Archive for January, 2012

Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings on the symbiosis behind his film and her novel “The Descendants” and how she helped get Hawaii right

January 23, 2012 12 comments

Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings on the symbiosis behind his film and her novel “The Descendants and how she helped get Hawaii right

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (


When Alexander Payne‘s turn came to speak in the glow of The Descendants winning best motion picture drama at the Jan. 15 Golden Globes, he made sure to thank the people of Hawaii and author Kaui Hart Hemmings.

He did something few directors do by involving Hemmings, a Hawaii native and resident, in the adaptation, preproduction and production of the George Clooney-starring film. He’s widely credited her vital role in helping him get a fix on the island state’s particular culture, or as much as a mainlander like himself can attain. For all the time he spent researching, writing, prepping and shooting there, mainly in Honolulu, he never lost sight of being a visitor in need of expert advice.

Of course, the well-received 2007 Hemmings novel is the reason there’s a movie at all. He knows golden material when he sees it and he remained true to the book beyond her expectations.

“I’ve had the privilege of seeing Alexander making this film, from location scouting and casting to directing and filming. His attention to the minutiae of Hawaiian life, his humor and restraint, his casting decisions – I felt like I’d be surprised if it wasn’t a good film. Still, I couldn’t prepare myself for how good,” says Hemmings. “It’s a film that sticks with you, teaches you something without being at all didactical. It brings Hawaii to the big screen, something that’s never been done before, in an authentic way. I never insisted on him being faithful to my novel, but he did, and I’m pretty happy about that since it led to results like these.”

His respect for her work and inclusion in his process is why he told a world-wide Globes audience, with some prompting from his Ad Hominem Enterprises producing partner and former co-writer, Jim Taylor, “…thanks to Kaui Hart Hemmings – she gave us a beautiful gift.”

“I don’t need the public thank you but…it sure does please the locals. I spent a lot of time with Alexander, the crew and George, so it was just fun times,” says Hemmings. “I’m a big fan of this movie. I have the privilege of feeling like I contributed to it in some way and so it’s nice to be acknowledged.”

In adhering closely to her tale of a good man negotiating personal upheavals, the film’s struck a responsive chord with critics and audiences…


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.


Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings

Related articles

North Omaha champion Frank Brown fights the good fight

January 15, 2012 16 comments

I did this profile of then-Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown in 2004 for The Reader ( at a time when he was entrenched in his elected position though a frequent target of controversy.  As the representative for the largely African-American District 2, a long economically depressed district with a myriad of challenges facing it, he saw himself cut from the same cloth as his idol, Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers.  As with any politician or public figure, some people liked him, some people didn’t.  Some thought he was doing an effective job focusing attention and resources on his district, some thought he wasn’t doing enough.  He had his loyal supporters and he had his outspoken detractors.  He was the third in a short line of black District 2 council members who were elected to office after Chambers got district elections instituted.  The first was Fred Conley.  Then came Brenda Council, who narrowly lost a mayoral bid.  For a time, it appeared Brown was untouchable in his seat on the council.  The former television reporter then faced a serious challenge in 2009 when another television professional, veteran photojournalist and public affairs host Ben Gray, took him on and squeaked out a win.  Brown went on to a position with an offshoot of the Omaha Housing Authority but was later forced to resign and now I’m not sure what he’s doing, though he remains a voice an dpresence in the community as host of his own public access TV show.

This blog features many of my stories about North Omaha and various African-American figures and institutions here, including a profile of Ben Gray.  In the coming months you can expect to see an extensive story on Ernie Chambers, the subject of a forthcoming biography by Tekla Johnson.

North Omaha champion Frank Brown fights the good fight

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Given its predominantly African-American demographics, any black elected representative from northeast Omaha is naturally expected to carry the torch of the civil rights struggle in addressing inner city and minority issues. Those historically consistent issues run the gamut from inadequate housing to high unemployment to poor health care to unequal representation to depressed living conditions to alleged police abuse. Since the mid-1960s State Sen. Ernie Chambers has been the one constant if often strident voice among state lawmakers about the plight of north Omaha’s disadvantaged residents. Other politicos have paid lip service or given short thrift to the needs and problems confronting the community, not surprising since until the start of district elections in 1981, which Chambers fought for, Omaha had no black City Council members.

Since district elections began, northeast Omaha’s District 2 has had three black City Council representatives. Fred Conley, an affable businessman, and Brenda Council, an astute attorney, may have raised the profile of District 2 challenges but neither was considered the firebrand crusader many envisioned when district elections were instituted. Instead, the two were viewed as bland coalition builders with moderate agendas that steered away from controversy and confrontation.

By contrast, current office holder Frank Brown, a former television news reporter, is seen as a different breed. Observers say Brown, a council member since 1997seems unafraid to articulate the root causes of northeast Omaha’s problems and to challenge public and private leaders in seeking drastic remedies to longstanding ills.

In addition to his Council position, he serves on the Omaha Housing Authority and police union boards. A Democrat, he has been a driving force on several issues: the installation of an independent public safety auditor in the wake of several police shootings that raised the black community’s ire; speeding-up work on the long delayed sewer separation project to alleviate chronic street-house flooding from north Omaha’s antiquated sewer system; and bringing Old Omaha’s widespread lead contamination problem to the forefront and making its cleanup a priority.

Known for his tenacity, he’s pushed hard recently for more accountability by the quasi-public MECA board. While his attempt to require mandatory minority representation on that and similar boards failed, his insistence that MECA leaders disclose previously unnanounced salary bonuses succeeded, despite or because of his ruffling some feathers. MECA board member and former Mayor Hal Daub, with whom Brown had his share of battles, said, “I really have nothing to say about Councilman Brown, and you can quote me on that.” 

Brown’s adamant call for full disclosure by MECA, which had board members bristling, is characteristic of his probing approach. “He can be pretty forceful when it comes to items that are especially meaningful to him,” said District 7 Councilman Chuck Sigerson, Jr. “He has a no-holds-barred style of asking questions, and that can be very beneficial and that can also put people on the spot, and sometimes people take it wrong. He doesn’t like to let people try and evade the questions…and if someone wants to stonewall him, they’re going to get re-asked the questions even more forcefully…”

Perhaps his most public victory — the public safety auditor — is proving a major frustration. Since being formed in 2001, support for it has withered among a majority of council members who contend it’s made little impact. In the city budget battle Brown fought to keep the auditor position alive. When the Council submitted a budget to Mayor Mike Fahey calling for its elimination, Fahey vetoed the measure, but a subsequent 5 to 4 Council vote overrode the veto.

Brown, who echoes north Omaha sentiment that the oversight of an independent auditor is needed as a safeguard against potential police abuse, feels criticism of the auditor’s effectiveness is unfair because the office is woefully under funded and staffed. “The auditor is limited. Her hands are tied. And that’s unfortunate,” he said. “My colleagues won’t give her the people and resources she needs to conduct investigations, so it’s doomed to fail. I say, Give her a chance because what have you got to lose? We pour millions into Rosenblatt Stadium, which is projected to lose $1 million a year, but it’s not OK to pay $250,000 for an auditor? There’s got to be give and take on both sides.”

The auditor’s current $150,000 budget has been supported the past two years by private funds. Despite the City Council’s recent vote to ax the position, Mayor Fahey has pledged he will find outside funding to keep it running.

With his bold, outspoken approach, Brown is viewed much closer in philosophy, rhetoric and practice to the aggressive, volatile Chambers than to the more placid Conley and Council. “Frank has a kind of persistence and political savvy his predecessors did not approach,” said the Rev. Everett Reynolds, president of the local NAACP. “Here’s a guy that’s helping the cause and, I would say, responding with much more gusto on behalf of minority, disenfranchised and poor folks. I don’t know that his predecessors dealt with critical issues as Frank has done. He faces the issues. He went some rounds with then Mayor Hal Daub in trying to get the city to deal with the sewers. His dealing with police-community relations stands out.” Rev. Larry Menyweather-Woods, a UNO Black Studies professor and retired pastor of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, said, “He’s been quite a significant player in trying to bring back to life the near north side. And there are certain issues — I’m talking about social justice and things of that nature — where Frank has been a leader. He’s been right out there.”

Pressing the issue doesn’t guarantee victory. Brown is still at a loss for why his minority representation proposal was defeated but implies racism is at the core of the opposition. “Why are people afraid of diversity? I don’t know. People will accept money from women, minorities and poor folks, but when it comes to sitting at the same table they say no,” he said.

Brown’s hard-nosed reporting background may explain his unrelenting style. “Those of us that knew Frank when he was a reporter know that he has not changed much. He still has a very dogged approach in trying to get to the truth of issues,” said Omaha police officer Marlin McClarty, president of the Brothers of the Midwest Guardians, a black police association.

Brown’s news career also gave him a ringside seat into the political process. “I watched what works and what doesn’t work and what to say and what not to say,” Brown said. “His experience was invaluable,” said the NAACP’s Reynolds. “Even though it was his first time in public office he had watched others perform, which was a tremendous asset for him. All his years in the news business gathering information, talking to people and working with people, taught him how to sift through that which is authentic from that which is not.”

As a trained journalist, Brown holds the news media to a high standard. He’s been known to chew out reporters and editors when he feels they’ve distorted his stance or somehow failed to measure up in his eyes. “It really hurts me to see when something as near and dear to me like reporting is not fair,” he said. 

He knocks the local news media for portraying his relationship with Councilman Franklin Thompson, the black Democrat from largely white District 6, as contentious. For his part, Brown said he has no enmity for Thompson. “I’m not at loggerheads with the guy at all. We may have some different views, but that’s not even a blip on my radar screen. The news media makes more of a perceived controversy than there really is. I’m not sitting at home saying, I bested Franklin Thompson today…I’m not even keeping a scorecard.”

The two most recently sparred over the naming of a walkway, with Thompson favoring Omaha’s Heisman Trophy heritage and Brown, who won, advocating Martin Luther King’s legacy. Brown faulted the Omaha World-Herald’s take on the so-called walkway “flap,” saying, “It wasn’t a flap at all, yet people were calling me at home saying the World-Herald reporter just had interviewed them and asked a bunch of negative questions and the first one was, ‘Why is Frank Brown doing this to Franklin Thompson?’ If I want to create a negative story, I’ll ask negative questions. Then, when I see an editorial cartoon in the paper that is tied to the ‘controversy,’ I know it’s a full-court press against me. People’s hatred comes out. They say, Oh, that Frank Brown is just all over the place and he hates white people, and they have no idea what’s in my heart and soul. If this is the tone the paper is taking, what else am I supposed to think?”

