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‘West Side Story,’ An American Classic

August 15, 2012 1 comment

I have been fortunate enough to interview several film legends and with this story I landed a biggie in the person of the late Robert Wise, the Oscar-winning producer-director who made two of the greatest screen musicals in West Side Story and The Sound of Music, though as my piece points out he was a versatile enough filmmaker that he made memorable movies of all different genres, including horror, crime, Western, and science fiction.  My story appeared on the eve of a revival screening of West Side Story at the restored Orpheum Theater in Omaha some eight or nine years ago.  The event was organized by local impresario Bruce Crawford.  For the story I interviewed Wise, co-star Russ Tamblyn, who came to the showing, and Crawford.  Though Wise was not a great filmmaker or auteur he was certainly one of the most commercially successful prodcuer-directors of his era.  His career also spanned an incredibly long period, from the Golden Age of 1930s-1940s Hollywood well into the 1980s, and intersected with scores of great talents.  It was a distinct privilege to speak with him.  Flm lovers should note that this blog is full of my stories from my work as a film journalist.

 

George Chakiris, middle, leads the Sharks

‘West Side Story,’ An American Classic

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

Before becoming the home of Omaha’s performing arts in the 1970s, the Orpheum Theater reigned as the grandest movie palace in the city. It’s only fitting then the newly renovated downtown Orpheum will, for one night only, on Monday, November 11, showcase a national cinema treasure — West Side Story — in a special screening benefiting the St. Vincent DePaul Society of Omaha

The event is the latest in local impresario Bruce Crawford’s series of annual film revivals presented in the manner of Hollywood premieres. This time, he’s arranged personal appearances by three West Side Story notables — its Oscar-winning producer-director Robert Wise, co-star Russ Tamblyn and vocalist Marni Nixon, who provided the singing voice for Natalie Wood. Also, a choreographed work by Robin Welch of the Omaha Theater Ballet will pay homage to the dance numbers in the film. Wise, Tamblyn and Nixon will speak prior to the film and sign autographs afterwards.

Crawford said he’s secured “an archival print” for the showing, which will offer audiences a rare chance to see the film in all its 70 millimeter Super Panavision glory on the big screen. In the opinion of Crawford, a devotee of film music, West Side Story “broke the mold” as far as the American musical is concerned. “I consider it a modern opera. Maria,TonightIn America — these are not just show tunes, these are almost operatic arias,” he said. “I think it transcends the musical genre and is the most unique of all film musicals, hands-down.”

Released by United Artists in 1961, West Side Story became a huge box-office hit and one of the most honored films in Academy Award history, winning 10 Oscars, including for Best Picture, Best Director (Wise and co-director Jerome Robbins), Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris) and Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno). As successful as the film was, it owed everything to the original stage production upon which it was based. Boldly transposing the forbidden romance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the New York gang milieu and exchanging the Montague-Capulet feud for the gang warfare between the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, composer Leonard Bernstein and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins covered new ground in American musical theater with their honest depiction of racial issues.

The modern, socially-conscious drama became a Broadway phenomenon soon after opening at New York’s Winter Garden Theater in 1957. Brimming with an urgent passion and intellect, the show ran more than 700 performances before going on tour. Sensing a hot property when they saw one, producers ponied-up to buy the film rights. In the changing landscape of American cinema then, old-line Hollywood studios were giving way to brash new independent film companies, one of which — Mirisch Pictures — acquired the rights to the play and, in association with Seven Arts Productions, launched the much-anticipated screen version.

To helm the film, veteran Robert Wise (Somebody Up There Likes Me) was signed and, in an unusual arrangement, Broadway’s Robbins was given co-directorial responsibilities. The plan was for Wise to direct the dramatic scenes and to shape the overall story for the camera and for Robbins to develop the demanding dance and music numbers. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (SabrinaThe King and ISweet Smell of SuccessNorth By Northwest) wrote the film adaptation. Bernstein and Sondheim again provided the powerful music and lyrics around which the entire spine of West Side is built. In preparing the film, Wise-Robbins elected not to use any leads from the Broadway show and instead cast five fresh-faced young players under contract to various studios.

As the souful, starcrossed lovers whose romance defies family, ethnic and gang codes of honor, Richard Beymer was cast as Tony, the Polish-American boy, and Natalie Wood as Maria, the Chicano girl. Newcomer George Chakiris took the showy part of Bernardo, the charismatic leader of the Sharks. Plucked from the obscurity of previously decorative bit parts, Rita Moreno won the role of Anita, the fire brand mate of Bernardo. And, finally, for the cocky role of Riff, the leader of the Jets, Russ Tamblyn got the call.

In recent phone interviews from their California homes, Wise and Tamblyn spoke about making the film and the artists they collaborated with. After 56 years directing some of the most famous features in movie history, 88-year-old Robert Wise is finally retired from picture-making, although movies are always on his mind. The venerable Wise is the last of the old guard of Hollywood filmmakers. In a distinguished career that saw him transition from the editing room at RKO, where he cut such classics as Citizen Kane, to assuming the director’s chair, from which he oversaw dozens of popular films of every conceivable genre, Wise earned a reputation as a fine craftsman. His fluid, incisive, unadorned work exudes a sober integrity reflective of his own character. In preparing a film a director is like a reporter and Wise, who intended to be a journalist, anchors his work in research. “When I go into any project I research every aspect of it thoroughly, so I can tell all the truth and reality I can up on the screen,” he said.

By the time Wise joined the West Side creative team, he was a bankable, versatile director adept at making suspense films (The Curse of the Cat People), horror films (The Body Snatcher), film noirs (The Set-Up), crime thrillers (Odds Against Tomorrow), Westerns (Blood on the Moon), science fiction flicks (The Day the Earth Stood Still), high dramas (Executive Suite), biopics (I Want to Live) and war films (Run Silent, Run Deep). Despite never directing a musical, he worked as an assistant editor on Astaire-Rogers pictures, an experience, he said, that helped him know “the form” of the musical. Four years after West Side, he struck gold with another Broadway adaptation — The Sound of Music —which broke all box office records.

 west-side-story

Wise knew the challenge in making a film from a play, any play, was in finding ways to open the story up in cinematic terms that liberated the action from the constraints of the stage. So that he could capture the grit, vitality and scope of West Side’s New York City setting, he realized he must get dynamic shots of the Big Apple and thus fix the story’s urban location in people’s minds. To do that, he came up with the novel idea for the signature opening — a sweeping helicopter pan looking straight down at the looming cityscape. The resulting images offer arresting views of the city and serve to heighten the reality and poetry of the stylized drama. The filmmaker had to fight reluctant, penny-pinching executives to do the opening his way.

“Well, they were not too happy about it because it was going to cost a lot more money to shoot that, but that was the only way to do it,” he said. “I didn’t want to fake that out here in Los Angeles. I wanted to deliver New York and I didn’t want to do it with that same old shot across the river of the bridge and the skyline. I got to wondering what it would look like just straight down — a New York most people have never seen. I didn’t actually shoot that myself. A second-unit man did it for me. I think we had about a half-hour’s worth of film, which we cut down into what’s in the movie.” The montage rythmically leads into the first pulsating shots of gang members moving in the streets and breaking into dance.

 

Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood as the star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria

Aside from his own contributions, Wise felt secure knowing he had a brilliant book, sublime lyrics and memorable music to work with. In his mind, a film is only as good as its screenplay. He said, “We had a marvelous script by a writer-friend of mine, Ernest Lehman, who’s done several of my other things. The foundation of any film is the script, and if it’s not on the page, you’re not going to get it up there (on the screen). If you’ve got it on the page and if you get the right cast together and the right crew, then away you go and you let the chips fall where they may.”

Russ Tamblyn said West Side was a project where “all the ingredients clicked.” Among the big egos and talents behind it, he said, it was the cool, calm, quiet Wise who held it all together. “He was quite different from Jerome Robbins. Jerry was very passionate and out front. He would get mad at dancers if they couldn’t remember steps and he wanted actors to keep doing stuff over and over and over again. On the set, boy, he was a demon. Whereas Robert Wise was more laid-back. He was the kind of director I really like — that’s more self-assured and would point you in the right direction and leave it up to you to go there. That’s the thing I loved about him. He just is really sweet. You can call him at his office, and he answers the phone. There aren’t many people in his position that do that.”

When, more than half-way through production, the film fell behind schedule and went over-budget, the fiery Robbins was fired and assistant Tony Mordente, who also played one of the Jets, Action, assumed the choreography. Ironically, Robbins won Oscars for his energetic, sexually-charged choreography and co-direction.

Behind-the-scenes intrigue or not, Tamblyn enjoyed the shoot and felt lucky to be part of the film at all. He was “on loan” to the producers from MGM, where he was a contract player. He actually tested for the role of Tony, but ended up playing Riff over the objections of studio head Bennie Thau, who felt the part projected the wrong image for a young star being groomed as a clean-cut boy-next-door type. West Side was not the first or last musical for Tamblyn, who displayed his acrobatic style, replete with his trademark back flip, in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Tom Thumb and Hit the Deck. While lacking formal training, the former Los Angeles youth tumbling champ got the equal of a graduate-level dance education from such master choreographers as Robbins, Michael Kidd and Hermes Pan. Although “extremely intimidated” by the dances required in West Side, he gained confidence during months of rehearsal and from being in the company of fellow former child actors Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, whom Tamblyn later co-starred with in David Lynch’s cult TV series Twin Peaks.

Tamblyn, who considers West Side Story “the peak” of his career, enjoys attending revivals of the film. “Last year we did a cast and crew reunion in New York at Radio City Music Hall,” he said. “It was completely sold out. It was right after 9/11 and we didn’t even want to go, but Mayor Giuliani asked us to, and it was one of the best trips I ever had there.” Robert Wise was there too and said the film “played like gangbusters.” For his Omaha screening, Bruce Crawford is “thrilled” to have the combination of “a legendary filmmaker, a classic film and the Orpheum Theater.”

 

Russ Tamblyn, leaping the highest, leads the Jets

James Caan Interview

August 12, 2012 1 comment

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 James Caan.  Look for upcoming interviews I did with Robert Duvall, Francis Ford Coppola, cinematographers Bill Butler (Rain People) and Joseph Friedman (Jet Set) and editor Stephen Mack.

 

 

James Caan Interview: From My Film Connections Project (An In-Progress Film Story-Event Project)

©by Leo Adam Biga

LAB: When did you and Robert Duvall first meet? Was it during Robert Altman‘s Countdown or before that?

JC: “Bobby’s older than me. We first met in ’68 when we did a picture called The Rain People for Francis (Ford Coppola). That’s when we met the Petersons. That was first, I believe.”

LB: Except that IMDB shows Countdown was released in ’68, the same year The Rain People, a ’69 releasewas in production, and so I’m thinking you two made Countdown first.

JC: “Oh yeah, you can’t argue with those fuckers. We had a lot of fun on Countdown. That was one of Bob Altman’s first features.

LAB: I thought perhaps you and Duvall might have met before that, like through New York acting circles.

JC: “No, no, because I came out here (L.A.) when I was like 21. I studied in New York. We didn’t study together. I did like an off-Broadway play there for eight months and then I did whatever television was available then. There was one called Playhouse 90. It was a three-camera show. It was like a play they put on live television. And then there was Naked City, which was a series. And then there was that Route 66, which I did in Philadelphia. But then that was pretty much it in New York.

“And then I got called out to California. But I had to know Bobby before that (CountdownRain People) because we were already goofing on each other. That’s weird though – I thought I knew Bobby before that, for what reason I don’t know. Is it age, what is it, Jesus Christ?!

LAB: So what is it that accounts for your enduring friendship?

