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Robert Duvall Interview

August 31, 2012 5 comments

I am developing a film story-event project that’s piecing together what happened when a confluence of remarkable talents came together to make a low budget road movie in the late 1960s and their production journey brought them to western Nebraska. The road pic was Francis Ford Coppola’s art house special, The Rain People, starring Shirley Knight. That production cemented a relationship between Coppola and a young protege, George Lucas, who was along as a production associate and to document the making of the film.  The project also connected Coppola with two actors who would go on to play prominent roles in his future pics: James Caan and Robert Duvall.  That’s not all.  The Rain People additionally led to Duvall starring in Lucas’ first feature, THX-1138and to the actor directing his first film, the documentary We’re Not the Jet Set, which profiles an Ogallala, Neb. area ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons, whom Duvall became very close to.  As I make progress on the story I will be posting interviews I’ve conducted with many of the principles involved in the films.  What follows is an interview I did with Robert Duvall. I recently posted an interview from this project I did with James Caan.  Look for upcoming interviews I did with Francis Ford Coppola, cinematographers Bill Butler (Rain People) and Joseph Friedman (Jet Set) and editor Stephen Mack.

 

 

 

 

Robert Duvall, ©grouchoreviews.com

 

Robert Duvall Interview: From My Film Connections Project (An In-Progress Film Story-Event Project)

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

LAB: Thanks for agreeing to speak with me about The Rain People and We’re Not the Jet Set.

RD: “I’m glad you called, man. I’m driving along in my car. I’ve got this little mobile phone but hopefully it’ll hold out OK. How ya’ doin’, good?”

LAB: Just fine.  And how about yourself?

RD: “I’m all right. We’ve been traveling, but we like Virginia here, my wife and I. So we’re trying to settle in for a little while, and see what’s next. Life is full of what’s next, you know.”

LAB: And I’m speaking to you from Nebraska.

RD: “A nice state up there. A lot going on up in Nebraska. When are you going to do coach what’s his name from way back? Your teams aren’t like they used to be there at the university. The parity in college football. I bumped into Joe Theisman, that quarterback for the Redskins. And probably everybody would disagree with him and me, but I told him, ‘I think some of these college teams could beat some of the pros from about 30 years ago.’ And he said, ‘I’ll tell you, some of the college teams could beat some of the pro teams of today’ It’s possible. I think USC would play the Detroit Lions at 0-15 very well.

“Alright man, whatveer you want to ask me I’ll see what I can answer.”

LAB: Well, before we begin I wanted to let you know that I’ve spoken with members of the Peterson family you got to know so well when you came to Nebraska to act in Coppola’s The Rain People and then when you profile them in your documentary We’re Not the Jet Set.

RD: “Where was Casey (Peterson) at? Is he back in Nebraska?”

LAB: Yes, I believe he is.

RD: “But he lives in Calif., too, right?”

LAB: That I’m not sure about.

RD: “Oh, he’s a character that kid. He’s grown up now. What a character, my God.”

LAB: I’d like to begin with your experience on The Rain People.

RD: “Oh, yeah, with Jimmy Caan.”

LAB: Do I understand that you were not originally attached to that production in the role of the motorcycle cop?

RD: “I think another actor was scheduled to play the part and…he left or something and I came in, and I knew Jimmy, and I hadn’t known Francis (Coppola) yet when I came in to do that. He (Caan) kind of coordinated it. Jimmy Caan came out first and then I went out there.”

NOTE (Rain People cinematographer Bill Butler told me in a separate interview that Rip Torn was originally cast in the cop part but quit the project when he learned he wouldn’t be given the motorcycle he would be riding in the picture.)

LAB: The Nebraska part of the shoot mostly centered around the Ogallala area in the far southwest region of the state.

RD: “It was pleasant working there, I enjoyed working there and that’s how we met the Petersons because Jimmy wanted to go down…we liked horses. He said, ‘I’m going to a branding, you wanna go?’ I used to do that on my uncle’s ranch. It’s a lot of work. So I said, ‘No, Jimmy you can go do that.’ But we met them, the Petersons, because of the movie,.”

LAB: Denny Peterson remembers the initial meeting between you , Jimmy and his family as going something like this: you and Jimmy spotted Denny working with some horses in the family’s outdoor arena and you sidled up and asked if you could ride and he told you, ‘Hell, no, I make a living with these horses…’

RD: “No, I don’t think so, I think that’s a romantic aspect on Denny’s part. Maybe Denny said that to somebody. I don’t remember that at all. I’ll tell you the exact thing that happened. We went to their front yard, which was on the highway, the alternate road to Calif., and Shelley (Peterson) was riding a horse called Rock Red, which was a world champion cutting horse, and we started talking with the dad, B.A., and he said, ‘Are you boys from the movie?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘You can come on down any time you want and ride some horses-You been getting any pussy?’ All in one breath. It was so funny. And we kept going down there and we formed a nice friendship.”

LAB: Horses and riding have been a big part of your life.

RD: “Not on his (Denny Peterson) level, but I’ve ridden a lot horses. But Denny was like a champion trick rider and everything like that.”

LAB: Did you know right away you’d come upon some authentic Western characters you could mine for inspiration?

RD: “Oh, boy, very unique, a very unique family, a rodeo circus mentality, you know. They were kind of an identity unto themselves even in that small community I think.”

LAB: In a sense the Petersons were following a bit in the tradition of William F. Cody and the Wild West Show troupe.

RD: “There were some pretty rough and tumble people back then. Like the Petersons. Lots of fist fights.”

LAB: For a lot of people HBO’s Deadwood became the definitive vision of the West come to life.

RD: “But I didn’t hear that kind of language from them. I think it was a different take on what the West was like, but I think there’s a definite connection maybe to the Petersons. I was talking to Denny and he said, ‘When my dad died I didn’t get the full impact of it till Walt ‘Waldo’ Haythorn died.’ He was the other rancher out there we met. That guy and B.A. were really good friends. He (Waldo) was probably like a surrogate uncle or something to Denny. Denny felt close to him. So he felt the full impact of his dad’s death when Waldo died a few years later. Because Waldo was a character, Jesus he was a character, too.

“So we’ve been involved with some good cowboys here and there.”

LAB: Didn’t the Haythorns’ real life early adventures on the Great Plains inform your mini-series Broken Trail?

RD: “Absolutely, the story of one of their grandfathers driving horses east from Oregon.”

LAB: You also grew close to the Haythorns, visiting their ranch a number of times.

RD: “They wanted me to be in the rodeo in North Platte. I hadn’t been on a horse in a couple years when I went up to do rope and trail up there. I bought a horse a year in advance to get ready because I busted some ribs on another project. The best horse I’ve ever been on in my life. He was three times a national bronc riding champion. They’re (the Haythorns) a wonderful family too. Not quite as wild (as the Petersons), but they have their wild side, too. Waldo, he let me use his personal horse and what a horse, my God, that horse was just…the best I’ve ever been on.

“And the Haythorns are out there still…They’ve gone down in Texas and won that (national ranch horse championship). You know the son, Craig, he’s getting old, too.

“When I was down in Argentina and I talked with the greatest polo player that ever lived, Adolfo Cambiaso..They own that, nobody can touch them in polo. He said he does like the American quarter horses as a breed a lot, although the thoroughbred’s better for polo because a little more endurance.”

LAB: Is it fair to say you’ve always had a fascination with the West?

RD: “Well, to a point, yeah. Ever since I was 12-13 I went and spent two summers on my uncle’s ranch in northern Montana and that gave me whatever wisdom, whatever knowledge, whatever enthusiasm I had for that, and respect for that to play those characters. I don’t know if I could have ever done Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove if i hadn’t maybe been introduced to that way of life as a young guy. I would say that’s true. Of course, they say the hardest part of that life way back then was to get a good night’s sleep on the ground, so it wasn’t as romantic as sometimes the movies portray.”

LAB: It seems like you’re drawn to down-to-earth, grassroots stories and settings and characters.

RD: “I like certain aspects of America, not just the two coasts.”

LAB: In B.A. Peterson you met a rough-hewn, bigger-than-life figure.

RD: “In that same place he was building a shed one time, and I wasn’t there, but the building inspector came down and said, ‘You don’t have a permit to build that,’ and B.A. said, ‘You keep staring at it and watch it go up.’ That was B.A., he didn’t back up from anybody.”

 

The entire cast & crew of "The Rain People"

 Cast and crew of The Rain People 

 

 

 

B.A. Peterson in We’re Not the Jet Set 

 

Joseph Friedman, Robert Duvall, Barbara Duvall, Stephen Mack at New York premiere of Jet Set 

 

LAB: How did someone like Francis Coppola respond to the Petersons?

RD: “Coppola said about the Petersons, ‘Oh, they kind of scare me.’ Well, then he goes and makes a movie on the mafia (laughing).”

LAB: What was your experience like working on Rain People?

RD: “You know, it was a nice movie to work on. That’s when Coppola was doing those smaller films, before he did The Godfather and everything. It was a stepping stone to other things.”

LAB: What did you make of the young Francis Coppola?

RD: “He was a very serious guy, very preoccupied.”

LAB: Did you have a sense for how this road picture of a project was coming together?

RD: “It was hard to tell because it was a small film and they’d been working on it for a while. I came into it at the last minute.”

LAB: And what was Coppola like so far removed from his comfort zone?

RD: “I don’t think he felt he fit in there. He said the Petersons are dangerous. He wanted to go back to New York. I was more into Coppola on The Godfather I when the studio was against him. I gained a lot of respect for Coppola on Godfather  I.  It was Copolla’s picture. He was the one who made that film work. He had a lot on his plate.”

LAB: It was only in doing research for my project that I discovered George Lucas was part of The Rain People company and his main job was to shoot and edit the documentary, The Making of The Rain People.

RD: “I met George Lucas on that. He’s a nice guy, quiet kind of private guy. I did his (USC) thesis film (THX-1138). When we did The Rain People he was like 115 pounds and he had a camera and sound equipment strapped on himself, this little thin guy, and the documentary is as interesting as the movie.”

LAB: You and Jimmy Caan became fast friends on projects like that one and Robert Altman’s Countdown before working together more famously on The Godfather.

RD: “We had a lot fun between me and Jimmy Caan and his brother (who doubled for Duvall on the motorcycle in Rain People), who’s nuts, riding along on that motorcycle. and they didn’t have motorcycle police in Nebraska then. We got stopped and got a ticket. I had to learn how to drive that thing. One night I came in and parked the thing. It took ten takes, and then it fell over. Oh, man, we laughed so hard. But we had a good time out there. It was a memorable time working there for those weeks there in Nebraska. It was great.

