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George Eisenberg’s love for Omaha’s Old Market never grows old

June 19, 2012 4 comments

One of the biggest champions of Omaha’s Old Market and the history of the place has died.  George Eisenberg devoted much of his life to the historic warehouse district.  As boys and young men he and his brother Hymie worked alongside their father, Benjamin, manning a fruit and vegetable stand when the area was home to the Omaha Wholesale Produce Market.  Later, the brothers revolutionized the family business to become niche suppliers of potatoes and onions to major food processors, operating out of offices in the commercial center.  When the wholesale district declined and largely disbanded altogether the area was transformed into an arts-culture haven and George, who never left and owned substantial property there, became a landlord and an active Old Market Association member.  In his later years he was advocate and amateur historian for the Old Market and proudly led an effort to get decorative street lamps installed and other improvements made. He contributed some anecdotes to a section I wrote on the history of the Old Market for a recent book, Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores published by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society.  An excerpt with that section can be found on this blog.  George was one of the last of the go-to sources who personally worked in the Omaha City Market.  He enjoyed reliving that history and as he saw it educating the public about a way of commerce and life that is largely no more.  His enthusiasm for the subject will be missed.  I did the following short profile of George about five years ago for Omaha Magazine and now as fate would have it I will soon be writing an in-memoriam piece about him for the same publication.  That rememberance will join one I wrote about another Old Market legend who died recently, Joe Vitale.  You can find the Vitale story on this blog.

George Eisenberg’s love for Omaha‘s Old Market never grows old

@by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Old Market icon George Eisenberg has more than the usual attachment to the historic warehouse district that once was the area’s nexus for produce dealers, buyers and transporters. His late father Benjamin was a peddler in what used to be called the City Market. As boys Eisenberg and his brother Hymie worked alongside their dad in the leased open air sidewalk stalls whose overhead metal canopies still adorn many of the 19th century-era buildings preserved there. Once home to wholesellers and outfitters, the brick structures now house the Old Market’s mix of condos, restaurants, shops, artist studios and galleries.

After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II Eisenberg rejoined his father, delivering items by truck, and by the early ‘60s he’d modernized and expanded the enterprise and bought out papa. In 1972 his brother Hymie partnered with him. Innovations gave the company such a competitive advantage that the brothers were dubbed “the potato and onion kings of the United States” supplying millions of pounds a week to commercial customers across America and into Canada. They made their fortune and retired in 1983. Hymie died in ‘91.

The 83-year-old is proud to be a peddler’s son. He’s also proud of his continuing relationship with the district. He’s a property owner and an active volunteer with the Old Market Business Association and Downtown Omaha Inc.. Eisenberg secured the authentic lamp posts that lend such a distinctive design element to the 10th Street Bridge. He played a key role, too, in making the 11th and Jackson Street parking garage a reality. Downtown Omaha Inc. honored him with its 2007 Economic Development Award.

He’s a model landlord for the tasteful restoration he’s done and solid tenants he’s brought to his 414-418 South 10th Street buildings, properties originally owned by his father for wholesale storage, distribution and offices.

Generous with advice, he’s given counsel to many Old Market entrepreneurs, including Nouvelle Eve/Jackson Artworks owner Kat Moser.

As much as he’s involved in the “new” Old Market’s destination place identity and as much as he supports the emerging SoMa and NoDo developments, he enjoys looking back to the Market’s past. Back when ethnic blue collar produce vendors pitched their wares in the ancient tradition of the open air market. When pockets took the place of cash registers and vendors took a break from 14-hour days by reclining on bales of hay or overturned crates. It was a boisterous, press-the-flesh carnival of men, women and children using sing-song chants to hawk fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and plants. Shoppers hailed from all walks of life.

A chorus of Eisenberg shouting, “Get your watermelon — red, ripe and sweet watermelon,” blended with the pitch, dicker and banter of hundreds of merchants-customers. Accents were common among the mostly Jewish, Italian and Syrian vendors. “English was the primary language spoken,” he said, but many foreign-born merchants, like his Russian immigrant father, “conversed among themselves in their native tongues. Every ethnic group was represented in one way or another.”

All those peddlers packed in a small space shouting to get customers’ attention created quite a racket. “Our advertisement was our voice,” he said. “It was noisy, yeah.” But that noise was sweet “music.”” Besides, he said, the ruckus and color “were part of the charm of the market.”

Hawking’s not for wallflowers. “If you’re shy you don’t belong in marketing,” he said. Things only quieted down, he said, after a warning from the market master, whose job was to collect monthly fees from vendors and mediate disputes among them. Once gone, the din began again. It was a special time and place.

“It was fun,” Eisenberg said. “There was excitement.”

He said his father steeped him in the market’s history. Ben Eisenberg got into the trade through his father-in-law Solomon Silverman, whose daughter Elsie became Ben’s wife and George and Hymie’s mother. Just as Silverman began as a door-to-door peddler with a horse and wagon, Ben followed suit. Just as Solomon leased stalls in the market, so did Ben. In the early 1900s, Eisenberg learned, a bidding process divvied up the stalls. Some locations were better than others. Getting outbid caused sore feelings and fistfights broke out. The bidding system was disbanded, he said, and exisiting stalls grandfathered in. Ben had four choice spots at the northeast corner of 11th and Jackson as well as his own wholesale house.

