Archive for July 9, 2012

Homage to the bootstrappers by the Grande Olde Players

July 9, 2012 2 comments

For a long time and even today the University of Nebraska at Omaha was best known for its large Bootstrapper program for military personnel.  The school is vastly different than it was when the program launched during the Cold War but it’s impact remains.  The following story from a half-dozen years ago or more is about an original play written by the Omaha husband and wife team of Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill that takes a nostalgic look at the program’s beginnings, and those beginnings involved two strong leaders, then-Omaha University president Milo Bail and Strategic Air Command head and hawk of hawks Gen. Curtis LeMay, who some suggest was the inspiration for the character of Gen. Buck Turgidson that George C. Scott plays in Dr. Strangelove.  A Midwest academic and a military reactionary may seem to have made strange bedfellows but then again it’s not hard to imagine that two powerful middle-aged white men should come together in right wing solidarity “for the boys.”





©UNO Criss Library




Homage to the bootstrappers by the Grande Olde Players

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


The Grande Olde Players Theatre pays homage to Omaha’s deep military ties with the new play Bootstrappers Christmas, now through December 17. Written by the theater’s Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill, the nostalgic 1954-set piece tells a fictional story amid the trappings of history. The relationship between then-Omaha University and the former Strategic Air Command in Bellevue, Neb. is at the center of this holiday-themed dramadie.

Early in his stint as commander of the newly formed SAC, Gen. Curtis LeMay, architect of U.S. bombing campaigns in Europe and the Pacific and overseer of the Berlin Airlift, identified the need for a more professional corps of college-educated personnel. After World War II the U.S. Air Force had a glut of officers. Many had some college prior to the service and once “on the line” accrued credits at schools near where they were based, but few ever got their degrees.

LeMay, an American hero whose reactionary, right-wing views later tarnished his reputation, broached Operation Bootstrap with his egg-head friend, the late Milo Bail, then-president of what’s now the University of Nebraska at Omaha. By helping commissioned officers finish their degrees, the program would aid their climb up the ladder as well as better prepare them for post-military life. The idea of men and women “lifting themselves by their bootstraps” gave the program its name.

Bail and fellow UNO officials recognized the school was well-poised to serve military folks by virtue of a large adult education unit and Bachelor of General Studies (BGS) program that allowed nontraditional students to individualized studies in subjects of interest or deficiency. “Omaha University was really the first school in the country to offer” the BGS, said William Utley, former UNO College of Continuing Studies dean. More appealing still, he said, were the “earned life credits” granted officers for experience gained in the field, which cut by a semester their degree track.




Milo Bail
Curtis LeMay




The school’s extensive night courses offered yet more flexibility. Besides the cache of this partnership, school officials craved the extra money derived from the higher non-resident tuition bootstrappers paid. Between Offutt’s close proximity and Omaha’s central location, the military could feed students there not just from Offutt but from bases all over the U.S. and the world.

That’s what happened, too, as an influx of mostly Air Force but also Army soldiers and Marines made UNO the nation’s largest on-campus education provider for bootstrappers. Officers rotated in on active duty or TDY. Utley, director of the UNO program, said at its 1960s peak 1,200 to 1,500 “boots” attended school there at any one time. “There were any number of commencement exercises when over half of the graduating class was bootstrappers,” he said.

Alumni officials estimate 13,000-plus active duty military personnel attended UNO from the early ‘50s to the ‘80s.

Utley said UNO prided itself on being responsive to officers’ needs and interests by “developing” a system to stay in “constant communication” with them, no matter where their assignments took them. He said both active and prospective students received “counseling and advising” services to facilitate their education.

The presence of so many boots changed the dynamic of the school, especially in those early years, when it was a small, financially strapped municipal university, not yet a part of the University of Nebraska system.

“The Bootstrap Program was a major factor for several years in keeping the university afloat with the revenue” it generated, Utley said. “It was a very important element in the survival of the university during that period, when the university was really hard up.”

UNO Alumni Association President Emeritus Jim Leslie said bootstrappers were “a tremendous boon” to UNO’s finances. For a while, he said, UNO enjoyed a near monopoly in serving the bootstrap population. “It was a big deal,” he said. “For a while we claimed we were second only to West Point in the number of general officers that had graduated from our institution.” Some were stars like Johnnie Wilson, a four-star general. Other schools eventually cut in on the action.

Utley said the infusion of so many “highly motivated” students changed the academic culture at UNO. “They were a very serious group. Very good students,” said Leslie, who had boots as classmates there in the early ‘60s. “They were here to gain an education and most of them were older and more mature. Professors loved those guys because they asked the best questions.”