“Jimmy’s great to work with. He gets restless though.”

LAB: I must tell you that I consider We’re Not the Jet Set a superb piece of filmmaking. It’s one of the better documentaries of that era.

RD: “Well, you know who else liked it a lot, unsolicited…I knew Peter Falk and he took it and showed it to John Cassavetes and Cassavetes loved that film.. Also, I wouldn’t call it a pure documentary because there were certain scenes we set up and then they could do them in a pure way like a documentary, you know what I’m saying? The bathing scene where B.A. hoses his little boy and then puts him in the bath tub, that was kind of set up, but it’s what they do and so it comes out a pretty pure behavior.”

LAB: There’s no way you could have portrayed the family as intimately as you did had you not become like an adopted family member immersed into the family scene.

RD: “Exactly, that’s what happened. When I worked with the gypsies (for his Angelo, My Love), the same way. I mean, you really gotta become part of something without trying to patronize, but tell it like it is. Do you know what I’m saying? Because so many films in Hollywood they do patronize the interior aspects of the United States between the two coast lines. But you gotta turn it around and let it come from them.”

LAB: It’s somewhat surprising to me that B.A. would have approved exposing himself and his family so starkly.

RD: “The first time we got out there he said, ‘What if I wouldn’t let you do this?’ I said, ‘Well, what are you going to do, we figured you would.’ Before they signed any releases or anything, there was no money exchanged because you know I didn’t have any money to do this. I think we went out six times in like two years or something like that.”

LAB: So you financed the project yourself?

RD: “Oh yeah, it was myself. I told Brando about it when I was doing Godfather I. He went for the truth. You know he used to watch Candid Camera to study to be an actor. He was that interested in real behavior, which I am and was.”

LAB: I like how Jet Set and your other films as a director are infused with little moments, gestures, asides, glimpses of authentic, truthful behavior, all of it unadorned, and much of it provided by nonprofessionals.

RD: “Yeah, I think so because once again we turned the camera around and let it come from them. It’s their life. I can’t tell them, ‘Do this, do that.’ And I think more feature film directors should do that –  they should see what the nonactor comes up with. When you mix the nonactors with the actors sometimes they’ll put the professional actor on notice because they don’t have any bad habits. So I do try to go after reality, like lifelike behavior within the discipline of movie time.”

LAB: In addition to the colorful characters in Jet Set you captured the expressive Sandhills.

RD: “Oh yeah, the Sandhills country.”

LAB: It’s like another character unto itself in.

RD: “Oh totally, absolutely. There was one scene, we lost the footage. I wanted to start the film with it, where Casey was bathing his pony in like a big rain puddle. But we could never find it, it was unaccountable, so we started instead with some truck with Jake and B.J. I believe it was.”

LAB: The way B.A. comes off in the film and the way you describe him he was just savvy and ambitious and vain enough that the idea of a documentary obviously appealed to him. Besides, he was a showman and he probably saw promotional possibilities in agreeing to be featured in a way that anticipated Reality TV.

RD: “Our troubles were more internal. Our troubles were with a certain cameramen and certain guys that wanted to do it this way. That’s where the problems were, the problems weren’t with the Petersons. The problems were on our side of the camera, the egos there.

“It was tough to do. Usually the actors are prima donnas but the freaking cameraman was the prima donnas on that one.”

 

 

 

 

©motionpictureart.com

 

LAB: I’m curious to know if Jimmy ever accompanied you on your visits back to Neb. to shoot Jet Set?

RD: “No, he never did. Wilford Brimley did once. No, but they (the Petersons) liked Jimmy a lot and Jimmy’s the kind of guy I always say – ‘You change your telephone number every three months when you don’t have to.”

LAB: A bit mercurial is he?

RD: “Yeah, and also paranoid, I don’t know. He got out there and they were out there branding, and one of them said, ‘Hey there Hollywood, Caan – sounds Jewish.’ He said, ‘My grandparents were Dutch. I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell them you’re Jewish?’ He said, ‘Well , I don’t know, the way they were, I didn’t know what was going to happen.’ But they loved Jimmy, Jewish or whatever he was, they loved him. He and Waldo gave each other their hats.

“No, we had good times together. (Laughs). You’d tell him a joke and B.A. would laugh for five minutes. He had a great sense of humor that guy.”

LAB: Caan got so into the whole branding and herding scene that he ended up becoming a professional rodeo competitor.

RD: “He claims he was a professional rodeo guy. He was a header and heeler in team roping. He did quite a bit of that for a while.”

LAB: You two are still very tight.

RD: “I talk to Jimmy all the time. He’s a good guy – one of the few actors I keep in contact with. We stayed friends. We’re trying to get a project off the ground. We may be going to Cuba. A guy’s going to write a script for me, Jimmy and Pacino. It’s a story about life there before the revolution.”

LAB: Is it fair to say then that Jet Set was a labor of love for you?

RD: “Yes, sir, absolutely and that helped me to play Westerns from then on out, being around those people, the real thing, that helped me when I went on to do things like…especially Lonesome Dove. That was my favorite part. Also that Broken Trail, that’s right up there with that. I loved doing that.”

LAB: It sounds like you’ve maintained ties with the Petersons all through the years.

RD: “Yeah, but we’re not as close. I hadn’t seen Casey in a few years and then when I saw him (on the movie Geronimo, An American Legend) he was almost 40 years old. He was working on that. It was like 20 years or so (since they’d last seen each other). They (the Petersons) got into movies, not because of me, I wasn’t instrumental. I’d like that to be known up front. They totally got that on their own. Shelley, the older daughter, her first husband was a rodeo clown and then she married another guy that was in the movies, and she still does that. And then Rex went off and he’s really done well. He worked under Corky Randall (famed animal wrangler). He’s done a lot of movies. He worked on The Horse Whisperer and a lot of other stuff. So they’ve done well.

“Back then (on Jet Set), everybody was young. Denny was the guy on horseback, and then Casey, athletically, he refined many things. Rex became kind of the star of the family without anybody having predicted that within the family, I think.”

LAB: The Petersons said they got close to your family and even visited you on the set of The Godfather.

RD: “My sterpdaughters at the time got on well with them. They came to the set of The Godfather.”

LAB: What about your Jet Set crew? For instance, your editor on that, Stephen Mack, has gone on to edit all of your films as a director.

RD: Steve Mack? Did a good job editing. He was a good editor for that.”

LAB: Were you nervous showing the finished film to the Petersons because of how close you’d become to them and of how unvarnished a portrait of them you made?

RD: “Yeah, because sometimes you get with the real deal and they want to see the artificial. I’m not saying that’s true in this case. Sometimes a cowboy or somebody else will want to see a Hollywood presentation more than they do the every day stuff they live and see, which is boring to them. You know what I mean? So, yeah, I wondered. I wasn’t sure because it’s a revealing thing. I think Denny was a little shy about it more than the others because he’s the oldest. I think it took him a while to accept it –that I’m not trying to make fun of them but that I do want to participate and enjoy the idiosyncrasies and the humor without condescending to it. Just show it, flat out, and I think that’s why a guy like John Cassavetes responded so strongly to the film. I mean, he really liked that film. I didn’t know him that well.”

LAB: In case you didn’t already know it, the Petersons all regard the film as a great gift you gave the family.

RD: “Well, I’m glad, it’s very moving to hear that because you never know if they’re going to accept something real. Like I took one guy out to help me film. It was the night of the graduation, and he said, ‘You’re invading these people’s privacy, how can you film?’ That was the point. I wasn’t invading to make fun, I was invading to show it as it is. And if you can’t get in there then you’re going to miss things, so we had to get in there and really rub elbows with them as we filmed.”

LAB: What would say to anyone who has a problem with the film and its subjects’ lack of political correctness?

RD: “If anybody would say anything I would say, ‘There’s the exit.’ My wife’s from Argentina, she’s very perceptive, she loved the film when she saw it.”

LAB: Before starting Jet Set did you consult with Coppola or any other established filmmaker?

RD: “No. just kind of plunged in.”

LAB: But you had a style in mind and it was patterned to a point on the work of some filmmakers you admired.

RD: “Kenneth Loach. Everybody says, ‘Your directorial comes from Cassavetes.’ I say, ‘Not really.’ The real influences were people like Kenneth Loach.”

LAB: Your projects as a director are so personal and idiosyncratic that it’s as if only you could have made them.

RD: “Maybe. The films I’ve directed have come from only stuff I could find from the ground up and develop from the ground up. It had to be from my point of view. I’ve had a few offers (to direct Hollywood films). I couldn’t have done it before. I could probably do it now. But it’d have to be stuff from the ground up.”

LAB: What kind of release, exposure did Jet Set get upon its completion?

RD: “I was going through a breakup with my wife then. It showed at Deauville, France and it did well. People enjoyed it, accepted it.”

LAB: Did it ever got a theatrical release?

RD: “Uh, just to a point. I didn’t get any money out of it. Some of my projects I’ve never made money off of them. The Apostle, I sold it. But the gypsy film, I never made money, I lost money.”

LAB: You didn’t get wide distribution of that.

RD: “No…it happened with my gypsy film. Some of it’s my fault – not working with the right people.But what are you going to do? You do it for the love of it. You gotta do certain things for the love of it and you make money on other projects you aren’t totally committed to but then it helps you pay for those that you want to do.

“It’s a strange and fickle business.”

NOTE (Jet Set enjoyed runs at New York and other big city art houses and it also played on national public television.)

RD: “I do care about it. I haven’t seen it in a long time. I do care about that one. Years ago it had been accepted at a film festival in Argentina. My wife saw it and she loved it. She’s very perceptive.”

LAB: After its initial release though Jet Set has pretty much been unseen. But the manager of your defunct production company Butcher’s Run was nice enough to send me a DVD of it.

RD: “We had to get a print to refurbish it so to speak. I’m terrible at keeping track of things. I want to sit down and watch it again one of these days. George Jones and Tammy Wynette, they gave us that song (the title track the film gets its name from). They waived the $10,000 fee. They gave us the title and song. She was a wonderful lady, Tammy Wynette. I showed it to Merle Haggard way back then. He liked it. I always thought Merle would make a good actor. I always meant to put him in a film. It just never happened.”

LAB: Speaking of actors, you’ve worked with some greats. You mentioned Marlon Brando before and your good buddy Jimmy Caan. What about John Wayne?

RD: “John Wayne was a far better actor than a lot of people gave him credit for. The Shootist is a brilliant performance.”

LAB: The movies have been very good to you and to some of your acting contemporaries like Caan, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight….

RD: “Cinema’s become like the in medium going into the 21st century. Young people instead of becoming writers they want to become directors or this and that.”

