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The Troy Davis Story: From Beyond the Fringe to Fringes Salon

December 27, 2012 7 comments

Star hair designer Troy Davis of Omaha was amazingly forthcoming and transparent in an interview he did with me for this Encounter Magazine profle I wrote about him a few years ago.  As a fellow 12-stepper I know something of what he speaks.  I know the courage and conviction it requires to be this honest about the hurt and the healing.  His words and his story are bound to help someone else.  He’s best known for his work at Fringes Salon.

 
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The Troy Davis Story: From Beyond the Fringe to Fringes Salon                                        Story by Leo Adam Biga ©Photos by Bill Sitzmann                                                                Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine

 

Leading Omaha hair dresser Troy Davis long ago showed an educational and entrepreneurial knack for his craft and for building the Edgeworthy brand at Fringes Salon & Spa in the Old Market. Now that his mentor and longtime business partner, Fringes founder Carol Cole, has sold her interest in the location, he has a new partner and a new focus on managing costs. The result is record profitability.

“Fringes of the Old Market is the busiest and healthiest it’s ever been,” says Davis, who’s made Fringes an Omaha Fashion Week fixture.

“Troy and Fringes have been a very important part of Omaha Fashion Week, as they style many of our veteran designers and constantly impress with their ability to interpret the latest hair and makeup trends on our runway,” says OFW producer Brook Hudson.

Davis is glad to share in the success. He’s lately seen members of the Fringes team represent well in a recent competition and awards show. Never content to stay put, his Clear Salon Services business is a new generation, grassroots distributorship for independent hair care brands.

These professional triumphs have been happening as Davis addresses personal problems that “came to a head” last August but that have their roots in the past. Growing up in Blair, Neb., he began drinking and using drugs to mask the sexual identity issues he confronted as a gay teen in an environment devoid of alternative lifestyles.

“I felt so completely isolated. I lived in fear so badly that I hid it with drinking and weed,” he says.

A healthier form of self-expression he excelled in, speech and drama, seemed a likely direction to pursue out of high school. But first he moved to Omaha to experience the diversity he craved back home. He briefly attended Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, even landing the lead in the school’s fall production, before dropping out to attend beauty school in Omaha.

 
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From their first meeting Davis and Cole knew they’d found a new best friend they could grow in their chosen field alongside. She says she immediately responded to his “passion and energy and drive,” adding, “Troy Davis has definitely made me a better person and stylist and leader.”

Within four years he’d proven to be such a trusted asset that Cole partnered with him in opening the Old Market shop.

“He earned that,” she says. “He just really wanted to be downtown. His heart was there. I finally said, ‘Look, if you want to be a partner, I’ll do it, but you’re going to have to step it up and find a location.’ And he did. I have to give him a lot of credit because he put a lot of grunt work into it to get it started.”

The rest is history, as Fringes became a presence in the Old Market for its ultra-contemporary, urban styles and high-end hair care and beauty services. Cole let him run things there so she could concentrate on the West Dodge site.

For Davis, Cole’s been more than just a business partner.

“Carol and I are so close. We just absolutely click,” he says. “She’s a very intelligent, very professional business woman. There’s not a lot of partnerships that make it. In a lot of ways our relationship is like a marriage, only platonic. I think it’s healthier or better than most marriages I know of. We are able to communicate in a way that most people are not. We can say anything to each other and even if it’s something that ends up hurting each other, we know that’s not our intention. Usually it’s one of us misunderstanding something and we’re always able to go back and clean it up.”

Davis has moved fast in the industry. While still in his 20s he became one of 10 international creative team members for Rusk, a role that saw him flown all over the world to teach other hair dressers the use of the international distributor’s products. He worked in the Omaha salon during the week and jetted around on weekends.

It gave him the stage, the lights, the theatrics he felt called to. It also meant lots of money and partying.

All the while, his addictions progressed.

 
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He was prepping for the always stressful Omaha Fashion Week last summer when he and his life partner split for good. Amidst the breakup, the all-nighters, running his businesses, and leading an online advocacy campaign for a Fringes team that showed well in the national Battle of the Strands competition, Davis crashed.

“By the time I hit bottom I was drinking every day and drinking to black out three days a week and, you know, it just had to end. I finally realized I am an alcoholic. It was a real wake up call.”