JC: “Just kind of a blatant honesty I think. I mean, it’s not like I don’t like actors or something, but I don’t just much travel in those circles, and Bobby’s not one of those either. I mean, I know made him laugh a little bit and I like that because I like making people laugh and I guess he likes laughing or something. And Bobby’s obviously a terrific actor and really easy to work with. From day one till today I dont think there’s anyone more giving than him working on camera. Some actors are terribly selfish and they think the worse you are the better they look, so they don’t give a shit when you’re on camera, which is a horrible principle because there’s no such thing as bad acting in a good scene.

“And then I think horses. I don’t know if I was into horses. I think it was a kind of freedom and not so involved in being all withdrawn and letting the job overtake your entire life. It didn’t mean we didn’t work but we had a lot of fun. And he was a terrible practical joker. He couldn’t hold a goddamned secret for nothing. I mean, if you had something you really didn’t want out there and you whispered it to your best friend, he’d wait till there were 500 people in the room and blurt it out. That’s Bobby.”

LAB: If I’m not mistaken you were attached to The Rain People project from the beginning whereas Duvall joined the company some time later, and, that in fact he may have replaced another actor.

JC: “I think Rip Torn or somebody.”

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

JC: “Francis at that time was very aesthetic. And he wrote the thing as a play I think, and we did it somewhere up in Columbia or somewhere. We did it as a play. It was sort of like a rehearsal thing that Francis did.”

LAB: How did the two of you meet?

JC: “I met Francis when he came out here. I guess he had seen one or two things I had done. I obviously hadn’t done too many. I think by that time he had written Patton. I think he stayed at my house. I had a little guest house, so he stayed there for awhile. We got to be friendly. Having come from the Neighborhood Playhouse with (Lee) Strasburg and all those people, he was a young guy – I think Francis is like a year older than me. He was from New York (by way of Detroit). As a matter of fact his grandmother lived around the corner from me in Sunnyside.”

LAB: What about The Rain People got you interested in doing the part of Killer Kilgannon?

JC: “It was a great opportunity, a great character. Just from talking to him (Coppola) I knew he knew actors and he had already received some notoriety with You’re a Big Boy Now and obviously having written Patton at the age of 23 (24 actually) or whatever the hell he was. But obviously when I started working with him I knew he was     something special. The guy pretty much knew about everything. When you look from there to The Godfather and all the guys Francis hired…if you look at every department head, the biggest today in their departments, whether Walter Murch in sound, Gordy Willis, Dean Tavalouris, they were all pretty much found by Francis.

“There was one Francis at that time. He was the best. I don’t know how many films I’ve done but Francis is still the best.”

LAB: Duvall told me a funny anecdote about Coppola, who apparently confided he was scared of the Petersons. That struck Duvall as funny too since Coppola went on to make films about mafia killers.

JC: “Francis wasn’t a Brooklyn Italian, he was Mediterranean Italian. All art. And, well they’re (the mafia) from New York. He understood them. He never understood what my love for rodeo was by the way.”

LAB: What kind of experience was The Rain People shoot for you?

JC: “I was like depressed through that whole picture, mostly because of this character I played. I was playing this guy with this brain damage, and I’m traveling and my community was not out there with a bunch of aesthetic, ethereal actors and actresses and cameramen. We were on the road, God, for that whole picture. We started out in Long Island and ended up in Ogallala out there. I had really no idea where we were going from day to day. From there (Long Island) we went to Virginia, we went down to Chattanooga and then across the country and wound up, as I’m sure he had scouted and everything, over in Ogallala.

“There was like 18 of us, the crew and the actors. It was just me and Shirley Knight, so every night I’d go to a different Holiday Inn and play with the light switches. I didn’t know what to do, I was a New Yorker. It was tough but it was a good picture I think. It’s really a nice picture. It was critically acclaimed. It won the San Sebastian Film Festival.”

LAB: Were you satisfied with how the script’s story was realized on screen?

JC: “That got a little mixed up,…the whole story kind of took a turn. That’s some personal stuff. People were supposed to be concerned about Shirley’s problem (her character’s problem). In other words here’s a woman who had all this responsibility, not only was she married but she had a baby, it all got too much and so she decided to take this ride and then she picks up some young guy who played college football. The whole idea of the picture is he in a sense becomes the embryo she’s carrying because she had to care for him and so forth. So it was all set up. Shirley played her a little mean and tough. I think what happened with the audience and Francis is they became more concerned with me than they did with her. She was the one you were supposed to worry about.

“Some of the choices were on the mean side, so they (the audience) became more involved with what happened to me.”

LAB: How was it working with Shirley Knight?

JC: “Shirley was a little tough. I like her but she was a little tough. And then by the way when Bobby showed up we started having fun. He’s the funniest son of a bitch. He was playing this motorcycle cop and he told me, “I’ve got two kids and everything, I don’t ride no goddamned motorcycle.’ ‘Fuck it, Bobby, goddamnit you’ve gotta ride the motorcycle, you’re a motorcycle cop on the highway. It ain’t nothin’, I’ll teach you in three minutes.’ So I had to get my brother to come out and double him. Oh, man, we laughed our asses off.

“He had that one scene at night with Shirley on the bike, going literally two miles an hour before I have that fight with him. ‘OK, action,’ and the thing would sputter out. (After multiple takes) finally he made it around the corner and came to a stop. Shirley got off and he threw the kick stand down and got off and he took three steps and the son of a bitch fell over, and he just yelled out, ‘Fuck you!’ Oh, my God…(laughing). Bobby was amazing. When he’d blow up, there was nothing like it.”

LAB: What about the very young George Lucas?

JC: “George was there all the time filming. He did a documentary The Making of The Rain People. He wore a big harness and had a 16 mm camera strapped to his chest. I thought he was born with it or something because I never saw him without it.

 

 

 

LAB: Part of the fun that came with Duvall’s arrival on location in Ogallala was the two of you meeting up with the Petersons.

JC: “B.A. (the late patriarch of the Peterson clan and the ostensible star of We’re Not the Jet Set) “Yeah, they were a wild group. They would fight in the middle of the        living room, and oh boy I mean fist fight, and he’s (B.A.) sitting back in a chair saying, ‘Now, no hitting in the face, no hitting in the face.’ Those were the rules. With Denny Peterson I got my nose into (branding and roping).”

LAB: You were already into horses by the time you met the Petersons.

JC: “When I came from New York I got a horse right away because I think that was the thing to do. (Growing up) I always played make believe in the streets – it was Roy Rogers or whatever the hell it was. After hanging around with Denny and those guys he took me to my first branding which was at the Haythorn ranch in Brule (Neb.).  They have a huge ranch out there. I think I had a week off for a little stretch and rather than go home I went to this branding, and then from there it got in my blood.

“Denny picked me up at four in the morning, threw me in a trailer and we drove out there. I didn’t know any of these guys and I tried to look as western as I could, you know. I even had chew in my mouth. I didn’t want to stick out like some idiot from Hollywood on this big branding. Denny and I got amongst some guys, we saddled up and rode out, they were pushing some huge herd and I just fell behind ’em yelling ‘Ha, ha, ha…’ The first few days I just wrestled these calves. One of the Haythorns said, ‘You guys keep a pushing on this herd’ – toward this water hole. They were going to top these other hills. So a bunch of them ran off and Denny left with them and left me alone with these other guys.

“I was dressed in my jeans and the oldest ranch hat. I never said a word, which for me is really difficult. I just kept spittin’ and yellin’ and pushin’ the herd, and we finally got ’em to this water hole, and all of a sudden these two or three calves just bolted and ran up this steep old hill, so I whirled around with these old boys looking and I just took off up the hill. A herd or one is not bad but two is near impossible. So I got myself in a sweat chasing one. I’d get ’em together and one would break to the left. Finally I got the two of ’em and I started driving ’em down the hill and I saw those old boys still sitting down at the water hole and one of ’em looked up and said, ‘Hey,   Hollywood (laughs),’ and I swallowed my chew and I went, ‘Yeah?’ He said, ‘You can leave them go.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘They’ve already been branded (laughs). So that’s the way I gave myself up I guess.

“But boy that was some experience. Goddamned, the work. It’s a great tradition actually. These guys come from all over, the neighboring ranchers, like the Petersons.  And then all the wives, boy what a feast they put out. A spread for all the hands. They’d have all these homemade pies. You name it. By four o’clock, you talk about sleep and sore. I was done, I was hurtin’ boy. It was great.

“These range calves weigh 300 or some pounds, so I got shit on and kicked and pissed on. It was the hardest work. But it was really a big honor. Like on the fourth day they build these big catch pens in different sections and run these cattle from the different sections. And on the last day old Waldo Haythorn, who was the grandpa, gave me the honor of roping. I remember there were guys coming up from Texas, some great ropers. Everett Shaw, who was a big time roper from Texas, came up and roped for old Waldo. They do that, they invite ’em up to be some of the ropers.

“You’d be tied onto your saddle and just rope these big old calves out of the herd and drag ’em by the pit. I was flanking ’em and spread eagling for two or three days. They doctor them and do whatever they do. And they (the Haythorns) bought me a hat as a thank you gift, a nice black stetson.”

LAB: You were a ‘made man’ after that.

JC: ‘Oh, yeah, that was it. I was done right then and there. Yeah, that was pretty good.”

 

 Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences' 2nd Annual Governors Awards
LAB: Rodeo became a big part of your life after that.
JC: “I had a friend in Vegas named Dean Shendal (one-time professional steer wrestler and rodeo star and a fixture on the Vegas social scene; he opened his Green Valley ranch and practice arena to celebrities and competitors). All the rodeo champs used to train there and practice there before all the finals in Oklahoma City. I guess that’s how I got into rodeoing. Well, listen, from that point on I became an amateur and I filled my card in a year. I became a pro. It was just in my blood. When I started doing these bigger films, I was the first guy they had put in his contracts that I couldn’t rodeo, which is understandable. I could understand why they didn’t want me rodeoing on the weekends.”

 

James Caan

 

 

LAB: You were heavy into your pro rodeo career when you worked on Funny Lady.

JC: “That’s a funny story. There was an incident where…there was about four weeks left on the picture and my lawyer at the time called me and said, ‘Jimmy, a week from next Wednesday I’m going to ask you to walk off the picture.’ I said, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Well, they still haven’t signed the contract.’ Mind you, I’d been on it for two months already. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ Well, it turned out they agreed to the same deal I had on Cinderella Liberty and whatever and then they discovered, you’re not going to participate in the music rights, and they weren’t going to add that, which they usually do, to the gross of the picture – whatever little percentage I had. So they were arguing back and forth.

“Ray Stark (the film’s producer) was a tough guy and his lawyer was tough. I was sneaking out anyway (to rodeo). I was roping with a kid named H.P. Evens, who was a world champion at that time. And before that Wednesday I snuck out with H.P. and entered this rodeo in Palm Springs and as luck or whatever had it I roped this steer and I think as I sat back down to (?) it the horse threw me over the front of that saddle horn and that rope just ran through my hands. I wouldn’t let it go because I won like $86 or some bullshit. I could have lost a finger.

“It finally kicked up and dallied but it literally took all the hide off between my thumb and my forefinger. Just ran down to the bone. Oh my God, I remember some guy pouring some new skin in there. I had to go to work Monday. How the hell you going to keep that from the makeup people? I move my hands a lot in this picture, I’ll wrap it up, they’ll never notice it. So I do this scene with Barbra (Streisand). Nobody saw nothing. The minute I came off I headed to my trailer and I started putting some gauze on my hand and there was this guy standing there watching me. It was Ray Stark. He came over and said, ‘Goddamnit, you’ve been rodeoing again.’ I didn’t say nothing. And he said, ‘Didn’t you read your goddamned contract?’ And I said, ‘I don’t believe I’ve got one, Ray, and there’s another rodeo coming up this next week.’ Well, that afternoon the contract got signed.