In an era before “Thanks for shopping…come again,” he said many vendors lacked good customer relation skills. His dad, though, had a gift with people.

“My dad was a really good salesman and he separated himself from everybody else because he was very polite, businesslike, and his word was his bond. If my dad said, ‘You got it,’ you didn’t need a contract — that’s it.” Eisenberg said.

He said his father “bought and sold in big quantities,” a practice Eisenberg continued. Many of Ben’s grocery-supermarket customers were former peddlers like himself. “My dad knew all the peddlers, so when he got in the wholesale business all the peddlers came to do business with dad. They knew he was going to give them the right price and not insult them.”

Like his father before him, Eisenberg served as vice president of the Omaha Wholesale Fruit Dealers Association, a predecessor of the Old Market Business Association. In some ways he’s still hawking, still looking after the best interests of his beloved Old Market. “I love business. I love marketing. I welcome anybody who wants to hang up their shingle and start their business.” He embraces the growing community there. “That’s the district’s salvation — it’s a neighborhood now.”

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Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer

June 19, 2012 6 comments

The Omaha art cinema Film Streams is making a habit of saluting prominent American screen actresses.  The way it works is a guest star comes for a special evening in which Film Streams board member and world acclaimed filmmaker Alexander Payne interviews her live on stage, ala Inside the Actors Studio.  A repertory series of her work is part of the deal.  Laura Dern got the treatment the first time.  Debra Winger came next.  Jane Fonda is this year’s feted subject. Depending on your age or aesthetic or political affiliation Fonda means different things to different people.  For some, she’s an enduring star.  For others, a faded one.  Depending on your tastes, she boasts an impressive body of stand-the-test-of-time work or else a decidedly uneven euvre outside a few notable exceptions.  Many still find unforgivable her anti-war protests and vilify her every move.  Many more feel affectionate and nostalgic about her as the daughter of Henry Fonda and as one of the 1960s and 1970s biggest stars.  She’s prettty much done it all as a cinema diva – from ingenue to sex symbol to serious Method actress, the star of box office hits and critically acclaimed prestige pics, gobs of Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, two Academy Award wins for Best Actress, an Emmy for Best Lead Actress.  Retiring from the screen at age 50 and making a comeback at nearly 70.  Now, of course, as a woman of a certain age (74) she’s a supporting player or character actress who brings a rich persona and background to any role she takes.  Part of the context of Jane Fonda today is that her adventurous personal life informs her work.  Her boarding school and debutant upbringing.  Her early modeling career.  Studying under Lee Strasberg.  Her marriages to Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden, and Ted Turner.  Her activist years.  Becoming a Hollywood Player as a producer.  Making herself a fitness guru.  Her forever strained relationship with her famous father.  And her identity today as a healthy aging advocate and author.  You’ll find plenty of film stories by me on this blog.  Many happy cinema returns.

Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the July issue of Metro Magazine

 

The Fonda Legacy

This summer Film Streams celebrates the many faces of actress Jane Fonda.

She and one of her biggest fans, Alexander Payne, converse live on stage July 22 at the Holland Performing Arts Center for Feature Event IV, the art cinema’s annual fundraiser. A Fonda repertory series runs through August 30.

The Fonda legacy in Nebraska looms large. Her late iconic father Henry Fonda was born here. He started acting at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where Jane and brother Peter trod the boards. Henry retained deep ties to the state and the Playhouse. He once brought the entire production of his Broadway triumph Mister Roberts to town. In 1955 he, fellow Playhouse alum Dorothy McGuire and 17-year-old Jane appeared in a benefit production of The Country Girl directed by Joshua Logan.

Peter, who attended the University of Omaha, occasionally visits the Playhouse.

When the only film pairing the famous father and daughter, On Golden Pond, made its Midwest premiere at the Orpheum she came.

Unlike her father’s beloved public persona, Jane’s is complex.

Incarnations

For much of the 1960s she was a spirited ingenue and sometime vixen plying her cover girl looks and wiles more than her acting chops in cinema trifles. Her comedic work in Cat Ballou and Barefoot in the Park hinted at star potential.

Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson, an admirer, says Fonda “always had a deeper, more introspective quality even when playing the lighter roles.”

When Fonda’s French filmmaker husband Roger Vadim exploited her sex symbol status in Barbarella she could have been typecast. Instead, she did a makeover from vapid party girl and blonde bimbo to social activist and serious actress.

She earned acclaim for her dramatic turns in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969) and Klute (1971), the latter earning her the Best Actress Oscar. That’s when “she came out from behind the shadow of both her father and brother” (Peter made it big with Easy Rider), says film historian Bruce Crawford of Omaha.

She also drew ire for her anti-war comments and protests. By the time she divorced Vadim and married activist Tom Hayden she was branded “political.” Fonda made socially conscious projects in Julia (1977), Coming Home (1978) (another Best Actress Oscar) and The China Syndrome (1979).