Brown said his sometimes stormy relationship with the media has mellowed somewhat. “Oh, it’s still lumpy at times,” he said, “but it’s different now than what it was. They’ll come after me no matter what, and if I say something goofy I deserve it, but all I want is balance and fairness.” 

One thing he feels can’t be questioned is his dedication to north Omaha, where he grew up and still resides. However, he’s the first to say he cannot impact all the quandaries facing his district and minorities at large. To date, he’s won and lost his share of battles but even when a measure he backs is defeated or a motion he opposes is approved, his supporters admire the tenacity he shows in going down swinging.

“I feel Frank is willing to put himself out there — on the spot — for what he feels is right,” said Midwest Guardians president Marlin McClarty.

“You know, I try and fight the good fight,” said Brown, who knows well where northeast Omaha stands. “It’s neglected. It’s been neglected,” he said of his district. “The way government looks at impoverished areas is they blame the blight on the people who live there. They criticize north Omaha but what does government do — the government puts all the public housing projects practically…in one district. They place social service programs in one area. So, they create a poor district and they tell people, Well, you should lift yourself up by the bootstraps and join us. Well, how can you do that when you can’t achieve? I mean, you can, but when you remove people from Logan-Fontenelle (a large housing project razed in recent years) and you don’t improve the surrounding area where people live, than what expectations can you have? You’ve got to create a positive environment.”

Long regarded as the other side of the tracks, the northeast district lost whatever economic-political clout it had in the wake of two events. The late 1960s riots there caused property damage and engendered a perception of fear that drove out many business owners and residents. Perhaps even more disruptive, the North Freeway construction in the 1970s razed hundreds of homes, in the process driving out many more residents, and imposed a daunting physical-psychological barrier that drove a wedge through the heart of a formerly unified community.

“The North Freeway dispersed families and divided the area,” Brown said, “and we still haven’t recovered from it. It took out thousands of residents. How do you recover from that? It’s a slow process. Government doesn’t think about long term effects to a viable area.”



 Some of North Omaha’s desolation


The loss of people, spending power and cohesion led to the decline of North 24th Street, the traditional cultural-commercial strip that coursed with pedestrian-vehicular traffic day and night. As people moved out, businesses closed and pockets of blight took hold in the form of abandoned structures and vacant lots. Brown said if the area is to be made attractive again to investors, more households and amenities need to be in place. He feels the only way to attract more home buyers and business owners is to increase the stock of quality affordable houses, increase the pool of decent indigenous jobs and spruce up the community.

“Businesses will not come into north Omaha unless there are more rooftops and consumers and workers. That’s just basic economics,” he said. “People in the area want to work, but the lack of transportation is a major issue. If you don’t have jobs and businesses in the area, than how can people go to work in the first place?”

Thirty years or more have passed since the district’s decline took root and not a single comprehensive plan has surfaced to address the situation. Brown has no plan either, but he sees a need for one in an area that to date has seen sporadic redevelopment in isolated commercial-residential federal block grant-funded projects. Any assurances being made by city flaks and community leaders about the burgeoning riverfront development sparking a northeast Omaha revival is met with extreme skepticism by Brown, who demands proof he’s yet to see.

“Everyone’s waiting and waiting and waiting, but how long will we wait? I’d like them to show me how the future’s bright. I want someone to point out to me how the area northwest of the arena-convention center is improving because of the development going on. Has anyone shown you where it’s improved? The truth is there never was a plan to improve northwest of the riverfront development. There should have been a massive plan and time schedules and dollars.”

That is not to say no progress has been made. New housing developments, community centers and commercial properties have sprung up in recent years in a variety of neighborhoods that heretofore saw little change for decades. There is the Fontenelle View town home project just west of the intersection of Fontenelle Boulevard and Ames Avenue. The latest project, Miami Heights, is a 24-block mixed residential-commercial development going up in the Salem Baptist Church neighborhood. A number of southern style-soul food restaurants have opened along North 16th Street and surrounding areas. But until an overarching initiative is in place that ties various redevelopment efforts into a grand, sweeping design, Brown suspects many areas in need of revitalization will remain untouched because they fall outside any targeted development zone.

“Even if there was such a plan…the dollars were never there to complete it. Somehow or other we’ve got to thread the needle and bring these efforts together,” he said. To pull it off, he said, government entities and private investors need to collaborate. “It’s always been left up to government, but it’s also going to take private investors to take a look at the area and say, We’re going to make a commitment there. They should not be afraid of the poor people in the area because they’re great people and they’ll work. They just need a chance.”

Last year, Brown initiated a project in the heart of his district that he hopes spurs more urban renewal. Now under construction, the North Omaha Love’s Jazz Cultural Arts and Humanities Complex is slated to be a multi-use resource center promoting the richness of black culture — past and present — via arts appreciation, education and performance. The site of the complex, 24th and Lake, is significant as it sits in the hub of a once booming cultural scene that featured many clubs and bars, including the storied Dreamland Ballroom, where such black music greats as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Cab Calloway and Nat King Cole performed. The area is where Omaha’s own jazz and blues legend, Preston Love, for whom the complex is named, got his start. The strip is also where Brown’s late father co-owned and operated the popular M & M Lounge, a jumping joint for night owls and the first African-American owned bar in the state.

“Can North 24th Street revitalize itself? I can only hope so and I’m doing everything I can. The jazz center is a start. A lot of things have got to happen,” said Brown, who wants to see the community add to its popular Native Omaha Days homecoming celebration with an annual black expo patterned after one in Indianapolis.

His own attempts selling investors on North O have so far proven fruitless. “I’m constantly talking to businesses asking them to move in. I’ve brought developers into the area. They like what’s going on but they still roll up their plans and go home.” He said the area suffers from the lingering impression of being crime-ridden and, the assumption goes, unsafe to do business in. “There’s that perception, yes, but I think businesses that have been there and some new businesses that have moved in know that’s not the case. And that’s why I always ask developers to just give it a try here and to just work with me. But there is that perception.”
Chambers, now Brown’s vocal champion and powerful ally, came out against Brown when he ran for City Council in 1997. “I opposed him when he first ran because he had done a lot of reporting on the police and I thought that made him too close to them. He was also with that Jimmy Wilson Foundation (as executive director), and I thought that would skew his view,” he said. “But as he entered onto his work as a Councilman I developed a tremendous amount of respect for his knowledge, his integrity, his ability to work with others and, first and foremost, his skillful use of all those things to get things done. He shocked me.”

A longtime admirer of Chambers, who along with former State Sen. Gene Mahoney he regards as his political idols, Brown went to Chambers early on for advice.

“Oh, I remember it vividly,” Brown said, “and I took everything he said to heart, especially his comments about knowing the rules and reading everything, and I try and do that every day. You’ve got to read everything. Some things will pass by your desk and if you don’t pick it up and read it, it could affect a project in such a way that when you vote for it it will really hurt your district or the city. There’s so many nuances, twists and turns that you just have to read it and understand it.”



Ernie Chambers



The reservations Chambers had about Brown’s cozy relationship with the police and city hall were understandable, Brown said, and have “been a driving force to make me try and do some things to prove there was more to me than that.”

As the black community’s most visible torch bearer, Brown feels pressure doing the right thing for a constituency in great need and with little voice. No one agenda can take up his focus without him being accused of favoritism. “This is a lonely job,” he said. “It’s been a hot seat from day one and it gets hotter every day.”

From the start, Brown has put in long hours as a Councilman and he bristles at the notion he stretches what’s really a part-time job into a full-time gig. “I knew going into this there was a tremendous amount of issues in my district and that’s why I made the decision to put in 8 to 10 hours a day here down at city hall. I think you have to. Besides, my salary is probably higher than 50 percent of households in my family and so it would bother me to…work part-time for that amount.” Then there is his old-school attitude. “My dad was a great influence on me because he instilled my strong work ethic. He never missed a day of work and I’ve probably only missed two days of work my entire life. I’m down here reading and reading and reading…taking phone calls and meetings…and not taking vacations.”

Brown, who’s single, said being consumed by his work has extracted “a price. The job and the daily grind have taken their toll on me.” In holding an office many say is his for as long as he wants it, he said there is a danger of taking things for granted. “I’m going to be honest — it creeps into your mind, but you can’t think that way because if you let that distraction become a daily event then you become lax.” Politics can be an isolating experience. When everyone seemingly curries your favor, who can you trust? He’s recently lost some of his closet, most trusted advisors. “I lost a good friend of mine and then my father passed away. And then I lost my best friend, Vernon Breakfield. He was a person I would go to to bounce everything off of and he was brutally honest with me.”

Noncommittal as to how much longer he may want to serve on the City Council or what other political office he may seek, Brown said whatever he does “I’ll always have a fire to help people that’s burning inside me. Hopefully, I’ll be here for as long as people want me but if not the person that replaces me will have a big footprint to fill and will have to try to achieve a lot, and I think that’s good.”

“He’s done it in a way that pleases me and sets a very high standard and an example for anybody that will follow him,” Chambers said. “But I hope he stays there until at least I die.”

Art trumps hate: “Brundinar” children’s opera survives as defiant testament from the Holocaust

January 15, 2012 2 comments

In 2009 I wrote this story about an Opera Omaha production of the children’s opera Brundibar, whose back story and very existence is remarkable given the fact the original piece was written and performed amid the throes of the Holocuast.  The engaging work is all the more remarkable for being a serious social-political critique of Nazi and Hitler in the guise of a metaphorical children’s story.  The aching humanism of the fable is palpable.

Art trumps hate: “Brundinar” children’s opera survives as defiant testament from the Holocaust

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Omaha area youths performing the children’s opera Brundibar this week find themselves linked to some potent history and to a spirit of defiance transcending even the most horrific circumstances.

Czech composer Hans Krasa scored the operatic fable in 1938. With a libretto by Adolph Hoffmeister, it was first staged at a Prague Jewish orphanage. Germany’s 1939 invasion brought anti-Jewish decrees. By late ‘41 the Nazis’ forced Jews into ghettos, dispossessing them of their homes, belongings, livelihoods and freedom.

Amid the chaos, Krasa’s score went missing. He and other artists ended up in Terezin, a fortified garrison town. Homes and barracks meant for 4,000 housed 60,000 men, women, children. The unsanitary conditions, scarcity of food and harsh treatment made a perilous, hopeless life for inhabitants targeted for death camps.

