Archive for January 4, 2012

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.

A queen gets his day in the sun: Music director Jim Boggess let’s it all out in “Jurassic Queen” cabaret

January 4, 2012 2 comments

Covering the Omaha arts-culture scene as I have for some 20 years I’ve met a lot of people doing a lot of fine work.  There are always newcomers to the scene, of course, whom I meet in completing assignments.  But there is a surprising number of veterans on the scene who for one reason or another or for no reason at all I miss connecting with all these years until the fates align and I subsequently meet them for the first time.  Jim Boggess is one of these.  He’s done a bit of everything in music and theater and I finally caught up with him on the eve of his doing a one-man diva show, Jurassic Queen, a couple years ago.  I think you’ll like Jim as much as I did for his warmth and honesty and absolute determination to be himself, no excuses or apologies, thank you.

Jim Boggess making friends with theatergoers, ©photo



A queen gets his day in the sun: Music director Jim Boggess let’s it all out in “Jurassic Queen” cabaret

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Omaha Community Playhouse Music Director Jim Boggess likes big, brassy numbers. Sundays, he indulges his penchant for belt-it-out show-stoppers directing the Freedom Choir at Sacred Hearth Catholic Church. His dynamic, stand-up-and-shout lead at the piano cues the choir to make raise-the-rafters gospel sounds.

He’s been an “MGM kind of guy” since growing up in Estherville, Iowa, where his flamboyance fed off the movie musicals he watched at the Grand Theatre. He set his sights on show biz after seeing a high school production of Carousel. Being gay in a small, conservative Catholic community spelled trouble. Songs he’s written for his new cabaret at the P.S. Collective, Jurassic Queen: A One Diva Show, touch on those years.

“‘Gotta Go Away’ is about how I felt in that little town. I had to get out of there. It was not a safe place for me to be,” he said. No matter how ugly things got, he found refuge within his big Catholic clan. “My family was always wonderful to me.”

There’s a tribute to Barbra Streisand, long a figure of infatuation and inspiration. The diva’s music transported him beyond narrow-minded townies. “Listening to her when I was a kid got me through a lot of crap,” he said. He pokes fun at his over-the-top exuberance seeing her in concert for the first time last year.

One tune satirizes Catholic school. Two personal songs bracket the show. The opening title number “Jurassic Queen” defines him as “a survivor with a sense of humor who’s not afraid to talk about the amount of hair growing out of my nose.”

The closing ballad “is about never giving up the fight and about friends who are gone who can never die as long as you remember them,” he said. “I’ve lost my parents. I’ve lost friends – some to AIDS, one to suicide. I think about them every day. I miss them every day. There’s a period in you life when you really feel like you’re Typhoid Mary because everybody you know is dying. That’s a damn hard time to get through.”



The show is a declaration of what it means to be an aging gay man in America. Boggess insists it’s not some self-righteous polemic but a celebration of a rich life.

“I’ve had a helluva time and I’ve got some great stories to tell and some great songs to sing that aren’t just mine,” he said. “And I’ve got some funny stuff, too. There isn’t anything more boring than somebody coming on the stage and going, ‘I am gay and you must respect me.’ You have to have a sense of humor about yourself.”

The show also expresses the defiant attitude Boggess has cultivated. “I really just don’t give a damn what anybody thinks,” he said. “I mean, I care what my friends think but as far as total strangers and large legislative bodies I don’t.”

Omaha singer/actor Seth Fox, whose Royal Bohemian Productions is staging Jurassic Queen, said having the show at the P.S. Collective in Benson rather than a gay venue like The Max, where it previewed, makes a statement.

“It says we’re not afraid to be here and you have no reason to be afraid either,” he said. “This helps us to bring gay cabaret out of the gay bar into the mainstream. Make it less about being a gay-themed show and more about being a human interest show. Granted, some of the humor is going to cater to gay audiences but not all of it. There is something for everyone.”

“It’s not a drag show,” Boggess said. “I don’t wear a dress. I’m just who I am. It’s just me and a piano and a couple of cutouts.”

Besides, Boggess said, being gay is just one aspect of him.

“I’ve never ever defined myself by my preferences,” he said. “I define myself by the kind of person I am. It is certainly a part of me, an intrinsic part of me, but it is by no means all of me. There’s a lot more there.”

For a long time Boggess felt disapproval from the very institution that was supposed to love him unconditionally – the church.

“The exclusion of many different kinds of people made me very bitter towards the church. I never ever thought I would set foot back there again.”

But he did, finding “acceptance and inclusion” at Sacred Heart in north Omaha, where the gospel music he performs speaks to him. “It’s survival,” he said. “Show me any good gospel singer and I’ll show you somebody who’s survived.” The Freedom Choir he directs there is mostly white but they sure know how to get down with gospel.

“I’m as white as they come but I think there must have been some funny business in my family earlier because I feel a big affinity for it,” he said.

Versatility’s kept Boggess working steadily 35 years. He can sing, play, arrange and direct music. He acts. He came to Omaha in 1974, via the Mule Barn Theatre in Tarkio, Mo., to work in the Firehouse Dinner Theatre’s pre-show Brigade. He, along with Jim and Pam Kalal, formed the trio Best of Friends. Their dreams of Las Vegas revue stardom fizzled. He freelanced as music director at the Firehouse and the Upstairs Dinner Theatre. He toured two years with the Nebraska Theatre Caravan, composing two musicals with Cork Ramer. He played the pit at the Playhouse, where he also starred in La Cage Aux Falles. All of it, he said, proved “a great training ground.”

He’s held his present Playhouse gig for 11 years. His devotion to theater is a love affair. “You have to really have a passion for this to survive,” he said. He lives for those rare times when everything comes together.

“There are moments in shows and in music when it goes right, when it truly is an expression of you and the other performers and the chemistry and connection between you and the audience has an undefinable magic. It’s equal parts instant gratification and pride. Those moments don’t happen all the time but, boy, when they hit there ain’t nothing like them.”

He often collaborates on cabarets headlining others, including Fox, Jill Anderson and Camille Metoyer-Moten. He felt the time was ripe for his own one-man turn.

“It’s just another side of me that I thought I’d let out,” he said.

Better do it now, he thought, at age 55. “I mean, how long will I be presentable?”

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