LAB: An actor with strong Omaha ties is our own John Beasley, who played opposite you in The Apostle.

RD: “Oh, yeah, a good guy, a good actor that guy. He’s a fine actor. They said, ‘Where’d you find that nonreactor?’ I said, ‘Well, that nonactor played Othello and King Lear up in Omaha.’ Oh, give him my regards, he’s a wonderful guy. When we were doing The ApostleI said to him, ‘I want to talk Johnny Rodgers,’ one of the greatest college football players, and he said, ‘No, I want to talk theater.’ I loved Johnny Rodgers, God almighty. I was talking football and he said, ‘I don’t want to talk football.'”

LAB: Well, since you brought him up, I think Rodgers one of the most underappreciated greats of all time.

RD: “Well, that’s because he went up to Canada I think rather than the NFL. He came from the same area as Gale Sayers.”

LAB: You’re still very busy as an actor.

RD:  “I just did a film down in Georgia, Get Low, based loosely on fact. Bill Murray. Sissy Spacek. I did that other thing, The Road. I’ve got two things coming out this year that are as good as anything I’ve done in my life.”

LAB: “Actors of a certain age often find good parts are scarce, but you seem to be the exception to that rule.

RD: “It’s true, but you’ve got to find yours.”

LAB: Do you still ride much?

RD: “I started back three weeks ago after not riding for two-three years. My wife rides well. Once a year we have the oldest horse show in america (in Virginia). It’s a good hobby.”

LAB: And then there’s you love for the tango.

RD: “It’s all connected. It’s a hobby. I go down to Argentina. Buenos Aires. I love that city.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Revival of Benson Business District Gives Omaha a New Destination Place

August 28, 2012 2 comments

When proclamations start getting made about some new area of my city, Omaha, being a hot new spot my natural cynicism tells me I need to see for myself if there’s anything to the claims or if it’s just manufactured puffery.  That was my cautious, cynical first response (in my head) when an editor asked me to write a piece about the purported revival going on in a neighborhood, Benson, I know fairly well from having grown up a mile east of it.  Specifically, it is the Benson business district that many proprietors and observers say is undergoing a revival or rejuvenation or transformation that is making this strip a destination place.  I must admit that though I had my doubts about it I have now seen it for myself and while I may be giving what’s happening there more credence than it deserves it is clear that something vital is unfolding in Benson that cannot be ignored.  The dynamism there is well under way.  It’s one part of a redeveloping North Omaha whose next big awakening and remaking will be playing out in the northeast boundaries once known as the Near Northside.  It all bodes well for parts of the inner city here that have too long gone to seed.  It only shows that with the right care and cultivation these older neighborhoods can be born again to blossom anew.

 

 

Benson Days, ©bensonnebraska.com

 

 

Revival of Benson Business District Gives Omaha a New Destination Place

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue Omaha Magazine

 

The quaint, sleepy Benson you once breezed through to get somewhere else is suddenly the hip new place to be.

This working class neighborhood’s old-line business district has been made new again as a full-fledged entertainment strip. Music, drinking, dining establishments, along with art galleries, line both sides of Maple Street from 58th to 70th, many attractions housed in historic century-old buildings. The nightlife joints mix with anchors Haney Shoe Store, the Benson Community Center, a U.S. Postal Service station, bank branches, Kremer Funeral Home, thrift stores and Jane’s Health Market.

The activity really picks up at night, when parking’s tight.

Enhanced street lights and historical signs add ambience. Plans call for more amenities and streetscape improvements, including a revamped East entrance, better traffic flow, more pedestrian-friendly walkways and communal green space.

 

 

Rendering of revamped east gateway entrance in Benson, ©photo RDG

 

 

Benson’s revival is reminiscent of when the Old Market went from tired warehouse district to vital arts-culture hub. Some feel it’s already a destination.

“The Old Market has nothing on us,” says Hargiss Stringed Instruments owner and Benson historian John Hargiss.

Few but Hargiss saw this in store for Benson, where six years ago vacant storefronts and empty streets made it a ghost town at night.

“I knew it was coming, I knew it was on its way. It’s hard to keep this little town down,” he says. “I mean it’s seen the worst. It’s seen the Easter Sunday tornado it’s seen annexation, but it’s pretty damn resilient. It comes right back. When I got here in 1987 it was really going down the tubes. And then you saw this weird period when nobody would come to Benson because it wasn’t a nice place to come to.”

Pizza Shoppe (PS) Collective owner Amy Ryan says rough trade bars and petty crimes have given way to a new dynamic.

“In the last six years it’s exploded. Benson is definitely party town now,” says Hargiss. “There’s a young generation that owns this town in the evening.”

“We’re inspired is what it is,” says Ryan. whose enthusiasm led her to acquire the old Benson Theatre, which she hopes to restore as a multi-use arts-community space. “The news on the street is that Benson’s so much fun. People are really enjoying it.”

 

 

PS Collective owner Amy Ryan

 

 

Espana restaurant-tapas bar helped make Benson a destination but the real catalyst came when The Waiting Room Lounge and live music venue opened in 2008.

“The Waiting Room was huge. It was the big solidifier for the neighborhood,” says John Larkin, co-owner of Jake’s Cigars & Spirits and The Beercade.

Benson Business Improvement District co-chair D’Ann Lonowski, whose Mint Design Group is in downtown Benson, says “gone are the days when Espana and The Waiting Room were the only two reasons people came down here.”

Indeed, a half-dozen eateries have opened on the strip or nearby, the cuisines ranging from New American (Lot 2, Mantra) to cajun (Ethel Mae’s) to Peruvian (Taita). Some hold-over diners (Leo’s, Joe’s) remain. A gourmet sandwich shop (Star Deli) is coming.

 

 

Craft beer bars have entered the scene, including The Sydney and Krug Park, whose owners, Marc Leibowitz and Jim Johnson, are the men behind One Percent Productions and The Waiting Room. New bars, including a brewery, are on tap.

“The bars are the driving force behind what’s happening down here,” says Larkin, but increasingly restaurants are too.  Lot 2’s proved a sensation.

Paper Doll vintage clothing store, the Pet Shop Gallery and the 402 Arts Collective. are new entries.

The buzz, affordable property rates, tight-knit community and brisk Maple Street Corridor make Benson a prime site biz location.

Larkin says opening in Benson was a no-brainer because “the price was right.”

Lot 2 owners Brad and Johanna Marr already lived in Benson but now they’ve put business stakes there. “Benson is a great neighborhood and the perfect fit for our concept,” says Brad. “We saw the activity and energy going on and we wanted to contribute to the neighborhood’s progression.”

Community events bring added exposure. The July Benson Days celebrated Benson’s 125th anniversary with fireworks and concerts. Block parties and a weekly farmer’s market bring people out. First Friday art walks initiated by artists Alex Jochim and Jamie Hardy (Pet Shop Gallery) are proving popular.

First Friday art walks in Benson bring people out in droves, ©bensonnebraska.com

 

 

“I feel like that’s a good example of what Benson is all about,” says Johnson. “That was started by these two artists who wanted to do it and it’s been a huge success. I think a lot of Benson is like that. It’s filled with people who have good ideas and are very community-based. Most of the buildings and businesses are owned by private individuals. There’s no big development group.”

“It’s all done independently, it’s all locally owned businesses,” notes Larkin. “It really creates that sense of pride.”

“For me it’s very much full-circle,” says Ryan. “Benson’s history is based on entrepreneurship. Mom and Pop shops. That’s what it’s always been.”

Today, Benson’s an eclectic community of self-made men and women growing  their ventures organically on dreams and sweat equity. Owners like Ryan, Larkin and Johnson have invested so much there they intend staying.

“It’s been exponential growth. We’ve certainly crossed the threshold of making it and I only see this getting bigger and better,” says Larkin.

The various interests representing Benson are collaborative. Benson Neighborhood Association president Liz Muldenhauer says, “Even though we have some distinct personalties these individuals and groups are working together to make positive changes to make our community better.”

 

 

Owners say they throw everything they make back into their businesses for restoration and expansion. Several storefronts sport new facades.

Hargiss, who’s reluctantly leaving Benson for a bigger space, feels good about the new blood doing business there: “They put back here as much as they can.”

“It’s really wonderful to see these entrepreneurs coming in and getting behind this community,” Ryan says. “What Benson has going for it is an incredible grassroots spirit. People are so eager to assist each other.”

Marr agrees, saying, “Everybody is very supportive of one another.”

Ryan, who comes from a community development background, opens the PS Collective to meetings, art exhibits and live music concerts.

Being in a self-sustainable neighborhood appeals to Lonowski.

“The first thing I do when I need a service in my building is look for somebody in Benson. I want to support the people around me that support me,” she says.

She’s eager for others to discover all it has to offer. “We want people who maybe haven’t taken a second look at Benson in awhile to come down to see what a diamond-in-the-rough it is,” says Lonowski, who touts its “creative vibe.”

Muldenhauer embraces the creatives community but the “small town atmosphere, character and great value” are what sold her on moving there. “I love it,” she says. “There’s so many good things going on.”

Freddie Gray Stands Fast on Her Handling of Sebring Scandal, OPS School Board President Survives Vote to Continue Her Mission

August 21, 2012 Leave a comment

By definition, news happens without warning, which can make it tough for media periodicals that only come out once a month or once week.  I recently wrote a dual profile of an Omaha power couple – Omaha School Board President Freddie Gray and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray – for the August issue of the New Horizons, a monthly newspaper I regularly contribute to.  That issue was put to bed when all hell broke loose concerning Freddie’s handling of the already controversial Nancy Sebring incident that saw Sebring resign shortly after being hired as Omaha Public Schools superintendent when sexually charged emails she exchanged with her lover came to light.  Newspaper reports revealed that Gray and school board counsel didn’t share some information they had about the emails with the rest of the board.  Gray suddenly found herself the target of allegations that she’d breached the public trust and some even called for her to resign or to be removed. Her side of the story is that she didn’t know the full extent of Sebring’s communications and, besides, this was a personnel issue that there’s a whole set of protocols for handling.  Also, Gray didn’t want to prejudice the board should they have had to convene a termination hearing over Sebring’s employment.  Sebring’s resignation saved herself and the district futther embarassment.  The timing of this brouhaha meant there was no chance to update or revise my story.  So be it.  But I did get the opportunity to do a new interview with Freddie after she was retained by the board in a special vote.  The result is this story for The Reader that tries to lay out what it was like for her to be on the receiving end of vitriol and rancor.  Through it all, she kept her composure and never engaged in the kind of name calling and reputation bashing that others subjected her to.  You can find my earlier, dual profile on Freddie and Ben Gray on this blog, under the title Gray Matters or in the Omaha Public Schools or Education categories.

