself.”

Roger Mazur agrees. “We also had a thing called reliability. You had a camera that 99 percent of the time was going to work. In video you have a camera, a recorder and all these electronic components that can just go out. I cannot leave a location now without checking the tape because there could be a drop-out or glitch,” he explained.

Yesterday’s trust has been replaced by accountability. “Nowadays,” Chapman said, “clients look at everything immediately.” With VCRs and camcorders as commonplace as microwave ovens, he said, everyone believes they’re an expert.

“Today, because video technology is so accessible,” Chapman said, “anybody can go out and take a video picture. I’m not saying that’s the best video picture, though. A client who’s not knowledgable as to what’s good and what’s bad may buy a video service and not be satisfied with it. That may sour him on video for a while. Ten years ago there were only a certain number of quality motion picture producers around the country. Motion picture production seemed to take more technology and expertise compared with today’s video explosion, when everybody seems to have a video camera.”


A state-of-the-art audio-video production suite control board



Despite his nostalgia for the good old days, Chapman acknowledges video’s advantages. For example, he said video cameras are self-contained units that record sound while most film cameras are silent. “With a film camera you have take a separate piece of equipment and a sound crew. And video lighting’s much more portable than it ever was with film. You don’t need the big grip trucks and crews you did before.”

He added that “you can’t do the nice quality opticals and visual effects in motion pictures without spending thousands of dollars. But in video you can do it instantaneously. You can program a four-sided cube that spins. You can’t do that on film easily unless you’re producing Star Wars, but most people don’t have the budgets Hollywood productions do.”

About a year ago Chapman & Associates had a video post-production facility installed on site, including a DVE or digital video effects system that can create computer generated graphics. The editing facility capped a remodeling and expansion project by the firm.

Chapman describes the facility as a “boutique edit suite that has all the bells and whistles we can use in industrial production.” Before adding its own editing capabilities the firm used facilities at Editech, a local postproduction house.

“We put the post room in to do a lot of our own work. Part of the advantage of having your own post facility is that you can experiment a little bit and do a lot more for your client, rather than try and learn on somebody else’s time and money. It may cost $200 an hour to hire another post room. Then I can’t experiment at all because I’m working under a client’s budget.”

He said a typical post room is a $200,000 investment but larger facilities can cost “a lot more.” He continued, “The cost of doing business today is a lot more expensive than in the past. The biggest cost today is the overhead of equipment. A video camera will cost from $10,000 to $40,000 and because it’s very electronic there’s more up-keep. It’s a lot more expensive to send a crew out today.”

While video production is more economical than film, he said, “no one realizes what the true cost of a video is until they do it. Cleints don’t realize the equipment and post-production it takes.” He estimates video “can run from $10,000 to $60,000 for a 10-minute to 40-minute show, whereas on film you can run up to $100,000 without even trying.”

In an environment where costs are high, clients are penny-pinching and film/video competitors are numerous, Chapman said it’s vital for a production house to niche itself in the market. “But the biggest single problem we have is educating the consumers of our products of differences in quality. We have a broadcast quality component video system that takes reds, greens and blues and separates them. With the exception of one other house in town no one does that. This is the highest end of half-inch tape editing you can do. Everybody shoots on half-inch, but they edit on one-inch and they lose the component factor of quality. We feel we have to educate people to why our system is superior.”

Chapman uses digital Betacam tape and equipment. “Digital technology has taken over every large market area. On digital tape there’s no degradation of quality. You can run a tape thousands of times and it’s still first generation,” he said.

He said his company does a large amount of work for agricultural clients but does not concentrate in that area as it once did. Its clients today are a diverse group, including hospitals, community service organizations and trade associations. The majority are corporate and industrial giants such as BASF, Dow Chemical, Con Agra, Union Pacific Railroad and Mutual of Omaha. Although some of Chapman’s work airs on broadcast television, most is seen by a closed-loop audience of industria/corporatel clients and their customers and employees.

“Multi-image slide shows for national sales meetings are probably the most challenging jobs because you can’t make a mistake. It’s a one-time only performance and everything has to flow. It’s live,” he said.

Chapman’s produced such shows using up to 40 projectors at once. He added that the trend is moving away from multi-image slide shows to video because of the cost factor.

“As far as the most gratifying project we’ve done, it had to be Rivers of Steel because people clapped,” he said, referring to the Union Pacific film shown at the ’84 World’s Fair. He believes that film has probably had the largest viewing audience of anything he’s produced.

Chapman said the video boom that has flattened out the U.S. motion picture industry is a worldwide phenomenon. He keeps abreast of international trends through his participation in I.Q., the International Quorum of Film Producers.

“At our 1988 convention in Canada I was telling a group from South America to be careful because all of a sudden video is going to come in and overtake you. They acknowledged that, but they didn’t think it was going to happen very soon. Within the year the South Americans were complaining about how they had to get rid of all their motion picture gear because Brazil’s video industry had taken over the South American market. That’s going to be true in any Third World nation.”

Hungary was the setting for last year’s I.Q. meeting, giving Chapman a glimpse of Eastern Bloc technology. He said the state prodcution facilities he visited were out-of-date by Western standards.

“In Eastern Bloc countries such as Hungary video facilities are, from our standpoint, very quaint.”

He said the edit suite he visited was extremely hot because such basic enviornmental controls as ventilation and air conditioning were absent. Hungarian officials told him funding shortages are an endemic problem, stalling the installation and updgrading of needed equipment. Officials also acknowledged the impact video is having in Europe.

I.Q. provides a network of information and resources for member producers who share their stock of images with peers. If Chapman receives a request for agricultural or farm scenes he can access his computerized files of more than 50,000 slides and miles of videotape to find images that match the request. He can fax or mail materials as needed. Likewise, he said foreign producers provide him materials and help cut through the red tape of shooting abroad.

Chapman is in the midst of cataloging the vast stores of motion picture film he has accumulated over 30 years, which he hopes to market. “I have a ton of film that is historically some fabulous stuff, and nothing’s ever been done with it.” For instance, he said he shot much footage for Storz Brewery and other landmark businesses from Omaha’s past. “The film is extremely valuable for documentary purposes. It’s got a lot of potential. We’re getting a lot of requests from film stock libraries for any scenes of cities from a certain period.”

He said some of the footage has been transfered to videotape but the vast majority of it remains on film.


From the Archives: Opera comes alive behind the scenes at Opera Omaha staging of Donizetti’s “Maria Padilla” starring Renee Fleming

September 26, 2011 6 comments

Opera Omaha has had many high points over the years, and this 1990 story from deep in my archives touches on some of them. The company’s Fall Festival was an international showcase that garnered much attention for the talents it brought together and the edgy repertoire it presented. Then Opera Omaha drifted to safer waters for several years. Recently it’s tried some outside the box things again, including an acclaimed Madama Butterfly designed by noted artist Jun Kaneko, a hauntingly etheral staging of poet Ted Kooser‘s Blizzard Voices, a sublime rendering of the Native American Wakonda’s Dream, and a spirited production of Brundibar. The following two stories from 21 years ago chart the behind-the-scenes actviity of mounting opera and the collaboration behind a Fall Festival production of Maria Padilla, starring then then emerging and eventual world-acclaimed soprano Renee Fleming.



From the Archives: Opera comes alive behind the scenes at Opera Omaha staging of Donizetti’s “Maria Padilla” starring Renee Fleming

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Metro Update


It’s a Monday night at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall, where a surreal scene worthy of Federico Fellini unfolds. The strange confluence of sights and sounds represents the final preparations before the evening’s dress rehearsal of Gaetano Donizetti‘s 1841 opera Maria Padilla, one of three music theater works now showing in Opera Omaha’s Fall Festival.

While carpenters’ electric drills whir away on an unwieldy set piece near the front of the stage, a harpist begins playing behind them. Soon, violins, horns and percussion instruments are heard over the workmen’s din, as Omaha Symphony Orchestra players gather in force. Other production crew members climb ladders high into the rigging overhead or adjust lights. Stage managers cart spears, pillows, plastic grapes and other props in the wings.

And as if on cue a woman bedecked in a flowing white wedding gown appears like an apparition in a side aisle. She surveys the hubbub, then disapepars. She is one of the costumed actors who pace in and out of the hall as the rehearsal’s 8 p.m. curtain call passes without the set piece having budged. It seems the union crew is having trouble fitting the parts of the large trihedron together.

Rehearsal is already 15 minutes late. A long night lies ahead; the cast and the opera’s conductor and director are anxious because Maria Padilla will make its American premiere only five days later.

Opera Omaha technical director Brady Mittelman had already spent a few all-nighters at the Witherspoon when interviewed a week before Maria’s September 14 opening. Mittelman, who joined the company only 13 weeks ago, has had a baptism-by-fire.

When Carousel closed July 31 he had three weeks of pre-production to call union crews and figure lighting, sound and stage requirements for the Fall Festival, which presents three works in repertory. Then work began on moving an army’s worth of equipment into the Witherspoon and installing it.

“We basically have three weeks to convert a concert hall into an opera space,” he said. “The biggest challenge, technically speaking, is just making the Witherspoon work. It is a very limiting space.”

Truckloads of gear began arriving August 23. The task was to outfit the space with everything a full-fledged theater demands. While the hall’s minimal lighting facilities are adequate for the concerts usually held there, for example, they fall far short of opera production needs. Lighting, sound and other equipment has been rented.

“All the lighting equipment that we are using was brought in on a 14-foot truck from Kansas City. We have a couple hundred lighting instruments and nine dimmer packs, which weigh a few hundred pounds apiece.

“The lighting board we rented is a computer memory board called a minipallette. No longer are there the days of the large auto-transformers or piano boards with the long handles. For the lighting operator to move them he had to use his hands and his arms and his legs and his head in order to bring up enough lights,” he said.

“We have to bring in electricity. The Witherspoon did not have adequate power installation, and for the last two festivals Opera Omaha brought in a generator that sat outside. We had to run a cable from the generator up to the roof, through a door, down a spiral staircase and onto the fly deck to power all of our lighting equipment. It was a real hassle.

The fly deck is a space about 12 feet above the stage where the ropes, arbors, grid system and other rigging that move the set pieces which “fly” in and out of the stage are stowed.