He’s now actively working a 12-step program.

“It’s definitely helped me get sober. I definitely thank my Higher Power for the strength I’ve had to get where I am today.”

He’s not shy sharing his ups and downs.

“I’ve always been a very honest and open person. I’ve actually shared publicly via Facebook some of my bottoms and what I’ve learned in my treatment. In order to achieve something you need support in your life and there is a connection through Facebook with family and friends that I think is very useful. I see it as an opportunity to share with them what I’m going through and the choices I’m making for myself.”

He calls his 12-step group “a new addition to my family,” adding, “They’re great people.” Like many addicts he’s replaced his former addictions for a couple new, blessedly benign ones – Twitter and tattoos.

As his recovery’s progressed he’s grown in other ways, too, including taking charge of his Fringes store’s finances.

“It’s absolutely the best thing that could have happened for this business. It’s given me a whole new level of accountability. I see things more clearly and because of that we’ve broken through a plateau we were never able to get past.”

He credits new business partner Sarah Pithan, a former assistant, for helping increase business by more than $4,000 a week. He also credits the “amazing team” he and Pithan have cultivated, including Omar Rodriguez, Kristina Lee and Teresa Chaffin, for taking Fringes and Clear Salon Services to new levels.

Visit http://www.fringessalon.com.

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Entrepreneur and Craftsman John Hargiss Invests in North Omaha: Stringed Instrument Maker Envisons Ambitious Plans for his New Hargissville Digs

December 26, 2012 3 comments

 

 

 

John Hargiss is doing something that a lot more people need to do – he’s investing in North Omaha.  He’s actually moved his successful stringed instrument business from booming Benson to a rough trade section of northeast Omaha in need of some love and reinvestment.  His faith in the area is strong and it’s just what that community needs, that and people like Hargiss who put their money where their mouth or senitment are.  Hargiss is a cool cat who straddles the edgy and contemporary with Old World craftsman values.  His new digs include an old theater he plans to restore into a live performance center.  It would be a great boon to the area.

 

 

 

 

 

Entrepreneur and Craftsman John Hargiss Invests in North OmahaStringed Instrument Maker Envisons Ambitious Plans for his New Hargissville Digs

by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The subtle twang in the voice of stringed instrument-maker and roots musician John Hargiss betrays his southern Missouri Ozarks origins. As a boy he learned acoustic guitar under his musician-craftsman-woodsman father’s instruction. As a young man he mastered constructing guitars under “that old man,” the wood harvested from walnut trees the father felled and the son hand-shaped. He feels part of a “lineage.”

Hargiss is the only one in his family who left those backwoods foothills for new horizons. After years scuttling about, working river boats and toiling in factories down South, he settled in Omaha. He worked 9 to 5 jobs, married and raised kids but he always moonlighted making things with his hands and playing in bands. Then he stepped off the establishment wheel to start his own business.

What began in his Country Club home’s garage he built into Hargiss Stringed Instruments in Benson. In a building he owned free and clear on the Maple Street strip he offered a full service luthier shop featuring his hand-made guitars, mandolins and banjos. Customers for his patented traveler’s guitar, The Minstrel, include Grammy-winners Norah Jones, Carly Simon and Judy Collins, the late rocker Dan Fogelberg and Omaha’s own Conor Oberst. His shop survived Benson’s lean years to become an anchor retail presence in that revived business district. He’s led Benson preservation and improvement efforts.

 

 

John Hargiss, ©hearnebraska.org

 

 

But just as that resurgence has peaked he’s picked up and moved to a ragtag northeast Omaha neighborhood that’s seen violent crime and struggled to attract businesses. His new digs at 4002 Hamilton Street include five connected buildings he’s purchased for a song. He’s spent most of 2012 restoring them, including the former vaudeville and movie theater, The Winn, at 4006 Hamilton, whose interior shell he’s made his temporary living quarters. He plans converting one of many potential spaces in his new dwellings into a finished apartment for himself.

His vision for the 35,000 square feet he possesses goes beyond his corner store and workshop to encompass a school for chartered apprentices, a live performance venue and a courtyard. He pictures a hub for artisans of all types. He calls his mecca, Hargissville, which fits his ultra laid-back Jimmy Buffett-like persona.

“A place like this has got the potential to do anything you want to do,” says Hargiss. “If it doesn’t pan out I’ll turn it into a haunted house.”