Freddie Gray and her husband Ben Gray, ©kmtv.com

 

 

Freddie Gray Stands Fast on Her Handling of Sebring Scandal, OPS School Board President Survives Vote to Continue Her Mission

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Freddie Gray knows being second-guessed and scrutinized comes with the job of Omaha Public School Board President. But when she came under fire over her handling of the Nancy Sebring scandal she got more than she bargained for, including allegations she’d violated the public trust and calls for her resignation or removal.

Sebring is the former Des Moines Public Schools superintendent OPS hired in the spring only to resign after sexually charged emails she exchanged with her lover became public.

The controversy about what Gray did and didn’t do in response to the scandal culminated at an August 6 school board meeting where a special vote retained her by an 8 to 4 count.

Until the blow up Gray slipped under the radar as a veteran but low profile public servant. She certainly never found herself on the hot seat quite like this. Often overshadowed by her husband, Omaha city councilman and former television journalist Ben Gray, she endured a public referendum on her character despite a seven month record as board president even her detractors don’t fault.

Gray was appointed to the board in February 2008 to replace Karen Shepard and ran unopposed that fall to retain the seat. She serves on local, state and national education initiative boards. Her Omaha school board peers thought enough of her to name her president at the start of 2012. Amidst the recent storm that led to Gray facing removal she refused to say she erred and balked at apologizing.

“Whatever the pleasure of the board was going to be that night it was something I needed to live with,” she says, “but I was not going to compromise my integrity and myself and say I was wrong when that’s not true.

“You can’t buy me that way. I did the right thing, I know I did the right thing.”

©kvnonews.com

 

 

Gray asserts she and OPS board counsel Elizabeth Eynon-Korkda acted properly based on what they knew at the time about the nature of Sebring’s emails. Gray says she and Eynon-Korkda treated the matter as a personnel issue and therefore outside the board’s purview because Sebring was already a district employee when the emails surfaced as an issue.

“The personnel issue was the context of what was done and why it was done the way it was done,” says Gray, adding she “didn’t want to poison the well” and risk biasing the board should Sebring come before a termination hearing

When the full extent of the sexually charged emails came to light, Sebring stepped aside.

Gray can live with the “differing views” critics voice but she describes as “troubling” and “disturbing” the anonymous, expletive-filled postal letters and phone messages she says she’s received at home.

“There are people who took advantage of the situation. They didn’t talk about what the issue was, it was just name calling, ugliness. I have grandchildren that were exposed to language totally inappropriate for them to hear.

“I just find those people to be real cowards. You know, if you’ve got something to say to me then man up or woman up and say it to me.”

The negativity was counterbalanced by expressions of support, including her mate’s presence at the July 30 and August 6 school board meetings.

“I have a fabulous husband. He was very supportive. My family of course, not just my children but my sisters, my nieces and nephews. my extended family in Cleveland. The prayer chains people had going on. I had so many emails, phone messages, Facebook posts from people saying they had my back.”

She says her “trust and belief in a Supreme Being was never shaken” though “there was that question of why me and why now.”

Encouraging words too came, she says, from other school district leaders and from peers at the state and national levels. The morning that decided her school board presidency fate she spoke before an assembly of district principals who gave her a standing ovation upon her introduction.

“That blew my mind. I had no clue what to expect when I walked in that room. It was quite moving and a great way to start the day.”

She says perhaps the most hurtful thing in this episode was that her “very long line of public service,” including the Douglas County Board of Health, the African-American Achievement Council and years of mentoring, became obscured.

‘”In a very long history of being actively engaged with the community my detractors tried to define me by one thing. It was heartbreaking that people would do that. It was like everything else I had done in my life was valueless.”

She says she regrets the imbrogolio distracted from the “great progress the board’s been making” and to the “gains” the district’s made in graduation and truancy rates. Her overriding concern now, she says, is moving the district forward, something she expects to still be doing after this fall’s district elections. She’s running against fellow Democrat James M. English, a former OPS teacher and administrator .

Gray says no one can legitimately question her devotion to the district.

“My reason to be there is nothing more than pure academic success for all students . If you look at what I’ve done, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, the messages I’ve carried through the community, statewide and nationally you’ll see I’m working very hard for the children of Nebraska and specifically for children in my district.”

Gray oversaw the board’s recent hiring of interim superintendent Virginia Moon and will oversee its search to find a permanent replacement for the retiring John Mackiel. Though she concedes repair needs to be made to a divided board, particularly among members who wanted her out, she foresees no problem getting the work of the district done.

©watchdog.org

Carol Kane Interview

August 20, 2012 Leave a comment

A filmmaker who doesn’t get nearly the attention she deserves is writer-director Joan Micklin Silver, whom I’ve written about over the years.  Many of my stories about her can be found on this blog.  Her 1975 debut feature, Hester Street, was a phenomenon for its time because Joan and her producing partner husband Raphael (Ray) Silver were forced to go totally independent when all the studios rejected the script.  Thus, the couple raised the few hundred thousand dollars needed from investors, gathered a cast and crew, completed the film on time and on budget, then distributed the picture themselves.  It all came together, too.  The period piece looked like it was done on a much larger budget.  The performances were stellar.  Most amazingly the film found a large enough audience at theaters to make millions at the box office, making it one of the most successful indie films up to that time.  The capper was star Carol Kane getting an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her sensitive and insightful performance as Gitl, a traditional Jewish immigrant wife and mother who undergoes a transformation in the face of the new world she enters and the gulf that’s grown between herself and her husband.  It’s a powerful and moving portrayal of emancipation and empowerment as Gitl finds a path of her own from her and her son.  The impish film-television-stage actress recently spoke with me about working with Joan on the film and what it meant to be part of a movie that’s now part of the National Film Registry.  She’s a delightful interview.

Look for coming Q&A’s with Robert Duvall, Martin Landau, Danny Glover, and legendary cinematographer Bill Butler.

 

Interview with Carol Kane

©by Leo Adam Biga

LAB: So what are your thoughts about Hester Street being included in the National Film Registry?

 

CK: “I had no idea about it until Joan wrote me a couple days ago saying she’d talked to you. I didn’t know. I’m so glad you’re doing this because I didnt know about the movie getting this status and I think it’d be fun for us to have people know about it.”

LAB: It’s selection in the registry pretty much ensures it will be part of the American film canon going forward.

CK: “Isn’t that wild? It’s a wonderful feeling to feel like something we did was authentic enough and true enough to be valued as something which should be preserved. You know that’s an extraordinary thing because so many movies are made every year and a lot of them just disappear. And it’s wonderful to know that ours will be preserved and, of course, I’m proud to be part of it.

“I always loved the story, it’s just a great, great story. When I read the script I saw the movie in my mind. She (Joan Micklin Silver) wrote the movie so beautifully that you could see it, and so I’m just so glad that it materialized in the way it read.”

LAB: I understand that Joan first saw you in the Canadian dramatic feature, Wedding in White.

CK:  “Yes, I co-starred in the movie with Donald Pleasance when I was 19 actually, and I guess somehow she saw it. It was voted best film in the Canadian Film Festival I believe. Donald and I were disqualified because neither of us were Canadian. But it got very lovely reviews in the New York Times and in other publications and I guess her being an independent film gal she went and saw it.”

LAB: Joan told me she assumed that you were Canadian and therefore it would be difficult to get you to come on location for a small indie pic on New York’s Lower East Side.

CK: “Oh, I didnt realize that or I forgot about it. But I do know at that point a lot of people did think I was Canadian because somehow I was working a lot in Canada when I was young.”

LAB: In fact you’re a native of Cleveland, where coincidentally Joan settled after college and that’s where she got her start in theater and in film. By the time she was casting Hester Street she and her husband Ray lived in New York, where you had moved as well.

CK: “Yes, and did she tell you that my dad and Ray knew each other in Cleveland?”

LAB: No.

CK: “Yeah, because my dad was an architect, Michael M. Kane, and Ray’s dad was a rabbi, Rabbi Silver. I think I’ve got that right. And my dad did some work with the temple at that time and so they knew each other in this other life, you know. Ray also was involved in pre-fab housing when we made Hester Street. I don’t know if that’s still his business or not or whether he gave it up for the love of the movies. Yeah, so the Silvers and the Kanes knew each other in Cleveland. It’s a strange aside, right?”

LAB: Yes, I love that kind of thing. In checking your IMDB page…

CK: “Oh my God, I’ve got a movie on there that I’ve just begged them to take off from mine and they won’t. It’s some movie (supposedly) like early on in my career, and I have no idea what it is, and they also say I’m also known as this other person that’s in that movie. It’s still there and I can’t get it off.”

LAB: Before even doing Hester Street you had already made Wedding in White, Carnal Knowledge and The Last Detail, which was an incredible start to your career and found you working with some impressive talents like Pleasance, Nicholson, Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby, Randy Quaid.

CK: “I know, I’m so lucky.”

LAB: When you got the part in Hester Street did you give much thought to the prospect of working with a woman filmmaker?

CK: “I don’t think I thought of a woman or a man…Like I told you, I read that script and saw it and I just wanted to be in it, but I don’t think I thought, ‘Hmmm, what’s it going to be like to have a woman in charge?’I didn’t really feature that, and I still don’t. I mean, I just think a good director is a good director and the sex doesn’t feature in that much. But I do think at that time some female directors were very tough because they had to be. That’s not my main recollection of Joan. But I know there was a time when there was such a battle to make a movie that some of them were pretty tough.

“But the Silvers had this sort of unit of belief in the fact that if something was good and worthwhile it would happen, which was very nice. And of course it was a time in film history when that was coming true, when a lot of strange little movies somehow were happening from beautiful scripts about people rather than you know giant events. So it was the right time for this little story I guess.”

LAB: What about working with Joan and the tone she created on the set?

CK: “Well, it had to be very serious because it had to happen very fast because we didn’t have a lot of money. We had less than $400,000 I believe, so you know we didn’t have any time to waste but she would never sacrifice the essence of a scene for that. Ray was producing. They both had to be very, very, very prepared, which she was, and I think I was too. I think there was a lot of research and work that happened before the camera rolled.

“Our art directors were so brilliant, the costume designer, makeup and hair, our DP (director of photography), everyone was so prepared. And as an actress that was so so helpful to me that I would look around and what I was seeing was what would have been. I was wearing clothes from that time and earrings from that time. Our little set was just a little apartment, and it was so real. The settee the boarder had to sleep on was so tiny and you would think, ‘How could a grown man sleep on this behind a curtain?’ You know, it was all there. And everybody was so prepared in working as fast as they could but with a very determined view toward it being right and real. I don’t mean right as in there’s only one right way but it had to ring true before we moved on.”