“This year we had proper 600 amp service installed just for the festival,” he said. “According to the musuem’s director we are the only ones who require that kind of power. It’s an amazing amount of electricity.”

Mittelman said eliminating the diesel operated generator has been a cost savings now that fuel prices have climbed.

“We brought in sound equipment from two suppliers here in town. The sets and costumes are being produced by Opera Omaha. We did contract to have the costumes for Maria Padilla built in England.”

John Pascoe is the director and designer of Maria. Like many Fall Festival artists he has been imported here, and in the months prior to rehearsal he worked out of his home.

“The design work was all done in Britain. I have a 200-year-old house in Bath, where I have a studio. I prepared the costume designs there and the costumes were actually built in London, where I traveled to supervise their construction,” he said. “From the direction side of things I basically prepared the show in England. I have a big music room where I can explore the possible movements that we’re doing. A choreographer from the Royal Ballet came and worked with me on the sort of dance the chorus performs at the beginning of Act II.”

Pascoe  is also the designer of the festival’s Golem with whose director, Keith Warner, he collaborated. “We developed it in England together. He lives in London and I went there to work with him, and he came down to Bath to work with me.” He and Warner also worked with Golem’s composer John Casken, a fellow Brit.

Pascoe, his production assistants and cast members began arriving in Omaha in mid-August. The first two and a half weeks of rehearsal were held at the American-Italian Heritage Society hall minus costumes, sets, lighting and orchestra. The opera’s performance and technical aspects didn’t come together until September 9. The dress rehearsal described earlier took place September 10.




Prior to that point, however, Mittelman and his crew were making the Witherspoon performance-worthy for not one, but three shows. He’s pulled every which way but loose in the process. “I’m working with the designer in the house, with the master electrician and carpenter in the shop…I stop by the office two or three times a day to get messages. And I run to supply houses for lumber, hardware or whatever.”

Meanwhile, the productions rehearse at separate sites. Maria called the American-Italian Heritage Society home; Golem and the third festival offering Stranger Here Myself rehearsed at the Brandeis buildiing. Besides rehearsals for the principal performers, chorus and orchestral rehearsals were held for Golem and Maria. Juggling everyone’s schedules was Opera Omaha production coordinator Rhonda Jamison, who said, “There are challenges in getting it all to fit and work together.”

In fact, Opera Omaha artistic/general director Mary Robert said, “It’s actually a logistical nightmare trying to get three productions up and running at the same time. One of the things we look for is productions of a certain size, so they can move in and out of the Witherspoon successfully.”

An early priority for Mittelman and is crew was constructing an extension onto the permanent stage, covering the orchestra pit and the first five rows of seats. This “thrust” stage is used to create more space and to bring the performance out into the audience.

“The thrust is just a scaffolding frame on which we laid a plywood deck. Once that’s up you can start rehearsing on that space, lighting that area and calculating how tall your set pieces can be,” explained Mittelman. “All of that work can be done on paper ahead of time, but that’s only your best guess. There’s only so many mathematical formulas that will tell you what you need to know before you run into a problem that can’t be solved on paper – it has to be solved on the space. I deal with problems as they arise.”

The September 10 dress rehearsal offerd a perfect example of Murphy’s Law playing havoc with Mittelman’s best laid plans.

The orchestra, led by conductor and Opera Omaha music director John DeMain accompanied resplendently costumed singers Renee Fleming and Stella Zimbalis in an impromptu rehearsal on-stage. Their romantic music and voices off-set the blue collar crew’s frustrated attempts at putting the stubborn scenery together.

Although the sublime and ridiculous were only a few feet apart neither party seemed aware of the other. Mittelman was a blur attending to the scenery crisis and details in seemingly every square foot of the stage.

Adding to the incongruity of the moment was the orchestra’s very presence up-stage behind the actors. They occupied that unusual station during the festival because the thrust covers the orchestra pit. As a result, maestro DeMain and his musicians perform behind a screen during performances, making direct eye-contact between him and the singers impossible.

Solving that problem are video cameras trained on him and the stage, which transmit audio-visual communication to television monitors. Seven monitors are strategically placed around the perimeter of the stage and in the balcony. Actors use these to take their cues from DeMain. Likewise, he sees and hears them via a monitor at his feet.

The cameras and monitors, along with banks of lights that hang overhead and shoot up like trees from the sides of the stage and balcony lend an eerie, high-tech contrast to the marble Art Deco walls and floor.

Behind-the-scenes the stage managers and lighting and sound operators also have audio-visual contact with the stage and/or conductor.

Where is Mittelman on show night? “Anywhere and everywhere in the space. I’m on call to troubleshoot anything or nothing. I would prefer to be doing nothing because that means my show is running smoothly. But as soon as there’s a problem, it becomes my responsibility.”

Joslyn Witherspoon Concert Hall

Dress rehearsals are vital for ironing out glitches ahead of time and streamlining production. “It’s when you start bringing everything together – meshing the technical elements like lighting, sound, costumes, et cetera – with the performers. The lighting designer sits in the hoouse, saying, ‘Okay, change that one – it’s too bright,’ or, ‘It’s too soft.’ The sound people are getting levels to really make it balanced,” said Mittelman.

And the director and designer are training critical eyes and ears on every note, every gesture, every detail from their seats. Pascoe was like a human jumping bean before the September 10 dress rehearsal, which finally did go off about an hour late.

Mittelman must accomodate the varying needs of three very different shows. “For Maria, which is our largest show, we have a 50-member orchestra, a 32-member chours, plus eighth principals. Then you have a running crew of eight or nine. Our smallest show is a one-woman show (Stranger Here Myself starring Angelina Reaux), with a three or four-piece combo and only two crew members.”

Golem is mid-sized but it incorporates some of the festival’s most interesting special effects. “It opens with a memory sequence of the main character, Maharal. The actor playing him (Terry Hodges) stands in front of a rear projection screen and slide carousels project images of what he’s reliving,” said Mittelman. “There will be 70 projections in the first 17 minutes.”

He said lighting is also used to create dramatic effects in Golem and the other shows. With colored gels and patterned templates inserted in lights it’s possible to create moods, textures and even specific images, such as clouds, stars or skylines.

Despite the Witherspoon’s liabilties officials feel the hall more than makes up for them by its intimate ambience, one perfectly suited to Fall Festival works.

“I really do believe that there is an appropriate space for each production. Not everything belongs in the Orpheum. And the Witherspoon’s small space really lends itself to the festival’s emphasis on dramatic believability,” said Robert.

John Pascoe agrees. “We gain in terms of intimacy and communication with the audience. We have a huge plus in that people can see the expression in a face, and that’s vital.”

Robert added that the Joslyn staff does “everything they can to make this work. They’re wonderfully cooperative.”

Mittelman said a spirit of cooperation is necessary among the festival’s collaborators as well. “You meet with directors and designers and you work out problems and you make compromises. Whenever you get several creative people together they all have different concepts. There are discrepancies. My job is to try to work those out.”

Opera Omaha Presents the American Premiere of Maria Padilla Starring Renee Fleming

The old St. Wenceslaus Church building south of downtown Omaha isn’t the site of religious services anymore but for three weeks recently it reverberated with simply divine music.

Now home to the American-Italian Heritage Society, the building  – located in Omaha’s blue-collar Little Italy neighborhood – served as the rehearsal space in late August and early September for Opera Omaha’s current production of Maria Padilla. Fittingly, the 1841 bel canto opera was written by an Italian composer, Gaetano Donizetti. Bel canto, which means “beautiful singing,” is a style of operatic singing characterized by rich tonal lyricism and bravura displays of vocal technique.

Opera Omaha is presenting the American premiere of Maria Padilla as part of its Fall Festival at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The event, which continues through September 23, also features performances of John Casken’s new opera Golem and Angelina Reaux’s one-woman show, Stranger Here Myself.

As Opera Omaha artistic/general director Mary Robert likes to boast, the Fall Festival is a magnet for world class artists. Maria Padilla is no exception. Residential and light industial neighbors of the American-Italian Heritage Society may not have known it, but several international opera stars were brandishing their formidable talents for weeks just across the street.

Former St. Wenceslaus Church was home to the Italian-American Heritage Society

New York native Renee Fleming, the gifted young soprano who stars in the title role of Maria, is due to make her Metropolitan Opera debut this fall. She comes to Omaha on the heels of winning what Mary Robert calls “the world’s most prestigious singing prize” – the Richard Tucker Award. British director and designer John Pascoe works at the world’s leading opera houses, including engagements at Covent Garden, London, Rome, Syndey, San Francisco and New York.

The singer and director are friends and frequent collaborators. Fleming, in fact, encouraged Pascoe to do the opera when she found out Opera Omaha had not named a director. When Pascoe learned Fleming was starring, with maestro John DeMain conducting, he called Mary Robert to offer his services.

“I honestly thought he was kidding me at first,” said Robert, who recovered her senses in time to invite Pascoe to come. She added that he is working for about one-tenth of his usual fee, as Fleming and other festival artists are appearing at fractions of  what they normally command.

Pascoe said he doesn’t “normally phone an opera company up and ask to direct. No, I’ve never done that before.”

What prompted him then this time?

“The decisive thing for me was the fact that Renee was singing the title role. It if weren’t for that I wouldn’t be here. Somebody asked once, ‘Why do bel canto work?’ And somebody replied, ‘You do bel canto work when you’ve got the cast to sing it, and specifically, when you’ve got the lead to sing it.’

“When (Maria) Callas came on the scene in the ’50s suddenly there was a great revival of bel canto works in Italy and around the world because Callas was there to sing it. Then in the ’60s and ’70s (Joan) Sutherland was there to do it. And we now have an artist to do it – Renee Fleming. People all over the world are saying this.”

Fleming first sang bel canto repertoire at Opera Omaha’s 1988 Fall Festival, when she and current co-star Stella Zimbalis sang a duet from Maria Padilla in concert.

“It was a personal turning point because I realized with that concert that bel canto repertoire was something I could pursue. Now I’m in a lot better shape for singing this, vocally and technically. I had hoped Opera Omaha would explore the possibility of doing that opera because we had all loved the duet so much. I am very pleased they pursued it,” said Fleming.

And for Fleming the experience wouldn’t be the same without Pascoe. “I’ve worked with John three times before. He’s my favorite director. He has a remarkable talent for finding the heart of the matter. Unlike most directors, he can sing everyone’s part, and he sings it well. He does trills and everything. Also, he can act it better than any of us. He acts in such an exaggerated way that we know precisely what he means.”