Why leave a sure thing in Benson for a transitional neighborhood?

“When I see all this area, I was meant to be and do this for this area,” says Hargiss. “I love this area. I belong here now, I know that.”

He describes how when prospecting the run-down, long-vacant properties he had an epiphany this was the right spot. But that inspiration was tinged by the hard reality of what it would take to get it all in shape.

“I knew it when I first came in. I just didn’t want to do the work.”

Months into a project that’s seen him do most of the restoration himself and that’s taken a toll on him physically – “It’s wiped me out, it’s been stressful” – he says, “I still think to myself, ‘You belong here more than you’ve ever belonged anyplace. This is why you’re here.’ I think it’s what I’d been slowly waiting for. A sign.”

There were times he second-guessed it, especially after undergoing bypass surgery and then weathering another health scare, all the while taking little time off.

“I became my worst enemy because I was trying to keep that (Benson) business running, trying to make this move over here, trying to get this place cleaned out. I mean, the cleaning part was just outrageous.”

He embraces the idea of being more than a custom instrument maker, repairer and restorer “to being able to provide other types of services. That’s exciting.” Offering a community short on amenities a welcoming cultural oasis like a fully functional live entertainment space and a place for craftsmen to play their trades has him stoked.

“My goal is to put this back to a performance center for live theater, music, arts, crafts,” he says picking his way through the in-progress theater, which features a 20-foot high ceiling and many intact architectural elements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doing the work largely himself and funding it entirely on his own has proven a beast but he figures the tradeoff is worth it. He’s saving on the restoration cost and preserving his independence. He estimates between the purchase price and the rehab he’s into it for “a couple hundred thousand dollars.”

“I really haven’t put a lot in because I’ve done the labor and everything has been here to work with,” he says. “Anything you see has been all reclaimed. I’m using 100 percent recycled goods out of this building.”

The original tin-stamped ceiling tiles from the theater now adorn the ceiling of his new music store and workshop, which for many years housed Martin’s Bakery and most recently was home to a carpet and an appliance repair store.

He’s accepted some assistance but he resists being beholden to anyone.

“Habitat for Humanity has been an asset to me with discounted supplies,” he says. “There are grants available to restore. I wish I had some foundation donations to do this. But you lose something when you do that. I think you’re obligated to someone else when you do that. Eventually that catches up with you.”

He’s all in with this venture and for the long haul, too. And make no mistake about it, he’s doing it his way, just the way he approaches his luthier work.

“I’m not stuck, I’m not governed by, ‘Well, you can’t do it this way.’ Of course I can. Because the sound that this is going to produce is mine,” he says, fingering a guitar in his Old World workshop filled with vintage tools. “When you get to control it and you wear all of these hats, you’re the CEO, you’re the boss, you’re the luthier, you’re the repairman, you’re the refinisher, you’re the engineer, the architect, you’re all of these things at one time. So it lets me express my creativity 100 percent, and I think you have to. You reconnect with it. God, I hate to say it, but you do become a part of it.”

Since moving his business he’s discovered North O’s bad reputation is overblown.

“I think I had convinced myself I need a bulletproof vest, some guns and dogs because this is going to be bad. Well, I’ve lived here over two months and it’s the most peaceful place I’ve ever lived in in my life. Some of the nicest neighbors you’ll ever met. They’re working class people. You have your share, same as Benson, of panhandlers but for the most part they’re nice people. They stop in regularly.”

He hopes other creatives make their way to North O to invest there the way he’s done. “What would excite me most is to get them to follow me on up here.” He thinks the area’s poised to blossom the way Benson has. “When I got there it was really going down the tube. You had like 10 thrift stores and some bad bars. Nobody would come to Benson because it just wasn’t a nice place to come to. In the last six years it’s exploded. Once a small group of business owners got on the bandwagon the others were like, ‘We’ve gotta get this building cleaned up.’ Now it’s party central.”

He’s not missing out on all of the Benson boom. He still owns a building there and leases it at a premium. But he simply ran out of room for his dreams there. “Then this opportunity came up on 40th Street and that took care of that problem. It’s the ideal place.”

For updates on his plans visit http://www.hargissstrings.com.

Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand

December 26, 2012 8 comments

Omaha’s popular arts-culture district the Old Market didn’t happen by accident, it evolved with the careful nurturing of landlords, entrepreneurs, and artists whose vision for the city’s historic wholesale produce center went against the tide at a time the district’s future was up for grabs.  The late 19th and early 20th century warehouses that now are home to shops, restaurants, galleries, and condos might easily have been lost to the wrecking ball if not for visionaries and pioneers like Roger duRand, a designer who took a firm hand in becoming a creative stakeholder there.  This short profile of duRand for Encounter Magazine provides some insight into the forces that helped shape the Old Market in the face of certain obstacles.

 

 

 

Roger duRand

 

 

Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine

 

Omaha designer Roger duRand didn’t invent the Old Market, but he played a key role shaping the former wholesale produce and jobbing center into a lively arts-culture district.

His imprint on this historic urban residential-commercial environment is everywhere. He’s designed everything from Old Market business logos to chic condos over the French Cafe and Vivace to shop interiors. He’s served as an “aesthetic consultant” to property and business owners.

He’s been a business owner there himself. He once directed the Gallery at the Market. For decades he made his home and office in the Old Market.

The Omaha native goes back to the very start when the Old Market lacked a name and identity. It consisted of old, abandoned warehouses full of broken windows, and pigeon and bat droppings. City leaders saw no future for the buildings and planned tearing them down. Only a few visionaries like duRand saw their potential.

He’d apprenticed under his engineer-architect father, the late William Durand, a Renaissance Man who also designed and flew experimental aircraft. The son had resettled in Omaha after cross-country road trips to connect with the burgeoning counter-culture movement, working odd jobs to support himself, from fry cook to folk singer to sign painter to construction worker. He even shot pool for money.

He and a business partner, Wade Wright, ran the head shop The Farthest Outpost in midtown. A friend, Percy Roche, who had a British import store nearby, told them about the Old Market buildings owned by the Mercer family. Nicholas Bonham Carter, a nephew of Mercer family patriarch Samuel Mercer, led a tour.

“We trudged through all the empty buildings and I was really charmed by how coherent the neighborhood was,” says duRand. “It was really intact. The buildings all had a relationship with each other, they were all of the same general age, they were all designed in a very unselfconsciously commercial style.

“They were such an asset.”

 

 

Roger Durand's photo.
 ©photo by Jody Boyer

 

 

Remnants and rituals of the once bustling marketplace remained.

“When I first came down here the space where M’s Pub is now was Subby Sortino’s potato warehouse and there were potatoes to the ceiling,” recalls duRand. “Across the street was his brother John Sortino, an onion broker. There were produce brokerage offices in some of the upper floors. There were a couple cafes that catered to the truck drivers and railroad guys. There was a lot of jobbing, with suppliers of all kinds of mechanical stuff – heating and cooling, plumbing and industrial supplies. The railroad cars would go up and down the alleys at night for freight to be loaded and unloaded.

“A really interesting urban environment.”

He thought this gritty, rich-in-character built domain could be transformed into Omaha’s Greenwich Village.

“I had in mind kind of an arts neighborhood with lots of galleries and artist lofts.”

That eventually happened thanks to Ree (Schonlau) Kaneko and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

duRand and Wright’s head shop at 1106 Howard St. was joined by more entrepreneurs and artists doing their thing.

The early Market scene became an underground haven.

“In 1968 it was really artsy, edgy, political, kind of druggy,” says duRand.

Experimental art, film, theater and alternative newspapers flourished there.

 

 

 

A youunger duRand, center (in the suit), during the Old Market’s coming-of-age

 

 

City officials looked with suspicion on the young, long-haired vendors and customers.

“We had all kinds of trouble with building inspectors,” whom he said resisted attempts to repurpose the structures. “The idea of a hippie neighborhood really troubled a lot of people. This was going to be the end of civilization as they knew it if they allowed hippies to get a foothold. It was quite a struggle the first few years. We really had a lot of obstacles thrown in our path, but we persevered. It succeeded in spite of the obstructionists.

“And then it became more fashionable with the little clothing stores, bars and gift shops. Adventuresome young professionals would come down to have cocktails and to shop.”

The French Cafe helped establish the Old Market as viable and respectable.