LAB: Joan described to me that there was a particular article of wardrobe you wanted to take home with you and the costumer balked at letting you do that until she approved it.

CK: “I don’t know if you’re talking about the sheitel (a wig or half wig,) which I believe I did take home and wear around, or maybe my nightgown. But I do remember taking the sheitel and wearing it somewhat. It’s so interesting what we go through in falling in love with our characters. For awhile I was thinking that sheitel was really beautiful, that I looked really good in it, and then if you look at it objectively it’s like, ‘What? What is that thing on my head?’ But I became very happy with it, very comfortable with it because you have to get used to the fact…I mean, that’s my partner and it’s very important to an Orthodox woman. So they did let me take it home and wear it.”

LAB: What is your take on your character and her transformation and awakening?

CK: “I haven’t seen it (the film) in awhile I must confess. I think the last time I saw it was when the film was going to come out on DVD and Joan and I recorded commentary for it.

(Speaking of her character Gitl in the first person):

“I just think I came here to America with kind of a pure hope and attitude and feeling that my life with my husband and child would continue very much as it had been and of course I arrive to find out that’s completely untrue and that I’m somehow kind of an embarrassment to my husband and not ‘modern.’ Because I’m very religious in the beginning I’m not flexible about practicing the things I practiced in the old country, like wearing the sheitel or not looking at men in the face and not using American names for my son and husband as he wants me to.

“I think life teaches me that I have to change. I think of Gitl as very, ver,y very strong but not tough. Very strong to be able to change in a way that would make her life and her son’s life feel rich while getting divorced, which you know is a huge traumatic scandal. She works so hard at learning English. People always say to me, ‘What do you think happened to Gitl afterwards?’ and I always think she probably went on to run Macy’s. You know how were walking down the street at the end and we talk about opening a store and I tell Mr. Bernstien that he’ll study and I’ll sell? I have the feeling we did quite well.

“Who knows what would have become of me if we hadn’t had a son, which I think is a story that’s repeated very frequently throughout history. Women have to learn to be strong because they are responsible for a child and that brings out things in one that one didn’t think were there, and thats true of Gitl.”

 

 

 

Carol Kane as Gitl in Hester Street 

 

Montage from Hester Street 

 

 

LAB: I don’t know how you feel but I regard Hester Street as one of the great immigrant experience depictions in screen history.  There aren’t that many.

CK: I think The Godfather II, don’t you?”

LAB: Yes. And Kazan’s America, America.

CK: “Right. I have to say, I don’t know how, it just seems impossible to me those people (immigrants) did what they did. How did they do it? I mean, get on a boat to someplace they’d never even seen a picture of and don’t know the language. My grandmother came over and taught English and she barely spoke English. You know, the resourcefulness is just…It’s scary enough nowadays in the modern age –with the computer and you Google where you’re going and you see the pictures of the hotel where you’ll be staying – to go to an unknown country where you don’t speak the language. To just leave your life and start over from scratch like that, the bravery is just unimaginable to me.

“Can you possibly picture yourself doing that?”

LAB: No, I can’t.

CK: “I can’t either.”

LAB: “Both sets of my grandparents made the immigrant journey from Europe – my father’s parents from Poland and my mother’s parents from Italy – and I regret not knowing more about how they did it and why they did it.

CK: “I think we all lost a lot of opportunities to find out what that was like and what drove them to be brave enough to do it. Gosh. My relatives went to Cleveland. It’s not like, OK, the boat lets us off by the Statue of Liberty and we’ll just stay there.”

LAB: And my people ended up in Omaha, right in the middle of America.

CK: “That old cliche which is so true about necessity being the mother of (invention). I guess that was the main thing, people reinvented everything about themselves.”

LAB: It’s often said that completing any film is a small miracle and getting it seen in theaters and having it be well received is perhaps even more miraculous. But in the case of a small indie film like Hester Street that saw the filmmakers raise the money, produce the picture and get it distributed themselves, and have the film find an audience and do quite well is the rarest of all miracles, especially in that era.

CK: “Oh, I know. And by the way yours truly big mouth here was adamant against that (self-distribution). I tried to explain to Ray it was impossible (laughing), but you know he talked to my later to become dear friend John Cassavetes and I think John was very inspirational and helpful as he was all the time with every artist he ever spoke to and in business too because he was such a maverick. He was an immigrant in Hollywood, you know. He did such a brilliant job, Ray. Where I’ve done other wonderful tiny little movies like this, like a movie called In the Soup that Alex (Alexandre) Rockwell directed and you know the distribution part is so critical and it doesn’t always work. And Ray (and Co.) just did a great job.”

LAB: I understand that it was Joan who had the thrill and privilege of calling with the news of  your Oscar nomination.

CK: “Well, that’s the craziest thing in the world isn’t it?”

LAB: I’m sure you never saw that coming.

CK: “Uh, no, no I didn’t think of anything like that. I think when I was nominated I was 23. I know it’s crazy.”

LAB: I assume you attended the Academy Awards ceremony?

CK: “I did but I really think I was pretty much in shock.”

LAB: What do you recall of it?

“Well, the thing was again Joan and Ray had done sort of a maverick thing and hired this wonderful man named Max Bercutt who had worked in PR in the studio system (at Warner Bros. publicity from 1948-1968, where he headed the department for 15 years, before working as a consultant from 1968-1984). He was retired and he was a man who loved to gamble and he loved to gamble on a dark horse and he had done Julie Christie’s campaign for Darling and she had won for a similarly tiny movie. And he came out of retirement to do my campaign. Oh, he was just so great. I think for me the biggest disappointment was not winning for Max because I had hoped to be one of his dark horses. But I mean the fact I got nominated was amazing. I know he went around with a can of film under his arms and went over to Roz Russell’s house and had her invite six people, he went to these dinner parties with the film and people sat down and watched it and that’s why I got nominated – because of him schlepping it around.”

LAB: Yeah, but you overcame such huge odds just to get nominated.

CK: “I did but I still do feel sad that I didn’t go the distance for him. But I think it was a pretty big distance to get where we got. I tried to track him down after and I never found him. And he was just as you would have imagined, with a cigar and scotch. Anyway, he was tremendously kind to me and you can imagine I was way out of my league and he was a great guide in a very human and humane way through this strange experience.

“And the other thing for me that was very moving was that that was the year Jack (Nicholson) was nominated for Cuckoo’s Nest. That year Cuckoo’s Nest won everything. So I was there and it was so sweet and surrealistic for me to be sitting a stone’s throw away from Jack, whom I had done my first movies with, Carnal Knowledge and The Last Detail. The most amazing thing was the next day. In the days before you’re at the Beverly Hills Hotel or whatever and every one sends you flowers and calls. People come out of the woodwork to celebrate you and it’s lovely but it’s just completely overwhelming and then the next day it’s like the phone doesn’t work, there’s no ringing. Suddenly the phone stops ringing, there’s no flowers, and who calls me but Jack and he invites me to go with my friend Angelica (Huston) at the time and they took me to El Cholos for lunch. Only Jack would understand what that day is like and what it meant to be included.”

LAB: What a graceful thing to do.

CK: “Oh, so graceful, he’s a very graceful person. It’s almost like when I tell that story I think it can’t be true because it was so graceful but it is true and it is quite a strange thing to wake up the next morning and to realize the air has been completely changed in your room. Everything about it is different.”

LAB: Were you surprised by Joan’s subsequent success after Hester Street, when she went on to make two of the better comedies of the late ’70s-early ’80s period in Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter, respectively, and had her greatest triumph with Crossing Delancey in the late ’80s? I mean, I think she has one of the best bodies of work from that era.

CK: “Yes, she does. Amy Irving (the star of Crossing Delancey) and I are very close friends and we had lunch the other day and we were saying wouldn’t it be fun if somebody did a program, a double feature with Crossing Delancey and Hester Street (the films look at Jewish life on the Lower East Side from contemporary and turn-of-the-last-century lenses, respectively). I think that would be very fun.

“Joan and I tried to do one or two other things together and never got them off the ground and that’s what surprised me more than any success – that it wasn’t a guarantee you could pick up and tell more stories (together). There was another book that was a true story that we had really tried to get done but it didn’t happen. But there’s still time. And we worked for awhile on a play together that also has not yet happened but we really enjoyed working on it. But I’m not at all surprised by any success they have had or would have in the future.”

LAB: I note that you say ‘they’ and so I take it you think of Joan and Ray as a team?

CK: “Yeah, I guess I do. I know that they obviously perform very different functions on a set but at least on Hester Street I did think very much of them as a team.”

LAB: The fact that they’ve endured as a couple for all these years in an industry that’s not conducive to long term relationships certainly indicates they have something very strong together.

CK: “Yes, very unique, very non-show biz.”

LAB: I really appreciate your taking the time to speak with me.

CK: “Sure, and if like in the middle of the night you think of another question, give me a call, but don’t call in the middle of the night, wait till the morning (laughing).”

Creighton College of Business anchored in pioneering entrepreneurial spirit and Jesuit philosophy

August 19, 2012 Leave a comment

What follows is a historical narrative I was commissioned to write for the Creighton University College of Businesss.  The gist of the assignment was to articulate how the enterpreneurial focus and service to society mission of the college is in alignment with the enterprising and giving natures of the university’s pioneering founders, including businessmen and staunch Catholics Edward and John Creighton and the Jesuits.

 

 Heider College of Business

The Heider College of Business at Creighton is named for Charles Heider.

 

 

 

Creighton College of Business anchored in pioneering entrepreneurial spirit and Jesuit philosophy

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Enterprising Spirit Animates the Creighton Story

Creighton University was founded in 1878 thanks to a confluence of figures whose pioneering, entrepreneurial, for-the-greater-good spirit established a caring, comprehensive academic institution on the Great Plains.

As Creighton has grown, so has the city it is situated in, Omaha, Nebraska. The Jesuit school and campus provide an anchor in the north downtown district. Graduates of Creighton’s professional schools and colleges of law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing, and business, for example, are recognized leaders in their fields. Creighton is lauded for being a good neighbor and a vital asset to the community.

The university makes contributions to many quality of life areas and some of the most visible are made by the Creighton University Medical Center, which combines teaching, diagnosis, and treatment in a real-life, critical care setting.

Community service is a vital facet of the Creighton experience. Students, faculty, and staff donate time and talent through health care and legal aid clinics. Service-learning efforts address myriad needs at home, around the nation, on Native American reservations, and in the Dominican Republic, where Creighton maintains an Institute for Latin American Concern mission.