One respite was the music, theater and dance prisoners were allowed to perform. Art flourished in this dead zone. When Krasa’s found score was smuggled in, Brundibar became a show piece for the Nazis, who cruelly used Terezin’s creative culture as “proof” its inmates were well-treated. Infamously, the Nazis paraded Brundibar for an International Red Cross team and a propaganda film.

But for Jews Brundibar took on symbolic meaning in direct opposition to such distortions. The fable’s Pepicek and Aninku try buying milk for their sick mother. They’re foiled by Brundibar, a loud, evil, buffoon-like bully patterned after Hitler. The allegorical community unites to defeat the hateful tyrant. Just as the themes of oppression and resistance took on added import then, the opera’s tragic context and fate give it deeper meaning today. Krasa, the musicians and much of the cast went to their deaths at Auschwitz.

Brundibar’s past and present are joined in the current Opera Omaha and Institute for Holocaust Education (IHE) co-production at the Rose Theater. Bass-baritone David Ward portrays Brundibar. Area students comprise the rest of the cast. Tying things together is guest Ela Weissberger, the original Cat in all 55 Terezin productions. She’s speaking before each performance this week.

More than 9,000 Omaha school kids are expected to see the opera by week’s end. The lone public performance is this Saturday at 6:30 p.m.

Ela, now one of only two Terezin cast members still alive, said by phone, “After the last performance my friends were taken to their deaths to the gas chambers. It feels sometimes to me a very long time ago, but sometimes I feel like it happened yesterday. I always thought this little opera went with them but if it’s performed here it will never be forgotten. I think Brundibar has became a memorial for those children and with every performance people are reminded that something like that happened, that they are not here, and I feel a duty to speak for them.”

“You need to know about what was actually happening and why this show was put on before you can actually put it on. That’s very important,” said Elizabeth Lieberman,. 17, who plays Cat. As helpful as that education was, Liebermann said, “I don’t think we can possibly imagine like it really was.” Scott Goldberg, who plays Pepicek, said, “We can think, we can try, but it’s so much different.”To inform the student cast of Brundibar’s heavy back story, IHE director Beth Seldin Dotan gave them a power point presentation.

Seldin Dotan, whose Institute is celebrating its 10th year, said, “These kids get it. They understand that even under the most dire situation there were people who presented a show like this within the ghetto. When they sing the victory song  on stage the hope is they feel they can make a difference as an individual and as a group, and hopefully they present that to the audience. One of the most important things we do at the Institute is educate people about what happened and how we can make a difference to change that.”

Some Brundibar principals have personal stakes in the story. Sarah Kutler, 12, is the grand-daughter of Holocaust survivor Bea Karp of Omaha. Stage director Helen Binder lost many elders in the Shoah. Binder said, “The one thing I felt I couldn’t do as a director is direct the history. I can’t direct the piece with the history looming over it. If the audience knows the history it makes it that much more poignant but I can’t direct it as somber, sad, they’re-all-going-to-their-deaths. I have to direct it the way Krasa wrote it and intended it, so I’ve tried infusing it with things that make kids laugh and really go for the joy in it.”

©Terezin Memorial, A scene from the Theresienstadt production as shown in 1944 Nazi propaganda film, The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a Town



“It’s very much a children’s piece. I think the music is very original and very appropriate. It’s sophisticated, but it’s just right for a young cast and for its audience,” said conductor Hal France, “and I think that in a way is what makes it powerful, because it is quite bright.”

For Seldin Dotan, this collaboration is “very meaningful” because it realizes a long-held dream of putting on Brundibar. It’s also a coming out for the Institute. “I feel after 10 years we’ve grown up. The response of 69 schools bringing their students and 70 volunteers and tons of sponsors is just magic. What we’ve found is that people wanted to get to close to this.” An Institute-devised guide was provided schools in preparation for students seeing the opera.


 Ela Weissberger

“Out of Omaha” aka “California Dreaming” project adds to area’s evolving indie filmmaking scene

January 14, 2012 5 comments

Several years ago I did this story for The Reader ( about an independent film that shot in the city where I live, Omaha, Neb.  At the time the project went under the title Out of Omaha, only the film ended up getting released as California Dreaming.  I’ve never seen it and I guess I don’t much care to since the reviews I find are mostly negative, though I do admit to a parochial interest in catching views of my burg on the big screen.  Movies, indie or studio, small or large, rarely get made here, and if it wasn’t for Alexander Payne this place would truly be off the radar of filmmakers.  The feature film production pace did pick up for a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s and probably peaked right around the time this movie shot and this story appeared (2006). Nik Fackler revived things with his Lovely, Still a few years ago. But it’s been pretty quiet since.  I wrote the story in the hopeful but misguided spirit that a lively feature filmmaking scene was upon us here, but  it just hasn’t been so, and it likely won’t be as long as tax incentives are not offered to film companies and as long as Omaha colleges and universities fail to offer full-fledged film programs. California Dreaming-Out of Omaha writer-director, Linda Voorhees has family connections to Nebraska and she counts as her mentor native and resident Lew Hunter, whose Superior, Neb. screenwriting colony she read and workshopped her then fledgling script at.  This blog features a profile I wrote of Hunter after spending a few days at his colony.


“Out of Omaha” aka “California Dreaming” project adds to area’s evolving indie filmmaking scene

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


As further proof of the robust cinema scene evolving in Omaha, where little niche features regularly shoot after years of film inactivity here, there’s Out of Omaha, a modestly-budgeted indie with a “name” cast. The NoHo Films International venture was scheduled to wrap principal photography October 12 following a 20-day shoot.

Second unit work may continue through week’s end on the pic, described as a character-based comedy played straight about a dysfunctional clan whose aborted efforts to leave Omaha for a family vacation open old wounds and spur new values.

Like most such projects, this one has Nebraska ties. Writer-director Linda Voorhees, a native Californian and a UCLA visiting film professor, has relatives here. She also teaches at screenwriting-meister Lew Hunter’s script colony in Superior, Neb. She’s best known for the television movies Crazy from the Heart (wrote) and Two Mothers for Zachary (wrote and directed).

She’s been coming here since she was a child to visit her aunt and uncle, Martha and Larry West of Bellevue, and her cousins. She even used their homes as key film locations. She said her familiarity with the place and her warm regard for it and its people, is why she views her film as “a valentine to the city of Omaha.”

“I really, truly, and this not bullshit, have very positive feelings about this place,” she said. “I see it as a very sophisticated city and I see it incorrectly interpreted by people I meet who haven’t been to Omaha. I happen to think this city has a lot to offer. I’m very impressed with theater here. I’m very impressed with the music scene. I love downtown and Old Town (the Old Market).”

Out of Omaha centers on the Gainors, an upper middle class suburban family controlled by wife-mother Ginger, played by Lea Thompson (Caroline in the City), and indulged by husband-father Stu, played by Dave Foley (Kids in the Hall). Their 15-year-old daughter, played by Bellevue native Lindsay Seim, is full of teenage angst and rebellion. Seim said her character is “the catalyst” for a lot of the things that go awry on the journey.” She said her younger brother in the story is “hiding behind his Game Boy…trying to just go with the flow.”

The 40ish Ginger has regrets about past chances lost and aches for what’s beyond her hometown borders. Her family resists being force-fed her bitter dreams.

“It’s about her yearning for something bigger, not realizing that wherever she goes she’s going to be unhappy. It has nothing to do with Omaha. It has to do with her own sense of discontentment,” Voorhees said.

When Ginger pushes her family to ditch its traditional Branson vacation for a California RV trip she hopes relives an adolescent idyll, the family’s cracked seams come apart to reveal all the emotional stuffing inside. Their journey, which never makes it outside Omaha due to a series of family meltdowns, leads them right back where they started, only with a new understanding of each other.

Aiding and abetting the turmoil are the flighty Porters (Vicky Lewis and Ethan Phillips) and snobbish Aunt Connie (Patricia Richardson of West Wing).

By the end, Ginger realizes “what’s right here and wonderful in her own life and her own world. There’s a sense of there’s-no-place-like-home with this,” ala The Wizard of Oz, “but we’re doing a comedy version and without the music,” Voorhees said. Omaha’s virtues, she added, are intrinsic to this awakening.

“I do see Omaha as an arena and a setting, but also sort of as a terrific character.”

If the film is, as she said, “a big, sloppy, wet kiss to Omaha,” than it’s also a bow to the workshop process at Lew Hunter’s writing colony.

She calls Hunter, himself a longtime UCLA film instructor and author of popular books on the screenwriting trade, “my mentor” and “the one that taught me how to write screenplays.” She trusts his opinion enough that she first read her Out of Omaha script, then entitled Omahaulin’, at Hunter’s conference last year.

“I read the first 30 pages there just to see how it went and Lew gave me the first critique on it. You can’t ask for a better assessment of your writing and where you stand with it. He said, essentially, ‘All systems are go.’”

The colony, a pastoral workshop setting that unfolds in restored Victorian homes, is what brought together Out of Omaha producer Patricia Payne, a native Australian with decades of experience in the Aussie and American film industries, with Voorhees. Payne was at that initial reading of Voorhees’ script and through subsequent meetings with her “friend and colleague” she came to the conclusion “this is going to be good and this is something I want to be involved in.”




A film with Omaha in the title still doesn’t have to be shot here. So, why was it?

“It actually would have been cheaper for me it we’d shot it in L.A.,” Payne said, “because I wouldn’t need to fly actors and crew in here, but Linda and I both decided we wanted the authenticity, and we’ve got it, and it’s worth it.”

Voorhees said that she, along with cinematographer James Bartle and crew, have worked hard to capture Omaha’s essence on screen. “We’ve tried to get the shots that really convey the city, the heart and pulse in a true way, not in a cliched way, and I do believe we’ve been finding that.”

Rounding out the film’s local flavor is co-producer Dana Altman, president of North Sea Films in Omaha. His feature credits include directing The Private Public. Altman was referred to Payne by native son Dan Mirvish, the founder of Slam Dance and the director of festival favorite Omaha, the Movie, which Altman produced.

Only greenlighted recently, the project started shooting its summer-set story in late September. The production hauled ass to avoid losing the season.

“Logistically, the city’s been outstanding in the level of support they’ve given,” Altman said, “and they just always seem to be.”

Then there’s 2004 University of Nebraska theater grad Lindsay Seim, cast on the coast after the filmmakers auditioned several actresses there and in Omaha. The L.A.-based Seim has appeared in a couple smaller indie films, but ranks this as “the one with, by far, the most legitimate chance of going somewhere.”

