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From the Archives: About Payne – Alexander Payne on “About Schmidt,” Jack Nicholson and the comedy of deep focus

December 20, 2011 9 comments

 

 

From the Archives:

About Payne – Alexander Payne on “About Schmidt,” Jack Nicholson and the comedy of deep focus 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Bolstered by rousing receptions at prestigious film festivals, critical kudos from leading reviewers, widespread predictions of Oscar nods and loads of studio marketing behind it, the momentum attending About Schmidt surpasses anything Alexander Payne saw for his previous features’ openings.

Where Citizen Ruth and Election were accorded the kind of lukewarm studio backing (from Miramax and Paramount/MTV Films, respectively) that idiosyncratic movies get when “the suits” don’t fully endorse or understand them, Schmidt is getting the type of red carpet treatment from New Line Cinema execs that signals they see a potential winner, read — moneymaker, here. And why not?

The film, making its Nebraska premiere December 10 at the new Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center (formerly the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater) in downtown Lincoln, appears to have everything going for it heading into Hollywood’s big ticket winter season, when prestige pictures are positioned at the cineplex for box-office leverage and Academy consideration.

The timing of Schmidt’s release seems right. There’s the snob appeal that comes from boffo Cannes and New York Film Festival screenings of the film this past spring and summer. There’s the raves it received from Stephen Holden in the New York Times, Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times and a slew of other name critics for major media outlets. There’s also serious Oscar talk for Jack Nicholson’s celebrated turn as dour Omaha Everyman Warren Schmidt and for Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor’s sardonic take on middle American mores.

Then there’s the priceless mojo Nicholson’s mystique brings to the Nebraska-made project.

Of course, none of this guarantees Schmidt will do any business, especially in light of the fact Payne’s films have so far fared better in home-market release, where they have time to be discovered and appreciated, than in theaters. That his films appeal to a discriminating audience is logical given his wry, sagacious work, which is really in the realm of social commentary.

Film critic David Denby called Payne and Taylor “perhaps the only true social satirists now working in American movies.” But satire can be a hard pill for filmgoers to swallow. They may feel the sting hits too close to home or they may prefer something lighter to go with their concessions.

According to Dan Ladely, director of the Ross Media Arts Center, Schmidt is “a little bit of a departure from Alexander’s two previous films, which were known for their kind of biting satire. This film is a little bit more nostalgic.” While perhaps gentler, it is, like the others, a painfully honest and ironic examination of how good people lose their way and court despair even amidst the so-called Good Life.

In today’s spoon-fed movie culture, bleak is a hard sell unless accompanied by big action set pieces, and the only thing passing for action in Schmidt is Nicholson’s comic struggle atop a water bed. That scene closes a sequence in which the tight-assed, buttoned-down Schmidt is disgusted by the outrageous new family he  inherits via his daughter’s impending wedding.

The son-in-law’s mother, Roberta, is, as deliciously played by Kathy Bates, a brazen woman whom, Payne said, “is the type of person that will say anything to anyone.” At one point she tries seducing Schmidt in a hot tub by “telling him about how sexual she is and how she had her first orgasm in ballet class at age six,” said Payne, delighted with offending every propriety Schmidt holds dear. “Oh, it’s so fun to torture your characters.”

In this scene, as in much of the film, Nicholson’s performance rests more on his facial-physical reactions than words. Indeed, instead of explosions, verbal or otherwise, moviegoers get the implosion that Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt, a retired and widowed Woodmen of the World Life Insurance actuarial, undergoes.

Severed from the twin tethers of job and wife that defined him and held his orderly life together, he begins questioning everything about his existence, including the choices he made. He lets himself go.

The state of his disillusion is captured in the film’s ad campaign in which Schmidt appears as a shell-shocked, disheveled man shadowed by a dark cloud overhead in an otherwise clear blue sky.

In the throes of this mid-life crisis, he sets off, in a huge, unwieldy motor home that is an apt expression of his desperate inadequacy, on an existential road trip across Nebraska. His destination is Denver, where he heads ostensibly to heal his wounded relationship with his daughter and to save her, as he sees it, from the mistake she is about to make in marrying a frivolous man. Along the way, he conveys his troubles to an odd assortment of people he turns to or rails against in a kind of unfolding nervous breakdown. Unable to express his real feelings to those closest to him, he instead pours out his soul, in writing (and in voice-over), to an African orphan he sponsors, Ndugu, who can’t possibly understand his dilemma.