“They took away my motorcycle from me and my right to enter rodeos.”

 Classic: James Caan, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and John Cazale in The Godfather

 

 

LAB: The Haythorns have quite a legacy.

JC: “I knew they were huge ranchers. I think there was some trail they blazed…”

NOTE: In 1890 Harry Haythorn, Waldo’s grandfather, and helpers drove 700 horses from eastern Oregon to the family’s ranch north of Ogallala, Neb., and then to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota, and this became the basis for the Duval-starring mini-series Broken Trail.

“So I became friendly with them (as did Duvall, who’s been to the Haythorn ranch several times).”

LAB: Of course Duvall got to know the Petersons intimately when he made his documentary about them.

JC: “I know he stayed close to them, and you know Rex (Peterson) along with Shelly (Peterson) are both out here, they both work in the industry (as horse trainers-wranglers). I haven’t heard from Denny. Shelly, I think she works in the Teamsters Union. Rex is training horses out here. He’s the most like his dad I guess of the guys I know. He’s a tough old sonofabitch. He ain’t got time for a lot of how ya’ doins and stuff.”

LAB: Duvall told me his experiences with the Petersons and the Haythorns informed his portrayals of the western characters he’s played. Is the same true of you?

JC: “My interest in ranching and all that, certainly that was a foundation for Comes a Horseman. And that was a complete fucking mess. I’ll get into that because Alan Pakula (the director), may be rest in peace, I wasn’t very fond of him, but two or three out of a hundred aint bad. But he didn’t know which end of a horse ate and he was the guy I got. I put the whole picture together and I’m not one of those guys that do all that stuff. I’m kind of lazy. I go in my trailer, say my words and go back in my trailer. When that picture was first conceived I went and got Jane Fonda. It was just a story about ranch life in 1945 in Montana. Montana was the last unfenced range in the country in ’45. And this guy (his character) comes back. It was just about the ranch life,. He joins forces with this girl.

“There was no Jason Robards character. There was none of that Bonanza bullshit. And Richard Farnsworth, I gave him his first acting job. He was great. And that’s what it was. I wanted to do a semi-documentary small picture. I went and spoke to Terrence Malick, who I wanted to do it and Terry said, ‘I know I’m going to shoot myself but I only do my own stuff…’and da-da-da. So then my agent got Alan Pakula. I was about to go off and do some picture with Claude LeLouch and I spent three or four hours with him (Pakula) telling him,’ Look, here’s what it is.’ And, of course, I had the best ropers in the world out there, and some of that roping in there was pretty hairy and wicked, 1,200 pounders. I just wanted to see these two people doing their work, trying to round these cattle up and all the stuff that’s entailed, and in the middle of the story, to put it in its simplest form, I wanted somebody from some oil company to come and offer them some silly money for the right to drill a hole where they found some oil on their property, and they say no, at which point I wanted the audience to go, ‘This is bullshit, this is nonsense, they’re working their ass off, who wouldn’t take $2 million?’

“And then when they finish driving the cattle to the station at the end of the picture I wanted the audience to realize that the only reason to ranch in my mind is that you love it, it’s for the right to do it again the next year, like the Haythorns and the Petersons. The idea that most of the people in the audience don’t really love what they do and they realize that instead of that being baloney, they get it. That’s what I wanted to happen. And then I came back from France and I read this thing (Pakula’s revised script) and went to the studio and said, ‘I’m not doing this – people hanging and rape. What are you talking about?’ And one of our guys got killed doing some stunt that was added to the end of the picture. It was a horror. But Jane was great.”

LAB: The way you describe what you were after on Comes a Horseman reminds me of what Duvall captured in We’re Not the Jet Set. You’ve seen his film, right?

JC: “No, what’s so funny, I speak to him three times a week, I mean he’s my best friend, you know. He tells me what he ate the night before (he does a dead-on impression of Duvall intoning, ‘the best steak I ever had…’ I called and said, ‘Bobby, send me a copy, I haven’t seen it.’ I knew all about it. Well, so you’d think he’d have it. He told me to call his assistant but she couldn’t find a DVD copy.”

 

James Caan
©Warner Brothers

 

 

LAB: He said the two of you have been looking a long time to do another project together.

JC: “Well, there’s this one project I found called Old Timers. It’s owned by this one company and for some reason they won’t turn it loose. It’s been out there for four or five years.”

NOTE: The project is being made with different actors under the new title Standup Guys.

“Yeah, I’d sure like to find something for me and Bobby. Yeah, there’s nothing I’d like better, you know. I just have fun when I’m working with Bobby. He’s at the point where he doesn’t want to do pictures with too many words anymore.”

NOTE: Caan says he has a Western he’s trying to get off the ground, but he runs into resistance from young suits who don’t know his rodeo and riding background.

JC: “‘What the hell does Jimmy know about horses?’ So I fight that all the time. I’m always Sonny Corleone. These people can’t get it out of their mind. For the first 20 years after The Godfather if there weren’t 12 people dead by page 20 on a picture I never got it. Then all of a sudden I sang and danced (in Harold and Walter Go to New York and Funny Lady) and they said, ‘Well, geez, we didn’t know you sing and dance.’ Well, shit, no one ever asked me. ‘Well, we didn’t know you were a cowboy.’ Well, no one ever asked me. (To me) Talk to some of your friends who can write – time ain’t getting any shorter, you know.”

The Boxers – Sweet Scientists from The Hood (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series – Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness)

August 11, 2012 1 comment

Omaha has never been much of a boxing hotbed.  Oh, there’s been the occasional fighter worth following from here who’s shown well in the amateur ranks at, say, the national golden gloves (though I’m not sure any native Nebraskan has made it to the Olympic Games in boxing) and in the pro ranks.  Precious few have ever fought for a championship or even in the prelims of a title card. Unless you’re from Nebraska or live here or you have a strong rooting interest in or connection to Omaha boxers chances are you can’t name more than two or three ring worthies to ever come out of the state and do something memorialized in the boxing annals or the sport’s bible, Ring Magazine.  The following story from my Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness series about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends does highlight a few of the better fighters Omaha’s produced though it’s by no means a comprehensive list.  You’ll find the rest of my Out to Win installments by going to the Categories drop down menu or typing the title in the Search box.

The Boxers – Sweet Scientists from The Hood (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series:  Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Harley Cooper

If any Omaha inner city boxing legend had most of the prized fighting attributes, it was Harley Cooper, a two-time national Golden Gloves champion and 1964 Olympic qualifier. A tough Savannah, Ga. native, Cooper grew up fighting in the hood, but learned to box in the military. After he won the second of his Gloves titles while based at Offutt Air Force Base, he then became the U.S. Olympic light heavyweight entry. In peak form and riding an unbeaten streak, he was primed to bust heads in Tokyo. But on the eve of leaving for Japan, he was medically disqualified.

After transferring to Omaha, his new training ground became Hawk’s Gym, where his sparring partners included future pro heavyweight Lou Bailey. He shot up the amateur ranks by sweeping his first Golden Gloves. But he was no rookie, having compiled hundreds of hours in the ring and dozens of military bouts, winning service titles wherever he was assigned, including Japan and Europe.

“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” said Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren, a former prize fight matchmaker and longtime local observer. “The first time anybody saw him in the gym they knew this guy was going to be a national champion. He could punch. He could box. He could do it all. He was the most complete fighter I ever saw from around here. I never saw Harley Cooper lose a round in amateur fights in Omaha. He was that dominant.”

Cooper twice won the Gloves Trinity when he took the Omaha, Midwest and National tournaments in both ’63 and ’64. His first title run came, unexpectedly, as aheavyweight and culminated at the ’64 Chicago finals.

Cooper was a natural light-heavyweight, but after an overseas transfer to Nebraska he didn’t meet the weight requirements before the local Gloves tourney. Over the light-heavyweight limit, his handlers convinced him, against his better judgment, to compete as a heavyweight. He was an undersized 183 pounds. Even after he won the local-regional heavyweight titles, he wanted to move back to light-heavy, where he was more comfortable. “They wouldn’t let me move down,” he said of his trainers. “They kept saying, ‘Well, let’s see how far you can go.'” He went all the way. The underdog used superior quickness to offset his opponents’ size and power advantages to win just the second national Gloves title by a Nebraskan since the 1930s. In ’64, Cooper fought at his accustomed light-heavy spot and plowed through to the Nationals in Nashville. Cooper’s win in Nashville put him into the Olympic Trials box-off in New York, which he won.

Despite attractive offers, he never turned pro. First, there was his Air Force career. Second, he had a big family to feed, and a sure thing was better than a dream. Since retiring in ’73, his life has centered on kids at the North Omaha Boys Club, Glenwood State School and the Cornhusker Striders track program. But the pull of boxing never left, and so for 30 years he’s volunteered with the Great Plains Amateur Boxing Association. That body organizes and sanctions local-regional boxing cards like the Golden Gloves.  He recently announced Omaha will host the 2006 national Gloves tournament.

“I love boxing. I’m lucky I have a wife that understands it’s such a big part of me.”

Occasional what-might-have-beens creep into his conversation. “There’s still some times when I kind of wish I had of (turned pro),” he said. “I was better than I realized I was at the time. I see these guys now and they just don’t look that good to me, man.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joey Parks

An earlier Golden Gloves star who did go pro is Joey Parks, a lightweight contender in the late ’50s-early ’60s. A Kansas native, Parks moved to Omaha in 1950. Back home, he competed in football, basketball and baseball and always listened to the Friday night fights on the radio. His late brother, Jerry Parks, was a fine baseball player and longtime Omaha Parks and Recreation director.

Joey trained at the old City Mission Boxing Club at 22nd and Cass under legendary trainer Leonard Hawkins, who later became his father-in-law. Parks’ amateur career began slowly – he lost his first Gloves bout. He developed his skills during an Army hitch in South Korea and, when he returned, dominated. He won City and Midwest Gloves titles in ’55 and ’56, and advanced to the national finals the first year and to the semi-finals the next.

Parks went pro in ’57 and once held a No. 9 world ranking. His career highlights include three close, 10-round, non-title bouts with all-time lightweight champion Joe “Old Bones” Brown. Their first tussle, fought at the State Fair Coliseum in Albuquerque, NM, ended in a disputed draw that cost Parks a title shot. Parks opened a cut over Brown’s eye and dropped him for a one-count in the final round.

Parks lost the rematches by decisions. As great as Brown was, Parks said his toughest foe was future welterweight champ Curtis Cokes, who stopped him.

“He hit like a mule,” he said.

Parks took pride in being a busy, crowd-pleasing favorite. “I had the type of style where I pressed the fight. I kept going forward all the way. I always carried the fight to my opponent. I wouldn’t short change nobody. They got their money’s worth.” The Omahan relied on superb conditioning. “I stayed in tip-top shape. I did my road work every morning. I chopped wood. I sparred.”

He quit the ring in ’63 after a rope gave way in a fight down in Santa Fe, NM and he was sent sprawling, head first, into the ring apron. He was out cold for three minutes. Weeks of double vision later, he hung up his gloves. “A cat has nine lives, but I only have one.” Now 71, he stays fit walking and dancing. Long gone is the popularity that meant people stopped him on the street and treated him to meals, but he remembers his boxing career with pleasure. “It was sweet.”