Her career peaked in the late ’70s-early ’80’s with Nine to Five, On Golden Pond and her Emmy-winning performance in TV’s The Dollmaker (1984). By then she’d morphed into a home workout video diva. After divorcing Hayden she surprised many by marrying media tycoon Ted Turner and promptly retiring from the screen at age 50. Her recent return to movies comes on the heels of her best-selling memoirs and healthy aging advocacy.

“She’s continually reinvented herself and her image,” says Jacobson. “She’s just very deliberate about how she thinks about herself and her own evolution. She’s a fascinating person.”

Payne curates the Feature Event and in Fonda, 74, he’s once more chosen a dynamic figure to talk cinema shop, following Steven Soderbergh, Debra Winger and Laura Dern. Jacobson says, “The people he’s interested in having conversations with are really strong artists with great careers.” She says Payne won Fonda over by saying her appearance would support the arts in Omaha. “That’s why she’s coming.”

 

 As the title character in Cat Ballou
As the title character in Barbarella
As Gloria in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? 
As Bree Daniels in Klute 
As Lillian Hellman in Julia 
As Sally Hyde in Coming Home 
As Kimberly Wells in The China Syndrome 
As Judy Bernly in Nine to Five 
As Chelsea Thayer Wayne in On Golden Pond 

 

 

The series:

Cat Ballou

She hits all the right notes as an aspiring schoolmarm turned outlaw seeking to avenge her father’s death. Lee Marvin steals the show in the dual roles of killer Tim Strawn and gunman Kid Shelleen.

Barbarella

She fearlessly plays an over-the-top sex object in highly suggestive scenes bordering on soft-core porn in this tripped-out fantasy directed by Vadim.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

Her transformation began with this unadorned portrayal of a desperate, ill-fated dance marathoner under the direction of Sydney Pollack.

Klute

As high end call girl Bree Daniels she’s a raw-nerved neurotic mixed up in a dangerous liaison with small town detective Donald Sutherland in the big city.

Julia 

Fonda plays the kind of strong woman, Lillian Hellman, she clearly emulates. Her playwright character embarks on a dangerous mission abroad for a friend, Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), opposing the Nazis.

Coming Home

She makes believable the evolution from naive war bride to anti-war sympathizer who falls for paraplegic activist vet Jon Voight. The fictional awakening reverberates with Fonda’s own coming-of-age.

The China Syndrome

Playing an ambitious TV reporter fighting to cover a nuclear reactor accident the authorities want suppressed Fonda is in her element. Her subdued conviction is a welcome contrast to high-strung Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas.

Nine to Five

Sardonic Lily Tomlin and sassy Dolly Parton are long-suffering office workers harassed by womanizing boss Dabney Coleman. Pert Jane is the innocent newbie. The women execute a militant plan to turn the tables in this feminist farce.

On Golden Pond

Jane plays out real life issues with her dad in this tale of an estranged daughter starving for affection from a father who has trouble giving it. Katharine Hepburn co-stars in the poignant drama.

Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. Feature Event are $35. For pre and post-event party tickets and for series screening dates-times, visit www.filmstreams.org.

Litniks Unite! The Downtown Omaha Lit Fest brings writers, artists and readers together in celebration of the written word

June 19, 2012 7 comments

Why I post what I post when I post it is sometimes a mystery even to myself.  The subject of this story, the Omaha Lit Fest, doesn’t happen again until the fall and in this case the piece is about the very first fest from several years ago.  But that’s precisely the point of my quirky blog: to get my work out there regardless of when I wrote it because, well, I feel like it.  Besides, a good read is a good read no matter whether its story currency is in the here and now or in the past.  All that’s relevant is whether the story holds your interest or not.  I trust this will.  Anyway, I’m quite partial to the festival and its founder-director, novelist Timothy Schaffert, and his offbeat sensibilities.  From the start, his fest has found exceedingly clever ways to consider literature in panels, readings, exhibitions, and performances.  I look forward to writing about this year’s event and you can be sure I’ll be posting that story in the fall.

 

 

 

 

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Litniks Unite! The Downtown Omaha Lit Fest brings writers, artists and readers yogether in celebration of the written word

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

When the inaugural Downtown Omaha Lit Fest “turns the pages” for the first time September 16 and 17 in the Old Market, it will unloose a roster of star scribes discoursing their work and offer a whimsical schedule of events, some predictable, some not, in celebration of the written word.

Recognizing the breadth of written expression, the festival does not play favorites, except for a preponderance of Nebraska writers, by embracing a sampler format exploring literature in all its variegated forms, minus such distinctions as “high” or “low” lit. When all is said and done, the event may just help unassuming Omaha finally shake off the last vestiges of the “aw-shucks” mentality dogging it all these years to assert its claim as a genuine cultural hotbed.

To the casual eye, Nebraska may lack the cache of a hip, plugged-in literary hub. But as even a cursory reading of festival participants’ credits reveals, there is a confluence of literary work connected to this place, by writers born or transplanted here or moved away, penning across a wide range of media and genres and, in many cases, writing about Nebraska, that compares favorably with any region’s collective body of work. The novelists, poets, essayists, journalists, scenarists, playwrights and so forth scheduled to give readings and participate in panel discussions represent some of the best contemporary practitioners of literary writing, period.