Regarding Nicholson’s portrayal of a man in crisis, Dan Ladely calls it “probably one of the most subdued performances he’s ever given and maybe one of his best. I’d be really surprised if he doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar. It’s a role where he really stretched himself, and I think probably a lot of the credit for that could be given to Alexander, because Alexander is a director who works well with actors.  He gets a lot out of them.”

Directing Nicholson allowed Payne to work with an actor he greatly admires and solidified his own status as a sought-after filmmaker. He found Nicholson to be a consummate professional and supreme artist.

“Nicholson does a lot of work on his character before shooting. Now, a lot of actors do that, but he REALLY does it. To the point where, as he describes it, he’s so in character and so relaxed that if he’s in the middle of a take and one of the movie lights falls or a train goes through or anything, he’ll react to it in character. He won’t break.” Payne said Nicholson doesn’t like a lot of rehearsal “because he believes in cinema as the meeting of the spontaneous and the moment. His attitude is, ‘What if something good happens and the camera wasn’t on?’”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

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.

Kathy Bates in About Schmidt

Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt

Alexander Payne
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UNO Afghanistan Teacher Education Project trains women educators from the embattled nation

December 20, 2011 2 comments

The role the U.S. has played in Afghanistan and with visiting Afghans in this country is fraught with controversy.  The same holds true for what the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies has done and continues doing in terms of training and immersion opportunities offered to Afghan students and professionals who come here to participate in various programs. The controversy stems from the complex problems facing Afghanistan, economically, politically, culturally, and the strategic motivations by Americans to aid, occupy, and control that country. Whether you see controversy or not depends on your point of view.  Leaving politics and motivations aside, UNO’s programs have provided a link or bridge unlike few others in giving Afghans some of the tools they need to rebuild and restore their embattled and ravaged nation. This story from several years ago profiles a project that saw scores of Afghan women educators come here to further their professional development.  The story appeared in truncated form in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and here I’m able to present it in its entirety.  This blog contains other stories I’ve written about UNO’s deep ties to Afghanistan.

UNO Afghanistan Teacher Education Project trains women educators from the embattled nation 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The latest cadre of teachers in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Afghanistan Teacher Education Project return home this weekend after a month of training and cultural exchange Nebraska. This is the third group from Afghanistan to come here in the last year-and-a-half. A new group is scheduled to arrive in the fall. The program, supported by a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs, is part of the UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies’ longtime efforts at repairing the war-ravaged Asian nation’s fractured education system.

Participants, all women, attend computer and intensive English language classes on the UNO campus and observe master teachers at two Omaha elementary schools. The women also visit schools and various attractions statewide, including the program’s satellite communities-schools in Oakland and Scottsbluff, Neb.

Once back in their homeland, the teachers share the skills and methodologies they acquired in the program with their peers. Each graduate is charged with training 10 colleagues from their school. That means the 37 graduates to date will soon have impacted some 370 teachers. Even more are reached via workshops and seminars the graduates present in conjunction with Ministry of Education officials. The women who completed the most training here were prepped for their American trip by their predecessors in the program. This trickle-down approach broadens the program’s reach, thus making a dent in the nation’s extreme teacher shortage.

The first group to come, in 2002, was an older, more tradition-bound bunch. The second, in 2003, were younger and more Westernized as would be expected from ESL teachers. This last cohort — all elementary school teachers — was further yet removed from the Taliban’s reach. Women are the focus of the program because their education was interrupted by prolonged fighting and then banned outright by the now deposed-Taliban. The radical fundamentalists made it a crime, punishable by beatings or reprisals, for females to teach and attend school. Some visiting teachers defied the ban and taught secretly under the repressive regime.

Aabidah, a teacher at Nazo Anaa Middle School in Kabul, is one of 12 women who attended the UNO program in April and May. She risked everything to practice her profession against Taliban edicts. “Yes, it was dangerous. I had six girls in my home. Daughters of friends and neighbors. It was done very secretly,” she said. Under the guise of teaching sewing, she instructed girls in Dari, Pashto and other subjects.