Ironically, Seim’s mother, Sharon Seim, was hired as the film’s location director a few weeks before Lindsay was cast. Since retiring from the Bellevue Public Schools a few years ago, Sharon’s worked as location director for Altman’s North Sea Films, a commercial film/video house. Sharon’s husband and Lindsay’s father, Don Seim, was recruited as a transportation wrangler on the shoot.

“It’s been kind of neat having us all work on this,” said Lindsay, who plans returning one day to make a film with her roommate, an aspiring writer-director. “It’s really the people that make Omaha a good place to do an independent film. It has to be such a group effort and you really have to lean on people. Money can’t be the driving force behind it. It has to be heart. And the people here are so welcoming.”

The filmmakers agree, saying Omaha’s well-suited to follow the Robert Rodriguez paradigm of using friends and culling favors. Voorhees said, “I really see a push of independent film here…I hope our project continues the momentum. Omaha deserves it and has a rich talent pool to make it happen.” Or, as Payne put it, “It felt good to come here and do it, and do it now. That’s what said hello to me.”

Cuba’s “Illogical Temple” the subject of student Academy Award-winning film by UNL students

January 14, 2012 2 comments

A fine Student Academy Award-winning documentary made several years ago by University of Nebraska-Lincoln students, Cuba: The Illogical Temple, is the focus of this story for The Reader (  If you get a chance to see the film on your local educational television or public access channels, I highly recommend it.





Cuba’s “Illogical Temple” the subject of student Academy Award-winning film by UNL students

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (

The illogical nature of Cuba is explored in a Student Academy Award-winning documentary made by area student journalists whose reporting odyssey there reveals a people in love with their country despite its oppression. The risk of practicing independent journalism in Cuba is dramatically discovered by the students, who find some sources are government spies and one reporter profiled is among many dissidents later jailed.

The documentary is the result of an ambitious in-depth reporting project that sent about a dozen University of Nebraska-Lincoln student journalists to Miami and Cuba last year. The film offers a micro-macro view of the small island nation that’s loomed so large in U.S. politics and in Cuban exiles’ hearts and minds. The reporting team conducted more than 180 interviews with a cross-section of laborers, journalists, politicos and business leaders for the honored film, Cuba: The Illogical Temple, and a Pulitzer-nominated magazine, Cuba: An Elusive Truth. The film also won the national Eric Sevareid Award.

The film is the first UNL entry to win an award in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ national competition. The hour-long film by Lindsey (Kealy) Gill and David Pittock is a complex meditation on the rich dichotomy of the last Communist hold-out in the Western Hemisphere. About the award-winning film, Gill said, “I guess I’m most proud of the sheer magnitude of what we took on in reporting on such an amazing, strange country.” She and Pittock were in the Los Angeles area last week for film industry-related activities culminating in the Student Oscar ceremonies on Sunday, June 13 at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. That night, the pair learned their film won a bronze medal in the documentary category and a corresponding cash prize of $2,000. The silver and gold medals (with cash prizes of $3,000 and $5,000) went to filmmakers from the University of California-Berkeley.

An award can create buzz in the industry. Already, such major film companies as Lion’s Gate and First Run Features have expressed interest in seeing the film. Gill and Pittock hope it’s selected to play a major festival, where it could get picked up for theatrical/video release. Some PBS stations have already acquired it.

As the Cuba project’s only broadcast majors, Gill and Pittock were its designated filmmakers. They collaborated in producing, directing, shooting, editing and writing the film. Gill, a UNL grad, is now a KMTV Channel 3 associate news producer, while UNL grad student Pittock is finishing up his master’s. Both want filmmaking in their future. “Travel the world and make documentaries. That would probably be my dream job. I love the fact it combines filmmaking and journalism,” Gill said.

“This experience makes me want to do more. To see the world and to document people, their lives and their personal stories. I would love to work on a narrative film. It’s opened up a lot of doors,” Pittock said.

The film explores Cuba from many perspectives, including that of rank and file Cuban nationals and government officials, Cuban exiles, U.S. officials and the students themselves. For most of the students, who studied the country’s history and culture prior to the trip, this was their first time in a nation with a state controlled media and where the penalty for crossing the party line can be grave.

The oppressive Castro regime is an ever-present character in the film. The high risk run by reporters daring to tell the truth is personally brought home when one of two independent journalists profiled turns out to be a spy. Upon their return home, the students discover the man posing as a journalist works for the government and is responsible for denouncing the other reporter as part of a large roundup of dissidents that occured after the UNL group left. The reporter who was betrayed by his supposed colleague is now serving a jail term of 20-plus years.

“That came as a huge shock,” said Gill. “It was appalling. Heartbreaking really, because the journalist now imprisoned was such a nice man. We were in his home. When we see people like him being persecuted for what we do on a daily basis, it’s sad. We take our freedom of speech so much for granted here.” Fellow student journalist Jill Zeman says in the film, “It was always in the back of my mind…if I use this person’s name or face, they could be thrown in jail. For once, I could see how my journalism would affect one person’s life. That’s a lot of pressure to have.”

Following their return, the students also uncover they were targets of Cuba’s insidious disinformation-agitprop campaign. Gill says in the film, “We thought we were getting the truth in Cuba and most of the time we did, but it was frustrating when we got back and found out that some people had outright lied to us. Even government officials. We knew the higher up government officials were feeding us a line. They told us a lot of the things they probably thought we wanted to hear.”

Much of the film focuses on Cuba’s stark contrasts. In one sequence, Cuban exile Felix Dominguez, now living in Norfolk, Neb., tells of the harrowing journey he made by boat in fleeing dictatorship for democracy. He saw many others who did not make it. His story is contrasted with that of his daughter, Jenny, whom he left behind. Now a single mother, Jenny lives in relative Havana squalor but fiercely defends her nation and lauds the free education and health care it provides. However, the film asserts nothing is really free in Cuba, where wages are so low that nearly everybody works scama, hustles or the black market on the side.

Despite crushing poverty, strict food rationing and pervasive material shortages made worse by the long-standing U.S. trade embargo, the film shows Cubans’ spirit and passion in their celebrations, warmth and wry wit. Then there’s the hypocrisy of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro criticizing the inequities of capitalism while welcoming North American-European tourist trade whose dollars create a cruel class system of tourist and non-tourist workers.

Everyday Cubans are seen and heard guardedly telling American visitors the harsh facts of life. The face of a disenchanted government worker is blurred to protect his identity. The palpable fear of speaking one’s mind is embodied in one man who, looking into the camera, says in hushed tones, “Your tourist guide was right behind you. Maybe I’m telling you things he don’t want you to know.”

The “guide” is among the functionaries assigned the Americans in restricting them to the official red carpet itinerary, complete with its press conferences and photo ops. Despite pressures to tow the line, Pittock says he and others managed to “go off and do our own thing” — interviewing people in the streets or in private homes.

The comments of an artist identified only as Gregorio inspire the film’s title and theme. “Cuba is an illogical temple,” he says. “You have to be Cuban to see it. It doesn’t make any sense, but I love my country.” Project participant Matthew Hansen, now a Lincoln Journal-Star reporter, says in the film that to grasp Cuba is “to be able to see the illogical temple. Things can be bad in a place… poor…its people oppressed. But that guy Gregorio still loved Cuba. He didn’t want to leave. He wouldn’t leave. In a sense, that’s illogical. Well, it’s not supposed to make sense. It’s about something deeper than logic or reason. It’s about loving Cuba.”

Doing time on death row: Creighton University theater gives life to “Dead Man Walking”

January 10, 2012 1 comment

I don’t go to a lot of theater, but I go to enough to have a good sense for what good theater looks and sounds like, and one of the better amateur productions I’ve ever seen was the Creighton University staging of the Tim Robbins play, Dead Man Walking, from some years ago.  It’s hard to go wrong with this gripping material, but then again I’ve seen enough strong source material mishandled that I know anything can be done badly.  This was a case of fully realizing a play’s potential.  The play, like the movie Robbin wrote and directed, is based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean about her transformative experience counseling a death row inmate that basically began what’s turned into her nationwide crusade against capital punishment.  I see now that Dead Man Walking has been adapted into an opera as well, which doesn’t surprise me because the dramatic moments and thematic concerns and emotional upheavals in the story certainly lend themselves to such expressive treatment.  I hope the opera is staged one day where I live, Omaha, which is also the home to Creighton University, a Jesuit school with a fine reputation for its professional colleges. Its liberal arts offerings, including theater, ethics, social entrepreneurship, and journalism, are quite strong, too.

Doing time on death row: Creighton University theater gives life to “Dead Man Walking”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


To kill or not to kill? That question hovers over every moment of Dead Man Walking, the new Tim Robbins play that covers similar ground as the actor-filmmaker’s acclaimed 1996 film of the same name. In this meditation on the death penalty, the ramifications of taking one life for another is considered. Do we have the right to? Is it justice or revenge? Can execution ever be meted out fairly?

The play, making its Omaha premiere in a Creighton University main stage production opening this weekend, forces viewers to confront a subject most would rather not contemplate. And the humanistic way it presents this struggle ensures that it goes beyond being mere polemics or abstraction. It is high drama truthfully distilled in the very real conflict of a convicted murderer’s life hanging in the balance. Will ending his life compensate for the lives he took? Does he deserve to die? Did his victims? The dilemma only grows deeper when the killer shows remorse. Too late it turns out. No matter what side you’re on before the play, you won’t come out of it unaffected after witnessing a night of theater in which an execution by lethal injection is enacted before your very eyes.

“It’s very riveting. I mean, we’re going to execute somebody on stage,” said the show’s director Alan Klem, CU assistant professor of theater. “I hope to leave the audience with the same feeling I had after reading the play, and that is — I can’t ignore this. I think what the playwright is trying to get across is that we can’t take a passive view point on this issue. It’s better to take a strong stance, one way or the other, than to say, ‘It doesn’t concern me.’ It does concern us. Basically, we’re shedding light on executions, which are carried out at midnight when people are asleep. Why do do it then? Because the state doesn’t want you to know what it’s like. Death row is a terrible, terrible place. We’re trying to recreate that feeling the best we can that this is a terrible, terrible place.”

After the final curtain on opening night, a panel discussion on the death penalty follows. The panel includes Creighton law professor Christine Wiseman, a vocal death penalty opponent who, in 1995, exhausted the appeals process on behalf of Texas death row inmate Billy Conn Gardner. Serious questions were raised about his arrest, trial and murder conviction, but not enough to stop his execution.