Then there’s the fact Nebraska writers are hot right now. Natives Michael Rips (The Face of a Naked Lady), Sean Doolittle (Burn) and Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan) are just killing it with their new works. Former Omaha radio DJ Otis Twelve is riding high after winning Britain’s Lit Idol contest for his novel On the Albino Farm and a Kurt Vonnegut prize for one of his short stories. Alexander Payne shared an Oscar for scripting his critical-commercial hit Sideways. Gerald Shapiro’s published collection Bad Jews and Other Stories served as the basis for the well-received film King of the Corner, whose screenplay he adapted with actor-director Peter Riegert. Ted Kooser is the reigning U.S. Poet Laureate and a Pulitzer Prize winner to boot. They’re joined by stalwarts Richard Dooling (White Man’s Grave), Ron Hansen (Mariette in Ecstasy), Kurt Andersen (Turn of the Century), Brent Spencer (Are We Not Men?), Susan Aizenberg (Peru) and many others in creating a vibrant literary pulse here.

Fest founder Timothy Schaffert is himself a major new voice on the national lit front between his first published novel The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters (2003), which earned high praise, and his forthcoming The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (2005).

”It just seems there’s something about the writing of people in and from Nebraska that’s entering the national consciousness in a way that’s pretty huge. Alexander Payne won his award for writing Sideways, a movie that’s shaped pop culture and continues to do so. Conor Oberst has won a great deal of attention for his songwriting, as have other songwriters from here. There’s a fantastic poetry scene here. And there’s Ted Kooser, of course. So, there’s definitely some energy and some excitement about proclaiming Omaha as a cultural center. And it’s organic, too,” Schaffert said, rather than some glommed-on movement imported here or some fabricated event dreamed up by pricey consultants.

To be sure, this grassroots deal grew out of Omaha’s own literary community with a “Let’s-put-on-a-show” zeal for showcasing some of its best and brightest talents.

 

 

 

 

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No less a cultural observer than Kurt Andersen, the Omaha born, New York-based satirist behind Spy magazine and public radio’s Studio 360, sees a rich lit stew brewing from his vantage point a coast away, where he’s coming from for the fest.

”It’s always been clear to me a youth spent in Nebraska correlates strongly with good writing later on, i.e. Willa Cather, Weldon Kees, Ron Hansen, Meghan Daum, Michael Rips, et cetera. However, when I was a kid in the ‘60s in Omaha, and former Nebraskan Ted Sorenson infamously said, more or less, Nebraska was a place to leave or a place to die, I took note, and left. But today with novelists like Richard Dooling and Timothy Schaffert doing their great work in Omaha, it seems to me it’s become a place for writers to live and not necessarily leave. In other words, from 1500 miles away the literary culture looks fairly healthy to me.”

Schaffert feels the props coming native writers way speak well for the area’s cultural currency and confirms, as Andersen said, this is a place where one can make it happen. “Each and every one of them are bringing great prestige to Omaha as a city of writers, which is what I think it’s becoming,” said Schaffert.

Omaha Public Library director Rivkah Sass applauds “the model” Schaffert’s come up with for the fest. “It’s quirky and edgy and fun and interesting and will open people’s eyes to what’s going on here, which is a literary scene that’s alive and wonderful, and I find that very exciting,” she said. She sees the event as a “convergence” of the arts that posits the library as a major cultural access point and center. “There’s every reason why Omaha should have a great library and why the library should be part of any number of great cultural events,” Schaffert said. “It’s been a great fit.”

The fest’s design of readings and panels interspersed with mixed media performances and exhibits interpreting literary works, all held in the center of the arts community, is the kind of Bohemian street fair once only associated with more cosmo burgs like Denver, Minneapolis or Chicago. But as more and more Omahans have begun saying — If they do it there, then why not here? — there’s a growing synergy underway that sees cool, indigenous developments, some already in place and others on the drawing board, breaking out on the local music, film, theater, art and literary scenes. These are the very elements that will help sustain and enliven the 24/7 downtown/riverfront lifestyle environment soon to take shape via Omaha’s planned urban condo, mixed-use neighborhoods.

 

 

 

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The Lit Fest is right in line with the homegrown indie music phenomenon, led by Saddle Creek Records, making Omaha a pop culture reference point and pilgrimage stop. It’s part of the emerging cinema colony that has new film projects popping up every few weeks, the inaugural Omaha Film Festival slated for March and the Film Streams art movie house coming to No Do next summer. It complements the wide art experience available at the Hot Shops, Bemis, Kaneko, Joslyn and the town’s many diverse galleries. It spins off the lively theater scene, where funky new works, Broadway road shows and the classics can be had. Ambitious new theater projects in the offing promise bringing artists of national stature to area stages. That’s not to mention the new Holland Performing Arts Center and the leap it represents in local music hall aesthetics.

All this has traditionally self-effacing Omaha coming out of its shell. As large as area contributions are to jazz, blues, R & B, soul, gospel and indie folk/rock, Nebraska’s impact on the literary world is far greater. Such giants as John Neihardt, Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Wright Morris, Karl Shapiro, Loren Eiseley and Ron Hansen called Nebraska home. The Prairie Schooner published by the University of Nebraska is one of the oldest, most prestigious literary journals in the world. The creative writing and English programs at UNL, UNO and Creighton are well-regarded and staffed by leading literary figures in their own right.