The teachers, ranging in age, experience and sophistication, have made an enduring impression on everyone they’ve met, including their host families and instructors. Robin Martens, who along with her husband, Gene, hosted Aabidah and another Afghan teacher, Lailumaa Popal, at their northwest Omaha home, is impressed with Aabidah’s fearlessness. “She seems to be a brave person. She has a strong personality and she kind of forges ahead even when she’s not sure about things. I like that about her,” Martens said. Regarding the quieter Lailumaa, a teacher at Lycee Zarghoonah in Qandahar, Martens observed, “She’s very caring and I think she must be a very good teacher because whenever I mispronounce a word in Dari, I laugh it off, but she insists I say it correctly.”

Barbara Davis, an Omaha Public Schools reading specialist, has hosted Afghan women in her Benson home. For Davis, they define what it is to be “courageous” under crisis. “If I were in the same situation I don’t know if I could have taught school in my home with the threat of my life. I really don’t know.”

In the capital city of Kabul, where most early training participants came from, women enjoy relative freedom to work and teach and go out on the streets sans chadri (or burqa), the traditional full-body veil. But even Kabul was a harsh place in the grip of the Taliban. “The Taliban was very bad. Very dangerous,” Aabidah said. “When they were in Kabul we don’t have jobs. We stay at home. We wear chadri. No, I don’t like chadri. It was very hot. I like the freedom. Now, we are free and happy. I like all of this in my country.” Things haven’t changed much in more provincial areas, where many recent participants reside and work. Women there must proceed with greater caution. “In Kabul, it’s OK. Outside Kabul, it’s bad,” Aabidah said referring to the current climate for women in Afghanistan.

Afghan teachers training at UNO met with First Lady Laura Bush

 

 

Lailumaa fled with members of her family to Pakistan during the struggle for power in Afghanistan that erupted in civil war in the 1990s. Coming from a family of educators that regards teaching as a higher calling, Lailumaa said she greatly missed her students and her craft. After combined U.S.-Afghan forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, she returned to her homeland to resume teaching.

In the wake of the Taliban’s fall, Lailumaa, Aabidah and other women educators teach openly again. It’s the one thing they can do to restore their country. Aabidah said she teaches because “I love my children, my students, my people. I want a good future for them.” Baiza, a 2002 program grad who taught geography-history in a Mazar Sharif school, said then, “Students are part of my life.”

Sandra Squires, a UNO professor of speech-language-communication disorders, feels a kinship with her Afghan counterparts: “I realize that except for all the trappings, we’re all teachers,” she said. “We’re all very much alike. We love kids and we want to be doing something that can better the world, and that’s universal.” Aabidah feels the same. “Yes, I feel the teachers here are like my sisters,” she said.

In 2002, Baiza described the responsibility she and her fellow teachers feel to transform education at home with the “new concepts and skills” they learn here.

The Afghans have been motivated to be change agents, according to Anne Ludwig, assistant director of the ILUNA, the intensive language program at UNO. “What I see is women who are prepared, enthusiastic and eager to go home and make a difference in their lives and in the lives of other women,” Ludwig said. “I think they learn what they come to learn. One of them said what she would take back more than anything else was the idea that in the American classroom we want the students to feel good and positive, whereas back home the teacher is the autocrat and students are made to feel inferior. She liked the idea of opening up the classroom to where students feel safe, free to communicate and achieve.”

Practicums presented by Howard Faber, an Omaha Dodge Elementary 6th grade teacher fluent in Farsi, demonstrate good teaching practices the Afghans can implement in their own classrooms. He introduced the most recent group to Teacher Expectation Student Achievement or TESA, a set of methods promoting fairness and equality in learning, an issue of great import in Afghanistan, where ethnic-religious differences run deep. As former refugees resettle the country, he said, classrooms are filling with students of widely varying backgrounds and ages.

Faber feels the women symbolize their country’s hoped-for healing. “They’re from different places and different ethnic groups, and I think it’s very positive you have these people of varied cultural backgrounds working together on this common project. I think it bodes well for what might happen in Afghanistan, which now is a little bit like the United States was after the Civil War. You have deep feelings that are going to die slowly. Part of the healing there has to be that these cultural groups that fought so long work together.”

He said TESA alerts teachers to biases they harbor and offers strategies for giving “all children an equal opportunity to participate and to learn and to feel valued and welcomed. I show them what I do in my own classroom. They’re very practical things you don’t need a computer to do.” Later, he and the women discuss what transpired. “They ask me things…they really immerse themselves in the classroom. They even teach children a bit of their language. The kids are especially curious about them writing from right to left. It’s connected well with our studies.”