What better forum for this discussion than a Jesuit institution with its historical social justice mission? At Robbins’ behest, a draft of the unpublished play has been offered to select, mostly Jesuit, colleges and universities to be performed during the 2004-2005 academic year. It’s part of his Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project, whose intent is to elicit dialogue on capital punishment, an ugly reality usually shrouded in the dark of night, far away from public scrutiny.

Creighton is among only a few school’s mounting a production of Dead Man this year. The school’s Department of Fine and Performing arts is staging its version over seven nights in February and March. Show dates and times are: Thursday through Saturday, February 24 through 26, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, February 27 at 2 p.m.; and Thursday through Saturday, March 3 through 6, at 7:30 p.m. The show’s on-campus venue is the Lied Education Center for the Arts at 24th and Cass.

Both the play and movie are based on the best-selling book by Sister Helen Prejean, whose real life story recounts her 1980s experience as spiritual advisor to Angola State Prison (La.) death row inmate Patrick Sonnier. He was ultimately put to death. In her book and in Robbins’ adaptations, the one constant is a convicted killer awaits his reckoning via a lethal injection date. Alone, with no prayer of his sentence being commuted, he makes a desperate plea for help, A naive but caring nun answers the call — setting in motion events neither seems prepared to handle.








Just as there’s no doubt where the protagonist, Prejean, stands on the issue, it’s clear Robbins vehemently opposes the death penalty, but to his credit, he doesn’t allow his drama to turn political diatribe. “It tries to give both sides of the issue,” Klem said. “It’s important it not come off as a sermon.” Indeed, a reading of the play reveals a balanced work delineating how people find moral, Biblical mandates for or against execution. While the troubling and divisive themes are ever-present, the core conflict is the tug-of-war between Prejean and her soon-to-be-put-to-death charge, Matthew Poncelot. It is a struggle between her unconditional love and his unrepentant heart. Between her search for the truth and his denial of it.

The conflict is also an internal one, within the mind of Prejean, whose self-reflective stream of consciousness drives and defines the action. She becomes our witness, our guide and our narrator to the events that unfold. She even “preaches to the audience, trying to open their eyes,” said the actress playing her, CU senior Jeanne Tiehen. “But she doesn’t come down on them. It’s more like, ‘Listen to this story.’ It’s all about awakening the discussion about capital punishment.”

At times, we’re privileged to hear Prejean’s innermost misgivings. She’s plagued too by the harsh but righteous anger of the victims’ parents and the cynical disapproval of the victims’ themselves, who remind us of promising young lives violently cut short. The insistent voices and haunting figures receive expressionistic treatment by Klem, who with CU theater coordinator and technical director Bill Van Deest, has come up with a striking set dominated by a depressive death row cell block below, where the condemned fret and wait, and a surrealistic catwalk above, from where the dead look down. All is black save for the rust-toned bars and handrails. Adding context are stark, projected images on an overhead screen. Together with the disturbing, fated presence of Poncelot, a sneering, conniving hate-monger bursting with pent-up anger, fear and regret, it becomes an existential space.

At first, Poncelot tries playing Prejean the way he has everyone else. After all, she comes to the prison and criminal justice system as an innocent. When he sees she has, as Klem calls it, “backbone,” he begins to respect her. Before she knows it, she finds herself in the uncomfortable position of being an advocate and confessor for a monster. Along the way, she makes enemies. But she cannot turn back.

In the eyes of Tiehen, a CU senior theater arts major whose experience researching, rehearsing and performing the role is her thesis project, Prejean is like Alice in the rabbit hole. “Once she falls, she just keeps going and going, and what I like about this script is that as soon as she gets a grasp of one thing, all of a sudden she’s dealt a whole new layer of challenges, and it’s overwhelming. There’s plenty of points in the play when she goes, ‘What am I doing here?’ It’s kind of like she’s propelled along by events. It gives you a real sense for how this thing steamrolled. There’s not a moment’s rest. And there is no getting off for her.”

So, why does Prejean stay the course? “She sees this person who needs help and when he turns to her for it, she can’t turn away from that,” Tiehen said. “She feels a responsibility for this guy’s soul. For his well-being. For his life.” Klem said, “She becomes not only a tower of strength for him, but also the conscience for him.”

Poncelot is played by CU senior Rusty Perry, a regular at the Millennium Theater, He feels the condemned man finally opens up to Prejean out of “his trust” in her. “She sort of pulls it out of him. When he first meets with her, he blows smoke in her face. He doesn’t feel she deserves any more consideration than anyone else. Yet she still cares for him,” he said. “He’s like one of the strays she took in as a child. It’s his first experience of love — of someone caring for his life.”

For Tiehen, a veteran of such CU productions as Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, Prejean is a woman to admire and a character to covet. “She’s an amazing person. Her involvement in the movement just happened, and rather than running away from it — she embraced it. You don’t find many female characters like her that are intelligent and strong, and still warm and compassionate.” She said playing a public figure in Prejean, now an icon in the fight to abolish the death penalty, is “daunting. Here is this woman who’s become such a strong face and force in the movement…and how do I still make her somebody that’s approachable and not just a figurehead?” The key, she said, is expressing her “compassion and her faith something good will come out of this.”

Then there’s the fact that at the time of these events, Prejean was an unknown navigating her way through a crazy system that, once its wheels were set in motion to put someone to death, it could not be stopped. “She’s kind of the Everyman in the situation,” Tiehen said. “She’s scared. She’s frustrated. She gets angry. She’s not someone who’s just pious, tempered and passive all the time.” She’s real.

Tackling a part and a piece as heavy as this, Tiehen said, is taxing. “It’s extremely challenging. It’s demanding a lot of me, and all of us. But it’s been very educational to chronicle the journey of this process. It’s a huge opportunity.”

Klem said cast and crew have tried keeping things light in rehearsal. “It’s not an easy play to do. But even as heavy as it is, you’ve still got to have fun doing it.” Aside from the potent themes, he said its cinematic structure — with short, impressionist scenes and quick transitions — makes it “difficult to stage.”

In a play filled with “religious connotations” that pose Old Testament eye-for-an-eye arguments versus New Testament turn-the-other-cheek admonitions, “there is a communion going on,” Klem said. “It’s almost like a liturgy in a sense.” Amen.

2011 in review

January 10, 2012 Leave a comment

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

Madison Square Garden can seat 20,000 people for a concert. This blog was viewed about 68,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Madison Square Garden, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Timeless Fashion Illustrator Mary Mitchell: Her Work Illustrating Three Decades of Style Now Subject of New Book and Exhibition

January 7, 2012 8 comments

Fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell of Omaha is about to enjoy the kind of rediscovery few artists rarely experience in their own lifetime.  Selections from Mitchell’s 1,000-plus fashion illustrations, an archive that sublimely represents decades of style, are the subject of a forthcoming book and exhibition that will expose her work to a vast new audience.  No less a fashion icon than famed designer Oscar de la Renta has high praise for her work in the foreword to the book, Drawn to Fashion: Illustrating Three Decades of Style by Mary Mitchell.   The soon to be published book explores her work in words and images and is a complement to the same titled exhibition opening the end of January and continuing through the spring at the Durham Museum in Omaha.  My story below, which will appear in the February edition of the New Horizons newspaper, charts her rich life and career.  The story also reveals how her illustrations may have never been rediscovered if not for the discerning eye and persistent follow through of her friends Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Joichm.  You can see more of Mitchell’s work and order the book at  A short video about Mitchell on the Drawn to Fashion website is narrated by Oscar-winner Alexander Payne, a family friend from the Greek-American community they share in common in Omaha. Clearly, Mary and her husband John Mitchell have made many good friends and it’s only fitting that her work of a lifetime is finally getting its just due on a stage large enough to encompass her immense talent.

NOTE: My profile of the aforementioned Anne Marie Kenny, a cabaret singer and entrepreneur, can be found on this blog, where you can also find my extensive work covering Alexander Payne.  Mary Mitchell’s reemergence as a fashion illustrator comes as the Omaha fashion scene is enjoying its own renaissance, and my stories about that burgeoning scene and its all-the-rage Omaha Fashion Week can also be found here.



Mary Mitchell in her studio, @photo Jim Scholz



Timeless Fashion Illustrator Mary Mitchell: Her Work Illustrating Three Decades of Style Now Subject of New Book and Exhibition

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in the New Horizons


Fashion illustration revived

Just as good art is timeless, so are the artists who make it.

Born in Buffalo, New York, fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell has seen art movements come and go through the years, but quality work, no matter what it is called or when it is en vogue, endures.

Much to her surprise, finely articulated fashion illustrations she made in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are finding new admirers inside and outside the world of design. Friends and experts alike appreciate how Mitchell’s work stands the test of time while offering revealing glimpses into the lost art of fashion illustration she practiced.

She worked as an in-house illustrator for an elite Omaha clothing store, “The Nebraska,” for four years. She then decided to become a freelance illustrator, which found her illustrating men’s, women’s, and children’s fashions for several leading Omaha stores. Her illustrations appeared in the Omaha World-Herald, the Sun Newspapers, the Lincoln Journal-Star and various suburban papers and local magazines.

When there was no longer a demand for fashion illustration, she moved onto other things. Her originals – meticulously rendered, carefully preserved black and white fashion illustrations – no longer had a use and so she put them away in her studio at home. Untouched. Unseen. Forgotten.

That all changed in 2010 when, suddenly, Mary found her work from that period the subject of renewed interest. It happened this way:

Two good friends visited Mary and her husband, John Mitchell, in Longboat Key, Florida, where the couple reside half the year. When guests Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Jochim asked Mary what she used to do for a living the artist showed a portfolio of her work. Kenny and Jochim were instantly captivated by Mitchell’s handiwork. The guests were so impressed that en route home they conceived the idea for an exhibition. The women formed an organizing committee and after many meetings and much planning, the right venue for the exhibition was found at the Durham Museum.

The resulting exhibition and book, Drawn to Fashion: Illustrating Three Decades of Style by Mary Mitchell, marks the first time and most certainly not the last that the artist’s work will be exhibited. The show opens January 28 and runs through May 27. Omaha-based Standard Printing Company designed and printed the book. The University of Nebraska Press is distributing it.

What so captured her friends’ fancy?