Indeed, a visit to the rehearsal hall found Pascoe often stopping the action momentarily to enact the impassioned part of one of the perfomers. He came out into the rehearsal area to show what he wanted by his own broad strokes. He suggested, rather than dictated how an actor might wield a sword or react to another character.

“I would never agree with the notion that I show an artist what to do – I show them how I would do it. The kind of thing I say is, ‘Can you find your way of doing what I mean by that?’ That’s the way I work,” said Pascoe.

He explained that the Act II duet between Maria and her sister Ines contains a passage when they remember their happy youth. “I told Renee the kind of things I used to do with my brother and sister – playing games and stuff. And I said, ‘Try to remember what you did. Find your vision of this.’ And the same with Stella (who plays Ines).”

The result is a charming scene in which the young women play again like little girls.

The American-Italian rehearsal space is where Maria Padilla was fleshed out. After months of preparing the opera at his home in Bath, England, Pascoe and the cast began working on blocking out the stage movements and performances in Omaha in mid-August.

“Every morning I got up two hours early before we started rehearsing to go through what I’d prepared to refresh myself, so I knew what I was doing the rest of the day,” said Pascoe.

The floor of the former church was covered with a mat, on which a patchwork of colored tape was adhered. The tape marked where set pieces, props and stage boundaries would be once the production moved into the Witherspoon. During their two and a half weeks at the American-Italian hall performers rehearsaed without wigs, costumes and make-up. Their only musical accompaniment was a pianist.

Actors, along with the director, conductor and stage manager, dressed comfortably.

While scenes rehearsed Pascoe sat on the sidelnes, giving blocking notations to stage manager Tim Ocel.

Pascoe aims for a “synthesis of stage and music” that heightens, supports and informs the drama. “I’m quite specific about things because if you do something on one beat it’s completely different than if you do it one beat later. If there’s a great crashing chord one beat later you have to decide if you want to do a dramatic movement on that chord or if you want the chord to come after the action.

“Or do you want the chord to come before the action, so the actors have a reaction with the crashing chord. There’s all these possibilities,” he said.

Each choice will color the drama and the audience’s interpretation of it, he added. He said the integral role music plays in drama is best illustrated by film scores. “Let’s face it, would Return of the Jedi be an eighth of the film it is without John Williams’ score. The music informs and adds to the emotion and provides subtext. I’m not saying John Williams wrties the same music as Donizetti or that either is better or worse than the other. I’m just saying the use of music with drama is well established. Especially with film, people understand without even knowing it that the music is helping them.”

Pascoe feels strongly about Maria Padilla’s music and drama. “It’s an extremely powerful work, with very clear, good, strong emotions. The thing that’s most appealing about it is its sensational music – it is astonishingly rich and beautiful music. I’m not talking about music that a musicologist would call wonderful and the rest of us would find boring…this music is exciting stuff.”

The director, who has staged other Donizetti operas, including Don Pasquale and Lucia di Lammermoor, said, “Maria Padilla’s music is more evenly sumptuous all the way through. It’s a much later work than the others. The orchestration’s highly colored and very interessting.”

Maria has rarely been performed. Some suggest the artifical ending imposed on Donizetti by censors of the time explains why. Pascoe disagrees, although he concedes “the ending is not the strongest part of the opera. You don’t come out fizzing from the ending, but I think you will come out fizzing from the excitement of the opera.”

He attributes the work’s obscurity to the fact that the bel canto opera has simply not been “fashionable.” He and Mary Robert say that as a result of Opera Omaha’s production, which is drawing reviewers from national publications, Maria could become part of the standard repertoire.

The piece is set amidst the intrigue of Spanish royalty in 14th century Castile. Maria is an ambitious young woman willing to suffer dishonor for love. She lives as the mistress of the prince, to whom she is secretly married, in order to appease political pressures. When the prince is forced to marry another woman, Maria takes matters into her own hands and claims her rightful place beside her husband on the throne.

Opera Omaha hopes to strike a balance between the tragic circumstances Maria endures and her own strong-willed nature that manipulates events to her own design.

“John has suggested, interestingly, that she very cunningly says, ‘Ha, this is my chance to have it all.’ I think this is Leona Helmsley – hopefully a lot more sympathetic than that, but she’s a very strong person,” said Fleming. “That was the thing that attracted me when I first read the libretto. I said, ‘Wow, finally a woman who’s not victimized.’ She takes charge.”

Pascoe added, “I don’t think she’s a tragic figure at all. Unlike most romantic heroines she actually takes a hand in shaping her own future and takes some very bold steps toward doing it.”

The long rehearsal period Opera Omaha devotes to Fall Festival works helps Fleming, Pascoe and other collaborators explore the nuances of character and performance.

Fleming calls the four weeks alloted “invaluable.” “If I were singing The Marriage of Figaro I wouldn’t be thrilled about the long rehearsal period because I’ve done so many Figaros in the last year. But for a new work it’s a fantastic luxury to have four weeks, and really have time to explore the character and get the role into your voice.”

Pascoe said the extended rehearsal schedule “is one of the reasons I was interested in coming. The festival sets up a very, very good work situation.”

During early rehearsals singers preserve their voices by “marking,” which is important when working on a production over several weeks time.

“We mark either by singing down an octave or by singing softly to save the voice,” said Fleming. “I can only sing full voice, full energy maybe an hour and a half to two hours. In a performance, of course, that would be spread out.”

Rehearsals last up to six hours a day, requiring both physical and vocal endurance. She said she and other singers gradually work up to singing full throttle. “It’s important for every artist to know their limits, but you also have to sing the role into your voice. You can’t do it too much and hurt your muscles by over training.”

She said performers “train much like athletes do.” That conditioning is essential in opera, she added, because most works include a rape scene or murder scene or mad scene that knocks her about. She stays in shape doing aerobic workouts at a gym.

She and Pascoe both laud the American-Italian Heritage Society building as an excellent rehearsal space.

They say when creative artists are cooped up in close proximity like they are for a month an esprit de corps is needed if magic is to happen. “If it doesn’t develop, you’re in for problems,” said Pascoe. Or, as Fleming put it, “Four weeks with somebody who’s not very good would be hell.”

No such problems on this production, they say.. And when things click, Pascoe said, “it’s always a bit like falling in love. There’s a very special feeling working on an opera because all of us are commited to it and trying to give it as much of ourselves as we can.”

Fleming said Pascoe promoted that feeling by his approach. “He said to me one day that the reason he got into directing was because he wanted to be moved. And he’s right because when I read these scripts and hear the music I am moved, and yet so often when you get to the final results, you’re not. Something has been missed along the way. We try to find that.”

She said that extra spark is intensified when working on a piece like Maria Padilla, which few people are aware of and therefore have few preconceptions about. That gives her and Pascoe freedom to interpret the work and leave their own mark on it.

“It’s a fun opportunity to explore something new. There are no rigid traditions about interpreting specific notes. I can do whatever I want with it. There aren’t that many pieces left that haven’t been explored already.”

Fleming, who said she enjoyed her stays in Omaha in 1988 and this year, sings Opera Omaha’s praises. “I’ve been calling all my singer friends and saying, ‘You’ve got to sing for this company.'” She credits Mary Robert for having “a lot of vision.”

“I can’t think of either a festival or a rep situation that is as brave and adventurous as this Fall Festival is,” said Pascoe. “I can’t think of any other event in the world that is offering such an exciiting menu. I think Omaha’s very clever to have been able to grab people of such vision as maestro DeMain and Mary Robert and hold them here long enough to get this festival on its feet.”


From the Archives: Golden Boy Dick Mueller of Omaha leads Firehouse Theatre revival

September 23, 2011 10 comments

Here’s another story from deep in my archives, this one from 1990, about Dick Mueller and the revival he led of his Firehouse Theatre in Omaha. Though this bid to remake the former dinner theater into a nonprofit began promisingly enough it soon fell under its own weight. The tone of this piece is expressly optimistic because that’s how Mueller sounded a couple years into the experiment. Even though the Firehouse didn’t make it in its reinvented state, the topic of theater and arts sustainability, which was very much on Mueller’s mind at the time, remains as cogent today as it was then. Only a few weeks ago a well-known local theater, the John Beasley Theater & Workshop, announced it was on the verge of closing unless it could secure donations and pledges in excess of $10,000, which it thankfully did. Mueller did not have the best opinion of the Omaha theater scene then, and I wonder what he thinks of it today. In some respects, there’s been no change from the status quo, in that Omaha now as then has little in the way of professional, Equity theater. However, several new theater companies have sprung up in the intervening years and the Great Plains Theatre Conference has emerged as a vital event and presence.





From the Archives: Golden Boy Dick Mueller of Omaha leads Firehouse Theatre revival

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Midlands Business Journal


It is tempting to frame Firehouse Theatre founder Dick Mueller’s story in dramatic terms. The 53-year-old impresario, director and actor has the youthful gleam and gait of, well, a Golden Boy whose future success seems assured despite adversity.

Like the boxer-violinst of the Clifford Odets play, Mueller is both a fighter and a dreamer who has battled steep odds to make his fondest wishes come true. He’s the Golden Boy of Omaha theater. He has recently rebounded from bankruptcy and the closing of the Firehouse to reopen the theater and set it on a bold new course he hopes will shake up lethargic old Omaha.

A life in the theater has been Mueller’s destiny since a night in 1961 when he saw a play and was stagestruck.

The Omaha native sang professionally at the time with a quartet called The Bachelors, which began at his alma mater – Central High School. The group was making the rounds on the national nighclub circuit and recording on the Epic Records label when Mueller followed a hunch and caught a new Broadway show. The show was Lerner and Loewe‘s My Fair Lady and “that theater experience is probably why I’m sitting here today in 1990,” said Mueller from the Firehouse stage. “I had no idea what theater was. I thought the ultimate entertainment experience was in a nightclub.”

He said, “I bought a standing room ticket for $3 and saw the original production of My Fair Lady, and there was no question in my mind when I walked out of that room three hours later that I was wrong – the nightclub did not offer the ultimate experience.