Lamont Kirkland

One of the most devastating Omaha punchers is Lamont Kirkland. From 1975 to 1980 he won a record-tying six Midwest Golden Gloves titles by simply pummeling people into submission. After coming close, including a loss to future light-heavy champ Michael Spinks, Kirkland finally won a national championship – at 165-pounds – in 1980. He’s the last local fighter to win a national Gloves title. He enjoyed a good pro career that climaxed in a 1987 USBA super middleweight title fight against Lindell Holmes that Kirkland lost by TKO. “I never saw anybody give him a tough fight here,” local boxing expert Tom Lovgren said.

More Fighters and Some Coaches/Trainers

Midge Minor won multiple Omaha and Midwest Golden Gloves titles in the 1950s. Reggie Hughes and Willie “Boots” Washington were among other good boxers from that era’s inner city. Illinois-native Lou Bailey moved to Omaha and had a pro heavyweight career that saw him fight a future champ in George Foreman and many contenders. His son, Lou Bailey, Jr. won three light-heavy Midwest amateur titles.

Heavyweight Morris Jackson was the main rival of Ron “Bluffs Butcher” Stander, whom he met five times as an amateur and pro. “Yeah, we had some knockdown-dragouts,” said Jackson, who once beat the British Commonwealth champ.

After a run-in with the law (for armed robbery) that saw him do 29 months in jail, Jackson turned his life around and, in ’88, was ordained a minister in the Independent Assemblies of God Church. Now the chaplain at the Douglas County Correctional Center, he finds satisfaction in “being able to see men take responsibility for their lives and become better citizens, husbands, fathers. You can’t go through life without believing.” He received a full pardon from then-Gov. Ben Nelson in 1995.

Among Midwest champs, a trio of three-time titlists stands out: Sammy Cribbs was a ferocious puncherin the early ’80s; Kenny Friday was a sharp boxer in the early ’90s; and Bernard Davis was the class of 1998-2001. These and other champion boxers came out of Omaha’s CW Boxing Club. Carl Washington, the CW’s founder, director and namesake, coached with great success before assembling staffers like Midge Minor to continue training champions.

The late Leonard Hawkins was a trainer and coach for scores of amateur champions. His teams won numerous city titles. Based out of a series of gyms over the years, Hawkins also trained a talented stable of pros, most notably at the Fox Hole Gym, where he worked with Art Hernandez, Ron Stander and Lamont Kirkland, among others.

 

Midge Minor, left, fighting as an amateur

 

Related articles

The Wrestlers – Masters in the Way of the Mat (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness)

August 11, 2012 Leave a comment

This post about wrestling and another post today about boxing may be the final two installments from my Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness series about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends to make it to my blog.  The series originally ran in 2004-2005 in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and I’ve been looking for ways to reporpose the work ever since.  Presenting the stories on this blog is the first attempt to find a new audience.  The next goal is to package the stories, along with new ones, in a book I plan to publish by 2015.  The Olympic wrestling gold medal won over the weekend by American Jordan Burroughs, a former University of  Nebraska mat great, is what motivated me to post this wrestling installment.  I encourage you to check out the other stories from the series. You can find the Out to Win series stories in the Categories drop down menu or by typing the title in the Search box.

 

The Wrestlers – Masters in the Way of the Mat (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness)

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

In Nebraska, one family stands apart in wrestling: the Olivers of Omaha. Masters of the grappling art, they form a two-generation mat dynasty whose story is still being written.

First there are the accomplishments of brothers Roye, Marshall and Ray, each a prep stud and college All-American in his day. Then the ongoing achievements of Ray’s son, Chris. Victorious in 568 straight matches in Nebraska dating back to the fourth grade, Chris capped his amazing run at Omaha Creighton Prep, where he was coached by his father, by winning a fourth state title this past season. In the process, he became only the third Nebraska schoolboy to go unbeaten in a four-year career. The prized Nebraska recruit is wrestling at 157 pounds for No. 3 rated NU and appears poised to surpass his father’s and uncles’ own impressive records.

But the story doesn’t end there. Five brothers in all wrestled. Roye, Marshall and Ray all competed overseas. Roye was an alternate on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and now, at age 47, he’s made a dramatic comeback from double knee surgery to win the U.S. Veterans Nationals title at 187.4 pounds in Las Vegas this past April. He qualified for the September world championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia but was unable to attend.

Roye also coaches. He assisted Mike Denney with the perennial Division II power University of Nebraska at Omaha program. He coached with USA Wrestling. He’s worked with select junior national teams in Nebraska and California, where he recently moved. Ray, co-head coach at Prep, started working with Chris when he was 4 and he now schools a nephew, Malcomb McGruder, who’s a highly-regarded junior-to-be at Prep. And the word is a promising new generation of Olivers is developing their moves on the mat at the bantam-cadet levels.

This past summer, the Oliver clan was inducted in the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame for their many wrestling feats.

Wrestling for the Olivers is more than tradition. It’s a way of life and an act of faith that got its start, aptly enough, with their own prophet, Ecclesiastes, the oldest brother and, like his siblings, the son of a preacher man. Originally from Brewton, Ala., the family migrated to Omaha in 1962 when their minister-father felt called to come here.

Ecclesiastes took up wrestling at the north Omaha boys club, where Ron McGruder was the coach.

“He came home and demonstrated some of the techniques to my older brothers Roye and Marshall,” said Ray, “and later on when I got old enough, at about five years of age, they demonstrated the techniques to me and my younger brother Bobby. And that started off a milestone and legacy of us becoming great wrestlers in the state of Nebraska and around the nation.”

Just because their daddy preached didn’t make the Oliver boys immune to the less savory elements around the Pleasantview housing projects, where they lived, which is why their parents approved of wrestling’s structure and discipline.

“Instead of hanging out, my brothers and I would go to the boys club and wrestle,” said Ray. “It offered an outlet.”

Ecclesiastes didn’t so much sell the sport for its character-building attributes, as he later did, but rather as a means “to get tough and to win trophies,” Ray said. “He’d come home with trophies and we’d go, ‘Whoa, we want to do that.’ Winning trophies was the most important thing.” At home and at the club the Olivers often tangled, brother on brother, in a ritual of honing skills and testing limits. Wrestling each other helped to forge the Brothers Oliver into the hard-edged competitors they became. “It pushed us,” Ray said. “It helped us strive for higher heights and to learn how to refuse to accept losing as motivation to improve.” Naturally, the brothers developed a signature style.

“We had a lot of similarities with respect to position and stance and maneuvers and techniques,” Ray said. “I’d say we scored more on our feet than we did anywhere else, but we knew how to pin on top using the different pinning combinations, as we were all excited about using the cradle and the three-quarters. And we knew how to escape on the bottom using switches and stunts and stand-ups.”

The brothers came of age in the 1970s at Omaha Technical High School. Roye and Marshall made the Olivers’ first big splash by winning individual state titles in 1973 under head coach Milt Hearn and top assistant Curlee Alexander, a former Tech wrestler and UNO national champion. Ray won an individual title and served as captain for Tech’s 1978 state championship team coached by Alexander.

In the 1970s, the brothers made several memorable trips behind the Iron Curtain — Roye and Marshall in Bulgaria and Roye and Ray in Poland. Only in their mid-teens at the time, the Olivers squared-off with grown men in their 20s and 30s.

“Back in our day, if you were even 15-, 16-, 17-years-old, you wrestled everybody, regardless of how old they were,” Ray said. “That’s not like the way they have it structured today, where they have junior world and cadet divisions. Still, I was 8-0 over in Europe. We went to these great, unique places. It was a great cultural and wrestling experience.”

Roye and Marshall went on to Arizona State University, with Roye earning All-America honors three times and Marshall once. Ray followed his big brothers to ASU, but after only a few months the homesick wrestler transferred to Nebraska, where he wrestled four years. After a slow start that saw him qualify for nationals once out of his first two years, Ray hit his stride as a junior, when he was 32-7 and ranked third nationally. But an ankle injury suffered in the Big 8 championships prevented him from competing in the NCAA tourney.

Determined “to prove to all my competitors I was just as successful as they were,” Ray said, “I came back with a strong attitude and a good regimen, and bounced back my senior year to excel.” He went 34-5 in qualifying for nationals, where he finally joined his brothers in making All-American.

After college, Roye became a world-class freestyle wrestler with the U.S. national team at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Yet he couldn’t dislodge the men ahead of him at 163 pounds, the legendary Lee Kemp and Dave Schultz. He hoped the veterans world championships would finally net him his first world title, but he couldn’t get enough time off to go compete.

This fall and winter, the Olivers have their collective eyes trained on Chris as he tries to add to his niche inthe family’s elite wrestling heritage. The Oliver he’ll most likely be compared to is his dad, who notched a name for himself in Husker wrestling lore. For his part, Ray hopes his son surpasses him.

“My picture hangs on the conference champions wall down at the Bob Devaney Sports Center,” Ray said, “and I’m pretty excited about that. Hopefully, my son will make his mark and get his picture up there, too, only on the national champions wall.”

Ray said his son is humble about his emerging place in the Oliver wrestling tradition.

“He knows the things we’ve done, and the things he’s done so far are a great achievement, but he’s learned to put it in the right perspective.” For his part, Chris has no interest in competing with his family’s legends. “I mean, I would love to be an All-American,” he said, “but as I enter into wrestling in college, my own personal set of goals are to not really worry about what my relatives did, but just try to go out there and make my own home there.” Beyond admiring their wrestling props, Chris learned from his father and uncles by going one-on-one with them on the mat to soak up some hard-earned wisdom. “It’s been really great to have a chance to pick and choose and learn from all of them,” he said, “because they know a lot.”

Ray feels Chris is well beyond where he or any of his brothers were at a comparable age. “On a scale of one to 10, we were probably a seven and he’s probably a 10. He’s got the ability to be a great one,” he said. The father said he knew Chris was gifted early because even at age four or five he showed a knack for the sport’s intricacies and its heart-of-a-warrior mentality. “I saw his learning ability as far as picking up moves and techniques and as far as being combative. He didn’t mind getting in there and just mixing things up and being physical.”

Chris first stamped himself a top prospect when, at age 6, he finished second in the Tulsa Nationals, a prestigious youth tournament that he won the next year. As he’s evolved into the consummate, dominating wrestler he is today, when he routinely breaks his opponent’s will in the first period, his passion for the sport remains strong.

“I just love the sport of wrestling and all the competition and camaraderie that comes with it,” he said. “I love going out there and having fun. It’s a really tough sport and you gotta be disciplined. You gotta work hard at it. But I think probably the main thing for me is having fun.”

Having fun. That’s what his uncle Roye also referred to ashe continues competing as a middle-aged man in the demanding sport. “It’s still fun,” Roye said.

And so the Oliver wrestling saga marches on. “Our family has paved the way for the sport of wrestling in Neraska,” said Roye, who expects great things from Chris and his younger nephews. “You ain’t heard the last of us yet.”

 

 

 

Roye Oliver

 

Chris Oliver, ©huskers.com

 

More Notable Wrestlers

The Olivers are among many inner city wrestling legends.There was Tech High’s Fred Brown, one of only a few four-time state champions in Nebraska prep history. South High’s Richard Brown (no relation) was a four-time Nebraska state finalist and three-time champion in the late 1950s. A promising collegiate career was cut shortwhen Richard Brown dropped out of school to start a family. He’s been active as a youth wrestling coach the past 35 years.

North High has produced several multiple champions, including Dick Davis in the ‘60s, Antoine Parker, Duaine Martin and Darrious Hill in the ‘80s, and Chauncey Parker, Willie Hill, Eric Hill and Curlee Alexander, Jr. in the ‘90s. A former Northern Iowa University All-American, Martin still competes internationally at age 36. He recently vied for a berth on the U.S. Olympic Greco Roman Wrestling team.