For starters, Kenny appreciates “the intricate detail and attitude, crafted in a superb drawing technique,” “the graceful lines” and “the exquisite flair” that run through Mary’s work. She adds, “The exhibit and new book devoted exclusively to her fashion illustration demonstrate her unique expression of a genre that is awesome to behold, highly collectable, and more relevant today than ever.”

Jochim, too, is struck by “the intricate strokes, down to the individual hairs in a fur coat, a herringbone weave, or the sparkle in a glittering evening jacket.” She said Mitchell “breathes life into the illustrations. The models in her drawings seem to all have a story to tell which makes you curious.”

Fashion designer icon Oscar de la Renta writes in his foreword to Drawn to Fashion: “Mary is a true artist, elegant and masterful. Her illustrations have enriched the experience of fashion in our time, and brought joy to the mind’s eye.”

Academics sing her praises as well.

Dr. Barbara Trout, a professorat the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design, which is contributing original garments for the exhibition, said Mitchell’s work “marked technical excellence through the fine articulation of garment details. Her ability to mimic the hand of the fabric, its distinct structure, and the projected movement allowed the consumer to envision themselves in those garments…Mary’s fine examples of illustration are truly a benchmark of their time.”

“Mary Mitchell’s fashion drawings reveal the confident hand of the experienced illustrator, one who brings to her work an editor’s ability to subtract and to refine, and an artist’s to enhance and to glamorize,” said Michael James, chair and Ardis James professor in the UNL Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design.



©Mary Mitchell



The rediscovery of Mitchell’s stunning cache of some 1,000 illustrations not only prompted the book and accompanying exhibition, it inspired the artist herself to create new fashion illustrations for the first time in years.

“I thought I probably would never have done any more fashion illustrations if it were not for Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Jochim. They showed so much interest in my work, it inspired me to start drawing in color, since all my work previously was in black and white to be printed in local papers,” said Mitchell.

Her new work now graces the book and the exhibit displays alongside her older work. She makes the new illustrations not for any client or acclaim, but purely for her own enjoyment and pleasure.

She throws herself into the work, creating without the burden of client restrictions or project deadlines.

“I get so excited about this that now I go down to my studio and work for hours to create another piece of art.”

She’s experimenting with other mediums, such as acrylic paints and watercolors, to draw fashions. Perhaps most pleasing of all, she feels she hasn’t lost her artistic touch. Her eye for detail, sharp as ever.

One should not assume Mitchell halted her creative life after the fashion illustration market dried up in the 1980s when clients and publishers abandoned hand-drawn illustrations for photographs.

No, her artistic sensibility and creativity infuse everything she does. It always has. It is revealed in the tasteful way she decorates her contemporary home, in how her hair is styled just so, in the stylish clothes she wears.

She is, as Jochim puts it, “a natural beauty” whose “graciousness and glamour” seem effortless.

Kenny said, “Mary lives and breathes art in every aspect of her life – her beautiful home, her elegant manner, her exquisite fashion illustrations, her glamorous style. Mary brings beauty to all that she touches.”

When fashion illustration was no longer a career option, Mitchell found other avenues of expression to feed her creativity, She became vice president of an advertising agency called Young & Mitchell, where she continued her graphic art. During this time she designed billboards, posters, and stationery logos, she called on clients, she made presentations, created television story boards and camera cards, wrote copy, and created advertising campaigns.

Her husband had bought several radio stations in Omaha and throughout Nebraska. The station general managers began asking Mary to create logos and to handle advertising for them. She then became a hands-on vice president with Mitchell Broadcasting Company. She created logos, designed all magazine and newspaper layouts, and bus signs for the stations, and handled creative projects for station promotions and concerts.

She seamlessly went from the intimacy of fashion illustration to the, by comparison, epic scale of signs and billboards.

“It was a different style of art needed for commercial advertising. I used to draw intricate, delicate drawings and now I was doing big, bold designs. Of course, that’s not fashion, it’s advertising, but it’s all a matter of design.

“It was a lot of fun. The people that worked in that environment each had their own personality – the DJs, the sales people, the managers.”

The passion of this accomplished woman would not be denied , certainly not suppressed. It is a trait she displayed early on growing up in Buffalo, New York as the only child of Greek immigrant parents, John and Irene Kafasis.



©Mary Mitchell



Where it all began

Born Mary Kafasis, she inherited determination from her folks, who ventured to America from Siatista in northern Greece. Her father arrived in the States at age 16 with $11 in his pocket. After a succession of menial jobs he worked on the railroad as part of a track maintenance crew. The work paid well enough but was miserable, backbreaking labor.

Her father and a buddy of his saved up enough to buy a candy shop. Greek-Americans up and down the East Coast and all around the U.S. used confectionaries and restaurants as their entree to the American Dream. She said her father was pushing 30 and still single when he wrote his parents asking that they find a suitable bride for him in the Old Country.

“My mom was from the same village in Greece as my dad. They married and he brought her back to the States, and she worked very hard with him in their candy store,” said Mary.

When Mary was about age 8 she spent an idyllic three months in Greece with her mother, visiting the village in which her mother was born and raised.

“It’s a beautiful little village surrounded by mountains. We stayed with my grandmother and I met all my aunts and uncles and I had fun playing with all my cousins. It was a lovely time.”

The small family carved out a nice middle class life for themselves. “My parents did well, but they worked long hours and very hard.”

Everything revolved around the family business located in South Buffalo. The family lived upstairs of the shop.

“My mom would hand dip chocolate candies, such as nut and fruit clusters. Dad would make homemade ice cream and sponge taffy. For Easter and Valentine’s Day they would make candy bunnies, baskets, and hearts and fill them with delicious chocolates and decorate them with colorful flowers and ribbons. My job was to fill the baskets and Valentine’s hearts with the chocolates.”

Summers and after school found her working in the shop. She began as a dishwasher before she was entrusted to wait on customers. Her penchant for drawing surfaced early on.

“I remember when I was little I would get a pad, colored pencils or crayons or paints and start drawing figures and designing dresses. That’s when I decided I wanted to be an artist. My mom was so encouraging. She also had me take piano and dancing lessons.”

Mary went to great lengths to pursue her art passion. “I was required to attend South Park High School. It didn’t have an art program, so after my freshman year I wanted to transfer to another school outside my district, clear on the other side of town – Bennett High School. It was renowned for its excellent art program. My girlfriend Shirley Fritz and I went to City Hall and obtained special permission to attend Bennett High. We really felt strong about it.”

Going to that far-off school meant waking up earlier and coming home much later. The extra time and effort were worth it, she said.  “My art teacher at Bennett was phenomenal. She had a great gift of teaching and got me involved in several national contests. I won national awards in poster design and an award from Hallmark cards for my design of a greeting card. I also designed the covers of two school year books.”

Then tragedy struck. Just two months before Mary’s high school graduation her mother died. “She had been ill for a long time and in the hospital. She was only 39.” Losing her mother at 17 was a terrible blow for the only child.

“I was scheduled to go to Syracuse University, but my dad would not let me go. He insisted I go to secretarial school instead of art school. He said, ‘You’re a woman, you’re going to get married, what do you need to go to art school for?’ It was an (Old World) Greek mentality. I know if my mother were there, she would have insisted I go to college and art school.

“He also said he would not pay for my tuition to college or art school. Luckily, my mother left a savings account in my name, so I used that for my tuition, and of course lived at home with my dad.”

She decided to attend the University of Buffalo in conjunction with the Albright Art School and graduated as a fashion illustrator. Her original intent was to be a magazine illustrator, but she was advised against that male-dominated field and steered into fashion illustration.



©Mary Mitchell



“One of the courses I took was life drawing, which teaches you the structure of the body’s bones and muscles. It’s very important to have that if you’re going to do fashion figures, to get the proportions and movements right, and to know how clothing is draped on the body.”

She learned, too, how elements like light and shadow “make a big difference” when sketching different fabrics and textures.

“After graduating I took my portfolio to all the department stores in Buffalo, where I kept running into resistance: ‘Do you have experience?’ ‘No, I just graduated.’ ‘Well, call me when you get experience.’

“So after several months of job hunting I took a job as a sign painter for the display department at a Flint & Kent department store, knowing that the fashion illustrator was pregnant and would be leaving in a few months. Lo and behold, they called me when she left and I got my first job as a fashion illustrator. I was in Seventh Heaven.”



©Mary Mitchell



New directions

Then John came into her life. They met as delegates at a Cleveland, Ohio convention of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, a service organization closely allied with the Greek Orthodox Church. Like her parents, John’s mother and father were from Greece, only from Athens. His family’s name, Mitsopoulos, was Americanized by his dad to Mitchell. His folks settled first in Kansas City before moving to the south central Nebraska town of Kearney.

John was a recent Georgetown University law graduate with an eye on practicing law in Kearney and plans for pursuing a political career. He wooed Mary from afar, the two got engaged, and in 1951 they married in Buffalo before starting a new life together in Kearney. Leaving home was bittersweet for Mary.

“Kearney in those days was a town of only 13,000, with no opportunities for me to work as an artist. With no family or friends, it was very difficult. So I decided to go back to school (at then-Kearney State Teachers College). I took two years of French, English literature, and psychology and during that time I would venture into the art department and talk to the art teachers. They said they needed more teachers and asked if I would join the faculty. I finally said yes and started teaching Art 101 and Art Appreciation.

“I was asked to design brochures for the college and I was also commissioned to redesign the interior of the student union.”

More interior design jobs followed in later years. Finally getting to apply her craft made her feel “a little better” about the move West.

While in Kearney Mary gave birth to her and John’s only child, John Charles Mitchell II, who is now a gastrointestinal physician in Omaha and married to M. Kathleen Mitchell of Red Cloud, Neb. They have two grown children, John Bernard Mitchell and Emily Suzanne Mitchell.

Meanwhile, her husband’s law practice flourished and his political career took off. He became state Democratic party chairman in the 1960s. It was a heady time.

“We got involved in local, state, and national politics. We got to meet Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy. When JFK came to Kearney for a political event we met him with our young son and he held Johnny. We met both Teddy and Bobby Kennedy. John was very close to Hubert Humphrey. It was a very busy and exciting time.”



©Mary Mitchell

©Mary Mitchell

©Mary Mitchell

Mary Mitchell’s halcyon fashion illustration days

Mary pined to work full-time and to have her own professional identity. John, by the way, “supported anything I wanted to do,” she said. The opportunity to fulfill her creative hunger finally came when the family moved to Omaha in 1968. Scouring the classifieds she saw an ad that read, “Fashion illustrator wanted, Nebraska Clothing.” A venerable clothing store then, “The Nebraska” was renowned for its quality brand name selections. She called, made an appointment to interview for the job, and got hired on the spot.