“Since then I’ve had 10 or 12 nights in the theater that really changed my life and I think it happened for other people in this room,” he said, referring to the Firehouse. “It has to do with what happens between a playwright, a good director and good actors telling a good story. It doesn’t happen very often, but you’ve got to have some of those nights…otherwise you stop going back to the theater. It can’t happen to me here (the Firehouse) because you really have to be a virgin. If you’re too involved in the production it won’t happen.”

Mueller turned his back on a singing career to do the starving actor’s bit. He returned home some years later a veteran of Broadway tryouts and Saratoga summer stock to start the Firehouse Dinner Theatre in 1972 in the then-fledgling Old Market. It was an instant hit. He and the theater, which dropped the buffett a few years ago, are synonomous. One cannot be discussed without the other.

After years of near uninterrupted success – revivals staged by the likes of Joshua Logan, critically praised world premieres and strong box office performances the Firehouse slumped in the mid-’80s. Eventually, Mueller declared bankruptcy and the theater closed New Year’s Day, 1989. The New York Times even chronicled Mueller’s travails in a January 1, 1989 article.

Always the scrapper and visionary, Mueller announced almost immediately he would be back. His never-say-die tenacity, combined with about $50,000 in donations from a fund-raising appeal, got the theater back on its feet and reopened by that April.



Mueller surprised many local arts observers by resurrecting the Firehouse in a new guise, Frustrated by his theater’s future hanging on uncertain box-office receipts – its primary source of income since Day One – the reorganized the for-profit business as a nonprofit corporation.

Mueller, who was the theater’s sole owner at the time of its demise, has given up proprietary interest and turned the facility’s management over to a board of directors and professional staff. He’s glad to do it, he said, because now as artistic director he can focus on the plays without worrying about the business.

Jeff Taxman, 37, has been hired as the theater’s managing director, and both he and Mueller sit on the board, whose president is Louis Lamberty.

So within two years the Firehouse has gone, as Mueller put it, “legit” – from a full-fledged commercial dinner theater to a non-profit producing organization with ambitions of being what he terms “the Heartland’s regional theater.”

According to Barbara Janowitz of Theater Communications Group in New York, which publishes American Theatre magazine, the Firehouse metamorphosis is indeed “unusual.”



Mueller said the jump from the for-profit to the non-profit world was his only option to secure the theater’s financial future and one he’d been contemplating.

“To be honest, this place has been 20 years of my life and I always saw it becoming a non-profit regional theater because I’d like to see it last. It wasn’t something that I wasn’t prepared to see happen at some point. I only wish it happened under better circumstances, but…by the time we ran into the wall financially the non-profit corporation was already in existence and just sped up the transition process.”

He didn’t want to sell the business to new owners who eventually might get tired of it. “Then it just dies and goes away,” he said.

He feels some factors made it diffiult for the Firehouse to survive on ticket sales alone. Principally, he blames the depressed economy of the mid-’80s for cutting into one of the theater’s most vital markets – the rural tourist trade.

“This theater has always drawn from hundreds of miles away. Bus loads from small towns put together by tour brokers or banks come to Omaha for their theater. And we lost an awful lot of that business because the people who supported it lost their income and in many cases lost their farms or buisnesses,” he said.

“Group sales have always veen a mainstay of this theater. We do 10,000-piece mailings to every tour group within 500 or 600 miles of here.”

The Greater Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau ranked the Firehouse as one of the city’s top tourist attractions as recently as 1988. Mueller said the theater’s sales efforts to groups outside Omaha promote other attractions “because we feel it’s easier for us to get people to Omaha if there’s a variety of great experiences. We’ve been a minor Chamber of Commerce here for 18 years.”

He estimates “at least 50 percent” of its annual ticket sales are to patrons outside the city. He said after a slow start the theater is regaining its audience now that the bankruptcy and closing are old news and the farm economy has recovered.

“Thank God we’re beyond it and we’re building back. People have forgotten about that. We worked real hard to make good to all those people who had season tickets and gift certificates because we didn’t want them to think bad about our efforts to run this place.

“We opened with very little strength a year-and-a-half ago, but life is getting better for us. We wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t started to come back a little already.”

The current production, Driving Miss Daisy, has “the largest pre-sale of group business of any show I can remember,” he said. Two mid-week matinees have been added “because the demand is there and probably 90 percent of that demand is from out of town. I hope we’ll build on that momentum and in a year from now it’ll be even better.”





Jeff Taxman said the realities of the business are such that “it takes 30 to 40 percent of the house to cover the cost of running the theater” or break even. “Daisy looks like it’s going to do better than that, so this will be a surplus.”

One of Mueller’s long-range goals is to average 80 percent of capacity per year. “Eighty percent would be a big surplus position and would create the capital to do all kinds of innovative things,” Taxman noted. The theater’s best one-year box-office showing netted a 70 percent house average.

Another factor Mueller said adversely affected the Firehouse was the competitive advantage he feels non-profit theaters have in seeking donations, grants and other public and private forms of funding generally unavailable to private business.

“We had no means, unless someone was crazy, to get donations because people wouldn’t get any tax benefits by giving their money to us,” he said.

“The funding of the arts, in some respects, has legislated business out of the arts. This place did very well as a commercial theater for a long time  and today it’s very difficult for us to compete with the advertising that even small community theaters are seemingly able to muster. You add that to their volunteer help…and I think the non-profit world was successful to the detriment of the commercial world in the arts.”

He feels fortunate the Firehouse is an established entity now that it seeks funds from the same pool or resources as other non-profits. “I think it would be impossible to start something new in Omaha today. You’re not going to get funding right away because that’s sort of locked in – in the funding apparatus out there,” he said.

“And the public is not as curious and willing to function on their own as they were 15 years ago, so it’s more difficult to get people in the seats.”

He believes one reason why people are less adventurous is the lack of professional theater locally. The Firehouse, which uses Actors Equity performers, is the city’s only professional theater operating year-round and paying its actors a living wage. “The place plays 52 weeks, or close to it, a year,” said Taxman, “and that’s a unique aspect of what we do.”

“I’d like to see another professional theater right accross the street. I think it would be good for us, but I also think I’m totally alone in that philosophy,” Mueller said. “If they can excite their audience then I’ve got a chance of getting their audience.”

He added that another theater would also bolster Omaha’s shallow talent pool by enticing more artists to come here and more natives to stay. He noted Omaha was a theater hotbed in the early  ’70s, when the Firehouse, Westroads Dinner Theater and The Talk of the Town all operated. “It was great fun and it was much easier to cast because there was more talent.”

Mueller feels Omahans suffer an acute case of provincialism in warily embracing new arts groups or concepts: “The arts community gets very protective of their own organizations and takes a very limited view. It’s always puzzled me.”

He wants to assuage any fear other theaters might have that the Firehouse is somehow a threat to them. The scenario reminds him of when the Guthrie Theatre opened amid “epidemic fear that it was going to kill all of the community theaters in Minneapolis. And, you know, the Guthrie did nothing but good for the theater community. It busted it wide open. None of those fears, I suspect, had any basis in reality.”

While Mueller has received a few letters indicating Omaha can survive nicely without the Firehouse, he said most of the reaction to its reopening has been positive.

Taxman, who is designing the theater’s development program, said, “I find those people I talk to are very happy to visit and are excited about the idea. The real measure in terms of opening checkbooks is still an open question, but we’ve only been at it three or four weeks.”

Mueller said that besides a $15,000 grant from Douglas County “our non-profit status has not produced any mother-lode. We’re still pretty much making it on our own.”

Taxman is working to change that. He is writing grant applications to private foundations, corporations and government agencies as well as coordinating a direct mail campaign aimed at the theater’s long-time patrons – its season ticket holders and group tour participants. He expects to conduct a community-wide public campaign by the fall.

He said individual giving is vital in demonstrating to grant review panels “there’s a lot of local support” and is confident that support will come. He anticipates the theater’s fundraising efforts to show “some significant” gains within 12 months. The theater, he said, sells itself.

“This is an institution that generates 90 to 100 percent of its nut from earned income. So every dollar you give really is leveraged 9 or 10 times in terms of the organization’s effectiveness. It’s been around for a long time and has a long track record of excellent performances.

“One of the positive aspects is that the amount of money that has to be raised to make this place work and healthy is not a staggering number. And because of that I think its future is very viable – without the community sagging under the burden of another institution to support.”

The Firehouse budget is $978,000. The theater is labor-intensive and about half the weekly $4,500-$5,000 costs of staging Daisy, for example, are for actors’ salaries. An expense that has risen dramatically in recent years is the royalties fee, which for Daisy is about 10 percent of the weekly box office take. Mueller recalls doing Noel Coward for $100 a week.

“The overhead of the theater is really very efficient and stable, so the variable is really the production costs,” said Taxman.

Another priority is recruiting board members who share Mueller’s vision of the theater. Although no longer the owner or manager, he is still very much the Firehouse Svengali. He’s proud and protective of its past and bullish on its future.





“This room has provided just a little over 9,000 weeks of gainful employment for theater talent – actors, directors and musicians – since it opened. And I don’t believe there’s ever been a theater in Nebraska that has even come close to that,” he said. “That room is as good as any in the country for a Daisy or Steel Magnolias, which is the kind of kind of material I really like to do – actor-intensive, not spectacle. Intimate theater.”

He said that while the “dinner theater concept made this place,” the new Firehouse is more to his liking. “It makes a much better, more comfortable and cleaner theater. Eighteen years ago dinner theater was really an exciting new thing and there are still some places making it work, but I think it’s had its major day.” Besides, he said the Firehouse can book dinner for patrons downstairs at Harrigans (a nouvelle pub) if they do wish.

Mueller wants the theater to continue doing what it’s done best in the past and to branch out in some new areas.

“I would like to see us do at least one new production a year. In five years it would be nice to think one of those had made it to New York or Chicago as a modest success.”

The Firehouse has presented four world premieres and is bringing another , Lawrence Broch’s Joan in October. Mueller is considering restaging  a work that premiered there in 1982, Dale Wasserman’s Shakespeare and the Indians. To this day he rues not having the time or foresight to perfect that play and then take it to London, where he thinks audiences would have eaten it up.

“But that takes perspective and having other people to shoulder some of the day-to-day operations. We didn’t have that luxury then.”

The Firehouse does now and that’s why Mueller is anxious “to turn Omaha on its ear” with more premieres and “a broader menu of material.”