Creighton Prep’s Ben Perkins won three state titles and made All-America at Iowa State. Dante Lewis won a title at Omaha Benson and two at Bryan. Two-time state champs include Tech’s Joe Crawford and David Washington and Central’s Pernell Gatson. Prep’s Brauman Creighton never won a state title but won a pair of Division II national titles as a UNO Maverick.

The Coaches

Many of the area’s finest coaches have hailed from the inner city.

Charles Bryant was a tenacious, tough-as-nails football-wrestling standout at South High. Bryant’s life has been one long fight against exclusion. He found an unwelcome climate at NU but he persevered and helped change attitudes, earning All-Big Seven honors in the process. When denied a teaching-coaching job with the Omaha Public Schools, he made his own success in the Bluffs public school system, where he was the architect of a 1960s mat dynasty at Thomas Jefferson High School. He took satisfaction in his T.J. teams regularly thumping Metro Conference squads from OPS. He ended up with OPS, on his own terms, as an administrator and athletic director. A fine sculptor, the retired Bryant pursues his art while battling cancer.

Similarly, Don Benning has never said no to a challenge. Growing up in a white east Omaha neighborhood, he was the target of racial slurs that prompted him to fight. Proving himself almost daily with his brains and brawn, he became a top student and gridiron-mat star at North High and UNO. A bright young teaching candidate who was unable to break through the OPS color barrier, Benning was ready to leave for Chicago when he was convinced to take a graduate fellowship and assistant coaching job at UNO in the early 1960s. When asked to take over the school’s struggling wrestling program, he became the first black head coach at a mostly white university. By decade’s end, he led his team to an NAIA national title before he embarked on an OPS administrative career distinguished by his integrity.

When he began wrestling in the early ‘60s, Curlee Alexander, Sr. showed such little promise that his assignment in high school duals was to avoid getting pinned, thus saving his team points. A hard worker, Alexander got better and by his senior year at Tech he finished second at state. It was in college that he really blossomed. Competing for Don Benning at UNO, he was a four-time All-American, and as a senior he helped UNO claim the 1969 NAIA team title by winning the 115-pound championship at nationals.

Alexander then followed his mentor, Benning, to become a top educator and coach. He led his alma mater, Tech, to a state championship and added six more team titles as North High’s head coach. The retired teacher now serves as North’s associate head coach. He remains the only black head coach to guide a school to a Nebraska team state wrestling title.

And then there was Joe Edmonson. They called him Little Joe, but his presence loomed large. Confined to a wheelchair his entire adult life after a trampoline accident at age 17 that left him paralyzed from the neck down, Little Joe stood figuratively tall. Whether pitching his gruff voice to instruct or squirming in his chair to demonstrate a hold, he held the rapt attention of the many youths who came to learn life and wrestling lessons from him. They always looked up to him.

By the time he died at age 54 in 2002, Edmonson’s Exploradories wrestling club, which got its start in the laundry room at old Immanuel Hospital, had been transformed into the Edmonson Youth Outreach Center in the Fontenelle Park Pavilion. Recognized in 1991 with a Daily Point of Light award from then-President George Bush, one of many honors Joe and his work received, the YMCA-affiliated center offers children athletics, reading enrichment and computer training.

A former wrestler at Tech, where he was a city and state champion at 95 pounds, Joe used wrestling and his own perseverance to deliver a message about enduranceand achieving against all odds.

In the preface of one of his clinic brochures, he spelled out his philosophy: “Everyone, no matter who he is, has potential. While teaching the techniques of wrestling to him, we are also instilling in him the plain simple truth that he is somebody.”

Edmonson produced winners. Scores of his wrestlers earned medals in local, regional, national and international competitions. Perhaps the highlight of his coaching life came as head coach of the USA School Boys Wrestling Team that competed in Mexico City in 1978 and 1980, when he led his charges to third and first place finishes, respectively. Making this showing even more impressive was the fact his teams were community-based squads comprised solely of his own club wrestlers, who more than held their own with opponents drawn from select state and national teams. In 1983, he guided the World USA Greco School Boy Wrestling Team to the World Greco Team championship.

Dozens of state high school champions and collegiate All-Americans came out of his program, including Duane Martin and Ben Perkins. Former North head coach Curlee Alexander said Little Joe’s prodigies were “tough. Whenever I got one, I didn’t have to worry about him folding on me.”

 

 

Nebraska Medal of Honor winners: Above and beyond the call of duty

August 11, 2012 1 comment

I generally don’t hold with designating individuals as heroes in any field of endeavor, much less honoring the efforts of combat participants, but I have no trouble understanding people’s need to acknowledge, recognize, and commemorate the deeds of the valiant.  This is a short story about some Nebraska Medal of Honor recipients whose lives and valor were the subject of an exhibition a few years ago at El Museo Latino in Omaha.  The institution was a good home for the exhibit because two of the state’s Medal of Honor winners were young Latino men: Edward “Babe” Gomez and Keith Miguel.  A legend is also among their ranks in the person of William F. Cody, better known to some as Buffalo Bill.  A once prominent politician now looking to reenter the political arena, former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, is also among the state’s Medal of Honor men.

 

 

 

 

 

Nebraska Medal of Honor winners: Above and beyond the call of duty

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

A new historical exhibition at El Museo Latino pays tribute to Nebraska’s Medal of Honor recipients. Among the honorees are Edward “Babe” Gomez and Miguel Keith and former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator Bob Kerrey.

The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest U.S. military decoration. It is bestowed by Congress to armed forces members who distinguish themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity,” risking life “above and beyond the call of duty” in action.

Nebraska’s accredited with 18 Medal of Honor recipients in conflicts as far back as the Civil War and on through two world wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, received the Medal for his work as a civilian scout with the 3rd Cavalry during Indian campaigns along the Platte River in the early years of Nebraska’s statehood.

Otto Diller Schmidt of Blair received the Medal during peacetime when, while serving on board the U.S.S. Bennington, he displayed “extraordinary heroism” following a 1905 boiler explosion.

Gomez, an Omaha native, attended South High School and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps reserves at 17. He was called to active duty with the 1st Marine Division in Korea. During a fateful 1951 battle he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire as an Easy Company ammunition bearer. When a hostile grenade landed amidst his squad, he sacrificed himself by absorbing the explosion.

Keith, a San Antonio, Texas native, moved to Omaha, where he attended North High. He fought as a Marine Corps machine gunner in Vietnam. During a 1971 attack he was hit multiple times but kept fighting to protect his unit’s command post until mortally wounded.

Kerrey, a Lincoln native, led a Navy SEAL team in Vietnam. During a 1969 mission to capture intelligence assets his team came under fire. Despite massive wounds he directed a successful counterattack. He lost part of a leg as a result of the engagement.

Eight recipients born in Nebraska have their Medal accredited to other states where they resided or enlisted. Among their ranks is the most recent recipient with Nebraska ties, Randall Shughart, a Lincoln native who entered the service in Newell, Pa., where he and his family moved. Shughart fought in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia as part of a Special Ops Army team inserted to rescue the crew of a downed U.S. helicopter. While under siege he applied fire that allowed the crew’s rescue. He sustained fatal wounds.

El Museo Latino director Magdalena Garcia says the exhibit highlights how America honor its military heroes and how Nebraskans contribute to defending freedom. The images and text, including Medal of Honor citations, help provide a timeline and context for the various wars and conflicts America’s fought, she says.

Outside of Bob Kerrey, perhaps the best known native Nebraska recipient is Gomez. One of 13 children, Gomez is recalled as “happy-go-lucky,” an “extrovert” and “a go-getter” by younger brother Modesto Gomez. He says Babe, a scrappy 5-foot-1 former Golden Gloves boxer served a year at the former Kearney reform school before turning his life around. He wore their father down insisting he be allowed to join the Marines.

 

 

William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill

 Image result for edward babe gomez

Edward “Babe” Gomez

 

Miguel Keith

 

Bob Kerrey

 

 

A letter from Babe before his final, fateful mission seemed to signal his own foreboding. Eva Sandoval says, “He wrote, ‘Remind the kids of me once in awhile,’” referring to young siblings who had indistinct memories of him before he left for Korea.

Eva and her mother Matiana were at home when a Western Union messenger delivered the telegram announcing his death.

“My mother said I went into hysterics,” says Eva. “It was really a shock to me. He was just a year older than I. He was so young when he died. I couldn’t believe it. In my mind I’d say, Oh, he’s coming back — it was a big mistake. I didn’t want to accept he’s gone for good.”

Babe’s selfless actions reflected his upbringing, says Modesto. “He was prepared to do what he had to do because that’s just the way we were raised. ‘Get in there and get it’ my dad used to say. You just do the right thing.”

The Medal was presented to Babe’s family at an Our Lady of Guadalupe ceremony.

Gomez’s legacy lives on in a mural at the Nebraska State Capitol and in Nebraska Medal of Honor displays at the American GI Forum, Omaha-Douglas Civic Center and Durham Museum. A local school and avenue bear his name.

“All of these things they’ve done in his name have been a tremendous honor,” says Modesto.

Gomez is buried at St. Mary Cemetery in South Omaha.

Norman Krivosha’s life in law

August 10, 2012 4 comments

I rarely do stories involving any aspect of law or justice and if I do it’s generally a profile like the following one I did a few years ago for the Jewish Press on Norman Krivosha, who at one time served as chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court.  As you might expect from someone who has enjoyed a distinguished career on the bench and as an attorney Krivosha is a thoughtful, well-spoken individual.  He’s well aware how fortunate he is to have found a profession and vocation that has engaged him for so long.  He’s one of those blessed persons who proves that attitude can be everything. He’s definitely of the glass half-full fraternity.

 

Norman Krivosha’s life in law

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

Norman Krivosha’s life is a classic case of the adage that behind every great man is a woman. The noted attorney and one time Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice and corporate counsel may not have been any of those things if the Detroit, Mich. native had not met a certain woman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when he arrived as a brash but undisciplined undergrad in the early 1950s.

Krivosha came to UNL at the urging of a cousin who taught microbiology there. The professor saw his cousin’s potential. The young Krivosha was bright. He’d done well at a select college prepatory public school in Detroit. He’d shown industry as a top notch sales clerk for the Mary Jane Shoe Store. He’d displayed an avid interest in politics, handing out pamphlets on the street for a cousin running for public office.

Only when Krivosha got to Lincoln — having never been further west than Chicago  — he was the proverbial big city boy let loose in the sticks.

“I had to get out a map to see where Nebraska was. I vividly recall walking downtown the first Sunday I was there and I was the only person on the street. It was such a great transition for me coming from Detroit, but a very valuable one.”

Studying was not a priority. The former Helene Sherman changed all that. The studious young woman from a tradition-rich Lincoln family eventually became Mrs. Helene Krivosha, but long before marrying him she got him on track.

“The truth of the matter is had I not met my wife Helene when I did I would probably have retired as the general manager of the Mary Jane Shoe Store in Miami, Fla.” said Krivosha, who with his wife retired to Naples. Fla. three years ago.

“When I got to the university I was not very interested in worrying about studies.

But I met her and I’d go over to the library to take her for coffee and she’d say, ‘Well, we can go at 10 o’clock.’ And I’d say, ‘It’s 7 now — what do I do for three hours?’ She’d say, ‘Bring some books.’ So I started studying. Then I started taking some classes she was in so I could see her during the day. And before I knew it I got a Regent’s Scholarship and I was on my way to law school.”

There would be more mentors in his life. Before any of these guided him, however, his immigrant parents, neither of whom completed high school, stressed the importance of education to their only child. His mother was a homemaker and his father one in a long line of dry cleaners.

“Neither of them were well-educated.” Krivosha said. “Both of them were terribly literate. Going to college in my neighborhood was not a common sort of thing to do but my parents were determined that I should. We always talked about me going.”