Community collaboration and partnerships are other dimensions of Creighton’s outreach. The Werner Institute is a model initiative for negotiation and conflict resolution in the conduct of business, in relationships within and among organizations and communities, in the workplace, and in health care settings.

The Halo Institute is a collaborative that provides incubator space and professional consultation for emerging start-up businesses with a social or bioscience entrepreneurial bent. Halo is located in a complex of buildings in Omaha’s Old Market, a historic district whose warehouses were home to the city’s wholesale produce and outfitting businesses. Creighton University’s founders, brothers Edward and John Creighton, did business out of the very 19th century structure that Halo occupies today.

 

 

 

John Creighton

 

Mary Lucretia Creighton

 

 

 

Creightons Set a Precedent for Being Entrepreneurial and Community-Minded

It is only fitting that the university retain a tangible connection to the Creightons, as the family’s lives and careers embodied the same principles that underscore the institution’s core mission and the way in which it’s carried out.

Edward and John Creighton were business magnates and devout Catholics from the East who settled in Omaha in the years immediately prior to the Civil War. The Creightons amassed a fortune through various business interests and invested significant portions of that wealth into bettering the community through charitable support.

Builder, developer, and visionary Edward Creighton, the older of the two, got in on the ground floor of the burgeoning telegraph and railroad industries. He and his companies played a major role in supplying and constructing the transcontinental lines and rails that grew America’s communication and transportation networks.

Edward’s vast commercial empire was also built on bank, mine, cattle, and land holdings. His many business partners included fellow movers-and-shakers in the development of Omaha and in the settling of the West. Concurrent with Edward’s capitalist impulses was a desire to give back. It had long been his wish to form a Catholic school that prepared young people through a quality, values-based education program. After Edward’s death, his widow Mary Lucretia Creighton, and his younger brother John, a successful entrepreneur in his own right, carried out his wishes by founding Creighton University, which was originally called Creighton College.

Respected for their expertise as educators and for the rigorous morals and ethics-based course of study they administer, the Society of Jesus was given rein over the university. The Jesuits have continued guiding Creighton throughout its existence.

That same early spirit of aspiration, invention, and service is still imbued in Creighton more than a century later. Consistently rated one of the top institutions of higher learning in the Midwest, Creighton is rooted in its Catholic and Jesuit identity and mission of educating the whole person and leaving the world a better place. Creighton graduates are prepared to lead purpose-driven lives and careers.

 

 

Creighton College of Business began as the College of Commerce

 

 

College of Business Reflects the Creighton Legacy and the Jesuit Tradition

This mission extends to the university’s College of Business, founded in 1920 as the College of Commerce. Guided by the school’s Jesuit heritage, Through its highly respected undergraduate and graduate level programs he College of Business forms leaders who promote justice and use their business knowledge to improve the world.

Michael Jung, Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Cantera Partners, has used his MBA from Creighton to assist nonprofits develop public-private partnerships aimed at building economic development and sustainability in emerging and Third World nations.

“It is rewarding work, not only financially but from seeing the difference these programs can make in the world,” says Jung. “Some of the work that I have been involved in is feeding children in Afghanistan. We were feeding 75,000 school kids on a daily basis for five years. Just seeing the impact that can have on those children, mothers, families is very rewarding. I like being part of work that is actually making a difference with those not as fortunate as us here in the United States.”

The Creighton College of Business advances values-centered conduct through its courses as well as through its Academic Integrity Policy, Dean’s Honor Roll for Social Responsibility, Executive Partners Program, Anna Tyler Waite Center for Leadership, Leadership Conversations series, and other programs.

The business college is a founding member and active participant in the Greater Omaha Business Ethics Alliance. This partnership with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the Better Business Bureau advocates ethics in business.

Creighton MBA graduate Laura Larson is associate director of the Business Ethics Alliance.

“I think Creighton’s Jesuit focus prepared me so well for my job now in the business ethics industry,” says Larson. “I saw a focus in my classes on looking out for each person individually, the good of every person, taking the time to think about how a decision affects all stakeholders involved.

“Values have always been very important to me and acting morally and ethically has always been very important to me. When I came to Creighton and got the opportunity to work with the Business Alliance it really was a dream job to me because I’m making a difference in Omaha organizations every day. I’m bringing knowledge, skills, and resources involving ethics that organizations may not already have. I feel like I have a dream job just because I get to help others. ”

Pat Lazure is president of World Interactive Group, an Omaha World-Herald company. He founded a hyper-local Web platform, WikiCity, whose breakout success led the Omaha World-Herald Co. to buy it and bring him into the fold.

Holder of a Creighton MBA, Lazure appreciates the solid foundation he received in ethical business practices during his Creighton graduate studies.

“Business ethics is doing the right thing, sometimes even when it is uncomfortable to do,” Lazure says, “and in my education at Creighton business ethics was just a common ingredient, categorically, in every class I attended. It was just engrained in you. I think a Creighton graduate is conditioned to take that moral compass into their career.

“The Jesuits have always engrained being men and women for others. In a business career especially I think you can fall into a trap of being self serving, of only looking at what can I do to climb that corporate ladder. Or what can I do to promote my own stock. Or how can I cut corners. I think the Jesuit way instills in people a focus of being that man or woman for others, and seeing the broader landscape of things. Perhaps that’s through philanthropy or community service. Whatever it may be, it’s commingling the philanthropic aspects of life with the drive to turn a profit.”

 

 

 

Imagination, Innovation, Integrity Find a Home at Creighton

The College’s Social Entrepreneurship and Bioscience Entrepreneurship programs  emphasize business models that feature sustainable new practices and technologies that can positively impact society and community.

Omaha native Sameer Bhatia graduated from medical school in India and then earned his MBA from Creighton’s Bioscience Entrepreneurship Program. That experience led him to the Halo Institute, where his start-up business, Guru Instruments, found a nurturing space. Guru is focused on designing and marketing tools for medical professionals that improve surgical and other procedures, thereby increasing efficiency and reducing costs. Bhatia dreams of automated devices that can serve as “virtual physicians” in patients’ own homes or in nursing homes by feeding data to doctors’ offices to help inform diagnostic or treatment options.

Creighton Entrepreneurship Program director Ann York says Bhatia fits the model of a socially conscious entrepreneur who is not only motivated to succeed with products that have a humanitarian utility but who will likely “give back.”

For York there is a clear throughline from what the Creighton brothers did as early social entrepreneurs and the way Creighton University graduates learn to apply social entrepreneurship today. She says the principles and lessons of social entrepreneurship taught at Creighton dovetail with those of the Jesuit tradition and its challenge to students to be stewards of society.

“Given the mission and the values of our university as a Jesuit institution it makes perfect sense that social entrepreneurship would capture the hearts and minds of our students,” says York.

She cannot help but see the connection between the way Edward Creighton conducted business and the way Creighton students and graduates learn to engage with each other and with community.

“The older brother, Edward, was sort of a maverick,” says York, “but he was very into social causes. He was very concerned about Native American rights and education and respecting the integrity of the Native American people. In working on the railroad routes and telegraph lines, negotiations with Native Americans occurred all along the way and he was very concerned about some of the things he saw going on and actually was pretty outspoken about it. He was also an abolitionist, and pretty vocal about that, too. That’s very socially conscious.

“Entrepreneurs are the most socially conscious of all business people. Entrepreneurs who make money often want to give something back to the community that helped them grow and flourish, and the Creightons were very much that type of family.”

York also sees a parallel between the technological pursuits of the Creightons and the university’s bioscience entrepreneurship efforts. Just as that pioneering family helped to advance rapid communication through the telegraph and to further mass

transportation through the railroad, the school’s entrepreneurial success stories are forging new frontiers of their own.

“I think the Creightons would embrace very much what we’re doing in the biosciences,” York says, “because I think they would recognize it as an emerging industry like the ones they were involved and they would see the potential for future entrepreneurs like themselves.”

CU Cox Classic 2012

Dean Anthony Hendrickson

 

 

Nurturing Creatives and Leaders

After experiencing success with its undergraduate Bioscience Entrepreneurship program, Creighton has developed a professional science master’s program in Bioscience Management. College of Business Dean Anthony Hendrickson says the emphasis in this graduate-level program “is really the management of that bioscience innovation process — the research and development.”

The Halo Institute is a supportive proving ground for social and bioscience entrepreneurial business models generated by Creighton students and faculty, although the incubator is open to applicants outside the Creighton community as well.

“The distinguishing thing about our Halo business incubator is that it is tied to our Jesuit mission,” says Hendrickson. “When as a board we look at different businesses the first question we ask ourselves is, ‘Relative to this service or product, what is its impact on society?’ Not its money making potential, but its impact on society. We consider that first and then after addressing whether it’s a good thing for society, we look at its business viability aspects, which is a different orientation. Most business institutions don’t do that because of their secular focus on business viability and profit potential. Most organizations ranking those things wouldn’t necessarily look at that social impact issue first.”

Halo Institute chair Roger Fransecky says participants in the incubator benefit from “the sponsorship, direction, and guidance of a values-based staff, and it’s all a reflection of what Creighton is about as an institution.”

Fransecky has an interesting perspective on the principled way Creighton approaches business precepts. Founder/CEO of the global leadership firm, Apogee Group, he serves on the College of Business advisory board and teaches a special course in personal leadership in the Creighton MBA program.

“I share deeply the values that Creighton espouses,” says Fransecky. “My students are doctors, lawyers, dentists, bankers, accountants, business people, and the common denominator is — they’re in this program not simply to get an MBA, they’re in this program to find work with meaning and to then link that work to the larger values of their lives. I’ve been very touched and moved by these grownups — they’re really smart and they care a lot. The thing that links them together is their aspirations and their values.

“I’ve taught at New York University and UCLA and Princeton and a lot of other places, and these (Creighton) students are very unique in my experience.”

ESPN reporter Paula Lavigne, who does enterprise piece’s for the cable sports network’s investigative “Outside the Lines” series, was a college graduate and working journalist when she decided to enhance her marketable skills. She decided to pursue a master of business administration degree and after considering several graduate schools she opted for Creighton’s MBA program.

“I chose Creighton because it has a wonderful reputation,” says Lavigne. “I appreciated the values it disposes. It was the Creighton faculty that really won me over. It was a wonderful blend of experienced faculty leading a discussion of people from all different backgrounds and engaged in really thought-provoking material.

“I feel like since I’ve gotten my MBA from Creighton I am more confident in my job and in the ideas I come up with. I feel that my MBA has really given me skills as a leader as well as a sense of credibility and business savvy I didn’t have before.”

Lavigne says she struggled with leadership until a breakthrough at Creighton.