For Afghan teachers, seeing the bounty of American schools is both disheartening and inspiring. Baiza said, “Everywhere we went we saw the facilities, the machines, the technology, and I felt a kind of dismay that we are deprived of them. But I know these things are not dropped from the sky. There’s a lot of research, thinking and hard work that have gone into it…and this gave me a kind of hope that if our people work as hard, someday they will have these things, too.” Recent teacher participants were struck, too, by the disparity. “I’m very sad for the people of Afghanistan because our country’s very poor,” said Lailumaa. “I am upset we don’t have computers, books, notebooks, tables, chairs. We have blackboard and chalk,” said Aabidah. “We want computers. We need schools. That’s our hope.” Her students are “happy to learn” and “very intelligent,” but lack so much.

UNO’s Sandra Squires said the women’s devotion to teaching in the absence of basics makes her feel “very humbled. They’re doing things with absolutely nothing. I mean, they have to solve problems in ways I never had to dream about.” For their return trip, UNO gives each visiting teacher a laptop computer and a backpack filled with school supplies. But as UNO professor of education Carol Lloyd noted, “It still is barely a ripple in this ocean of need.”

Education is a mixed bag in Afghanistan. When schools reopened to great fanfare in 2002, far more students than expected flooded classrooms, which then, like now, were makeshift spaces amid rubble or cramped quarters. That surge has never let up as more refugees return home from camps in Iran and Pakistan. Overcrowded conditions and high student-teacher ratios continue to be a problem. Damaged schools are being rebuilt and new ones going up, but demand for classrooms far exceeds supply. For example, Aabidah’s school has 16 classrooms for its 3,000-plus students. Already scarce resources are siphoned off or entangled in red-tape.

“The schools are running by the enthusiasm of the parents and the commitment of the teachers, but there isn’t much government or international support for education,” said Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies. “Schools don’t get enough funds and when they do get funds, a project that is started then stops because the funds dry up or are misused.”

Tom Gouttierre, director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies, said education is hindered by the “piecemeal application” the U.S. is taking to that nation’s recovery. “We’re trying to do Afghanistan on the cheap, because we’re focusing so many of our dollars on Iraq. So, we wind up bringing in a lot of other participants in a kind of donor conference approach to reconstruction and development. It leaves Kabul overrun by all kinds of different aid organizations, but with no coordination and no real firm Marshall Plan approach. It’s very hard for the Ministry of Education to coordinate it into one central educational plan for the country. It’s frustrating.”

Of all the gaps and shortages, the most acute is women teachers in such outlying provinces as Herat, where the reach of president Hamid Karzai is weak and the pull of old, oppressive cultural norms is strong. Despite the suppression of the Taliban regime and the al-Qaida terror base, the ethnically and religiously diverse nation is still seething with tensions, not the least of which is the place of women in Afghan society. Tribal rulers enforce restrictive measures.

“There is a great need for women teachers in the provinces and the women want to go, but they cannot. First, their families will not let them go and, second, the families themselves will not go because warlords and local commandos control the areas. People are scared. Also, parents are hesitant to let their girls go to school because the extremism and fanaticism in these regions is threatening,” Yaseer said.

Such fears are part of larger safety issues that find land mines littering roads and fields and Taliban loyalists and rebels waging violence. “There are some obstacles on the way to progress and security is number one,” Yaseer said. Aabidah agrees, saying that even above resources, “We want security. That’s our big problem.”

The challenge, too, is training enough teachers to educate a rising student enrollment. “The paradox is there hasn’t been any real formal education for teacher trainers for a long time and yet there are more kids in school now than ever before, and so that means the gap between the training needed and the numbers of students in classes is great,” Gouttierre said. “Among Afghans there’s a realization of something having been lost for generations and a determination not to let it get away from them again.”

Gouttierre said the fact this most recent crop of visiting Afghan teachers came from underrepresented areas, reflects UNO’s attempts to extend teacher training “in places where we haven’t been.” Part of that training is being undertaken by past graduates of UNO’s Afghan Teacher Training Project in concert with the center’s on-site master teacher trainers. The project is just the most visible branch of a much larger UNO effort. For years, its center has been: holding workshops and conferences for Afghan professionals and leaders involved in its various reconstruction efforts; training more than 3,000 Afghan teachers in workshops staffed by teacher trainers in Kabul and Peshawar, Pakistan; and writing textbooks and printing and distributing them by the millions.