The dutiful son attended Wayne University in Detroit but didn’t exactly buckle down. Between going to school by day and working for the post office at night, he said, “I was running with my friends.” That’s when he took up his egghead cousin’s offer to live with him in Lincoln and go to school there.

Krivosha carried his family’s hopes and dreams for a better life and finally aplied himself. With the help of Helene, some veteran lawyers and an ambitious newcomer to the political scene, Krivosha enjoyed a fast ride up the political-legal ladder. He readily acknowledges the aid he received along the way.

“I’m a great believer that nobody gets where they get on their own. That they all have help. Quite frankly, I resent when people seem to want to take claim for having made it ‘on their own.’”

From a macro perspective, he knows the opportunities given him resulted from the sacrifices and generosity of folks, some of whom he’ll never meet. He views his achievements as the return on an investment that others made in him.

“I did what I did because somebody in Scottsbluff, Nebraska got up at 4 o’clock in the morning and milked cows and paid his taxes so I could get a Regent Scholarship to go to law school. That’s what helped me become a lawyer and be successful.”

He believes fate has played a part in it all.

 

 

University of Nebraska

 

“Things work out the way they’re supposed to,” he said. “I was supposed to go to law school, I was supposed to be a lawyer, and that’s where I wound up.”

Funny thing is, he initially only studied law “because some friends were going to law school and that just seemed like something to do.” At some point law became more than a way to pass the time.

“I did well in law school. I finished high in my class. I started clerking in my second year in law school with a firm I ultimately became senior partner of.”

It was soon apparent he’d found his niche.

“I immediately enjoyed it. For me, law has always been a challenge — the ability to seek to analyze a situation, to design a solution. The practice of law was just something I loved to do. I never got up a single morning in my life not looking forward going to work.”

Past tense notwithstanding, he still practices law. This marks his 50th year in the profession. He cut his legal teeth with twin lawyers Herman and Joe Ginsburg in their Lincoln, Neb. firm. Krivosha had already clerked there three years by the time he finished law school. He became a lawyer with the firm as soon as he was admitted to the bar.

He said Herman Ginsburg “was extremely influential in my career. He was one of the best lawyers in the state if not the country — a fine, wonderful trial lawyer. He taught me a great deal.”

The Ginsburgs operated a general practice.

“In the late ‘50s-early ‘60s in Lincoln, Nebraska lawyers were probably what today would be described as country lawyers,” he said. “That is, we did everything. We did a great deal of trial litigation for other lawyers outstate who did not frequently go to court. We represented corporations, we probated estates, we did adoptions, we did divorces, we did personal injury cases. We did anything that came into the office. Our office was in Lincoln but we really practiced all over the state.”

That heavy, diverse case load made a good training ground.

“I think what it did was it made me a better lawyer and certainly made me a better judge ultimately because I had had all that experience.”

As a comparison of just how different his experience was from young lawyers starting out today, he used his daughter Terri Krivosha-Herring as an example.

“My oldest daughter is a lawyer in Minneapolis. A very fine, wonderful lawyer whose practice is limited to mergers and acquisitions. She’s great in her field but I don’t think lawyers today have the same broad background we used to have.”

Terri’s married to Rabbi Hayim Herring. Krivosha’s younger daughter, Rhonda Hauser, is married to lawyer Adam Hauser. “In our family you must either be a lawyer or marry a lawyer,” Krivosha joked. “If you’re smart you marry a lawyer, if you’re not so smart you become a lawyer.”

The Ginsburgs brought on a third partner, brother-in-law Hyman Rosenberg, before Krivosha became a partner with his name on the window. All the while he honed his legal skills he pursued a parallel interest in politics. His law partner Joe Ginsburg was active in Nebraska Democratic politics for years and became a political mentor.

“He sort of led me into it and it was sort of a natural for me. I’d been involved in Democratic politics all of my life and certainly all of my adult life in Lincoln. I was Lancaster Democratic Party County Chairman for a number of years. And I was state vice chairman. I was an alternate delegate for the 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago, although I never did wind up going. I was (Nebraska) campaign manager for Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson’s presidential bid.”

He also managed Clair Callan’s only successful Congressional bid — a rare instance of a Democrat being elected from the Republican stronghold 1st District.

Political engagement was another way Krivosha hoped to make a difference.

“I cared. I believed Democrats were providing the answers to the country’s needs. Being involved in Democratic politics was a way of trying to make things better. I was never interested myself in holding public office but in helping others.”

Krivosha’s political stock in the state grew when he befriended a newcomer to the arena named Jim Exon, a future governor and U.S. senator.

“I nominated him as national committee man at the state Democratic convention in Hastings (in the early ‘60s), and that was really sort of the beginning of his political career,” said Krivosha.

Exon was elected Nebraska governor in ‘71 and asked Krivosha to join his inner circle.

“When he became governor he asked me to come be his general counsel,” Krivosha explained. “I didn’t want to leave the practice. And so I made an agreement with him that I would be his general counsel at no pay and I would come to the capitol every morning, maybe till one-two o’clock, do whatever he needed done, and then I would go downtown and practice law for the rest of the day and evening. I did that for four years.

“And during all that time we (his firm) agreed not to take cases involving the state.”

No conflict of interest that way.

“I had really sort of gotten used to that because in 1969 I was loaned by my firm to be City Attorney of the City of Lincoln, and I did that for 20 months.”

By the time Krivosha’s general counsel duties for the governor ended his next entree into state government presented itself when then-Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul White “unexpectedly resigned” in 1978. Krivosha inquired if Exon would be OK if he submitted his name for the seat, which for the first time was to be appointed rather than elected.

Exon gave his blessing and Krivosha said just to avoid any hint of impropriety he didn’t speak with the governor from that moment until after he got the nod.

“There were 16 of us whose names were submitted and Jim (Exon) had an incredible way of advising you you’d been appointed. He sent a letter to everyone who had not been appointed, but you, telling them who had been appointed and thanking them for applying,” Krivosha recounted.

“I was in Judge Dale Fahrnbruch’s court on a Friday morning about to start trying a lawsuit before him. He and I had both been candidates for chief justice. He was opening his mail on the bench as we were getting ready to begin the case and he stopped suddenly and said, ‘I think we better take a recess.’ He called me into his chambers and said, ‘I suppose you’re not going to want to try your case today.’”

Krivosha didn’t know what the judge meant. It was left up to Fahrnbruch to inform him he was the state’s new chief justice. “That’s how I found put,” Krivosha said. He made it to the highest judicial seat without prior bench experience.

“Not unheard of,” he said. “You have to also remember I was the first appointed chief justice (of Nebraska). Up until then all the members of the Court had been elected and we had just recently changed to the merit selection system. It’s probably more common to have people come from the District Court to the Supreme Court, but not unheard of. There were people elected before and certainly there were people appointed later who had not been judges before.”

Not only was he serving his first judgeship on the state supreme court, he was perhaps the youngest member of that august and senior body.

“Some of the members of the court called me ‘Sonny,’ which they were entitled to. I mean, I was 44 years-old and some of them were in their 60s. But they were wonderful. It was a great experience.”

He’d argued many cases before the Nebraska Supreme Court prior to his appointment. After leaving the bench he argued cases before the court again, but only after all the members he’d served with had retired. from the court. While admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court he never argued before it.

He said his becoming chief justice was dependent on three key factors.

“You have to work very hard in law school and graduate at or near the top of your class. You then have to spend the next 20 years as a lawyer gaining a reputation of being a fine lawyer. And you need to become a close friend of a governor. And if you can’t do all of them, you must at least do the last one.

“The fact of the matter is I guess I can honestly say I did all three. I graduated well in my class, I think I had a reputation of being a good lawyer, and I was a close friend of Jim Exon.”

 

 

Jim Exon, ©ebay.com

 

 

 

What made he and Exon click?

“We were both committed Democrats. We both felt the same way about things. I think we got along so well because we shared the same views about family, about ethics, about integrity,” Krivosha said. “He would never ask you to do anything you’d be embarrassed to tell your mother…He always did what was ethically and morally right even if it wasn’t politically right, but for him it always turned out to be politically right.

“Jim Exon in my view was one of the world‘s greatest public figures.”

Krivosha was Exon’s last appointment before he left to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1979. For Krivosha, serving on the bench was another facet of a rich legal career.

“I’ve been a practitioner, I’ve been a trial lawyer, I’ve taught, I’ve been a judge and I’ve been a corporate counsel. All of it was satisfying. I enjoyed very much the collegiality with my colleagues on the bench. I disagreed with them occasionally but nonetheless had a very close relationship with them.”

A fellow Nebraska Supreme Court justice, Judge Nick Caporale, was a classmate of Krivosha’s at UNL and remains a good friend.

Being a judge suited Krivosha.

“I enjoyed looking at the cases, trying to conclude an appropriate legal answer, but even more than that I guess as executive head of the judicial branch of government I enjoyed the administration of the court system.”

He introduced some innovations.

“We made some changes along the way,” he said, “many of which still exist today. We did away with the municipal courts in Lincoln and Omaha — merging them into the County Court system. This was a more efficient way at a financial savings. We instituted type-written briefs in the Supreme Court — doing away with printing the briefs — which certainly was a savings to litigants.”

He also instituted measures to ease the volume of cases heard.

“There was no Court of Appeals then, so the Supreme Court was a court as a matter of right. You could appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court from Small Claims Court and we had to take the case,” he said. “So we appointed two district judges and we sat in divisions of five instead of a court of seven, which the statute allowed, in an effort to try to cut down the number of cases and to handle the volume in a more expeditious way.”

While presiding on the bench he wrote more than 600 opinions, meaning he decided far too many cases to single out just a few. Besides, he said, “once I finished a case I finished it. It’s done, it’s done. I didn’t have any second thoughts once I decided a case.”

He does take satisfaction, however, in knowing some of his dissents ultimately became the law. He was the lone dissenter when the court ruled a landowner with a ranch bisecting two states could not transfer water from Nebraska to Colorado to feed his cattle.

“I dissented on the basis it interfered with interstate commerce — that he had a perfect right to do that — and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. It was reversed based on my dissent”

He said it’s unusual the highest court in the land opted to hear this water rights case in the first place since the Nebraska Supreme Court is usually the last word.

He served eight years as Chief Justice, stepping down in 1987.

“I did not leave because of any unhappiness. I delighted in being Chief Justice. I was 53 years old, about to turn 54, and somebody made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

 

 

Nebraska Supreme Court

 

 

 

Bankers Life Nebraska in Lincoln hired him as senior vice president, administration, and chief counsel and when the company became Ameritas Life Insurance Company he was executive vice president, secretary and corporate general counsel. He later worked as general counsel for Kutak Rock.

He retired a couple years ago.

Reviewing his long legal career is not something that occupies much of his time.

“It’s not my style to look back,” he said.

Still, he said, “I’ve been fortunate enough to do almost everything a lawyer can do.” All his years trying and hearing cases did not sour him on the system but rather reaffirmed his faith in it.

“I’m just more convinced it’s as good a system as I always believed it to be. I believe that courts by and large do a good job. There are exceptions. The law is an art, it is not a science, and therefore the answer you get depends on the question you see. The job of the lawyer, for instance, is not to convince the court what the law is but to convince the court what the question is. Once that happens the answer becomes obvious.”

These days he does a bit of arbitration work and sometimes litigates cases. Mostly, though, he serves as an expert witness in insurance fraud suits. His keen political mind is attuned to the presidential race. He reads The New York Times and watches the Sunday public affairs programs. Barack Obama’s chances excite him.

“Obviously as a Democrat I’m a great believer that we need to move in a different direction,” he said.

Is he ever tempted to return to the bench?

“No…Remember, I never look back.”