The fest’s lineup of active writers with Nebraska ties is a who’s-who of the state’s deep talent pool. ”Nebraska’s always had a strong literary heritage,” Schaffert said, “but it seems like it’s at its strongest perhaps since Willa Cather’s time. It may be even stronger.”

Some of Nebraska’s finest writers will miss the event, such as writer-director Payne, who’s off in Paris shooting a vignette for the I Love Paris omnibus film, and novelist Ron Hansen, whose book The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford is being filmed as a big screen western starring Brad Pitt. Regrettable as their absence is, the fest is bringing passionate writers and readers together in what should be an intimate, invigorating forum that’s all about sharing the love.

”It’s definitely a celebration of the written word and the writing process,” Schaffert said. “But with sort of a central focus on writers with some Nebraska or Midwestern connection. And I always want it to be kind of that way, you know. I want writers that speak to the voice of the Midwest or the Great Plains or the Greater Plains, or whatever we’re in.”

Future fests may add workshops and venues and run an entire weekend, he said. He’s steering the event free of the elitist imprimatur of, say, a university-museum sponsored conference or the drab propriety of a school or rotary reading, while still making it a serious gathering of litniks.

”I wanted to create an opportunity for writers to meet their readership in a way that is a little more festive, a little more sophisticated. So many times when you’re asked to read someplace, you’ll be reading under fluorescent lights in classrooms. I mean, to have any opportunity to present your work is great, but I thought it’d be cool to do it in the Old Market, in the gallery spaces, and to be able to have something to eat and to make it a more casual atmosphere. As well as great writers, Omaha has great resources and spaces to do that sort of thing in.”

Schaffert is a regular at the Nebraska Book Festival, a rather dowdy affair held mostly in back water venues long on scholarly rigor and short on impromptu charm, and while he appreciates the event, it’s a drag and it largely ignores contemporary fiction writers in favor of literary ghosts.

“Its focus has always seemed to me to be literary history. Willa Cather and Wright Morris…which is all extremely important, but I think sometimes the contemporary fiction writers end up kind of like afterthoughts. So that was something that after last year’s event novelist John McNally (The Book of Ralph) and I talked about. There was some conversation about how there could be a different kind of, maybe more urban event that was actually in more the heart of the city as opposed to a university campus. I wanted something that incorporated a variety of genres, that was relaxed and that was in my favorite part of the city, which is a lot of people’s favorite part of the city,” Schaffert said.

Another motivation, he added, was to provide a forum for fiction writers free of the hidebound, institutional restraints that make readings an awkward affair for writers and audiences alike. “Where poetry is very conducive to being read aloud, fiction reading — at the very mention of it — has this sort of feeling of having to sit through something and pay attention and show appreciation.”

Making it a folksy, communal gig will hopefully overturn notions of cranky, head-in-the-clouds writers reciting things beyond the reach of mortals.

”In reality, the stereotype of the crabby, solitary writer does not fit most of the people I know,” he said. “They’re gregarious, interesting, lively, charming, witty people that are great to hang out with. And they’ll all be reading and discussing their work in sessions that I’m sure will really sort of pop as people have the opportunity to come out behind their typewriters and go into the nuts and bolts.”

It’s not hard for him to imagine aspiring writers in the crowd hanging on their literary icons’ every word, as it wasn’t long ago he was an acolyte himself.

“I know when I was starting out writing at UNL in the writing program, they would bring writers in and we would literally sit at their feet. We’d go to their readings and then we’d see them in the classroom and then we might hang out with them at a party afterwards. You wanted every opportunity to soak up their presence and get a sense of the literary life. I don’t know if young writers are still like that, but it sure seems to make sense that an event like this could be a great opportunity to feel a little closer to the process and to the literary world in a way you don’t often get the opportunity to experience.”

New York author Liza Ward, who will read from her Outside Valentine, a novel about the Starkweather killing spree that claimed, among others, her grandparents, said even established writers like herself benefit from the interaction. “There is always something to learn from other writers, and because we tend to work alone, it is hard to connect with other people who understand what it’s like to face the blank screen every day — to invent something out of nothing and call it a job. It’s also nice to be around people who think books are important,” she said.

Gerald Shapiro, who teaches at UNL, said, “On the whole, being a writer is a lonely business. You don’t get to talk to people about what you’re doing and you certainly don’t get to hear people’s reactions to your work, so it’s a wonderful thing Timothy’s doing.”

It’s not only a chance for writers to interact with each other and the public, but for readers to discover writers and works for the first time.

“I’ve heard from a few people that they’ve been using the list of participants as like a summer reading list, and that’s exactly the point of the whole thing — all of us getting together and just letting people know that these writers and artists and works are out there for the taking. I love hearing that,” Schaffert said.

As for writers, it’s a chance to catch up or meet for the first time. Doug Wesselmann, better known as Otis Twelve, looks forward to renewing ties with Ward, Kava and Rips and getting to know  “a favorite” — Andersen. O.T. is enough of a rising star to be an invited panelist on the crime writing panel, Criminal Behavior, and enough of a beginner that he’ll be an eager fly on the wall.