These far away efforts are personified by the visiting Afghan teachers, who represent the face and future of education in their country. The diverse women all share a passion for their people and for teaching. Although their stays here are relatively brief, their impact is great. After hosting two older Afghan women who called her “our daughter,” Charity Stahl said, “I will never be the same.” Stahl, assistant director of the Afghan Teacher Education Project, later visited the women in their homeland while volunteering for an NGO. Of their emotional reunion, she said, “I still can’t believe it.”

For Barbara Davis, hosting is a cultural awakening in which her guests call her “mother,” teach her to make Afghan meals or get her to perform native folk dances. Despite a language barrier, she felt the women revealed their true selves behind the veil. “We really got to know each other,” she said. “We talked just like sisters. These are some of the warmest, dearest women I’ve ever met.”

The experience is equally meaningful to the Afghans. Aabidah called the training program “very interesting and very good” and described America as “not like in the movies. The people are very kind and hospitable. When I go back to Afghanistan, I’ll miss our dear host family and our American friends. They’re like my family in Afghanistan.” Coming to America, she said, “is like a dream for me.”

Her hosts, the Martens, will cherish many things. The pleasure Aabidah and Lailumaa took in cooking native dishes for them or in wiling away nights sitting around and talking, Or, what sharp bargain shoppers the women proved to be. Or, how thrilled they were to drive, for the first time, as the couple watched nervously on. “They’re people just like us. They want the same things we do. For themselves. For their families. We have so much to share with each other,” said Gene Martens.

Young Latina’s unbridled energy making a difference in her community

December 20, 2011 Leave a comment

When I profiled Anadelia Lamas seven years ago I admit I was smitten with her.  Hard not to be.  She’s engaging, self-effacing, talented, and attractive without trying to be.  The profile appeared not too long into her tenure as South Omaha Weed and Seed Coordinator.  She’s since married, hence her name now being Anadelia Lamas Morgan, and she’s moved to a new job – as development director and outreach coordinator at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.  She’s all about family and community and for a still young woman she’s made and continues making a tremendous difference in the South Omaha Latino barrio that is her life.  She’s one of those human dynamos who’s seemingly always in motion, involved here, there, everywhere, getting things done and making things happen.

 

Young Latina’s unbridled energy making a difference in her community

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Unbridled energy. That’s what South Omaha Weed and Seed Coordinator Anadelia Lamas, a stunning, vivacious, bilingual Latina with an avowed goal of being “a key player” in the poor, mostly Spanish-speaking community she serves, radiates. From the salsa lilt in her voice to the dramatic ways she screws up her face to the animated gestures she uses to make a point, she practically pulsates with a palpable enthusiasm and vitality. She’s a blur of emotion, movement, expression.

For Lamas, realizing her federal program’s mandate of making at-risk urban neighborhoods like hers safer and stronger means attending to “the simple things.” That finds her turning on the charm at neighborhood association gatherings and Cinco De Mayo festivities in her mission to get residents on board with Weed and Seed enrichment initiatives. Those initiatives include organizing clean-up efforts and neighborhood watch groups, getting people to access health-human service agencies, delivering intervention-prevention messages and working with police and residents to weed-out chronic problems like gang graffiti and vehicular speeding.
She’s working with the police’s gang unit and with neighborhood associations to start-up a graffiti task-force.

More beat patrols have come to the barrio to improve police-community relations. Using her fluency in Spanish and her immersion in Latino culture, she tries building rapport and trust with newcomers leery of anything smacking of government.

“It’s just really important to have a common ground and familiarity with people. It makes them feel comfortable that I not only speak Spanish, but share a love for the culture. I love the music. I love the colors. I love the people. I don’t really like to send out mailers. I’d rather walk around and talk to people at events or in their own homes. Besides, people are kind of familiar with my face,” she says, referring to her singing as a member of the now disbanded Las Palomas mariachi band and as an actress with the Teatro Mestizo community theater troupe. Over the summer, she’s been laying down tracks on her first solo CD. “I get a lot of ‘Aren’t you that girl?” ‘Yeah,’ I tell them, ‘but I’m not doing that right now,’” she says, laughing freely, her lush hair tumbling fetchingly over her brow.