“I think one of the most powerful moments from my Creighton experience was a personal leadership class I took. The professor really encouraged us to bring forth a lot of things from our past that were uncomfortable. By doing that it allowed me to see what I had been doing wrong as a leader and what strengths I could pull from to be a better leader going forward. It felt like a very cleansing moment for me.”

She says she learned leadership “is not just about numbers and board meetings, it’s really about people and it’s about your individual skills. This class really helped me come to terms with a lot of that. ” She says she now practices leadership on the job and as a presenter of workshops and training seminars for other reporters.

 

Anne York

 

 

A Moral Compass

In addition to honing her leadership skills, Paula Lavigne says Creighton’s MBA program gave her a new, healthier perspective of business.

“Before I started the MBA program at Creighton I had a pretty cynical view of business, especially big business not really having much respect for business ethics or morality or social justice. In my view those values really didn’t have a role in the business community. My MBA classes at Creighton taught me that’s not really true. Professors were very good about incorporating that sense of justice, ethics, and morality into business, and really teaching us as students that there is a role for that. It is not just a dog eat dog world.

“I mean there is definitely a role in business to follow a moral compass of sorts and still be successful. I think that really plays into those Jesuit values, and I know that that sense of the Golden Rule is not just for Sunday school, but it’s for the boardroom as well. Our professors instilled in us that you don’t just have to run over everyone, you can respect your competition, you can respect your customers, and at the end of the day you can still profit from the bottom line.”

Creighton business professor and Robert Daugherty Chair in Management Robert Moorman says the College of Business encourages students not to be satisfied with the status quo. He says students are challenged to look beyond merely making a profit or returning a dividend to shareholders by asking questions that go deeper than bottom line numbers. He says students are trained to look at larger considerations; What’s next? What else is there to do? How are you going to use shareholder value to drive changes in the world toward justice, toward the improvement of society for the many?

“It’s that sense of responsibility to take one more step,” says Moorman. “Gathering the knowledge is a necessary important first step. Using the knowledge completes the circle. So I think this is a place where we try to ask the question, How are you going to use the knowledge, what are you going to do with it? Leadership is the method, the lever or the device that links knowledge to the outcomes we wish to see.

“I often say to students, ‘We want you to take ethics classes and really think about the ethics side of it, because we want you to be leaders who influence the world.’”

Moorman says that if students are going to be successful entrepreneurs they must know finance, marketing, strategy, and underlining business principles. Just as they must have a complete grasp of such business models, he says if f they are to be socially responsible entrepreneurs they must know and apply sound ethics. It’s this holistic approach to doing business, he says, that differentiates Creighton’s focus.

“Everything is kind of tied together that way,” he says. “I think the entrepreneurship major is really about fostering a drive towards innovation that makes a difference for society.”

Hendrickson sees plenty of evidence that Creighton business graduates implement the social consciousness taught in school in their own careers.

“It seems like there’s a number of Creighton grads that embrace this idea of social entrepreneurship, mostly because that’s the ethos from which they spring,” he says.

That ethos is one embodied by the Jesuit philosophy, past and present, and it’s certainly an ethos the Creighton family manifested.

 

Roger Fransecky, right, conducting a Conversations in Leadership interview

 

 

Building on a Foundation of Serving the Greater Good

According to Creighton archivist David Crawford the Creightons were visionaries who saw the need for quality higher education that was broad in scope, yet specialized. The family’s philanthropy made possible the addition of the schools of medicine, law, pharmacy, and significantly, business. He says Creighton University added the then-School of Commerce at a time when there was growing recognition of the need for “scientific training” in business administration.

Whether donating the money to establish Creighton University or providing funds to build out the campus, including St. John’s Church, or financing the creation of professional schools, or supporting St. Joseph Hospital, Crawford says “the Creightons acted out of “a sense of responsibility” to serve their community and faith.

“Through a lot of their charitable works the Creightons took care of a number of voids in Omaha and Nebraska. I think they just saw this as part of giving back to the community.”

Crawford says this outward focus still resonates today with the social justice and community service work that Creighton students, faculty, and staff do in accordance with the school’s Jesuit mission.

“You see a strong sense that that’s what you do here — that’s the norm, and I think that really ties directly back to the Creightons. The commitment to putting a school here was part of a larger commitment. The leadership role of the Creighton family was very much in that mode of noblesse oblige (nobility obliges) — of feeling a responsibility to people in the area,” says Crawford. “There was a sense of, We’ve been blessed, there’s a lot of people in our community who are less fortunate, and we need to take care of them.”

Omaha is well known for its generous business and entrepreneurial sector and Creighton College of Business graduates are among the major players who make community service a priority here and wherever they live.

Laura Larson of the Greater Omaha Business Ethics Alliance credits Creighton University with nurturing a focus on others.

“Something that was really emphasized at Creighton was giving back to the community,” she says. “One way Creighton helped me to grow was that it really gave me the opportunity to make a difference in the MBA program. When I had an idea for a project I’d go to a faculty member to talk about it, and they were completely open to hear what I had to say and they gave me the tools necessary to implement the project. I was able to start a graduate student association and plan the first hooding ceremony for graduate business students.”

“After I was done with my MBA I got involved with a mentoring program in the Omaha area, so I now mentor a group of four to six kids twice a month. Serving others is something I was always very passionate about. It is something that has been instilled in me from a young age and Creighton emphasized it as well as I went through the program. ”

Robert Moorman says the example of the Creightons and university graduates giving back demonstrates how trailblazers can assert leadership that goes beyond selfish business interests to serve much wider community and societal interests.

“It’s really about the drive that prompted the Creightons to explore new territories, new business ideas, new endeavors and not stop at perhaps a simple way station and say, I am successful now, that’s good enough, and I’m resting on my laurels. It’s about a very forward leaning entrepreneurial notion,” says Moorman, “and at least being comfortable with accepting the mantle of responsibility that comes with opportunity.

“Responsibility comes with those benefits. Leadership is the way in which influence is exercised. At the end of the day it’s all about exercising influence over the actions and views of other folks, and the Creighton brothers did that, the Creighton wives did that, and that I think is the connection we want to have to that legacy. It’s the what’s next — what else are you going to do now? outlook.”

An Unbroken Chain of Ingenuity and Inspiration

The holistic approach the Creightons modeled has remained a constant at the university and in its business college, whose graduates cultivate a sense of responsibility and concern they carry with them, paying it forward in their personal and professional lives.

“Getting my MBA at Creighton has made me more of a whole person,” says ESPN’s Paula Lavigne. “It has made me a better contributor in the workplace. It has made me a better leader. It has given me opportunities at ESPN and I believe it has opened up my opportunities for the long term as well regardless of what I do.

“One of the things we learned in our leadership classes was the importance of being authentic. You can’t be authentic if you have one face at work and a different one at home and a different face in your spiritual life. You have to make sure the person you are at work is true to the person you are at home because that makes you a better leader. As long as you’re being authentic to yourself, you can be a better person, you can be a better leader with your coworkers, with your supervisors, and the customers that you deal with.”

Balance, congruence, integrity, innovation, integration, service. These qualities have been a hallmark of the Creighton experience since its start. They remain a cornerstone of the values taught there today.

The enterprising and philanthropic spirit of the school’s founders has been taken up year after year, generation after generation by new mavericks animated with the same desire to achieve and lead.

Like the Creightons who began it all, the university continues producing men and women of substance, vision, and conscience who succeed in business and in life not in spite of their compassion and generosity but because of it.

Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting Turns Omaha into Buffettville Destination

August 18, 2012 1 comment

If you’re a practicing journalist for very long in Omaha there are some local stories that will inevitably cross your professional path at one juncture or another.  For years I had known about and experienced some of the fallout from the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting that literally brings thousands of folks from around the world to town for face or proximity time with the Oracle of Omaha, billionaire investor and Berkshire chairman Warren Buffett.  Until an Omaha Magazine assignment a few years ago I had never written about the event and while the gig didn’t call for me to actually cover the proceedings but instead to preview them I can at least say I’ve crossed off yet another Omaha tradition from my story bucket list.

 

Berkshire Hathaway shareholders pack the CenturyLink arena for the company's annual meeting in Omaha May 4, 2013. Warren Buffett and the board of his conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway Inc are "solidly in agreement" on who should be the company's next chief executive, he said at Berkshire's annual shareholder meeting on Saturday. REUTERS/Rick WilkingBerkshire Hathaway shareholders pack the CenturyLink arena for the company’s annual meeting in Omaha May 4, 2013. Warren Buffett and the board of his conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway Inc are “solidly in agreement” on who should be the company’s next chief executive, he said at Berkshire’s annual shareholder meeting on Saturday. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

 

 

Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Tuns Omaha into Buffettville Destination

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s once modest annual shareholders meeting has morphed into what one pundit called “Woodstock for Capitalists.”

Thanks to chairman Warren Buffett’s “Oracle” status, the weekend event’s now a branded experience. Sure, Buffett and partner Charlie Munger’s witty Q & A is popular, but there’s also exhibits by subsidiaries, entertainment, parties, concerts, tours and immersion in-all-things-Omaha. People drop big bucks on buying-junkets at Berkshire-held Borsheims and Nebraska Furniture Mart, which reportedly did $30 million in sales for last year’s spree. Gorat’s and Dairy Queen do well.

Economic crisis or not, thousands will once again venture here from across the nation and globe for the May 1-3 bash. The Saturday May 2 meeting is when Qwest Center Omaha overbrims with activity. Annual meeting director Kelly Muchemore-Broz said she’s seen the event take on “a life of its own.” “The first meeting I attended there were 200 shareholders. When I started helping with the meeting, there were a couple thousand. Back then we were able to pass microphones to the shareholders to ask their questions. Last year we had 32,000.”

The scale, said Qwest Center director of event operations Stan Benis, “is probably the largest we handle from start to finish. People come early and stay late. The event is certainly in a class of its own. The closest would probably be the American Idol tryouts, but even that didn’t take the entire convention center floor space.”