Te social experiment of the Old Market thrived, he says, “because it was genuine, it wasn’t really contrived, it evolved authentically,” which jives with his philosophy of “authentic design” that’s unobtrusive and rooted in the personality of the client or space. “Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. The main criterion wasn’t profit, it was for interesting things to happen. We made it very easy for interesting people to get a foothold here.”

Having a hand in its transformation, he says, “was interesting, exciting, exhilarating because it was all new and it was a creative process. The whole venture was kind of an artwork really. I do have a sense of accomplishment in making something out of nothing. That was really the fun part.”

He fears as the Market’s become gentrified – “really almost beyond recognition – it’s lost some of its edge though he concedes remains a hipster hub. “I’m a little awed by the juggernaut it’s become. It’s taken on a much bigger life than I imagined it would. I never imagined I would be designing million-dollar condos in the Old Market or that a Hyatt hotel would go in.”

duRand and his wife Jody don’t live in the Market anymore but he still does work for clients there and it’s where he still prefers hanging out. Besides, all pathways seem take this Old Market pioneer back to where it all began anyway.

Learn about his authentic design at http://rogerdurand.com.

 

 

 

A duRand designed interior

Show a Little Tenderness; For Her 40th Birthday Kirsten Case Asked Friends to Perform Acts of Kindness

December 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Here’s a feel good story for you.  Kirsten Case, or as some of you may know her, Kirsten Romero Case, is a serial do-gooder in Omaha with a lifetime of community outreach work behind her.  She recently decided she would celebrate her 40th birthday by asking people in her life to perform acts of kindness.  They did and the story of why she put out this sweet intention and the ensuing good works that followed is detailed in this piece I wrote for Metro Magazine.  She heads the Literacy Center in Omaha and before that she worked for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and for various nonprofit human services organizations.  It’s quite clear that whaterver she does from this point forward will involve doing for others.

 

 

 

 

Show a Little Tenderness; For Her 40th Birthday Kirsten Case Asked Friends to Perform Acts of Kindness

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine

 

As her 40th birthday approached last fall Kirsten Case decided to celebrate the milestone in a most unusual way. The Literacy Center executive director used her personal blog to encourage friends and strangers alike to perform 40 Acts of Kindness in 40 days and to share these “simple, thoughtful” acts online.

Just like Kirsten

Case, a longtime Omaha transplant from Denver, has devoted her life to nonprofit human services work that delivers tender mercies to people in need. Wendy Hamilton and Angie Schendt are among those who granted Case’s birthday wish. They say the project fit her to a tee.

“It felt so natural that this idea came from her, and I was excited to participate,” says Hamilton, whose act of kindness involved reaching out to a young woman she didn’t know but who looked like she could use some friendly advice.

“Kirsten does have a big heart and it wasn’t surprising to me at all that she came up with this idea,” says Schendt, who honored Case’s request by organizing workmates to present a $500 check to a retiree who’d lost everything in a fire.

Shannon Smith, another friend who joined this mini-movement, says, “I’ve come to admire Kirsten both personally and professionally. She is one of the kindest people you will ever meet, always putting the needs of others before herself. When I first read her blog, I thought ‘of course.’  Of course Kirsten would come up with something compelling to motivate others to give back. Of course she would be selfless on her big day. Of course she would think big. The birthday request is everything that Kirsten is about.”

One way Smith fulfilled Case’s request was by befriending a female co-worker who rubbed her the wrong way.

“I could tell she needed a pick-me-up so I took her to lunch. We had a great chat, and I’m glad we did because I now have a greater understanding of where she’s coming from.”

Other acts people checked in ranged from reporting graffiti to giving someone a ride to donating unused clothes to a career closet to giving up a seat on a plane (twice) to making dinner for a sick friend to helping a dog owner find her lost pet in a park. Comforting words. Helpful advice. Lending a hand. Opening one’s heart.

Then there was the Saturday when Case and her daughter were in the family car in a ATM drive-thru when a man approached, speaking in broken Spanish. The bilingual Case made out he needed to deposit money and she assisted him. She says she drove off before realizing he could benefit from the Literacy Center, “and so I drove back and talked to him about it. It would have been easy to ignore him and been scared of him and to assume certain things but he was just a hard working guy that needed help.

A helping hand

Case says doing unto others is “the easiest and most inexpensive way we can improve the condition of somebody else’s life and our own. I mean, being kind or helpful to others isn’t just about them, it impacts our own life in a positive way, so it’s sort of a win-win.”