 ©UNO Criss Library




“A lot of students viewed them as ‘curve busters’ who made it harder to compete in the classroom or set a higher standard in the classroom. And no faculty member is going to complain about that,” said retired UNO professor Warren Francke, who had his share of boots. “And its true in general they were solid students because they were all business. They were there to do well in the classes.

“I thought they were certainly an asset. There were times when probably the undergraduates had a legitimate complaint that maybe they dominated things so much. But mostly,” Francke said, the boots “added a dimension to what” otherwise “was a commuter campus without a lot of people who had been all over the world…I thought their addition was sort of a valuable thing to have.”

While Bootstrappers Christmas is a slight, sentimental romp filled with a mix of ‘50s-era rock and traditional Christmas music, writer-director Mark Manhart does anchor the story in the real symbiosis between UNO and Offutt. The flamboyant Curtis LeMay and the non-nonsense Milo Bail are characters. The plot revolves around a boot who befriends a Cold War widow coed and other students in remodeling the campus Snack Shack in time for putting on a holiday show. The fun is tinged with the sadness of separation and loss, but hope prevails.

The play’s also about making new starts, something the bootstrap program epitomized. Ex-Air Force pilot Jim Hughes spoke for many boots when he said, “The university was the first milestone in my growth with the Air Force and I attribute any success and all successes I’ve had to that little development. I owe a debt of gratitude to the university…It introduced me to education oriented to my needs.”

The Iowa native and current Magnolia, Ark. resident said his general education degree catapulted him “up the ladder.” In 1973 he retired from active duty as a decorated colonel. He earned the Bronze Star, four distinguished Flying Crosses and five Airmedals. He received two Purple Hearts for injuries suffered as a POW.

NOTE: Operation Bootstrap supplanted Operation Midnight Oil. In 2002 the Air Force replaced the Bootstrap Program with the Educational Leave of Absence Program (ELA), although many in the service still refer to it by its old name.

Actor Kelcey Watson fills role of a lifetime on short notice in Blue Barn production of “Six Degrees of Separation”

July 9, 2012 2 comments

What actor Kelcey Watson did a few years ago in taking on the lead role in a play only eight days before the curtain went up doesn’t quite rise to the 42nd Street legend of a chorus girl replacing the leading lady on opening night.  But considering the part and the script were demanding and the world famous playwright would be in attendance Watson pulled off a minor miracle in not only learning his lines but giving a performance that made it appear as if he’d been rehearsing for weeks or months, not days.  He performed his feat in service of a Blue Barn Theatre (Omaha, Neb.) production of Six Degrees of Separation and its author John Guare witnessed the actor’s spot-on work and praised him for it.  Director Susan Clement-Toberer found herself in the uneviable position of replacing the actor originally cast as Paul slightly more than a week before opening night.  And as my story explains she was about to bring in someone from out of town when Watson, who had shined in a Blue Barn staging of Minstrel Show (by Max Sparber) called offering his services.  It all worked out better than anyone could have imagined and my story puts the pieces together of how this conspiracy of hearts made it happen with so short a lead time.  Watson from time to time does work at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in Omaha.  This blog contains numerous stories I’ve written about the theater and its namesake, actor John Beasley.





Kelcey Watson, ©photo by Max Sparber




Actor Kelcey Watson fills role of a lifetime on short notice in Blue Barn production of “Six Degrees of Separation”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


On April 11 Omaha actor Kelcey Watson got wind a lead part was coming available with only eight days before the Blue Barn Theatre opened John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. Director Susan Clement-Toberer replaced the actor originally cast as Paul — the axis around which the farce revolves. She was about to bring in someone from out-of-town when Watson called. She took it as fate.

The two met the 11th. She knew Watson, a veteran actor who won strong notices for his role in Minstrel Show at the Blue Barn last year. He’s a member of the Omaha Magic Theatre troupe.

Watson had never seen Six Degrees on stage or on screen, much less read the script.  He only knew the story’s premise of how a young, homeless black man (Paul) insinuates himself into the lives of white Fifth Avenuers.

Watson got the pivotal part after assuring Clement-Toberer he was cool having to kiss a man on stage and learning a role full of intricate dialog in a week. Oh, by the way, she added, John Guare will be here opening weekend. Gulp. Serious pressure.