 

 

 

Named to her Weed and Seed post in February 2003, Lamas, 25, feels she’s landed in the right spot. “I wanted this position because it just seemed to fit me…I’m a nurturing person. I love to help people and I love to make a difference. Sometimes, a little too much. I get a little too involved with other people’s problems. I’m a very interactive, social person and I just feed from that energy. When I have an idea and it goes through, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ I was afraid at first, but it’s all about facing the challenges and being somewhat fearless,” she says, looking determined.

Not one to back away from challenges, Lamas, who, minus any preparation, completed the 2002 Chicago Marathon in 4 1/2 hours, understands Weed and Seed cannot work overnight miracles. “It’s a slow process. It’s focusing on endurance. I feel like I already have made a difference in making sure people know about the program.” She organized a July 31 Night Light event — an annual block party dedicated to uniting the community against violence — that drew some 600 people, many of whom she’d handed fliers during her outreach canvassing. “It’s more impactful when you personally invite people,” she says. What will make or break the program, she adds, is how much people buy into its neighborhood restoration concept. “They’re the key to having a greater community. It’s getting them to care and want to make a difference.” Towards that end, she’s planning events for youths and adults that emphasize community and that celebrate the area’s cultural diversity, including a growing Sudanese population.

When Lamas got the job, eyebrows were raised about her relative youth. “I don’t find it’s hindered me. People have been very open to me in any type of situation. I think maybe an advantage I have is people don’t find me intimidating. I’m a down-to-earth person. And I do have a lot of energy and ideas.” Then there’s her caring, which transcends age. She’s still haunted by a voice mail plea for help from a woman in marital strife. “She said, ‘I heard you solve problems,’ but she didn’t leave a number or a name. I panicked because I couldn’t do anything about it. I left that message there for about a month. It’s hard for me to see somebody in trouble and not do something about it. Little by little, I’m making the connections so that if I don’t know how to help you, I’m going to find somebody that can,” vows Lamas, seemingly poised to run after her next reclamation project. Catch her if you can.

 

Her energy today is focused on Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Omaha

Pot Liquor Love: Quirky, cozy Shirley’s Diner does comfort food right and you might just run into rising filmmaker Nik Fackler (“Lovely, Still”), whose family wwns-operates the joint

December 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Thanks to the Food Network’s crazy popular Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives the nation’s funky good eats joints are getting their due.  The show made a pit stop in Omaha a few years ago and of the five spots they featured here, honestly only one, maybe two can boast the quality product that’s up to host Guy Fieri‘s standards.  The subject of this story, Shirley’s Diner, was not among the Omaha (technically, Millard) eateries profiled, but it should have been.  Its classic diner fare is done right, with lots of love.  The place is quaint.  Its decor, eclectic.  And then there’s the proprietors, the Facklers, a family of creatives with a charming eccentric streak.  The husband-wife team of Doug and Denise Fackler are an unrepetenant Flower Power-era couple who ooze charm and friendliness. Their son Ben runs the kitchen and he shows a real talent and twist on diner favorites.  Then there’s the joint’s brush with Hollywood fame courtesy Ben’s brother, Nik Fackler, a rising filmmaker whose Lovely, Still was inspired in part by the oldster regulars there.  The film’s stars, Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, ate there.  Nik, who until quite recently still helped out at the diner, often drops by when he’s in town.  Nik and his film are the subjects of several stories on this blog.

 

 

Denise Fackler

 

 

Pot Liquor Love: Quirky, cozy Shirley’s Diner does comfort food right and you might just run into rising filmmaker Nik Fackler (“Lovely, Still”), whose family wwns-operates the joint

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Quirky, cozy Shirley’s Diner trades on the charm of its throwback, wood-paneled decor, old style home cooking and personal touch for satisfying breakfast-lunch experiences. The nouvelle-hippie couple, Denise and Doug Fackler, that’s owned the popular Millard spot for 17 years put in long hours to ensure high quality. They hand cut and tenderize filets for Shirley’s signature pork tenderloin and chicken fried steak. Along with head chef and oldest son, Ben Fackler, it’s a tight, family-run place that does comfort food right. The food’s everything-made-from-scratch, fresh-not-frozen goodness can’t be faked or fudged.