“The reality is any of us could be in a situation that could cause us to have to lean on a support network,” she says. “We’re all a heartbeat away from being in somebody else’s shoes. Besides, we’re always leaning on each other and so that’s why it really shouldn’t be a foreign concept to reach out and do something.”

She simply decided to be a conduit to help it happen.

“I just put stuff out there and hoped that maybe somebody noticed it. I really wanted to do something fun and special for my birthday. I have friends who’ve had big blow out parties and that didn’t feel comfortable. I spend a lot of my life trying to get other people to get involved in the community and do nice things for people and so it made perfect sense that way.”

She didn’t know who might respond and what they might do but as her birthday drew near she stumbled upon a Facebook event a friend created and to her delight she discovered plenty of folks heeded her request.

“It was the best birthday I’ve ever had. I was so excited to hear about things people were doing. It just brought me a lot of joy, it made me really happy to know they’d done things. I didn’t really know if people would do anything at all. I mean, how do you really ask people to do stuff? And I’m surrounded by people that are very giving and very involved, so how do you ask those people to do more?”

But more they did.

She says even though she and her friends already give-back to the community “a lot of us are working on a level where we’re not connected one-on-one, so it’s easy to get disconnected from the human side of the work that we’re doing.”

Paying it forward

She’s surprised her project’s elicited so much interest, saying, “A lot of people have talked to me about it,” and though the project  ended Oct. 17, she adds, “Even now people still email me wanting to go to lunch because they want to talk about this. That part’s been fun – that people are still talking about it and telling me about things and wanting to do it themselves.”

Case says she doesn’t know how many acts of kindness overall resulted from her appeal because she hasn’t counted but she likes to think its ripple effect is ongoing. “My hope is that there’s a lot more that happened or that might happen that I don’t know about, although I do like hearing about it because it makes me happy.”

Encouraging kindness may just become her new birthday tradition.

“I do think I’ll have to do this every year now. Honestly, it really was my favorite        birthday, hands-down. I feel like the people that did it did it because they do care about me and in fulfilling this request they cared about doing something. It was just so meaningful to me that somebody would honor a request like that.”

Shirley Knight Interview

December 6, 2012 2 comments

 

Here’s the latest interview I did for my Film Connections story-event project.  It’s with actress Shirley Knight.  She starred in the 1969 Francis Ford Coppola film The Rain People.  She plays a discontened, pregnant, suburban housewife back East who feels trapped and suddenly flees her life to take a road trip across the country. She meets a couple men along the way and after a series of experiences she returns home to resume her life. The film’s final few weeks of shooting in 1968 happened in and around Ogallala, Neb.  In addition to writer-director Coppola and lead actress Knight the production brought to this dusty hamlet a young assistant and then-protege of Coppola’s by the name of George Lucas, who directed the documentary The Making of The Rain People, cinematographer Bill Butler, and co-stars James Caan and Robert Duvall.  The experience of The Rain People forged some important relationships that led to many collaborations by these artists. Coppola and Lucas formed American Zoetrope studio, Lucas cast Duvall as the lead in his feature directorial debut, THX-1138, which Coppola produced along with American Graffiti and Coppola cast both Duvall and Caan in The Godfather and went onto work with the actors on later films as well.  While making Rain People Caan and Duvall fell in with a ranch-rodeo family who became the subject of a documentary Duvall made about them, We’re Not the Jet Set.  My project examines these and more connections.  You can find on this blog my interviews with Duvall and Caan.  Soon I will be posting interviews I did with Coppola and Butler.   That just leaves Lucas for me to get to. If anyone can help with that, I’d appreciate it.

 

 

 

 

 

LAB: Francis Coppola told me that he met you at Cannes, where your starring vehicle Dutchman (1967) was playing, which he greatly admired, and he came upon one one day to find you crying, after a confrontation with a journalist, and he consoled you with, “Don’t cry, I’m going to write a film for you.” And that film of course became The Rain People and the protagonist Natalie Ravenna was written for you.

SK: “Well, crying…I  remember meeting him and talking with him. I don’t remember…I mean, it could be I had some sort of altercation with a journalist but I don’t remember. It’s so funny because a magazine told that story and the way they told it made it seem as if he was writing a film for me because I cried and I thought, ‘Well, that’s a very strange thing to say because I don’t think a Francis Ford Coppola would write a film for someone because they cried. I think they’d write a film for  someone because they admired their work.