Hoops legend Abdul-Jabbar talks history

August 9, 2012 1 comment

A few years ago I got the opportunity to interview college and pro basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in advance of his giving a talk in Omaha.  He was every bit the thoughtful man he projects to be.  Before doing this short piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) I vaguely knew he had turned author and amateur historian with an eye towards highlighting African American achievements but I learned that he’s done much more in this area than I ever imagined and I got the sense he’s at least as proud of his work in this arena as he is of what he did on the hardwood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hoops legend Abdul-Jabbar talks history

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the man who made the sky hook and goggles signature parts of hoopsiconography, headlines the May 12 B’nai B’rith Charity Sports Banquet at the Qwest Center Omaha. Now an author, he is the rare ex-sports superstar who’s applied a social conscience after balling.

The Naismith and NBA Hall of Famer was a legend before playing his first collegiate basketball game in 1967. His schoolboy dominance at Powers Memorial in New York City made him the most prized recruit since Wilt Chamberlain. He was so unstoppable at UCLA, when still known as Lew Alcindor, that dunking was outlawed after his sophomore season. He led the Bruins to three national championships.

In only his second NBA season his expansion Milwaukee Bucks won the 1971 title. Omaha native Bob Boozer was the team’s 6th man. Abdul-Jabbar competed several times against the Kansas City-Omaha Kings at the Civic Auditorium.

The inscrutable big man added five more titles with the Los Angeles Lakers. Six times he earned the league’s MVP award. Upon retirement he was the NBA’s all-time points scorer and arguably the greatest player ever. He continues as a Lakers special assistant today.

Like the late tennis star Arthur Ashe, he’s transcended athletics to write and talk about black history. The two were student-athletes together for a year at UCLA. In a phone interview Abdul-Jabbar said Ashe asked for his help researching the book, A Hard Road to Glory. Each came out of the civil rights struggle and endured criticism for being aloof. Abdul-Jabbar’s conversion to Islam alienated some. He said his passion for chronicling the stories of African-American achievers can be traced to a high school program he took that cultivated an interest in writing and history and introduced him to unknown facets of his childhood neighborhood, Harlem.

“Very loud echoes of the Harlem Renaissance were still there to be heard. I was just instilled with a lot of pride when I read about what Harlem had meant to Black America. It was just totally inspiring,” he said. “It made me want to share that as a very natural extension for how I felt about what was going on in America and what I wanted to do about it.”

His 2007 book On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance describes Harlem’s legacy as “the capital of Black America and a place where a lot of things happened that made black Americans proud,” he said.

A story from those halcyon days is the subject of a documentary he’s producing, On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of the Greatest Basketball Team You Never Heard Of. Featuring on-camera comments by such hoop and pop culture stars as Charles Barkley and Spike Lee, it profiles the New York Renaissance or Harlem Rens, America’s first all-black pro basketball team. Owner Bob Douglas, often called the Father of Black Basketball, created the team in the early 1920s when segregation still ruled sports and society-at-large. The Rens delivered a powerful message by routinely trouncing all comers, including white squads before white audiences, over the next three decades.

Abdul-Jabbar is delighted to have several connections to the Rens. A well-known New York high school hoops official who called some of his games, Dolly King, played for the Rens. Abdul-Jabbar’s legendary UCLA coach John Wooden played a 1930s exhibition against the Rens as a Purdue All-American.

For the 7’2 basketball great, the Rens represent the struggle “for equality that consumed black Americans in all phases of life.” He hopes the film, scheduled for a 2011 release, educates young people that today’s opportunities have been hard-earned and nothing good comes easily.

Meanwhile, he’s coping with a rare form of leukemia that an oral medication treats. He’s not had to curtail his activities.

In Omaha he’ll speak about the World War II all-black 761st tank battalion, the subject of his 2004 book, Brothers in Arms. Some dispute battalion veterans’ claims they helped liberate Dachau concentration camp. There’s no disputing their heroic, unheralded role in the Battle of the Bulge and in the Allies’ final push across France and Germany.

 

Jill Scott Interview

August 8, 2012 5 comments

I did the following interview with singer-actress Jill Scott a few years ago on the eve of an acclaimed Lifetime movie she starred in called Sins of the Mother.  In it she plays a recovering alcoholic trying to mend the fences broken between herself and her daughter, who’s now a mother herself, years before.  In the depths of her addiction Scott’s character Nona emotionally and physically abandonded her daughter, Shay.  The daughter, played by Nicole Beharie, has become estranged from her mother.  When Shay visits her mother the old wounds get reeopend and the story becomes one of forgiveness, redemption, discovery, and transformation as the two women work through the pain to find a new truth.  Scott’s portrayal of Nona rings absolutely natural and authentic.  The movie was adapted from a well-received novel, Orange Mint and Honey, by Omaha native Carleen Brice.  You can find on this blog stories I’ve done about Carleen and her work.

 

 

 Jill Scott-The Source

 Jill Scott 

 

 

Jill Scott Interview

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

LAB: In preparation for your role as Nona in the Lifetime movie Sins of the Mother did you do much research?

JS: “Well, honestly I put the energy out there that I wanted to talk to people who are recovering and oddly enough I just kept meeting people. I met a lady on a plane, I worked with an artist on a project and I found out they were in recovery and had been for 10 years, and I just kept meeting people – at the grocery store, Target and Walmart. This is the reason why I love these places. You just get an opportuniy to meet so many different people just by talking about the weather. And people who are in recovery I find tend to really want to talk about their growth and their process. So it was pretty weird the way it just all started coming together, just random people on the plane and in stores and friends of friends over dinner.

“It’s not even I was bringing it up to find out anything. I didn’t even have to mention it. It’s really true what Thoreau says: ‘When a man truly commits, the universe will conspire to assure his success.” And that’s what it felt like. It seemed like everywhere I went I kept meeting people that wanted to talk about their recovery. Eight different people in all.”

LAB: As your character of Nona is written and as you play her she’s someone who really embodies the whole one day at a time philosophy.  I mean, she’s just focused on doing the best she can, one day at a time.

JS: “Period. And I think that’s the real truth of recovery. It is a process, it is an every day, every hour, every difficult situation, every happiness. You get happy, you want to drink. If something stresses you or vexes you, you want to drink. I learned a lot about that particular part of recovery, about how it’s ongoing and it does not stop.”

LAB: How did the project come to you and were you aware of the novel Orange Mint and Honey upon which the movie is based?

JS: “No, not at all. My agent, who I absolutely adore, mentioned it to me. She sent me the script. She said, ‘I think you’re going to like this.’ I read it, and believe me I read a lot of scripts, and I turn down quite a bit and some things I don’t get but this was something I really wanted to do. I enjoyed playing a grown-up, a genuine grown-up, and I felt Nona was a grown-up person actually facing her demons. It’s just my opinion but when you face yourself then you become an adult. As an adult person you make an effort to look at yourself, pay attention to yourself, analyze yourself, check yourself and hopefully better yourself.”

LAB: So did you end up reading Orange Mint and Honey?

JS: “I did not. Sometimes I will read the book but this time I didn’t. I try not to actually. You start tweaking things that really you may not need to or that you shouldn’t. I read the script and I come up with my own conclusions based on my research and the script itself and then after that it’s just communication with the director, because more than likely they’ve done far more research then I have, they’ve been on board before I was. That’s pretty much my process.”

LAB: In the movie Shay does not readily accept Nona’s amends and it’s heartbreaking for Nona.

JS: “That’s probably the worst part of it all for people who are in recovery. When you actually make the decision to apologize whole heartedly and have that person not accept it, it’s almost like a block in your recovery, you can’t seem to move that much forward without the understanding and I think that’s Nona’s difficulty. She loves her daughter and she really wants her to understand and to respect her growth and accept her apology. Nona knows what she did was wrong.”

LAB: The movie makes a real effort to explore the whole mother-daughter relationship dynamic.

JS: “Anytime you can explore that it’s cool. I grew up with my mother and my grandmother and just to watch them – the older versions of my mother and I now, that was an interesting ride, just the bucking of Alpha women in one house. And now as I’m an adult just the bucking of my mother and I. We love each other very much, but there’s a time to go home, there is.”

 

Sins_of_the_Mother.jpg

Jill Scott and Nicole Beharie in a scene of healing from Sins of the Mother

 

LAB: What did you find most challenging in getting your character right and in realizing the script?

JS: “Uhhh, trying to make sure it wasnt sappy. I think if you tell someone there’s a story of redemption or a story of someone on the road to redemption the mind can take you to a place where it’s going to be a tear fest or sappy or a chick flick and maybe there’s some of that somewhere in there but it’s not the whole meat of the story. And for me I didnt want to make Nona a bleeding heart because Shay is right, her feelings are fair and just, she had a difficult childhood because of her mother.”

LAB: You and Nicole Beharie have some very tough emotional scene together. Did you two do any specific prep work together to prepare for those moments?

JS: “No, as a matter of fact we didn’t. In the beginning we were tense with each other, you know just feeling each other out. I think it was good for both of us just to stand back and kind of watch each other and be a little tense, like the characters. We kept ourselves slightly friendly until our characters were warmer towards each other, and then we got warmer towards each other.”

LAB: So when you’re working on a project like this, do you leave yourself open to self-discovery and growth? Is that part of the attraction of what you do as an actress, as an artist?  Does your life and art inform each other?

JS: “Well, I’m now a mother and when I did the film my baby was newborn, we had just come through that whole transition of not sleeping, me being sleep deprived. I think I began to understand by playing Nona how much you can love a child and how it just doesn’t go away. As a new mother you don’t know what to expect, you don’t know anything except that you have to feed this baby, you have responsibilties, and when the love kicks in it’s life altering, even if you make mistakes.

“I actually fell down the steps with my son a few weeks ago, and that whole forgiving myself process was a trip because he was fine, I was the one that ended up black and purple. But I went through that whole process of, Oh, man, I shouldn’t have worn those slippers, I should have been paying attention better, all of those things. There’s a certain level of guilt that lends itself to you as a parent.

“Anytime I play anyone I learn something a little bit more about life and a lot of times about myself but mostly it’s about life and I think that’s a cool part.”

LAB: Did you have any trepidations about playing any of the scenes, particularly the one in the church where Shay calls out her mother in public before the assembled congregation?

JS: “No, I didn’t honestly because I’m a believer in the director. I like to work with people I can put my trust in and if it’s too much I’ll hear it and I look for that. I like to hear from one to ten. ‘I think that was on seven, I’m going to push it back to five, are you comfortable with that?’ That’s just the way that I like to communicate.”

LAB:  Your acting career has really taken off the last few years but it’s something you’ve been working on for awhile.

JS: “It’s 15 years in the making. I’m not upset at all about my journey as an actor. I’ve been enjoying it. I did Rent (in a touring stage production) and after Rent I put out an album and then the music took off but it was working for me before as well in theater and now from television to independent filma to major films, back to television and major films in one year. It’s working now, I get to do the things I really enjoy, so there’s no complaints over here.”

LAB:  I know you’re very loyal to your Philly roots because Philadelphia is where it all started for you

JS: “My girlfriend and I used to put together an artistic night of words and sound, all kinds of people would come through to sing or dance or do a monologue or perform their poetry. We did it every other week faithfully.”

The Garcia Girls

August 6, 2012 1 comment

Success runs in certain families and most of America loves nothing better than classic immigrant success stories.  That’s what the Jesus and Beatriz Garcia family of Omaha represents.  Their success starts with the now elderly but still active parents who came from Mexico to make a better life for themselves and their six girls, who were all born in Mexico but primarily raised in America.  My story for El Perico focuses on how the sisters have achieved much educationally and professionally, always guided by the hard-working, aspiring example of their parents.  Just as the parents are inspirations to the Garcia girls so are the sisters inspirations to each other.