”I hope I can reveal just how amusing a book about crime can be and how deadly serious humor is at its heart. It will be good to hook up with writers working in my genre. Crime writers are, in my experience, a collegial lot. But, listen…I’m a rookie in this game, and I expect to pick up a few pointers – read: ‘steal stuff’. I expect I’ll learn more than I’ll impart”.

Andersen will read from his just finished Wonderstruck, a period novel partially set in what is now Omaha. He’ll also expound on writing funny for the panel Drink and Be Merry. His advice to would-be satirists?

”If you’re funny, let yourself be funny in your writing sometimes. But if you’re not, don’t force it. And writing doesn’t have to be either funny or very serious,” Andersen said. “My favorite things tend to be both.”

What does a lit fest really have to do with anything? Ward said, “A literary festival speaks to the fact the book will never die. There will always be loyalists who support good writing, who understand that it is fundamentally important. It will be wonderful and encouraging to be around so many people who make literature a part of their lives.” Andersen views it as a kind of rally for the lit crowd. “People who fever for good writing need to come together and celebrate that fever now and then, especially in places where there are fewer writers-per-capita than in, say, New York City. And I feel eager enough to be part of this iteration of that group hurrah to buy an airplane ticket and come.”

Out-of-town headliners like Andersen and Ward are coming on their own dime, too, as Schaffert’s “just above zero budget” precludes any air fare, lodging or honorarium support. If they can do it, then locals have no excuse not to show. Besides, there are cool opening and closing night parties to make like F. Scott and Zelda at. It’s a good cause, too, So, c’mon down and get your lit groove on.

Check out the full schedule of events and list of participants at www.omahalitfest.com.

 

Omaha Lit Fest: In praise of writers and their words: Jami Attenberg and Will Clarke among featured authors

June 19, 2012 1 comment

You’ll find several stories on this blog that I’ve written about the Omaha Lit Fest.  I’ve been covering the fall event since its inception in the mid-2000s.  This is a piece I did on the eve of Lit Fest II.  I feature two of the featured authors from that year’s event, Jami Attenberg (Instant Love, The Kept Man) and Will Clarke (The Worthy).  The founder and primary organizer of the festival is Timothy Schaffert, who also happens to be one of America’s finest novelists (The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, The Coffins of Little Hope).  I expect I’ll be writing about Lit Fest 2012 come the fall.

 

Omaha Lit Fest, In praise of writers and their words:

Jami Attenberg and Will Clarke among featured authors 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The Sepember 15-16 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest will offer the literati such bookish delights as readings, panel discussions, an altered book exhibition and the performance of a play. Guest writers from near and far will talk craft. Artists will pay homage to the written word. This second annual fest is the brainchild of Omaha author Timothy Schaffert. He promises a “whoopdeedoo” both more streamlined and expanded than 2005’s version.

Held at venues in and around the Old Market, the festival emulates the kind of hip, bohemian salon happening that Schaffert, a former editor of The Reader, said one expects to find in a cosmo city with a lively underground press and lit scene.

“In some ways, the festival has become an extension of the alt weeklies I’ve worked on, conveying some of the same sensibilities,” he said. “I take all of this very seriously, but I don’t want the event to feel at all stuffy. As a matter of fact, I want it to seem almost dangerously informal. Events often want to appeal to the biggest number of people imaginable, and homogenization ultimately results. It’s not my mission to convert non-readers into readers. My mission is to give the small cult of passionate booklovers a chance to meet writers, and to learn about other writers.”

For this year’s shindig, Schaffert said “we have loosely applied a theme: the literary fringe, with panels on small-press publishing, blogging, literary sex, death on the plains and stretching the truth in memoir, among others. We also salute the vanished poet, cult figure and Nebraska native Weldon Kees, and show his rarely screened experimental short film, Hotel Apex.”

Schaffert said the fringe is an apt theme for a gathering of writers whose work doesn’t “quite fit in the mainstream” and who make “speaking the truth, speaking their minds” a priority. “Very few of us on the list are best-selling authors,” with the exception of Omahan Alex Kava, whom he said “nonetheless writes some grisly, edgy stuff. So we know well the experience of trying to balance expressing ourselves honestly and getting published and promoted.”

How does Schaffert define the fringe? “Writers writing about things that move them, rather than what the marketplace demands. Writers working in different forms, genres, stepping along the margins,” he said. “Several of our fiction and nonfiction writers, and our poets, are published by small presses; and even those writers published by commercial presses often have to struggle to get word out about their work, while also asserting an original voice. I think most of us at the literary festival are inspired by the notion of creating work that is challenging and intriguing to the reader, rather than just spoon-feeding readers more of the same.”

He said if there’s a lesson to be gleaned from those who toil on the fringe “trying to make their work fit into a publisher’s marketing scheme,” it is that these “writers take their own direction, deal with the frustration and keep writing.”

Festival web site musings showcase Schaffert’s satiric style and include a send-up of the proverbial product “warning” list: “Do not attend Lit Fest if you’re hemorrhaging, cranky, prone to touching strangers inappropriately without an invitation or wear large view-obstructing hats; Lit Fest has not been approved by the FDA, and may cause drowsiness in small children; enjoy in moderation, but overindulge freely.” Gentle readers welcomed.