“I of course was very proud of Dutchman because it’s a film I also produced and we won the Critics Prize at Cannes for this little, bitty film which has become kind of iconic. I was very, very proud of my work in that film and also just the fact that I managed to get an independent film made.”

LAB: As you know better than me, a woman producing a feature then was a rarity. That was quite an accomplishment.

SK: “People always say, ‘Why isn’t your name on Dutchman?’ I just had the producing credit at the end, calling it Kaitlin Productions, which was me. Later on I regretted not taking my full credit. I allowed my husband at the time (to take credit). I guess I felt, ‘Well, I’m starring in the film..’ But honestly I think I should have been more true to myself and not given that up and of course it was my idea to make the film.

“I had done the play and I said, ‘I’m going to make a film of this,’ and he (her then husband) thought I was insane, as did everyone. They said it’s too short, it’s too political, it’s too this, it’s too that, and I said. ‘I don’t care, I’m going to make this film.’ And then I got him on board and he really helped. He had produced the production of the play.”

LAB: You’re justifiably proud of that project.

SK: “Yes, well, it’s become a film that’s taught in all black studies courses across the country. In 2000 the film was recognized as the most important about civil rights by a museum in New York. I tell my students that I think it’s so important that if there’s   something you have to do because it’s close to your heart and you want to see it through to do it.”

LAB: You could count the number of women producers and directors then on one hand.

SK: “I remember years ago I did a television show that Ida Lupino directed and she was so cross with the editors that they wouldn’t edit the film exactly the way she wanted it. And what she would do is if she set up a close up that she knew she was not going to use in the editing room she would put her hand in front of my face, so that they had to cut to the other person. I was fascinated by her and her courage that she was going to have her film the way she wanted her film.

Geraldine Fitzgerald played my mom in it and it was about Aimee Semple McPherson. It probably does not exist. It was like a two hour television film. She’s the only woman director I worked with. I’ll never forget her courage and how admirable I thought that was.”

 

 

 

 

LAB: Dutchman was a controversial film in its time for its racial content.

SK: “We did it on the fly, shot it in one week. We stole shots in the subway with an Arriflex and a paper bag. At the time nobody, apart from Europe, was going to recognize independent film (the film was completely ignored by the Academy Awards). We were recognized at Cannes and also I won the Best Actress at Venice for Dutchman. We tried to promote it in the United States. I showed it to my agents at William Morris and some of them even walked out if you can imagine. I was disappointed that I wasn’t recognized for my work in Dutchman in the United States but we were very backward at that point in terms of independent films.

“I think that atmosphere kind of affected The Rain People as well.”

LAB: Let’s talk about your working on The Rain People.

SK: “We of course did a lot of work improvising and all of that when we were working on the film. We were trying to write about a woman being an independent creature and trying to find herself.

“Did Francis tell you we made it under one regime at Warners and then it was released by the next regime?”

LAB: No, this is the first I’ve heard of it, though it’s not hard to believe and a lot of films have been the victim of similar regime changes and going from favored project with the former regime to out of favor with the succeeding one.

SK: “Well, I believe that’s what happened, I don’t know exactly. I think what happened was they didn’t care, you know they didn’t make the film, so they didn’t do a very good release, which was strange. But at any rate, to start at the beginning…we did meet at Cannes and he had You’re a Big Boy Now there.”

LAB: Were you impressed by it?

SK: “Yes, I thought it was a very sweet film”

LAB: Did you have any trepidations about working with someone as young as Coppola or was the chance to work with someone with a new voice and a new set of eyes actually appealing?

SK: “Absolutely. I’ve always been a person who’s sort of went against the flow. I’ve done that a lot, particularly in the theater, causing riots with plays I did like Dutchman and Losing Time, where we literally almost were run out of town. I like cutting edge. In my opinion art is about…we only have two things in life that help us to become better people and help us understand the world, and that’s art and philosophy, and so I think as artists we need to be responsible in terms of the work we do. That’s why I’m terrified by all the degradation of society by the reality television shows. I find it very frightening in terms of whats happening to the world.”