“I feel what we’ve done for 18 years is pretty much the program. It’s true I’d like to expand on that, but it’s not like we’re turning our back on everything we did and going in a different direction. We know we can do certain showd every bit as good on this stage as the Guthrie or Broadway could do on those stages. We’ve got a pretty decent national reputation right now and I’d like to see that improved.”

He does see a possibility of producing on other stages when it’s appropriate to the material, as the Firehouse did at the University of Nebraska at Omaha with Battle Hymn.

He also said the theater may one day tour productions. One thing he rules out is forming a resident acting company.

What he wants most, however, is for the Firehouse to lead a theater renasissance of sorts in Omaha. For the city to be a theater center where people can have more experiences like the one in New York 30 years ago that changed his life.

“I’d love to see every theater in town producing those kinds of experiences because then we’d have a potential audience in town that is far larger then what it is now. Good theater begets more and hopefully better theater and less is on the way to a ghost town.”

Registration Now Open for Your Journey in Freelance Writing Seminars with Leo Adam Biga: Oct. 30, Nov. 13 & Dec. 11

September 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Registration Now Open for

Your Journey in Freelance Writing Seminars

with Leo Adam Biga

Oct. 30, Nov. 13 & Dec. 11

Follow your passion and write stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions


Sunday, October 30

Sunday, November 13

Sunday, December 11

6-8 pm

Each seminar is unique, though some core material is covered during every workshop



Brandeis building downtown, 210 South 16th Street in the warm, luxurious setting of the Community Room

Use 16th Street Concierge entrance between Douglas and Farnam (Concierge will direct you to the elevator to access the 2nd flr Community Room)

NOTE: Ample street parking available or for $5 use the Brandeis parking garage (Douglas between 16th and 17th (car pool and share the cost)


Host Christine Lind will provide free beverages and goodies during the seminar

Join us for this informative, relaxed evening


The seminar is by-registration only:

If you register for one seminar, the cost is: $40

If you register for two seminars together, the cost is: $70

If you register for three seminars together, the cost is $100

NOTE: The registration fee is payable by check only (make it out to Leo Adam Biga)

Mail your check to:  Leo A. Biga, 10629 Cuming St., Omaha, NE 68114

Your check must be received before the seminar for you to attend and be sure to indicate which seminar(s) you’re registering/paying for


Register at


If you know of or are affiliated with a school, church, library or other nonprofit that would like to host a future seminar, please note that special group rates are available. It’s a perfect fit for any group that enjoys reading, writing, books. Call 402-445-4666 or email for details.


What is A Journey in Freelance Writing?

An informal two-hour seminar that discusses:

• How to prepare yourself to be a writer

• What’s involved in finding your writer’s voice

• Where do story ideas come from?

• How to pitch and market your work

• What are editors looking for?

• How to develop and maintain a client base

• Yes, you can supplement your income and even make a living as a freelancer

As an award-winning journalist I will offer my decades-long experience as a guide for establishing a writing career or taking your career to the next level. The conversational, interactive seminar offers plenty of Q & A time.

Ideal for aspiring or emerging writers of:  articles • press releases • newsletters • blogs • web content • scripts • books

Book the seminar for your club, organization, school, library or church. Schedule it for your next writing/literary group meeting, festival or conference.  

Group rates available.


Thanks for your interest and I hope to see you there,

Leo Adam Biga


Related articles

From the Archives: Cowboy-turned Scholar Discovers Kinship with 19th Century Expedition Explorer

September 17, 2011 3 comments



NOTE: My apologies to those who read this post when I first put it up, as it was filled with typos. I failed to proof the copy and it made for a very rough read. It won’t happen again.

With this post I am starting a periodic series featuring favorite stories of mine from deep in my archives. The story below is from 1990 and profiles a charming man, Paul Schach, who has since passed. I got to know Schach just a bit when I worked as public relations director at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. My friend, then Joslyn western history curator Joseph Porter introduced me to Schach, who was engrossed in a multi-year translation project of a vast set of journals or diaries that German explorer Prince Maximilian of Wied kept of a historic expedition he made of North America. The 1832-34 expedition also had a fine artist along, Karl Bodmer, who made sketches and watercolor paintings of the vanishing West. The Maximilain diary and the Bodmer artworks are in the Joslyn’s permanent collections and I was struck both by how uniquely suited Schach was for the project and by how deeply connected he felt to Maximilian.

Also on this blog is a story I did a few years later about an artist who drew inspiration from the life and work of Karl Bodmer. That piece is titled, “Naturalist-Artist John Lokke – In Pursuit of the Timber Rattlesnake and in the Footsteps of Karl Bodmer.”

From the Archives: Cowboy-turned Scholar Discovers Kinship with 19th Century Expedition Explorer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Orignally published in Omaha Metro Update (now Metro Magazine)

In his 52 years as a language scholar retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Paul Schach has seldom strayed far from his German heritage and rough-and-tumble roots. It’s only fitting that Schach, who loves a good yarn, has lived a storybook life – from cowboying along the Arkansas River to doing top-secret intelligence work during World War II to forging a distinguished academic career.

Until his 1986 returement Schach held the Charles J. Mach professorship of Germanic languages at UNL, where he taught 35 years. The noted philogist has traveled widely to record and study ethnic languages and literary traditions native to Northern Europe. He’s published his work in scores of articles and eight books.

Schach’s work has taken hiim to Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Germany. A companion on some of his overseas trips was his late wife, Ruth, who was also a colleague. She typed and proofed all his work during their 48-year marriage. In 1956-57 the couple and their three daughters lived in Germany, where the children attended public school while Schach taught and worked on a book.

“Ruth typed the manuscript of the first book I ever published, during the winter of 1956 in Germany,” Schach said. “That was a cold winter and buildings were only heated two hours out of 24 because of fuel shortages. I would come back home at noon for lunch and she’d be at a little red Remington portable typewriter.

“She had a sweater, overcoat, woolen cap and scarf on. She’d type for awhile, stop, blow on her hands, put on gloves, blow on her hands a bit and then type a few more sentences. And that’s how that first book came to be typed. I’m just beginning to realize now she did about half my work for me. I got the credit for it – she did the work.”

Today, the 74-year-old is still busy writing and researching, only now his daughter Joan is his proofreader. Schach hopes to finish three books yet. But one project in particular has occupied much of his attention the past three years. It’s the translation of the diary kept by German explorer-naturalist-ethnologist, Maximilian Furst zu Wied of his 1832-34 expedition to North America with Swiss artist Karl Bodmer.

Maximilian’s chronicles, along with Bodmer’s paintings and sketches, document their historic journey along the Missouri River. The diary, artwork and related articles are housed at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Center for Western Studies, where Schach commutes from his Lincoln, Neb. home to work with the original manuscript. Scholars regard the collection as an unparalleled record of the early American West.



Prince Maximilian



Translating the epic, 4,000 -page diary is painstaking work which Schach is uniquely qualified to do. He grew up speaking and reading a dialect very similar to Maximilian’s – one few are fluent in today. As a boy Schach reveled in stories told in German by his extended immigrant family.

Schach’s work is made more difficult by Maximilian’s tiny script, which can be read only with the aid of a magnifying glass. The diary will be published in four volumes by Joslyn and the University of Nebraska Press. Schach has only a final reading to do before volume one is published within a year. Work on volume two is nearing completion and by July Schach said the translation project should reach its halfway point.

His careful reading and meticulous translation of Maximilian’s observations have put him on intimate terms with the man, whom he feels a close kinship with by virtue of their shared dialect, heritage and interests. Strengthening the bond is the fact Maximilian spent a summer in Pennsylvania, where Schach was born and raised.

“I’m seeing parts of that state much more clearly now through his descriptions. So many of the things he describes are things I have experiencd in my life,” said Schach.

Just as Maximilian spemnt a lifetime as both a rugged outdoorsman and rigorous scholar, so too has Schach. During his long career Schach has remaimed true to bedrock values learned as a boy gorwing up “mainly in mining camps and cow towns” during the Great Depression.

Despite harships, he enjoyed an arcadian youth in the fertile back country of eastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal mining region, where he developed a lifelong love for the great outdoors.

“Until I was about 20 I lived outdoors whenever I could – hunting, fishing and trapping. My father was a coal miner. Some days he’d strike it rich, and then for weeks he wouldn’t have any money at all. We spent quite a bit of our free time fishing and hunting for food. Yes, times were hard, but people in those times were hard, always shared things. Everybody helped everybody else. I was always being farmed out to work on different farms when someone got hurt or sick.”

Schach learned a healthy respect for nature and the land from his maternal grandfather, nicknamed the “Old Black Hessian” for both his dark features and horse-trading skills.

“When people came and wanted to buy soome wood on his farm, he refused to sell. They said, ‘We’ll pay you more money for those trees than you’ll get for the rest of your farm.’ ‘It belongs to the farm,’ he replied. ‘Well, the farm belongs to you, doesn’t it?’ He wasn’t quite sure,” Schach said, “because it would go to his son or daughter. It was his farm, but it was there for people to use and the idea was to make it a better farm then when he got it from his father.”

Schach laments, “There’s not so much of that (philosophy) “left anymore – people are mining the soil and destorying the forests.”



A Karl Bodmer watercolor from the expedition



He said Maximilian espoused the same Old World wisdom and was “shocked, even at that time, at the way Americans were destrorying their forests and their soil. In Europe, if you cut down a tree you have to plant two to replace that one.”

According to Schach, Maximilian’s enlightened environmental concerns were typical of a man who was ahead of his time. “There were so many ways in which he was so very modern, such as the idea of conserving the soil and forests. There’s so much to learn from a man like this.”

Far from a rural idyll, however, life for the Schachs was full of severe trials, just as Maximilan weathered blizzards, epidemics and other miseries on his trek.

Then there were the man-made problems the Schachs and their neighbors confronted.

“There was a lot of trouble in the coal mines,” Schach said. “The owners would shut down the mines so the miners wouldn’t ask for more wages. You couldn’t even buy coal in the coal regions – you had to go out to slag dumps at night, where we were shot at frequently. My father wanted to get out…there was just no future there because he didn’t own any land.”