 

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett (C) shakes hands with a shareholder just before the company's annual meeting in Omaha May 4, 2013. Buffett and the board of his conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway Inc are "solidly in agreement" on who should be the company's next chief executive, he said at Berkshire's annual shareholder meeting on Saturday. REUTERS/Rick WilkingBerkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett (C) shakes hands with a shareholder just before the company’s annual meeting in Omaha May 4, 2013. Buffett and the board of his conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway Inc are “solidly in agreement” on who should be the company’s next chief executive, he said at Berkshire’s annual shareholder meeting on Saturday. REUTERS/Rick Wilkin

Berkshire Hathaway shareholders pack the CenturyLink arena for the company's annual meeting in Omaha May 4, 2013. Warren Buffett and the board of his conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway Inc are "solidly in agreement" on who should be the company's next chief executive, he said at Berkshire's annual shareholder meeting on Saturday. REUTERS/Rick WilkingBerkshire Hathaway shareholders pack the CenturyLink arena for the company’s annual meeting in Omaha May 4, 2013. Warren Buffett and the board of his conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway Inc are “solidly in agreement” on who should be the company’s next chief executive, he said at Berkshire’s annual shareholder meeting on Saturday. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Investor Warren Buffett is surrounded by hundreds of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders and journalist as he talks to Chris “Handles” Franklin of the Harlem Globetrotters before the shareholders meeting in Omaha, Neb., Saturday, May 4, 2013. Tens of thousands attend Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting to hear Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger answer questions for more than six hours. No other annual meeting can rival Berkshire's, which is known for its size, the straight talk Buffett and Munger offer and the sales records shareholders set while buying Berkshire products. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)Investor Warren Buffett is surrounded by hundreds of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders and journalist as he talks to Chris “Handles” Franklin of the Harlem Globetrotters before the shareholders meeting in Omaha, Neb., Saturday, May 4, 2013. Tens of thousands attend Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting to hear Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger answer questions for more than six hours. No other annual meeting can rival Berkshire’s, which is known for its size, the straight talk Buffett and Munger offer and the sales records shareholders set while buying Berkshire products. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett (R) watches friend Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates throw a newspaper in a competition just before the Berkshire annual meeting in Omaha May 4, 2013. Buffett and the board of his conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway Inc are "solidly in agreement" on who should be the company's next chief executive, he said at Berkshire's annual shareholder meeting on Saturday.   REUTERS/Rick Wilking Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett (R) watches friend Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates throw a newspaper in a competition just before the Berkshire annual meeting in Omaha May 4, 2013. Buffett and the board of his conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway Inc are “solidly in agreement” on who should be the company’s next chief executive, he said at Berkshire’s annual shareholder meeting on Saturday.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking

 

 

So, what goes into making it all happen?

Months in advance Muchemore-Broz begins working with a core team to plan every element of the all-day event. The devil’s in the details. That includes a theme. This year’s is cowboys. “I try to select themes that are whimsical, colorful and offer a large canvas of creative possibilities,” she said. Designers lead crews that dress the facility — this time in a Western motif. Only the arena’s left untouched. “It’s all business in there,” she said, referring to the venue where the company movie, Q & A and business meeting unfold. Everything else is fair game.

A live reenactment of a stagecoach hold-up will break out right in front of the Qwest on 10th Street. A Wild West show, minus shootouts, is on display inside.

“Every year it’s amazing to see an empty exhibit hall become completely transformed,” said team leader D’Ann Lonowski of Mint Design. “It is an elaborate setup that usually contains a large, central focal point in the exhibit hall. From there we branch out with scenery and signage.”

Muchemore-Broz said the most time-intensive work is “finalizing meeting details —  designing, writing, printing, organizing, communicating and delivering meeting materials to both shareholders and attending exhibitors.” The most labor-intensive? “Stuffing envelopes,” she said.

All of it, the landscaping, centerpieces, booth displays and graphics, right down to passes and visitor guides, Lonowski said, must work together to “create a cohesive environment” and to “bring the theme to life.”

Then there’s the buzz. Think of Buffett as the iconic front man for a hot band whose star power gets shareholders to queue up hours before the meeting starts. “I believe the record was one o’clock the morning of the meeting. However, last year there was a gentlemen who arrived at 11 the night before,” said Muchemore-Broz. In terms of preparations, Benis said, “we treat it just like a rock show. The crowds are lined up outside and pass through a security checkpoint.” Once inside, he said, it’s a race of people “in suits-and-ties trying to get a front row seat.”

With attendance now at sold-out, stadium-concert proportions, demand on area service sectors, such as lodging, is great.

“The downtown hotels do sell out the summer before,” said Muchemore-Broz, “but room availability changes constantly –- right up to the weekend of the meeting. So it doesn’t mean you can’t get a room in Omaha.” However, she added, “If you wait until spring to get a room, it’s possible you could be as far away as Lincoln.”

Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau executive director Dana Markel said its Visitor Center at 1001 Farnam Center sees double its highest traffic that weekend. “It’s just a spectacular event for Omaha and really nothing compares,” she said. “People come in from all over the world.”

The day of the meeting, Benis said, “parking is always a challenge but people seem to find spaces. A lot of attendees take the hotel shuttles or walk over.” As the arena can’t hold everyone, teleconferencing beams the meeting into the exhibit hall, the ballrooms and the concourses, where the overflow crowd mingles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Accommodating all those visitors requires much coordination. Muchemore-Broz said countless people support the meeting and satellite events/activities. “My team members have their own staffs. Everyone at Berkshire works the meeting — including employees at a couple of our local insurance companies. There’s Qwest personnel, Omaha Police Department, Nebraska and Iowa State Patrol, Douglas and Sarpy County deputies. Many local residents volunteer to help. And, of course, the local restaurants, hotels, taxi companies, the airport –- the list goes on and on.”

At the Qwest, Benis said, “our event staff, including cleaners, is around 300 on the day of the meeting. Levy, our concessionaire, will have around 250 on site. Keeping the arena and convention center clean is always a challenge, but this event again is so different because of the length of time visitors are in the building.”

Muchemore-Broz said putting on the event is “a very exhilarating and fun grind. I’m thrilled when it’s over and everyone has had a terrific weekend but it’s sad too.  It’s a big emotional let down when the lights go out. Every year is a lesson in growth and fine tuning.”

Crazy like a fox indie filmmaker Dan Mirvish makes going his own way work

August 18, 2012 Leave a comment

I love a good movie musical and for my money they don’t make enough of them today.  There are maybe more ways to go wrong with a musical than there are with other genre pics and that may be one reason why filmmakers and investors shy away from them.  Nothing’s quite so awful or painful as asong and dance numbers that drag or just plain don’t work.  All of which is why indie filmmaker Dan Mirvish accomplished a minor miracle with his music comedy about real estate, Open House, which just may be one of the most entertaining movies of the early 2000s. Some of you film geeks may know Mirvish as a founder of the Slamdance Film Festival, an alternative film fest that tweaks the nost of the mighty Sundance fest.  Some of you may know him as the writer-director of the cult favorite, Omaha (The Movie).  Some may recognize him as the man who challenged the holy of holies Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to consider Open House and other small indie musicals like his for the long dormant Best Original Musical category come Oscar voting time.  Or for the sublime prank that he and Eitan Gorlin played on the national media by inventing a John McCain advisor, Martin Eisenstadt, and watching in disbelief and horror as leading journalistic enterprises and reporters bought the ruse hook-line-and sinker.  The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared upon the release of Open House on DVD.  You’ll find many more of my film stories on this blog.

 

 

Dan Mirvish Dan Mirvish My First Shoot

 

 

Crazy like a fox indie filmmaker Dan Mirvish makes going his own way work

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

With the DVD release this week of his 2004 low budget film Open House, an all-digitally shot feature, cinema provocateur Dan Mirvish may finally net a wide audience for the iconoclastic screwball musical comedy he directed and co-wrote.

Mirvish is something of a hero in indie film circles. First, there’s the anything-goes sensibility of his previous feature, Omaha (the Movie), a 1998 pic he marketed into both a festival favorite and industry calling card. His co-founding the proletarian Slamdance Film Festival as an alternative showcase to the bourgeois Sundance fest, whose well-heeled, major-clouted officials consider him persona non grata, cemented his place as a nettlesome indie champion. Then, despite set-backs to get other projects of his before the camera, he did what a lot of first-time filmmakers never do, he made a second feature (Open House) that fulfilled the promise of his first. Finally, there’s the cheeky campaign he waged to get the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to consider House and other musical indie pics for the dormant Best Original Musical category, a move that so offended the hidebound Academy that it did away away with the category altogether.

Leave it to this wry filmmaker to make a musical comedy about the surreal residential real estate scene, whose ripe-for-satire rituals, code words, phony props, shady dealings, desperate buyers and sellers and competitive agents, he delights in sending-up. But as in his first feature, the played-for-farce story lines unfold alongside darker themes to create a by-turns whimsical and quixotic piece that is pure Mirvish, an Omaha mensch now living in L.A. whose whack sense of humor is part John Landis and part Alexander Payne.

The inspiration for Open House grew out of the house hunting experience of Mirvish and his wife.

“What fascinated me about going to open houses was that we were allowed to rummage through the house and property of complete and total strangers. These people would entrust their entire lives to the care of their frequently distracted real estate agents. I found it very interesting to piece together these lives from their collections of photos, diplomas and other artifacts. The challenge became deducing why it was these people were really selling their houses — and how each sale was usually part of a seismic shift in people’s lives. I was also intrigued by the incredibly competitive nature of real estate agents themselves, and the depths to which they will go to sell a house.”

In its early drafts, the film was a straight, nonmusical comedy. It remained that way through readings held at Omaha’s Blue Barn Theater and a short film adaptation of the story Mirvish made for the Seattle Fly Filmmaker series. It only became a musical after 9/11, when Mirvish got the idea.

As a veteran of the frontline indie wars, Mirvish well appreciates the miracle that any film, especially a small budget one, ever gets made. Open House survived the usual pitfalls that befall projects. No matter what disasters strike, a guerilla-style filmmaker like Mirvish finds a way. As Open House star Anthony Rapp, an original cast member of the Broadway hit Rent said, “working with Dan is like jumping off the cliff every day” Or, as fellow cast member Robert Peters said, “no matter what obstacles, the train keeps running.”

“My theory is that everything will drop out on you — cast, crew, camera, financing — but as long as it doesn’t all happen on the same day, you’re OK. And sure enough that’s exactly what happened. Every single element fell through on this one. The music director dropped out three weeks before shooting. The choreographer dropped out two weeks before. But, again, because it didn’t happen all at once, we never quite panicked,” he said.

Things began inauspiciously when on the first day’s shoot, he said, “the cops showed up and shut us down” for being short on the rental of a house serving as a prime location. A check was cut on the spot to make up the difference. Mirvish sums up the incident this way: “So it wasn’t a shut down — it was a shake down.”

To avoid similar hassles, Mirvish and company eschewed permits and stole shots at a later location, a mansion that drew passersby who saw the production’s fake “open house” signs out front and meandered in thinking an agent was showing the place.

“In the middle of shooting people would just kind of wander in thinking it was a real open house and the strange thing is not a single person so much as raised an eyebrow that there was an entire film crew shooting in the house…and there were were actors singing and dancing in the living room. It’s like, It’s L.A., well of course there’s people shooting here. Why wouldn’t there be?”

 
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