She began working with Watson that same day. It was a crash course of blocking and intentions and memorizing and running lines. Lots of notes and discussion. When it would all get to be too much, they’d cat nap on the set’s pair of red vinyl sofas. Then he joined the cast for a 6 to 10 p.m. rehearsal. They did a full run-through the very first night. He followed that same schedule for a week.

Before he knew it, preview night arrived on the 18th. “It was like, whoosh, and I was there…a whirlwind of nicotine and caffeine and play reading,” Watson said. His motivation was “not failing the cast. These people had worked hard for weeks and I just happened to join in. They were really welcoming toward me. They made it kind of easy to fall into the work.” He used whatever nerves he felt to inform his part. He said, “The stakes were so high. I infused that anxiety into the character. The hardest part was getting it word perfect. It was a lot of complex verbiage to kind of eat and take in and digest.” For him “the mountain” was mastering “the thesis speech” in which he delivers a manifesto about schizophrenia, imagination, the human need to connect and Catcher in the Rye. “I knew I had the part down cold if I could do this speech.”

He’s nailed it enough to earn accolades. He couldn’t have done it, he said, without Clement-Toberer, whom he calls “a very gifted and giving director.” Of their rapport, he said, “We really did have this link that was very earnest and very sensual in some ways.” As she puts it, “We became fast and furious buddies in those eight days. I knew pretty quickly I had made the right decision. He was able to memorize his lines so rapidly and to inhabit the character and fill him out.” She said the way he brings Paul to life is “beautifully done.”

She’s never had an actor have to learn so much so fast. “It’s a helluva role and to have to jump into it in an eight day rehearsal period was a pretty intense process,  but also exhilarating. I think Kelcey worked really well under those circumstances. He really rose to the occasion.”

Why did he want the part badly enough to put himself through all that, not to mention risk being unprepared with the play’s author looking on?

“I really, really wanted to do this,” the 29-year-old said. “It really was a rare opportunity that something like this comes up.”

On a deeper level, he identified with Paul. Watson calls Paul “a lost soul” and he said the character’s desperate search for acceptance paralleled his own a few years ago. In 2001 the Omaha native, Benson High grad and former ska band lead singer left to follow his acting dream in New York. He studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Art. Things didn’t go his way. A bad attitude didn’t help.

“One of the reasons I left New York is because it really did a number on me. It kicked my ass,” he said. “I got kicked out of the Academy. I couldn’t work with people. I was such an asshole. I was trying really to find myself. I didn’t really know who I was.”

It’s why, Watson said, “I connected with Paul immediately, because he’s a loner. He’s trying to find a home.” Like Paul in the play, Watson didn’t have a place of his own in New York. He scrounged to get by, reinventing himself as needed. He said, “I’ve been down. I’ve been out. I’ve had to stay at people’s houses a few weeks here and there.”

The lure of “doing black theater” with John Beasley brought him back to Omaha. He did Two Trains Running and The Piano Lesson at the Beasley Theatre. But he ultimately came back because “Omaha’s my home. It’s a place I feel safe at.”




Kelcey Watson and Carl Brooks in Minstrel Show 



His rediscovery of his love of acting continued at the famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, where he did an intensive three-month workshop in 2004. “Going through Steppenwolf I learned ensemble acting,” he said. “This time I was so receptive. I learned how to trust people…to let myself go.” He brought his nuanced approach with him back home.

Omaha is where he’s come of age as an artist and as a man. Besides the comfort of  his hometown, there’s the home he’s found, too, in local theater. In his search to connect with people and ideas and emotions, he’s looking “to find that space where you can really express yourself and your feelings and be vulnerable.” The Blue Barn may be that space. “They bring the stakes up higher,” he said.

The stakes couldn’t have been higher in Six Degrees. The fact things turned out so well confirms he’s doing what he’s supposed to. “It’s amazing to me the cast said things like, ‘You’re our hero’ and ‘Thanks for saving us.’ This is what I love to do,” he said. “I went to school for this stuff. I’m still in debt because of it.”

Clement-Toberer said when told what Watson had to do to ready himself for the part that Guare, who attended the April 20 show, complimented the actor, saying, “It was as if he was inventing it right on the spot.” Watson said that before Guare left the theater, the playwright turned to him and said, admiringly, “Eight days, huh?.” Watson could only smile.

She said Guare explained how he “thinks of characters in colors” but often finds oranges miscast as purples. “He felt with this production the cast of colors was appropriate across the board. He said, ‘Of course, if you can’t find the right color, then you cast Kelcey.’” It’s the kind of comment theater legends are born of.




John Guare
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