The family pulled up stakes and headed west. They settled in Colorado, where Schach’s father hoped to dig for gold but was disillusioned to find “the gold mines had petered out just as coal had in Pennsylvania.” He opted for running a grocery store instead.

Schach helped support the family of eight by working as a hired hand on a cattle ranch along the Arkansas River, riding horseback in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. The full-fledged cowboy broke wild horses, drove cattle and lived a Western life most young men only dreamed about.

“I enjoyed working on the farm and especially on that ranch. Coming from the East to the West, I suppose, made it more romantic.

“We used to move the cattle up in the spring to a higher pasture in the mountains and then, in the fall, bring them down. When you brought them down they were just as wild as buffalo. you could handle them on horseback, but on foot they’d either run away from you or they’d come right at you,  in which case you ran for the closest fence,” he recalled, laughing heartily.

“I liked working with horses, but I guess I was never too good at it because I’ve been banged up pretty badly several times.”

The last time he tried taming a horse was just 10 years ago. The result: three broken ribs. Years later he still feels the effects and carries the scars of his horse spills. He joked that it’s open to question whether he broke horses or they broke him. “But I still love them,” he said.

Schach passed on what little horse sense had to two of his daughters, who are “very good with horses.” He sometimes goes riding with them at a local stable. But to his daughters’ amusement a bronco buster’s old habits die hard. He’s been bucked, bitten and kicked enough times that he mounts any horse, even a tame one, as warily as if it were a time bomb.

“I set up close to the shoulder, facing the back, so he can’t get me with his foreleg. I pull his head away from me so he can’t bite me. And I watch his hind leg and am conscious to get my left foot in the stirrup and to swing into the saddle. Then I wait to see what’s going to happen. Of course, with these horses around here, nothing happens. He just sits there,” said Schach, who delights in telling the story.



A Karl Bodmer watercolor from the expedition



He exchanged a saddle for a school desk in the mid-’30s, when he enrolled at Albright College in Reading, Pa. Although he was a roughrider, Schach always found time for books and writing. He had as his models two older sisters who taught school.

“I always read a lot. I read German and English from the time I was 5. I used to keep notebooks with lists of all the words I could find in German and English of colors, for example. Or synonyms of all kinds.”

He was immersed in his people’s rich reservoir of culture and language. “The Old Black Hessian was a marvelous storyteller. I remember one story had two different endings. When I was about 10 I got up enough courage to ask him which of the two stories was the true one. He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Paulos, the one is as true as the other,’ which was a marvelous answer.”

Schach, who’s recorded German immigrant dialects from Canada to Texas, has collected Russian-German folktales handed down through generations. He cherishes both the grassroots education he got at home and his formal training in high school. He feels today’s students are shortchanged.

“If you intended to go to college you had to have a thorough knowledge of French, German and Latin. You took science and math courses straight through, including trigonmetry and geometry. I would say graduates of my high school in 1935 or so had a much more solid education than the average college graduate today.

“We’ve lost touch. I read European newspapers all the time…people all over the world are talking about what’s happened to the United States, how we’ve fallen behind in science and can’t make anything that meet their standards. The neglect of languages has been a terrible handicap to our country and we have suffered greatly from it, too.”

He believes language studies are vital “not only for what they tell us about language” but for what they reveal about culture, history and ourselves. As an ethnologist, Maximilian studied the cultures and languages of Native Americans from a humanist perspective rare for expolorers of the period. His progressive learnings helped him empathize with the Indians while his scientific training lent his descriptions great objectivity. He approached the study of Indians not as something strange, not as the savages we’re used to reading about in cowboy and Indian stories, but as human beings. He didn’t idealize them. He didn’t denigrate them. They were people – good, bad, indifferent – and he just portrayed them as they were,” Schach explained, adding that Maximilian’s accounts are treasured for their wealth of detail and accuracy.



Statue of Karl Bodmer and Prince Maximilian at the Castle of Neuweid in Germany



Maximilian, whom Schach described as “a very well-educated man,” had both a priviliged and liberal upbringing. A nobleman by birth, Maximilian’s inherited title was Prince of Wied. His grandfather had established the city of Newied, on the banks of the Rhine, as a refuge for victims of religious persecution. The family castle was located there.

“Early on, Maximilian was in contact with peoples of all nationalities, religions and so on,” said Schach. “I think this was a big help to him when he studied the Indians.”

Schach’s own educational pursuits have been diverse. After graduatiing from Albright in 1938 he began work on his master’s degree at the University of Pennyslvania. Before finishing his thesis, World War II erupted and Schach soon found himself putting his language skills to use in the U.S. Navy. He was the only U.S.-born member of a translation project team assigned the top-secret duty of translatiing captured documents on Germany’s jet propulsion and rocketry programs.

“As soon as they developed something, we knew about it,” said Schach. “The material was easy to read and understand, but we had no (compatible) terminology in English. We hadn’t done anything  in those areas yet. We literally had no words to translate into English. That was a strange and a frightening situation.”

It was all the more frightening, he said, because “we knew the V-2 was designed for an atomic warhead. We also knew there were German engineers who could construct an atomic bomb.”

The stateside team based in Philadelphia did hands-on work as well – once reconstructing a Messerschmitt 262 from parts of three of the German jet planes that had crashed. It flew, too. “I guess that the first jet plane to every fly on this country,” he said.

After the war Schach taught at Penn, where he also earned a doctorate. He taught several years at Albright and at North Central Collge in Chicago. He joined the UNL staff in 1951, lured by the opportunity to study the area’s many varieties of German, Czech and Scandinavian dialects. Another factor was Lincoln’s close proximity to Colorado, where the Schachs often vacationed summers, roughing it in the outback.

“We never had much money. The salaries were miserable then. One summer we had $75 – I took the tent, a gun and my fishing pole and we all headed west in the car.” En route to Colorado their meager funds were cut by a third when a flat tire needed replacing. To conserve money that summer the family ate whatever Schach hooked or shot. “We ended up eating mostly fish that summer. At one point the children just sort of sat and looked down their noses at the fish, and Ruth said, ‘You better go to town and buy some hamburgers.'”

Until recently Schach still hunted regulalry, favoring the Nebraska Sand Hills for ducks and the Pine Ridge area for deer. He ventured as far north as Ontario, Canada for bigger game, including a bear he bagged with one shot.

Translating Maximilian’s diary leaves precious little time for the outdoors these days. “I’ve become perhaps too much interested in the man. This is one of only several major projects I’ve been working on. But it’s like reading a good book – you read it four times and you see things you didn’t see the first time. Maximilian was a very remarkable person.

Some would say Schach is no slouch himself.

Hail, hail “The Descendants” – Alexander Payne’s first feature since “Sideways” a hit with critics, and the George Clooney-starring comedy-drama is sure to be awards contender

September 17, 2011 9 comments

Hail, hail “The Descendants” – Alexander Payne’s first feature since “Sideways” a hit with critics, and the George Clooney-starring comedy-drama is sure to be awards contender

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


However you feel about Alexander Payne’s work you must concede the cinema landscape is richer now that he’s back with his first feature since Sideways. That’s certainly the consensus among reviewers who’ve seen his The Descendants.

The September 10 world premiere of the much anticipated comedy-drama at the Toronto International Film Festival officially launched the George Clooney-starring vehicle as a must-see this fall movie season. The film’s screenings in Toronto, where Payne, Clooney and co-star Shailene Woodley appeared, came just a week after a press sneak preview at the Telluride Film Festival.

The next big splash comes in October, when The Descendants is the closing night selection at the New York Film Festival. Payne will be on hand, It’s reminiscent of how his highly lauded Sideways and About Schmidt scored major points at prestige festivals. He will aalso accompany his film at festivals in London, Honolulu, Greece, Turin and Dubai.The Fox Searchlight release opens theatrically Nov. 18. Payne will be at special November screenings of The Descendants at Film Streams. Details coming.

Shot in Hawaii in 2010, the film is Payne’s faithful adaptation of the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel. Clooney’s Matt King is a father-husband forced by circumstance and legacy to face some hard truths, such as his dying wife having cheated on him. This rude awakening propels a journey of revenge and reconciliation.


Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.



George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, and Amara Miller



Payne and cast at the Toronto International Film Festival, ©photo from




Everyone’s welcome at Table Talk, where food for thought and sustainable race relations happen over breaking bread together

September 16, 2011 6 comments

After eliciting a firestorm for a phrase I used in a recent article that some found offensive, I was a bit wary when offered the following assignment to write about a race-ethnicity dialogue series. But it’s subject matter I know fairly well and so here is a preview of this new piece that will soon be appearing in The Reader ( Omaha Table Talk is one of many attempts to bridge the racial divide, in this case by inviting people of different races and ethnicities to sit down and break bread together as a welcoming and disarming framework for discussion and dialogue about the things that often never get said or asked in mixed company. I would prefer to attend a Table Talk and do a story based on what I observe and hear, but this assignment called for me to do an advance story for the October 20 Table Talk, and thus I had to rely on interviewing organizers and participants for their takes on these forums.  I do plan to attend the next Table Talk.


Everyone’s welcome at Table Talk, where food for thought and sustainable race relations happen over breaking bread together

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (


The uneasy place race inhabits in the collective American psyche leaves most discussions of the subject to academics, activists or attorneys. But its lived reality permeates much of the every day social-cultural fabric.

Rhetoric about race is common. Conversation, less so. In these politically correct times, with a topic so tinged by the emotional weight of the past, no one wants to offend, therefore often nothing is said at all. Except for brief times in U.S. history, race has not been at the forefront of a national dialogue. Keeping it at bay only adds to the existential angst, be it white guilt or minority outrage. In Omaha, where the geographic and socio-economic gulf between races is great, opportunities for exchange may be even fewer than in more diverse settings.

Given this weird dynamic, it’s not surprising then a formal apparatus exists for bringing people together over the very thing that often divides them. Omaha Table Talk (OTT), now in its seventh year, is a forum for individuals, couples, friends, acquaintances and complete strangers to share personal testimonies, discuss issues, watch films and hear presentations that touch on race.

It’s not alone, either. Since 2009 Progressive Omaha, First Unitarian Church, Nebraskans for Peace and other sponsors have sponsored Black-White Dialogues.

Table Talk’s free, October 20, 6:15 to 9 p.m. signature event will find hundreds gathering at homes, community centers, worship sites, companies and restaurants to talk openly about race-ethnicity over dinner. The idea is that breaking bread with The Other allows you to get to know someone beyond assumptions or roles.