She enjoyed her four years with “The Nebraska” very much, but she reached a point where becoming a freelance artist made sense. She resigned from Nebraska Clothing in December 1971 and went into business for herself, calling her boutique design firm Mary Mitchell Studio. “Freelancing,” she said, “was the best career thing I did. It was a little scary at first, but people started calling me to design their ads and illustrate their garments. It was so wonderful to be independent and to work at my own pace. Each year kept getting better.”

Her client roster grew to include: TOPPs of Omaha; Goldstein Chapman; Herzbergs; Zoobs; Natelson’s; Parsow’s; Wolf Bros.; I. Eugene’s Shoes; Hitching Post; Crandell’s; The Wardrobe for Men, Backstage, Ltd.

 Being your own boss required discipline, which she has in good measure. With no one looking over her shoulder, she had to be a reliable arbiter of her own work.

“My general attitude is, whenever I sit down to create an ad or drawing I will try my best to achieve the attributes of the client’s business. I want it done as perfectly as possible.”

Creating a finished advertisement for a newspaper or magazine is a several step process. It begins with the client deciding the size of the ad, which determines its cost. Then the layout is made, the drawing of the garment is executed, and the ad copy written. Whether a suit, a dress, or a pair of shoes, there are usually instructions that go along with it. For instance, a client might want an 18 year-old look for one item and a 30 year-old look for another. A Girl-Next-Door vibe here, a sophisticated image there. A relaxed stance in one ad, a formal posture in another.

“The article was given to me to sketch and I created the look of the individual it would appeal to,” she said.

When doing fashion illustration ads, there is always a space limitation to work within, based on column inches. And, of course, there are always deadlines.

Once the parameters of the job were known, Mitchell arrayed the tools of her trade: pencils, pens, brushes, inks, paints, drawing paper. Her job then became animating the apparel and the figure wearing it to accentuate the fashion.

She started with a rough layout.

“There were two methods of drawing for reproduction at that time,” she said. “One used a fluorographic solution mixed with India ink to obtain various shades of gray and painting with a fine brush or drawing with a pen. The other used a No. 935 pencil to draw on textured paper to obtain various shades of gray to black. Different techniques produced different effects.

“If you have a dress with lace on it, you used a very fine quill pen, with a fine point. The way you handle the light and shade for materials and patterns depends on the amount of wash you use with your brush, dark to light.”

By mixing more water with a wash and by adjusting her brush stroke she approximated velvet, taffeta, fur or leather.

It’s all in the details, particularly in black and white.  “The more you show the detail the better the garment looks. You try to approximate the article as close as possible.”

Depicting the essence of a garment requires great skill.

“The skilled fashion illustrator must be able to reduce the architecture of a garment to its essentials while amplifying its hedonic appeal. This is no small task when the means she has to do this are a few marks of pencil or pen or brush on paper. She must interpret the designer’s stylistic signature, but to be convincing she must render with her own authoritative style,” said UNL’s Michael James.

The dynamic sense of flow or movement in Mitchell’s work, then and now, is intentional. “I don’t want it just to be a static figure, I want it to be active.” Besides, to show off the clothes in their best light, she said, “you’re not going to draw the body straight forward, you’re going to give it movement.”

A file of fashion magazines offer her ideas to extrapolate from. Perhaps a certain facial type or expression that catches her attention. Or the way a model’s hair blows in the wind. Or the way a hand is gestured.

“Fashion illustration figures are always elongated,” she said. “We were taught that the human figure is eight heads high but illustrative figures should be nine heads high or tall because that gives a more dramatic and elegant look.”

When she did fashion illustration for her livelihood she made a habit of studying fashion ads. “I certainly admired the Sunday New York Times fashion ads and those in the Chicago and L.A. papers as well.” Staying abreast of the latest trends meant she frequented local fashion shows. “I modeled, too, for some of the stores that I did ads for when I was thinner and younger,” said the still petite Mitchell.

As a freelancer she not only completed the artwork but the entire layout and the copy as well. All of it a very tactile, labor, and time intensive process.

“I would do the layout, then draw the article, type the copy, give it to a typesetter, and order certain fonts, and when I got it back I would cut it out with an X-acto knife and paste it up with rubber cement. It was the only way it was done then – no computers.”

From there, it went to the printer, and the next time Mitchell saw it, it was in print.

Then the industry changed and the services of commercial fashion illustrators like herself became expendable.

“Instead of retailers hiring a graphic artist to draw their clothes or their shoes or whatever, they began taking photographs. It was less expensive. And so they no longer used fashion illustrations. Not even in big cities like Chicago and New York.

“I would say it became a lost art.”



©Mary Mitchell



Reinventing herself

The timeless beauty and the scarcity of commercial fashion illustrations explain why they are collectible artworks today and featured in fashion books and on fashion blogs. The Fashion Illustration Gallery in London is devoted entirely to the work of master fashion illustrators .

Denied her fashion illustration outlet, she continued designing in a new guise as vice president and art director of Young & Mitchell Advertising and as vice president of Mitchell Broadcasting.

Mary said she and John sold their Nebraska stations, which included Sweet 98 and KKAR,, just “as the big boys started coming in, like Clear Channel,” adding, “We sold them at the right time.”

Another whole segment of her design work is interior design. John and Mary became part owners of Le Versaille restaurant and ran that for several years. They decided to change the decor and Mary redesigned it from a red velvet and mirrored interior to a black, green, silver, and white decor with large photographs of French vineyards.  She also designed the Blue Fox restaurant. She executed the concept and theme for the Golden Apple of Love Restaurant.

“It was incredible,” she said of these all-encompassing projects and the large canvas they gave her to work on.

Her home is another epic canvas she has poured her passion into.

“It’s indeed a pleasure to create your own space,” she said, referring to her chic residence that reflects her “contemporary” design palette. “I like clean lines and not a lot of frills. Basically black and white with some beautiful colors.”



©photo Jim Scholz



A well-designed life comes full circle

She and John have traveled to Greece several times. They took their son there when he was 11. The couple have remained close to their Greek heritage in other ways, too. They are longtime members of Omaha’s Greek Orthodox Church.

“I do speak Greek on occasion, and with my Greek friends, and so does my husband. We cook Greek foods for special occasions, as does my son and his family.”

After the sale of the radio stations in 2000, her life proceeded like that of many retirees, as she divided her days between travel, shopping, decorating, and spending time with John and Kathleen and their two grandchildren, John B. and Emily. She never expected the work she did way back when to be the focus of an exhibition and a book.

When still active as a fashion illustrator, it never crossed her mind to exhibit her work, she said, because commercial art was generally not considered museum or gallery worthy. That attitude has turned around in recent years. She is very much aware that the graphic art form she specialized in is making “a comeback” with young and old alike.

She has a collection of fashion illustration books and has her heart set on one day visiting London’s Fashion Illustration Gallery.

“I’d love to see it.”

Her illustrations might never have seen the light of day again if Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Jochim had not persevered and shown so much interest to exhibit them. Mary Mitchell is flattered by all the interest in this art form from so long ago.

There would be no exhibition or book if she had not preserved the original illustrations. She held onto enough that her personal collection numbers about 1,000 illustrations. It adds up to a life’s work.

The way she had carefully mounted the illustrations on framed and covered poster board panels and in portfolio books indicates the importance they have always held for her. Just as there was nothing haphazard in the way she created the works, she took great pains in preserving them for posterity.

Still, the illustrations would likely have remained tucked away in her home studio if not for the unexpected series of events that led to the book and exhibition.

Now, these valuable artworks and artifacts have a second life and Mary Mitchell suddenly finds herself the subject of renewed interest.

Harper’s Bazaar editor Glenda Bailey writes, “I love that Mary Mitchell brought such a high caliber of artistry to the local level. I was in fashion school in London in the 1980s, but when I look at the work of Mary drew for the women of Omaha at that time, her level of detail puts me right into the moment. To the casual viewer, Mary’s work appears effortless. But when you look more closely you see the precision and intention behind each brushstroke. She elevates each drawing to a tactile experience. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a Mary Mitchell illustration is worth a thousand rustles of silk and crisp snaps of tweed.”

Mary never expected such a fuss, but she welcomes it. The timelessness of Mary Mitchell and her art now resonate with old and new audiences. The rediscovery of her work should ensure it lasts for generations to come.

To view more of Mary’s art and to buy her book, visit   For details on the Durham exhibition, visit

The Pit Boxing Club is Old-School Throwback to Boxing Gyms of Yesteryear

January 4, 2012 5 comments

If you’ve spent any time poking around this blog or if you’re a sucker for boxing stories, then this piece and several others by me on the blog should satisfy your interests in reading about The Sweet Science.  The following story profiles The Pit, one of several Omaha boxing gyms I’ve had occasion to spend time in as a journalist.  Owner Paul Anderson is a no-nonsense guy who came up under the tutelage of another no-nonsense figure, the late Kenny Wingo, whose Downtown Boxing Club became the emblem for old-school boxing gyms in the metro.  You’ll find on this blog profiles I did of Kenny and the Downtown.


©photo by Toby Brusseau, Rapid City Journal staff




The Pit Boxing Club is Old-School Throwback to Boxing Gyms of Yesteryear

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Nebraska Sports America


For a young man, Omaha native Paul Anderson takes an Old School attitude toward boxing. The ex-prizefighter’s love for The Sweet Science infuses The Pit Boxing Club, the back-to-basics gym he started a year ago in an old trophy shop at 2104 Military Avenue. The spacious venue caters to amateur fighters, although pros are welcome, too. Anderson, whose missing front teeth and bent nose represent battle scars earned in the ring, opened the gym as an oasis from the new age fitness scene and its trendy aerobics and martial arts. At The Pit, boxing rules.

“Because I love the sport, I want to be pure. I want to stay true to my roots,” said the 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran with tattoos etched on his massive arms. “People have been bugging me that I should have tai bao and boxercize classes, but I consider it line dancing. I like to think I’m a little bit more traditional than that.”