Most fest events are free. For more details, go to www.omahalitfest.com.

Profiled here are two of the writers featured at this year’s Lit Fest:

Jami Attenberg

 

 

Jami Attenberg

Brooklyn-based Jami Attenberg travels to “out of the way places” to write. It’s no surprise then she’s spent the last few weeks in a residency program at Art Farm, a rural retreat for artists near Marquette, Neb., where she’s enjoyed her first real break from a recent book tour. Her debut collection of stories, Instant Love, charts with humor and candor the light-dark love journeys of three women, sisters Holly and Maggie and little girl lost Sarah Lee, over a two-decade period of experimentation, commitment, entanglement and self-realization.

Her soon-to-be-out new novel, The Kept Man, tells the story of a married woman whose artist husband is in a coma, the crucible that causes her to sell off his paintings one-by-one in order to keep him alive. In the process of elimination, the wife realizes her marriage isn’t what she thought it to be.

Attenberg feels she has something to say about the whole love trip. “I tend to fall in love in a sort of very temporary way very easily,” she said, “and I think that comes from living in New York and traveling, which I do.” With Instant Love “I guess I wanted to talk about the instant connection people can have and how each one of those connections is valuable, even if it’s fleeting.”

The author, whose work has appeared in Salon, Nylon, Print, the San Francisco Chronicle and Time Out New York, doesn’t pretend to dish out advice, but her own experiences in the game inform her very personal first book.

“When I think about love I think about an accumulation of things,” she said. “When I think about the person I might fall in love with there’s all these different qualities and all these different moments…and all those things are going to add up one day to just one person. So I guess I just wanted to kind of burrow a little bit into that.”

At readings she’s often asked what she’s learned about love. “What I can tell you,” she says, “is I understand what it takes to fall in love, but I have no understanding of what it takes to make a relationship work after that. The one thing I do know about making a relationship work is that it’s all about compromise. I’m terrible at compromise. I’ve certainly been in love and had good relationships and everything like that, but the book is not about how to make it work.”

She said men ask her, “Am I going to like this book as a guy?” She tells them, “No one gets off easy in this book. The women don’t get off easy and the men don’t get off easy. It’s honest about everybody.” She added, “It’s not like a I-Hate-Men book. I don’t think I would even say I’m cynical about love.”

The title is a wink and nod at people’s “tendency” to “fall in and out of love really quickly,” she said. In this disposable era of immediate gratification, lovers are dumped and replaced like old socks. She said we enter-exit trysts with the expectation “there’s always something better around the corner. And then, you know, with e-mail and IM and all these things to distract you from focusing on love, it’s amazing people can sort of work around it or integrate it to their lives.”

She can “definitely” imagine doing a book “in about 10 years” in which she checks back with Instant Love’s three female characters to “see how they’re doing.”

The book was originally a zine series and she expects to do a zine again next year. She touts the “many great small presses out there doing really cool things.” She said fringe publishers focus on authors “without having to worry about best-seller lists or large print runs. They know who their audience is.” The goal of Attenberg is to one day “work only on stuff I really enjoy…but you have to earn it, you have to constantly be working to get to that point, and I still have a long ways to go.”

Check out her blog at www.whatever-whenever.net or her web site at www.jamiattenberg.com.

Will Clarke

 

Will Clarke

Dallas, Texas-based author Will Clarke skewers the college Greek fraternity system in his second novel The Worthy: A Ghost’s Story. For his narrator Clarke uses the dispossessed soul of a frat boy killed in a hazing fit of rage. It is through the eyes of Conrad, the dead Louisiana State University pledge, we witness the excesses of a tradition grown as corrupt as the humid air in Baton Rouge.

As an LSU grad who pledged Gamma Chi Clarke is well-schooled in the cruelties of frat life. As a Shreveport native he’s well-qualified to describe the clashes that result when the state’s jambalaya of cultures — the north half Pentecostal and dry, the south half Catholic and wet — collide on campus. “Those two worlds do not really jive and that makes for a really interesting mystical satire,” said Clarke, whose first novel, the originally self-published Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles, is a genre-busting foray into good old boy magic realism. Both novels are being adapted into feature films.

Clarke, who said “I always knew I wanted to be a writer,” recognized even as his college experience unfolded that he was getting fertile storytelling material. “I just remember paying very close attention and thinking this could be a book,” he said. He made a kind of running commentary in his head. “I’ve always found myself giving narration to events going on around me,” he said. “Even as I was going through all that stuff I was a bit detached, not unlike a ghost.”

He wrote The Worthy not long after leaving LSU and Louisiana for Dallas, the closest oasis he could make in his Ford Festiva. Again, not unlike his ghost protagonist who pines for his physical self, Clarke was “longing for a life that was left behind.”

Hazing baffled him then and continues to now. “Hazing always perplexed me,” he said. “I never understood why there was a baptism of fire that had to occur.” But he contends the tenets of this practice are widespread. “I think in any fraternity, in any place you have pledgeship, where you have to prove you’re worthy, there’s hazing. You can say there’s not, you can hope there’s not, but there is.”