Valerie Hankins signed up for a 2009 Table Talk to represent how a black woman like herself can be a professional and should not be reduced to some media image.

“I shared that as a person of color I find myself often proving I am intelligent, that I can speak using the King’s English, because there are stereotypes associated with being a black woman and I don’t feel that is fair to any individual, no matter what they are,” she says.

Hankins, staffing specialist at Sterling Computers, got about what she expected at the confab. “I truly felt there were people from diverse walks of life.” She says it was evident certain biases she and other black guests described dealing with were revelatory to some white participants. “I felt as if a lot of the things we discussed that night were things they were unaware of — they were oblivious to it. A lot of times people just don’t know what they don’t know.”

An average of eight to ten participants attend each dinner. There’s a host and a facilitator. A few set questions, such as Why are you here? and Have you experienced a racial incident? act as conversation starters.

Phyllis Brown has become such a Table Talk advocate she now serves on the nonprofit’s board.

“It just turns out each time I’ve attended, hosted or facilitated it was a great experience, it really was,” says Brown, Single Parent Displaced/Homemaker Coordinator at Metropolitan Community College.

She enjoys the liberating forum OTT provides.

“There’s things we may want to ask, things we may want to say, and you can really say it and do it in those settings,” Brown says. “Some of the subject matter is very heated. There’s some defensiveness. There’s yelling sometimes. But if you have a great facilitator who reminds people what we’re there for, you will walk away a changed person, you’ll take something away from that table. And if you don’t, you at least had that opportunity to have that dialogue.”

Yes, tempers can fly, she says, “but at the end of the day whatever that commonality is that brought us all together we end it on that. That’s the beauty to me.”

OTT executive director A’Jamal-Rashad Byndon is convinced the program makes a difference.

“Though it may seem insignificant there’s great things that come from these events. We just have to figure out how to measure that. The end result of this is, How do I build a relationship with the people in the room and how can we maybe continue this? Our tag line is, You come in as strangers, you leave as friends. It doesn’t take a lot but a meal to break the ice.”



A’Jamal-Rashad Byndon



He says Table Talk off-shoot “groups are starting to get together.” Miriam Aviva Datya facilitates one called ALLIES. It grew out of a 2010 Table Talk she facilitated that, she says. “was such a positive experience…we decided we wanted to continue the discussion.” The topic-oriented group meets monthly. Datya says, “Some of our previous topics include white privilege, use of the N-word. We also watched a documentary, The Color of Fear. What makes the group successful is we are willing to challenge each other in a way that’s courteous.”

Phyllis Brown says a dinner she hosted at her home led some women guests to invite her to join their book club.

“I now am a member of a great book club,” she says. “We do outings together. Some friendships have been forged from it. It’s probably a group I would never have connected with on any other level. I’m telling you, it has just been a beautiful experience. There’s some other groups I meet with that are spinoffs from Table Talk.”

These sprouts, say Brown and Byndon, are evidence the spirit of Table Talk can and does find new expressions. “If you come with an open mind it can just lead to some wonderful things — whatever you really want to do with it,” says Brown.

There is a preaching to the choir element to it all, as OTT attracts progressive, educated folks who already embrace racial harmony and support inclusion. Some, like Byndon, an activist and educator, work on the front lines.

Ironically, OTT itself has lagged in diversity says Byndon. “Our goal was to have one third to one half of participants be people of color, and that has not always been the case. That’s one of our biggest shortcomings.” He says African-Americans comprise the vast majority of racial minority participants, followed by Latinos.

Numbers aside, everyone is there to affirm interracial-multicultural unity.

“You don’t have non-choir members coming to these things,” says former OTT board member Frank Partsch. “Now, it would be nice if you could, it would be nice if you could go out and find the worst racist in town and get that person to come to Table Talk.”

Terri McFarland concedes “there is that perception you’re only preaching to the choir,” but adds, “Maybe you’re going to have a conversation you didn’t know you could have or you’re going to learn how to handle a conversation in a more meaningful manner. You maybe now have a different comfort level addressing issues.”

“In some ways,” says Mcfarland, “you might be preaching to the choir, but you never had the chance to find out there’s other people in the same choir, right? You didn’t know there were other choir members from around the city at the same table. Omaha’s perceived as a city of towers, but when you come to the table you find out there are other people that don’t see that the city has to be that way, and that you can make a difference in your neighborhood, at your grocery store, on your block.”

Inspired by a column syndicated journalist Leonard Pitts Jr. wrote about the Dallas Dinner Table diversity program, Table Talk began as an outreach of the Catholic Charities of Omaha social justice committee in 2004. Byndon, then senior director for public policy with Catholic Charities, joined fellow committee members McFarland and Partsch and chair Kathleen Jeffries in forming OTT.

Before going public, Catholic Charities staff and invited guests convened a trial dinner.

“And we had a delightful time,” says McFarland, operations director with Estate Strategies Group. “We had an opportunity to ask some questions and share some ideas that we didn’t feel comfortable in a different setting to discuss.”

That first dinner led to a couple more and before long OTT became a citywide event with ever increasing participation. While the numbers are no longer doubling as they did the first few years, Byndon says a record 500-plus folks met to eat and opine last year. He expects more participants this year.

As many as two-thirds who participate today are repeats, says Byndon, who followed the program when it left Catholic Charities in 2009 to become a freestanding nonprofit housed at the Neighborhood Center, 115 South. 49th Avenue.

What makes OTT a draw, he says, is the non-threatening framework it offers for addressing things that too often remain silent.

“Omaha is a very racially divided, silo community with our north, south, east, west divide. We’ve had a lot of issues and incidents, you name it, and people repeatedly say they want this type of venue or platform to share some of their positive and negative experiences. There aren’t a lot of organizations and entities who bring people from the grassroots and the treetops levels together to break bread and have conversations. As a city we need to do a much better job of bringing communities together”.

Byndon, whose late mother Lerlean N. Johnson was among a group of Omaha parents who brought the law suit forcing the city’s public schools to implement mandatory desegregation, says he was reared to promote integration and racial accord.

“I think Table Talk is a small way for some people to do that — to walk the talk.”

“I think there’s probably an unmeasured but very great hunger in this and every other community to do the right thing, and this is a painless way to do the right thing,” says Patrsch, retired Omaha World-Herald editorial page director.





The by-registration only event allows participants to self-select what level of dialogue they desire — entry, intermediate or advanced.

“The people that come to the table have varying levels of experience and different levels of comfort in talking about racial issues,” says McFarland.

Partsch says, “I think one of the most important things this program does is to find and attract the people who maybe have felt a need to do this kind of thing but didn’t know how to do it, who had never done it, who’d be uncomfortable initiating something on their own. We take them by the hand and lead them to the table.”

He likes that the program meets people where they’re at on the continuum of race talk.

“I think it’s very important Table Talk has expanded its levels to take on deep business, because you don’t want to take an entry level person and give them one exposure and say, OK, go out and thrive. That’s not enough probably in most cases. But if we’re ever going to make a difference it’s going to be to find the people who are on the sidelines now.

“The people who are having these conservations on their own at a sophisticated level aren’t going to go hungry because they don’t have a Table Talk. They may participate at Table Talk, because it’s yet another experience and opportunity for them to have those conversations, But the fact is we offer to certain people an opportunity they don’t think they have otherwise and the broader we can extend that opportunity the more important our work can be.”

McFarland says she long yearned to connect with people of color, who were not where she worked, shopped, prayed or lived. Table Talk gave her that entree.

She says it’s not so vital what level you sign up for as simply being willing to listen and share. “This is not a lecture system,” she says. “The premise of this is to allow everybody that comes to the table to have a voice, and that’s the purpose of the facilitator, to not let one person run the conversation and get on their own platform.”

“You have a facilitator to be sure the train doesn’t come off the tracks,” says Partsch.

If a facilitator does it right, OTT organizers say, participants feel they have permission to say what’s on their mind without censoring themselves.

McFarland says, “It’s really an opportunity for people to tell their personal experience, where they’ve been, where they’ve come from, and then ask other people about their experiences, and not judge them but actually have a dialogue. It’s an opportunity for people to take their coat off, loosen their tie and not be judged and have stones cast at them for asking some of those questions that are taboo. It gives people a chance to have a voice with that stuff and to share it.”

Cathy Nelson recalls everyone at the 2010 Table Talk she attended leading with their weakness, sharing some vulnerable moment from their lives, from the man who served time to the college student who came out to his family as gay. She appreciates how “authentically” people communicated that night.

Partsch says participants like himself are invariably “visibly affected” by the shares.

Organizers say there’s almost always a nervous admission by one or two guests that this the first time they’ve sat down to dinner with a person of another race or visited the home of someone of a different race, Others admit they are visiting a part of town they’ve never been to before. And for still others Table Talk may be the first occasion they’re discussing race outside their own home or inner circle.

Nelson says, “Race was the least of issues for me. Going to dine with strangers was more of an issue. Who wants to go have dinner with people you’re not really comfortable with or you don’t have experience with?” But the Blackburn High School teacher leader appreciates the importance of pushing beyond her comfort zone to learn new realities. “People have got to get out of their neighborhoods and see what this city has to offer. We have to be open to each other.”

In her case, Nelson says she’s “really comfortable” talking about race “because I have high school students who are multi-ethnic and they are happy to bring up issues of race and culture. They want to talk about them, they want to share their opinions, and they want to explore those things.”

So for Nelson Table Talk is an extension of her classroom. “For me, part of an education and part of our role in society is to try and be as least judgmental as possible and open to others’ experiences. I think when we judge we start to deny other people’s feelings. I think it’s important to see where the open wounds in our community are, and even if they make us feel a little skittish to really listen to what other people are saying.”

McFarland says OTT has a way of teaching tolerance. As a result, she says, “My world has way opened up.” Partsch says, “If it has changed me it has made me a lot more optimistic about the community and its future seeing the amount of goodwill that’s out there.”

Byndon says, “One of the things I’ve learned from doing Table Talk is to have patience. Back in the day, if you didn’t agree with me you weren’t right. But I’ve learned you can be from the same racial group or a different racial group and have a different lived experience, and we can validate that. If we come with that notion that there’s going to be different perspectives and different world views then we can move forward.”