The owner of his own construction firm, Anderson knows well the territory he speaks of, too. Since his discharge from the Corps in 1985 he has rigorously trained in various forms of self-defense. After earning a black belt in karate, he learned the ropes in the square circle, eventually fighting dozens of amateur bouts as both a traditional boxer and kick boxer. He won the 1989 City Golden Gloves and the 1990 state ABF light-heavyweight titles under the tutelage of Kenny Wingo of the Downtown Boxing Club. Then he turned pro, logging a 5-0 record as a pugilist and a 15-1-1 mark as a kick boxer, before a detached retina in his right eye ended his competitive career. Since then he’s coached hundreds of individuals, of all ages and skill levels, at various gyms around town. Fed up with the franchise fitness culture, he sought his own training domain and House of Pain.

“To be honest, I just wanted a place to call my own where I could train the way I like to train and where I didn’t have to listen to anybody’s guff. I would have been happy with an old garage or something with just enough room to put in a ring and heavy bags,” he said. Instead, he got a great deal on a 4,500-square foot site. Every inch is utilized. Right inside the street-level door is a compact ring whose tight confines he prefers because it keeps fighters busy. The long main floor features a dozen or so bags of all shapes and sizes. The basement is outfitted with free weights. The upstairs includes a heavy bag station, an equipment/locker room and a large office from which Anderson and his wife Darla operate things.

Well aware of the unsavory reputation boxing suffers, Anderson is intent on running a user-friendly space free of intimidation. His clients range from beginners to veterans and strictly fitness buffs to hardcore competitors. “People hear the name Pit and they probably think we’re a bunch of thugs, but it’s not like that. I mean, I’ve got some tough guys down here, but I’ve got people from all walks of life. Training with us now are a lawyer, an auto mechanic, a probation officer and a Creighton women’s soccer player. There’s no big egos here. No one really tries to take each other’s head off. We just want to get in the work. We save the hostility for competition,” he said.

To ensure control, he takes a hands-on role with everyone. “When you come in, I’ll work with you,” said Anderson, The Pit’s only coach. “I’ll get you started on the basics – jumping rope, shadow boxing, working the heavy bags, doing speed bag work. After maybe a few weeks, you’ll do a little light sparring. I can look at the physical attributes of a person working out and decipher what techniques are going to work well and what won’t. But I don’t pressure anybody into fighting if they don’t want to. I don’t want people competing unless they’re into it. You’ve got to be into it. I’m not going to put someone in the ring if I think they’re going to get hurt or make a fool of themselves. It takes a certain person to get in there and trade gloves with somebody. It’s not for everybody and, to be honest, I don’t want everybody doing it because if everybody did it, there’d be no mystique about it.”

Kick boxer Undra Eggleston likes the no-bull atmosphere at The Pit. Recently relocated to Omaha from Indiana, the champion amateur now turned pro said, “I visited several gyms. I talked to Paul and I liked what I saw. I liked his commitment. He’s got everything I need and he works with the fighters real well.”




Ever the purist, Anderson draws the line at kick boxing. No grapplers, no belts, no gis allowed. He has fashioned the place after his old stomping grounds, the classic Downtown Boxing Club, whose venerable manager, Kenny Wingo, is a mentor. “Yeah, I love that place,” he said. “I’m trying to model my gym after Kenny’s. I want to keep it a nice, simple boxing club and train some good fighters. Nothing too fancy. No nonsense.” Anderson called Wingo to “ask his blessing” before opening The Pit. “He’s done a lot for me. He’s the one who got me fired up about it (boxing).” Wingo, who helped his protege stage a recent boxing show, sees a kindred spirit in Anderson. “I went into it with the same intensity as he’s going at it. He’s put a lot into that place. He’s a great kid. Boxing has a real friend there.”

Anderson has seen local interest in boxing grow lately after slumping in the ‘90s. “It’s coming back a little bit. We’ve had some pretty good turnouts at smokers and the most recent Gloves tourney.” He hopes one day to build a large enough stable of fighters to enter an entire team in area amateur events. To date, a handful of fighters have competed under The Pit banner, including a 12-year-old who won his first bout. Anderson is currently preparing some adult novices, including a couple heavyweights, for upcoming smokers. He enjoys helping these raw boxers “develop,” adding, “Boxing builds character. You find out a lot about yourself in the ring. I respect anyone who gets in there and does it.”

Outside the competitive arena, he enjoys seeing boxing gain acceptance as a top fitness regimen. “A lot of people are finding that boxing is a great workout.”

The Pit, its name emblazoned in bold lettering on a marquee above the front entrance, is making waves in local boxing circles. Notables Ron Stander and Bruce Strauss have dropped in. Anderson hopes The Pit is one day well-established enough to become a regular stopover for pros, past and present. “I want to have one of the best clubs in the Midwest. I’d like to get bigger. I would like to see pros coming through town train at The Pit. It would be a heckuva feather in my cap if after 20 years here I could look up at a bunch of pictures on the wall of me with Joe Frazier or Evander Holyfield or George Foreman.”

Norfolk, Neb. Festival at the Johnny Carson Theatre Hosts Intersection of Comedy’s Past, Present, Future

January 4, 2012 1 comment


One of the top annual comedy events in the United States occurs in what seems be a most unlikely place, Norforlk, Neb., until you realize the northeast Nebraska town is where Johnny Carson grew up and where he helped endow a state-of-the-art theater in his name.  Looked at in that light then, the Great American Comedy Festival that plays there every June and that attracts a roster of emerging and legendary comic talents doesn’t appear so out of place after all.  I did this story a couple years ago in advance f the festival when its emcee headliner was David Brenner and its legend recipient was Bill Dana.  Depending on your age and your knowledge of pop culture figures from the 1960s-1970s and earlier, those names may or may not mean anything to you, but Brenner and Dana were once very big deals in the comedy world.  It was fun to speak with each of them.  Space constraints dictated I could only use a bare fraction of the interview materials.  Time constraints prevent me from posting the full Q&As on this blog.  Maybe some day, if I ever acquire an assistant or intern, I can share those full interviews here.

By the way, this blog contains several stories by me on Dick Cavett, whom I’ve interviewed extensively the last few years.



David Brenner




Norfolk, Neb. Festival at the Johnny Carson Theatre Hosts Intersection of Comedy’s Past, Present, Future

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (

The June 14-20 Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb. honors the legacy of hometown legend Johnny Carson by celebrating comedy’s past, present and future. Twenty-four stand-ups from around the country compete for a grand prize.
The comics qualified via auditions held in 10 cities. Many already boast impressive credits: appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman,” “Saturday Night Live,” Comedy Central and gigging at top clubs. Others are still waiting for that big break.

For audiences of a certain age, however, the real attractions are two venerable comedy stars – stand-up David Brenner and writer-performer-producer Bill Dana. For the June 20 gala finale at the Johnny Carson Theatre Brenner’s the emcee and Dana’s the Comedy Legend recipient (2008’s was Dick Cavett). They’re among the competition’s judges.

The pair’s combined comedy careers approach 100 years. Both claim a strong connection to NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” the fabled program that made the late-night talk format a staple. Norfolk native Carson inherited the gig from predecessors Jack Paar and Steve Allen but, Dana said, Johnny “perfected it.”

Brenner’s 158 “Tonight Show” appearances are a record. He’s guest-hosted 70 times. He made his national television debut there, killing with his sharp observational bits. The show was at the height of its star-making power then. Brenner makes no bones about the impact those early spots meant.

“I’m thrilled to be doing this because not only did Johnny give me my first break and my first shot on television but he kept having me on and that sustained my career, so that you’re talking to someone now who’s still doing comedy after 40 years and that’s because of Johnny Carson,” Brenner said by phone from Las Vegas. That success allowed Brenner to meet the great comics he idolized as a kid.

Before that first Carson set, though, a struggling Brenner was ready to call it quits.

“Think of this – one small room, a pull-out sofa bed, two trunks with things in ‘em, a globe of the world because the person there always dreamed of traveling the world, a little kitchen you couldn’t sit down in, a bathroom, a closet and an outer- wear closet before leaving. Maybe 300 square feet. And three dollars in the pocket. That’s where I lived and how much I had when I walked on the stage to do my first ‘Tonight Show,’ and the day after I did that first one my life changed.”

Brenner, whose father was a vaudeville comic, grew up on Phillie’s mean streets. Having starred in his own live HBO special, hosted his own late night talk show (‘Nightlife’) and been a Vegas headliner, Brenner’s not the sentimental sort but mention Carson and he turns softie.

“I don’t get excited much about gigs anymore. I mean, I haven’t done it all, but I’ve done close to it. When Eddie Brill, who’s talent coordinator for ‘Letterman’ (and the fest’s executive producer), called and told me what he’s doing – keeping the memory of Johnny Carson alive – and would I consider emceeing the thing, I said, ‘What, are you kidding? You got it.’ I can’t wait for that gig, and I haven’t felt that way about a gig in a long, long, long time.”


 Bill Dana


Dana’s eager to pay homage, too. The Quincy, Mass. native and World War II combat vet had no show biz dreams until attending Boston’s Emerson College on the GI Bill. When fellow Emerson grad Gene Wood got on as an NBC page Dana joined him. The page route opened doors for their Dana and Wood comedy act.

Wood went on to write for “Captain Kangaroo” before turning TV’s preeminent game show announcer. Dana hooked up with Don Adams, writing routines that caught the attention of “Tonight” originator Steve Allen, who brought Dana on as a writer/talent scout. Dana soon became the head jokesmith.

Dana has the highest regard for Allen’s pioneering role.

“Everything you see on ‘The Tonight Show’ to this day comes from Steve. The couch, the chair, the desk, the proscenium, the relationship with the orchestra, all of that pabulum with the band leader and the announcer, all of that was done in the original ‘Tonight Show’ at the Hudson Theatre (New York),” Dana said by phone from Nashville. “Nothing has changed to that formula because it was just perfect right from the beginning. It was exciting to be part of that.”

Steve Allen
Johnny Carson



Dana contributed bits like The Answer Man that morphed under Carson into Carnac. Though primarily a writer, Dana said he acted “as a sort of utility infielder” in select skits. One bit Dana wrote and performed in ‘59 – “My name, Jose Jimenez” – became a sensation that led to his own sit-com.

He was virtually out of the business before penning the memorable “All in the Family” episode in which Sammy Davis Jr. kisses Archie Bunker. He’s toured with comedy legends Cavett, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory and Shelley Berman. In 2005 he launched the American Comedy Archives ( at his alma mater. Dana’s the subject of a new documentary.

Something Allen once told him is coming true. “Steve always said, ‘If you live long enough you’ll start to get awards,’ and it’s starting to happen. These days, I’d rather have a job.” Rim-shot, please.

For festival details visit or call 402-371-2932.

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