Expect generous portions of such lunchtime favorites as pork tenderloin and chicken fried steak, hot beef/turkey, fried chicken, grilled pork chops and spaghetti and meatballs. There are several burgers, grilled chicken and staple sandwiches, from Philly steak to a Reuben and its sister Rachel (turkey in place of corned beef) to a cheese frenchy. Appetizers, soups and salads fill out the lunch menu. Breakfast features standard egg, meat, biscuit and hash brown combos along with omelets, Eggs Benedict, a variation called Canadian Sunrise, a croissant or English muffin sandwich and buttermilk pancakes. Try some cream sausage gravy with your biscuits and browns. Daily breakfast and lunch specials abound.

Desserts include deep fried Twinkies and Oreos and root beer floats.

Authentic American food at moderate prices explains why lines sometimes form outside. It’s worth the drive to find this gem tucked away in the Millard Plaza strip mall. Urban explorers would do well to seek it out during what the owners say has been a slump they attribute to high gas prices, a spate of competing restaurants opened nearby and an aging customer base.

Doug Fackler is a rocker from way back

 

 

Once word extends beyond Millard and gas prices ease Shirley’s may again be the “gold mine” Denise said it used to be. The draws will still be the classic American diner fare, the staff’s warm hospitality and the fun ‘50s-era, memorabilia-rich interior, but also the cafe’s association with a rising star. You see, Doug and Denise’s youngest son is wunderkind filmmaker Nik Fackler, the 23-year-old Millard West grad who just wrapped shooting his first feature, Lovely, Still, in Omaha.

That Fackler directed Oscar-winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn in a picture with sleeper hit written all over it may just send curiosity-seekers to his family’s diner. Throw in the fact the character Fackler based Landau’s character of Robert Malone on is a regular there, and you have all the makings for a genuine tourist stop. Then there’s the whole fame factor derived from the stars having visited Shirley’s, where Landau actually met the man he plays.

There’s more. Nik practically grew up in the diner and as recently as last summer worked there to earn some scratch. Should Lovely nab Oscar nominations, perhaps for its legendary stars or Fackler’s original screenplay or direction, then Shirley’s will be an iconic shrine. It already is with its theme booths devoted to James Dean, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Denise’s own Aunt Betty, a 1951 Miss Omaha beauty pageant winner and World War II-era pinup girl.

Nik Fackler, ©photo by Bill Sitzmann of Minor White Studios

 

 

Show biz runs in the family. Aunt Betty was a professional model. Doug’s played bass guitar and sung backup in Omaha bands for 40 years. He once cut a record with Eric Burton of The Animals fame. He’s played in bands that have fronted for Three Dog Night and Steppenwolf. Doug may be best known for his gigs with Bumpy Action and the River City All Stars. He’s also a shutterbug. Denise sings and plays piano. She was in Bumpy Action with Doug. She made USO tours to South Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and Hawaii. In the ‘70s and ‘80s the couple enjoyed a successful career as studio session artists, lending vocals and instrumentals to countless radio/television jingles. Her voice, she said, is on all the award-winning C.W. McCall Old Home Bread spots and on John Denver’s last album.

Nik’s a musician in his own right. He plays guitar, sings and writes music. He leads his own band, The Family Radio. With his mom’s encouragement he said he began writing stories as a child. She’s a writer herself. For years she’s cultivated the real life stories of customers at Shirley’s for a forthcoming book. Don’t be surprised if the vivacious Denise chats you up on your visit and you end up spilling your guts. Or she may plop on your lap and break into song. That disarming sweetness and spontaneity is shared by Nik, who still stops in, his shaggy appearance and slacker demeanor right in line with the laidback vibe. “We’re very loose,” said Denise.

There’s already a Fackler family booth whose walls are adorned with framed photos of Doug and Denise on stage — him with his Gibson guitar and bell-bottomed pants and her in a mini-skirt. There are shots of Nik, guitar in hand, making like dad behind the mike. It’d be only right if someday a booth is dedicated to Lovely, Still, complete with pics of Martin, Ellen and Co.. Maybe a signed copy of the script. If things go right, Nik might even rate a booth of his own. Right next to James Dean.

The booths’ vintage, wall-mounted jukeboxes work, but are disconnected. Who needs them with the Facklers around? You’ll fall for their soulful cuisine, eclectic tastes and creative clutter.

Shirley’s Diner, 5325 South 139th Plaza, is open daily. For more info. call 402-896-6515.

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