OTT also allows Byndon and others to live out a calling to bridge the racial divide.

“I want to be able to say during my time, on my watch, I gave as much as I could to bring those worlds together,” says Byndon. “I think it’s a chance for people to kind of live out their mission. If we believe in equality and fairness and justice, we believe in opportunities for all, and part of that is being able to be in proximity to people who may differ from you.”

For online registration, visit For a schedule of OTT panel discussions, open dialogues and other events, call 402-561-7594 or email

Look for My Reader ( Story on Alexander Payne’s ‘The Descendants’ coming soon to this blog

September 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Check back mid-week for my inteview with Alexander Payne about his new film ‘The Descendants‘ and the warm reception it’s getting




As some of you may know by now, I’ve been covering Alexander Payne for 15 years, completing dozens of interviews with him over that time and being accorded unprecedented access to his creative process. Keep that in mind as news continues to break about his new film because you will be able to find things here and at that you won’t be able to find anywhere else.

This week I will be posting my Reader ( story about Alexander Payne’s new film, The Descendants, starring George Clooney. The film is getting strong reviews after a Telluride sneak peak and a Toronto world premiere, and Payne talks about the film and its warm reception in my piece, coming soon to this blog.  In the coming weeks and months they’ll be much more about The Descendants and about Payne’s next planned film after this, which he’ll be launching relatively early in 2012.

A Decent House for Everyone: Jesuit Brother Mike Wilmot builds affordable homes for the working poor through Gesu Housing

September 9, 2011 6 comments



Brother Mike Wilmot‘s reputation as a tough guy precedes him, but like most tough guys he’s a pretty soft touch underneath the gruff exterior.

A Decent House for Everyone: Jesuit Brother Mike Wilmot builds affordable homes for the working poor through Gesu Housing

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (


Early in his life as a brother in the Society of Jesus, his superiors asked Mike Willmot what kind of work he wanted to do. The former Marquette (Milwaukee, Wis.) University High School three-sport athlete said he wanted to coach. Perhaps as a lesson in obedience or humility, the Jesuits instead had him learn cabinet making and welding.

It was hard to see the practicality of it. But the rough-hewn Wilmot eventually became a teacher, coaching basketball and football and serving as dean of students at Omaha Creighton Prep. “Looking back on it I’m glad that happened because I’ve used in my coaching and in my teaching those construction skills for many projects, and I’m still using them,” he says. “I’m still building and welding.”

Among other things, he integrates railroad spikes and other found metal in creating welded sculptures. A large cross he made adorns the grounds at St. James Catholic Church. His home-building mission came into focus when, during a mid-1990s sabbatical serving Sudanese refugees in Northern Uganda, he helped construct a school and thus fulfilled a basic tenet of his Jesuit calling.

“In anything that any of us do we want to make the world a better place to live in by spreading the kingdom of God and bringing that to all people, and housing-shelter is one of the ways you can do that,” he says.

His small Gesu Housing Inc. nonprofit is the latest manifestation of putting his building know-how to work in service of his faith. Acting as a developer, Gesu (Italian for Jesus) builds affordable, energy efficient homes for the working poor in north Omaha. Now in his 70s, Wilmot walks with a hitch in his step after decades of jogging wore out his hips and necessitated replacement surgeries.

“The mission of Gesu housing is to put people into houses and to make the neighborhoods better neighborhoods,” says Wilmot.

Ten completed Gesu homes, all but one occupied, stand out from older homes on a two-block stretch of Burdette Street from 43rd to 42nd. He expects to start four new houses this fall. He says the well-built homes, which feature extra thick walls and insulation, get lots of play from interested buyers. Gesu has until now built concrete homes, but is embarking on wood frame construction to see which offers the most cost and energy efficiency.

Unlike many who serve social justice needs in north Omaha but live elsewhere, Wilmot lives in the Clifton Hills neighborhood where he works. He and four Jesuits reside at Mulumba House, a Creighton University satellite Jesuit community with a dedicated inner city presence.

“We felt this was the place we wanted to live,” says Wilmot. “We thought it would be a good idea to live with the people that we’re working for.”

Gesu partially funds its projects through the federal Housing and Urban Development monies through the Omaha City Planning Department. The three-bedroom homes cost $180,000 to construct and sell at well-below market rates to qualified first-time home buyers through Omaha100, a consortium of public-private partnerships dedicated to making home ownership possible for families with low to moderate income.

When Eva Powell and her three foster children took possession of their Gesu home August 20 it marked the gratifying end to a two-year process of searching and applying for a home.

“Oh, it was awesome. It was emotional,” says Powell, who works at International Gamco Inc. “It’s my own. It’s my house.”

She enjoys the two-car attached garage and a wrap-around porch and plentiful closet space among other features. She plans turning the unfinished basement into a rec room. Powell praises the way she was treated in the home qualification process, says of Omaha100 loan processor Carlene Lewis: “When I was getting frustrated she was always there to lift my spirits up and keep me going. She just really reassured me I would have a house. Without her I don’t know if I’d have hung in there this long.” The support Gesu provided also impressed her. “Once Brother Wilmot knew I was serious about wanting the corner lot, he told me, ‘Well, that’s your lot —  just hang in there.’ He was great, too.”

Buyers like Powell receive a $60,000 subsidy loan that comes off the cost of the home, keeping fixed monthly payments at about $600.

Money from HUD and buyers doesn’t cover everything. For each home Gesu builds, Wilmot must raise $40,000 to cover the difference. Asking for money isn’t his favorite chore, but it is vital it Gesu is to continue its work.

“We couldn’t survive without it. It’s hard work but it’s very interesting and you meet a lot of really good people,” he says. “Many things in this country are completed because of fund raising — like education. There’s a gap between what it costs and what people pay for it, so you’ve got to raise the gap, and the same here ….”

He recently secured $250,000 in matching grant money to allow Gesu to finish its most recent crop of homes.

To find those stop-gap dollars and keep construction costs low, Wilmot enlists support from of his extended Prep family. For example, Dan Hall of Hallmarq Homes, the general contractor for Gesu projects, played ball for Wilmot at Prep. After one meeting with his old coach, Hall says, “I bought in. It’s a great thing we’re doing down here  — we’re changing the neighborhood one house at a time. I love doing it.”

Replacing vacant lots with new homes encourages existing homeowners to spruce up their own places. “There are other houses on this block since we started doing this that have been rehabbed, which is a good idea. Other people are fixing up their houses,” Wilmot says.

Hall says residents get involved in the revitalization, even going out of their way to protect new construction sites. “Everybody seems to know me and my truck now because I’ve been down here hundreds of times,” he says. “And there are some folks that watch houses for me. It goes a long way, you know, in establishing a relationship. You get some security out of it when you get people involved. If somebody isn’t supposed to be here they’ll run them off or they’ll call me.”

Whether it’s their place or someone else’s, he says, people “just want a nice house.” And a nice neighborhood.

Wilmot formed Gesu nearly a decade ago after working on  a series of construction projects. They included additions to the then-Jesuit Middle School, now Jesuit Academy, at 2311 North 22nd Street, and to the Mulumba House at 4308 Grant. He was the school’s first assistant principal. But when he got involved building things using a fast, cost effective poured concrete process, he found inspiration for his new path.

“I worked closely with a friend of mine who’s another Prep alum, Phil McKeone of  Daedalus Construction, and I said, ‘Phil, we’ve got to do something with this technology to build some houses, and he was dumb enough to go for it.”

Sister Marilyn Ross, director of Holy Name Housing Corp., urged him to start the home construction nonprofit. He did, and focused on the neighborhood where he lives. Gesu relies on donated and discounted labor and in-kind services.

Much of north central and northeast Omaha have a glut of vacant lots, condemned homes and unkempt rental properties that deflate property values of the area’s nice homes and solid neighborhoods. He says he once counted at least 25 vacant lots in the Clifton Hills section. With for-profit developers ignoring the district, nonprofits like Gesu and Holy Name fill the void for new home construction.

“I do know there’s not necessarily a lot of people breaking their necks to build houses down here,” says Wilmot. “I’m sure economics comes into it. All over this country I think we have to rebuild our cities from the inside out. We can’t just keep going out to 200th and plowing ground. There’s gotta be renewal and rebuilding.”

The inner city provides an attractive landscape for first-time home buyers with its affordable housing and proximity to Omaha’s cultural hub, parks and commercial corridors. He views the racially-ethnically diverse Clifton Hills community as a kind of test case for what urban living should be.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t want to move out to west Omaha,” he says. “They want to live close to downtown. There’s a lot of good neighborhoods here. We’re not just helping people get into houses but improving neighborhoods. It’s about people living together. The best neighborhoods are diverse — economically, culturally, ethnically. It’s whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians living together.”

Gesu uses lots where homes previously stood, filling vacant properties with single-family homes.

“We work with the city very closely,” says Wilmot. “They identify lots and they do some of the site work and stuff like that and then they give it to us.”

The land Gesu uses isn’t always ideal. Some lots are rough and hilly; others choked by overgrowth and refuse. He points to a lot just west of a newly completed Gesu house and says, “There was a house here that was torn down and instead of throwing the debris away they threw it in a hole and covered it up. Now we have to get rid of that junk and take down a lot of this overgrowth.”

“We have to deal with the land the way we get it, and it costs money to do all the cleanup and hauling.” And headaches come with construction. “It rains when you don’t want it to rain, it doesn’t rain when you want it to rain, all that stuff,” he says. “You’re at the mercy of the weather.”

Eventually, the hassles are worth it.

“When you get done closing that house and you tell someone like Eva (Powell), ‘Congratulations, you’re a homeowner,’ that’s a real key time, and a joyous time.”

With more resources, Gesu could expand its reach. “Right now this is the area we’re working in but we’re not locked in here,” he says. “But we are locked into north Omaha.”

Wilmot is by all accounts a mellower man than the owly disciplinarian who patrolled the sidelines and hallways at Prep, and who continues coaching part-time at Omaha Roncalli.

“Coaching is teaching,” he says.

He doesn’t do as much hands-on construction work as he did at the start, but he’s still every bit as committed to Gesu’ social justice mission.

“Everybody should have a decent place to live, but it’s not the case, at least for a lot of people it isn’t. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Visit or call 402-991-0138

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