 

arteabla.ning.com

 

 

The Garcia Girls

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

When Jesus and Beatriz Garcia left Mexico for America decades ago their fervent wish was to give their family a better life. In that, there’s no doubt they succeeded. The couple captured the American Dream by working hard, owning their own home, becoming fixtures at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and raising six girls.

The Garcias have seen their daughters, all born in Mexico, grow into accomplished women with families and careers of their own. The Garcia Girls carry on their parents’ tradition of serving others. At the 2011 Latino Heritage Awards the eldest, Magdalena “Maggie” Garcia, was honored for her work as El Museo Latino founder and executive director. Baby sister Maria Vazquez, associate vice president of student affairs at Metropolitan Community College, was named Latina of the Year.

“I’m amazed at Maggie’s and Maria’s accomplishments, and at all my other sisters.

They’re all working hard and continuing their education, and I’m doing the same thing,” says Silvia Wells, El Museo Latino managing director.

The sisters have all attended college as nontraditional students. The only one without a degree, Lori Ramirez, is working on it. Some have multiple degrees. Each has a chosen profession. It all stems from strong parental guidance. Maggie recalls, “My father sat me down and said, ‘My responsibility is to provide for you what you need. Your responsibility is to do the best you can.’ He never said you have to do this or that, he just said, you have to do the best you can. The demands were what each one of us placed on ourselves.”

Education was always stressed. “They put all six of us through Catholic school. They both worked. My dad sometimes had two and three jobs,” says Maggie.

Jesus trained in fine woodworking and construction in Mexico and his expert craftsman’s skills made him employable here. He repaired furniture for Nebraska Furniture Mart. Later, he opened his own shop, Jesse Garcia‘s Repair, at 13th and Vinton Streets in South Omaha, where the Garcias are an old-line Latino family.

He also built custom display cabinets for daughter Maggie’s museum. He closed his shop last year but still keeps his hands busy for select customers.

Beatriz, who learned seamstress skills in Mexico, labored 30 years at Pendleton Woolen Mills. She started as a sewer and retired as a supervisor. A talented cook, she makes her famous enchiladas and burritos for museum and church fundraisers. She marvels at what her daughters have made of themselves.

“I’m so proud of all my girls.”

In turn, the Garcia Girls admire their parents. Beatriz “Betty” Garcia Gonzalez, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health professional with two degrees, is struck by their “humility and determination.” She and her sisters appreciate the effort their folks made taking them to Mexico every summer for two-week immersions in family, heritage and culture. They value their devotion to church and their legendary work ethic. Wells says these values are “deeply rooted” in them all.

“Those pillars of lessons” says Vazquez, shaped the Garcia Girls. That example now shapes four generations of Garcias, “Mom and Dad are still healthy and they’re still very much a part of our lives. They still encourage us,” says Patty Tello, an Educare Center of Omaha family enrichment specialist..  “They worked so hard so that we could have an education. Always in the back of my head was that I had to make them proud of me because of their sacrifice.”

“I’m very happy my parents had the desire for us to complete our education and go further than just high school,” says Wells.

Maria says, “They’re the smartest people I know. They valued education. They always certainly encouraged us to do our best and to work hard and give back, and with that foundation we were able to do anything.”

Indeed, Silvia says her folks made her feel “I’m capable of reaching any goal I wish to attain.” She can count on “always having their support.” And the support of her sisters. “It is nice to always have someone encouraging you and I think we all encourage each other.” “We’re there for sounding boards,” says Maggie.

Tello says the family always pitches in to babysit as needed.

There’s some sisterly prodding, too. “If I’m thinking, This is difficult, there’s always someone there to say, ‘I know you can do it,’ or, ‘I did it, you can do it, too,” says Silvia. Patty was inspired to go back to school after seeing Silvia do it.

“I think we’ve challenged each other,” says Betty.

The striving continues. Silvia is midday through graduate studies at Bellevue University. Patty is studying for her master’s in childhood education at Concordia (Seward, Neb.) University. Vazquez is going after her Ph.D. in educational administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Betty says the family’s left “a legacy.” “And there’s still more to come,” says Patty, adding, “We’re still pushing the envelope and seeing what more can we do.”

“We all try to be a part of the community we live in and make it a better place to live,” says Silvia.

As the oldest, Maggie led the way by embarking on a corporate career, then becoming the first in her family to attend college.

“Maggie was working full time and married when she started at UNO. I remember her taking me when she registered for classes. She wanted to expose me to that environment, to that other world,” says Maria, who went on to earn degrees from Metro and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

After Maggie completed her master’s at Syracuse University she was unsure what to do next. “My father told me, ‘Whatever you decide to do you have our support in whatever way we can, but find something that makes you happy and you’re passionate about.’” She fulfilled her dream opening the museum. The whole family’s volunteered there.

As each Garcia Girl’s found success, the whole family’s shared in it. The legacy lives on.

When a building isn’t just a building: LaFern Williams South YMCA facelift reinvigorates community

August 3, 2012 3 comments

All kinds of human services are delivered in buildings, including some nondescript, institutional edifices that can appear cold on the outside.  But of course it is what goes on on the inside that matters.  Take the South Omaha YMCA, for instance.  I cannot even find an image of it on the Web, which is just as well since it’s a dull, quasi-governmental-looking structure that hardly hints at the warm embrace that staff extend to visitors or at the fun activities and programs offered to members.  When a building truly engages a neighborhood and community the way this one does, it isn’t just a building anymore, it’s something much more personal.

 

When a building isn’t just a building: LaFern Willams South YMCA facelift reinvigorates community 

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

South Omaha’s renaissance unfolds on many fronts. From scores of new businesses to construction of a new community center, library and athletic stadium to the expansion of Metropolitan Community College’s south campus, the area’s booming again after a three-decade lull.

Facelifts also contribute to this turnaround. The most obvious makeover is to the 24th Street business district, whose once thriving streetscapes-storefronts dimmed but now overbrim with color and activity in a plaza-like marketplace.

More recently, a $1.25 million renovation to the LaFern Williams South YMCA at 30th and Q has infused new life into a community anchor that had seen better days.

The Y’s flip is not easily observed until you go inside, but it’s accounting for a surge of activity not seen there since the building’s heyday.

YMCA of Greater Omaha COO Linda Butkus said compared to a year ago the South branch has seen a 30 percent increase in member scans, a 25 percent increase in member revenue and 209 more individuals join as Y members.

“We’re seeing more use, we’re getting more memberships, were expanding beyond just kids to serving more families and adults as well,” she said, “and I think the renovations are the reasons for the increases.”

Three phases of capital improvements are complete. Interior upgrades encompass a redesigned lobby, a new gymnasium floor, enhanced lighting, fresh carpeting and paint, a refurbished fitness room, a large computer room, a new security system and a new chiller. Outside, a new parking overlay is done and a new roof in-progress. In line with the physical changes new programs have been implemented.

Butkus said, “We have more for individuals to do in the way of programming, we have more fitness equipment and the overall feel of the facility is much better. It was a dark and old interior. Now it’s very nice, it’s very bright. The amenities have been upgraded. It feels good to be there. It’s been a complete facelift. When you walk in you go, ‘Wow.’ That’s the feedback we’re getting.”

South branch executive director Brian Owens said the Y’s commitment has resulted in “a buy-in” from area residents. “It’s given people a sense of pride to say, ‘You’re investing in our community.’” He said members lost to other branches are returning now. To accommodate higher volume he’s expanded the hours of operation.

He said to stay in touch with the expectations of a diverse clientele “we’re being very intentional and diligent about launching our programs. We’re going out and asking our member base, ’What do you want in this building?’, instead of us telling them what they’re getting. That’s been pretty successful so far.”

Responding to the ever growing Latino population fitness classes infused with merengue and salsa are offered. ESL and Spanish language classes are possibilities.

“Our Latino base has grown tremendously,” he said. “That’s our demographic and we’re ecstatic that we do have that buzz in the Latino community.”

Smaller than some Ys and lacking a pool, the branch accentuates what it has that others Y don’t. Owens said, “We have a smorgasbord of cultures who frequent this branch” — Latinos, Sudanese, Native Americans, whites. “We have that unique opportunity to be able to cross cultures and to share with one another, and that’s a great scene.”

Brenda Kremlacek’s three boys attend the South Y, where, “they’ve met a variety of ages and nationalities, and that’s good,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of progress with the boys’ attitudes. They look forward going. They have a lot of good friends.”

The absence of a swimming hurts but Owen said the branch compensates with “the largest gym in the (Omaha) association.” That gym sees heavy use for hoops, via basketball programs/leagues, and fitness/martial arts classes. He’s hoping when the nearby Kroc Center opens in 2009 his members will be able to access its pool.

He feels his Y’s proximity to the neighboring South Side Terrace Homes and “its 800-plus young people” is an advantage for attracting and retaining youth and family members. He’s keenly aware the facility’s long drawn many users from the Omaha Housing Authority’s South Terrace complex. The low-income housing project includes many at-risk youths who access the Y’s after-school and summer club programs and Kids Cafe, which provides free nutritious meals and snacks. An OHA liasion offices at the Y.

One of South Side’s own played a key role in pushing for the building, which was owned and operated by OHA from 1977 until 2007. The facility’s provided recreational, educational, community and social agency services and programs its entire life. It fulfilled the vision of LaFern Williams, a South Side tenant and community activist who “was very instrumental in convincing the powers-that-be” to construct a recreational/childcare facility for residents, said OHA executive director Stan Timm. Her dream of a safe haven for children was realized and the building became the LaFern Williams Center after her death.

The center also housed the award-winning Center Stage Theatre, whose alums include actor-directorJohn Beasley Owens said, “This facility was one of the most happening scenes in the ‘80s.” By the start of this decade the Center Stage was no more and the building showing its age and a decline in usage. A half-dozen years ago Beasley resurrected live theater there by forming the John Beasley Theater & Workshop. Even with the JBT’s success the center was not the beehive activity it was before. In 1999 the Y leased the ground floor to present an array of programs and activities. The name changed to South Omaha Community YMCA. Other tenants have included Educare, Head Start and South Omaha Weed & Seed.

When OHA could no longer afford the cost of maintaining the building, plans called for the center to be sold. An outcry led by South Side residents made the structure’s fate a public issue. That’s when the Y stepped in to buy and renovate it with the help of a $1 million challenge grant from the Peter Kiewit Foundation.

As an enticement for Beasley’s company to remain, the Y showed some love by installing new seats and carpeting in the auditorium housing his theater. Owens said having the theater there “is a unique opportunity and presence. Mr. Beasley’s a renowned artist and his productions are tremendous. We wanted to make the upgrades to let him know we respect him and appreciate what he provides.”

Additional plans for the auditorium call for the addition of a drop-down projector to accommodate Power Point II presentations, which Owens hopes will attract organizations to use the facility during the day for meetings and trainings.

As a nod to the legacy of the woman who made the center a reality, Y officials renamed it the LaFern Williams South YMCA. While Owens never met Williams he said, “we’re honored to carry Miss LaFern’s name and her mission to be a beacon or a cornerstone for this community. I’m proud to be that steward that fights for those whose arms get tired. I don’t take that lightly.”

He said the deep meaning the place has in the community is reflected by the fact it’s only been tagged once in the seven years he’s been there. “I think that has a lot to do with respect. That this is kind of off-limits. This is the hub. This facility has such a lineage and a history. A lot of young people’s parents, brothers, aunts, uncles participated here. It’s like we take care of our own.”

 

 

 

photo
Community garden on the South Omaha YMCA grounds, ©The Big Garden

 

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