Pranks that may seem like harmless fun, he said, can “turn out to be phenomenally dangerous” when performed by “hormonally-challenged” young men fueled by “binge drinking.” Clarke reserves his greatest disdain for Ryan, Conrad’s killer and a symbol of the alpha male type.

“He represents that idea of All-American malehood,” Clarke said. “On the outside he’s the male ideal…athletic, handsome, the big man on campus, but on the inside there’s something really dark and crazy going on. It’s very hidden. That’s kind of what goes on with a lot of fraternities. On the outside it looks like the golden handshake, but on the inside there’s something really dead and morbid. It makes all of these golden promises to guys but to get there you have to undergo abuse.

“I think sometimes the shinier the facade, the less trusting I am of things. This forced image of perfection Ryan has makes him scarier to me. It’s amazing to see what these respectable, perfect people do in those circumstances. It turns Lord-of-the-Flies pretty fast.”

Clarke, who sees the characters in his books as extensions of “the imaginary friends” he cultivated long past when “it was age-appropriate,” is at work on a new novel about a man who doesn’t sleep. No insomniac — the guy just doesn’t need to. After the grind of a recent book tour, which Clarke found too much “like selling Amway,” he’s found himself contemplating the nature of sleep or the lack of it.

Visit his web site at www.willclarke.com or www.booktourvirgin.com.

Remembering Omaha Old Market original, fruit and vegetable peddler Joe Vitale

June 19, 2012 4 comments

The Old Market.  Make that Omaha’s Old Market.  Sure, it’s a place, in this case a historic warehouse district that’s been gentrified into an arts-cultural hub and destination stop for locals and tourists alike.  But like any place worth it’s salt, it’s the people that make it.  One of the real holdover characters there from when the Old Market was still a wholesale produce center was Joe Vitale.  As the area transformed from industrial to retail consumer mecca he stayed on with his fruit and vegetable stand , still doing his thing amidst head shops, galleries, restaurants, bars, and live music spots.  When Joe passed away a couple years ago a little piece of the Old Market passed with him.  The following story for Omaha Magazine is a kind of homage to Joe and the slice of Old World commerce he kept alive.

 

 

photo
Vitale Corner

 

 

Remembering Omaha Old Market original, fruit and vegetable peddler Joe Vitale 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

The late Joe Vitale was the last of the old-time produce vendors plying his trade in the Old Market. Long after the Omaha City Market closed, Joe stayed on.

The World War II combat veteran made a good living back in the day, first working for his parents Angelo and Lucia, and then with his business partner, Sam Monaco. By the time the Old Market took off, Vitale was set for life and well past retirement age, but he hung on there, wintering in Las Vegas.

Why keep at it, even into his 80s?

“He did it because of the love of doing business, being self employed, selling to new customers and former customers who wanted to buy something from the historic Old Market,” says George Eisenberg, a former wholesaler who did business with Joe.

“He was not only a throwback but he was the only one of the original market vendors that lasted that long.”

“I guess he enjoyed being down there with the people and doing his work,” says Tootsie Bonofede, who grew up with Joe. “You know, when you enjoy something you don’t want to give it up.”

Joe stayed through the area’s transformation from a wholesale-retail produce center to its rebirth as a cultural district. Manning the corner of 11th and Howard, he and his stand were fixtures before the modern Omaha Farmers Market started up.

Vitale, who died March 29 at age 92, was a popular figure among tourists, business owners and residents, who viewed him as a vital, living remnant of what used to be.

“He brightened up that corner,” says Mary Thompson, whose mother, Lucile Schaaf, was an Old Market entrepreneur and favorite of Joe’s. “He was a super guy. He was an energetic, happy person, and he always had a good word to everybody. He had been there for so many years, you could say he was almost the last of the originals.”

More than a merchant dealing in fruits and vegetables, Vitale was an engaging presence. “He had a lot of personality,” says Bonofede.

Douglas Country Commissioner and former Omaha mayor Mike Boyle, a longtime Old Market resident, recalls helping Joe out with an insurance claim once and being repaid with a basket of plums.

“That was about the lowest fee I’ve ever collected,” says Boyle. “Joe was really one of life’s great characters. He had a wonderful sense of humor and added a lot of color to that corner.”

Samuel Troia recalls he and his brothers going to Joe for business advice, not expecting much, but getting more than they bargained for.

“It was a great meeting and he helped us out tremendously, and with nothing to gain, other than to help these young kids, because we were in our 20s. He sat us down and said, ‘OK, this is who to talk to, and I’ll make a phone call for you.’ He told us about delivering what you promise. Joe talked to us just like he was our father.”

From that time on, says Troia, “every time he saw me he’d holler, ‘Troia,’ and my wife and I would walk over and buy fruit, and he’d wash it for us. It was so nice and refreshing to see him. It was just like having a family member down there in the Old Market.”

Joe treated everyone like a family member or friend.

“He was one of the most down to earth guys you’d ever want to meet,” says Troia.

“Everybody knew him and everybody loved him,” says Bonofede. “They can’t say anything bad about Joe. He was so kind to everybody.”

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