LAB: So Coppola told you he’d write you a film and he did

SK: “And then I think it was a few months later – I was in London working and Francis phoned and came with the script. I was staying at a little cottage in Hampstead, north of London. It was so sweet because he asked me would I mind reading the script right then. I said, ‘No, that’s fine.’ I remember I fixed him something to eat and then I went in the other room and he played with my daughter Kaitlin, who was around 5 years old. I read it and came back out and said, ‘Yes, I’d love to do it.”

LAB: What did you respond to most strongly in the script?

SK: “I responded to the character and also to the idea that we were going to make a film where we weren’t restricted. I was under contract to Warners and I had done a lot of films that were basically either on the Warner Bros. ranch or backlot or lot, so I loved the idea we were going to make a film where we were at liberty to do what we wanted, that we were going to drive here and drive there. I loved that aspect of his creativity.

“We had a few indoor sets (but otherwise the film was all actual locations).

NOTE: She said other than Dutchman and The Rain People very few of the films she made early in her career utilized actual locations. Another exception was Sidney Lumet’s The Group.

SK: “Sidney Lumet was very good at using locations. When we made the film The Group we shot that in New York on location, in the streets and on the subway and in churches and so an and so forth. In the films Sidney did with Al Pacino he shot outside a lot.”

 

 

 

 

LAB: Let’s get back to the story of your accepting the part of Natalie in The Rain People and working with Coppola.

SK: “I was excited about that and about this new young filmmaker and we sat down and talked about who he wanted to put in the film with me. He mentioned Rip Torn whom he had worked with in You’re a Big Boy Now, and he wanted him to play the motorcycle policeman and I said, ‘Great,’ because I knew Rip – we did Sweet Bird of Youth and I was very close friends with his wife (Geraldine Page). And Francis mentioned James Caan (as Jimmy “Killer” Kilgannon), and I thought that was a very interesting choice for that role.”

LAB: Torn ended up being replaced by Robert Duvall.

SK: “What happened was, we were in New York and we did a lot of rehearsing with Rip and we added a bunch of improvs that Rip and I came up with and then we started making the film. That character (the cop) doesn’t come in until about half way into the film. We were out in Ogallala, Neb, and I don’t know the exact thing that happened, all I know is Francis came to me and said there was a difficulty with Rip, that we’ve lost Rip. The bought a motorcycle and it wasn’t a large budget and Rip lost it or he left it outside and somebody stole it.”

LAB: Yes, it was stolen, Coppola told me the whole story.

SK: “Knowing Rip, I wasn’t surprised. He had lost the role he was going to do in Easy Rider. He was supposed to play the role Jack (Nicholson) eventually played and it made Jack’s career. Well, he quarreled with Peter (Fonda) and Dennis (Hopper) and lost that and so I was upset for him that he was yet again spoiling a chance. If one thinks about what happened after it’s really sad because he might have been the person who did The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now.

“So we then had Robert Duvall play that role and that changed a lot of film history actually if you think about it because he started doing all that work (with Coppola). I remember mentioning to Francis Bobby Duvall. I had done a television show with him where we played husband and wife and I liked him, and he was thrown in the mix and eventually did the role, which was nice. He was lovely and that all worked out fine.”

 

 

 

 

LAB:: How did that small intimate ensemble of you, Duvall and Caan work out?

SK: “I think it was very good. I mean, you know, we had our ups and downs as one always does, especially in a long shoot, and there were times when we didn’t always agree, and that always happens. But the whole experience and the film that resulted from it was I thought very positive. And the only disappointment was it didn’t get the recognition and accolades I feel it should have.”

LAB: “What did you most identify with in the character of Natalie?

SK: “At the time I was leaving my first husband and I had met and was going to marry John Hopkins and I was actually pregnant with my daughter Sophie, so I was in an awkward point in my life because I was changing a lot of things. I was going to be moving to England, I was marrying an Englishman, and was about to have a child and we were doing this film about a woman who was in flux. Now when I first read the film that wasn’t the case but when I was doing the film it sort of was, not that I was her. I just think that sometimes life aligns with roles you play.”

LAB: What’s your take on why Natalie goes off on this adventure, having this series of experiences on the road with men, and then returns home to resume her life as a housewife and expectant mother?

SK: “It’s a road to discovery. I think what was happening with women at that time was that they were coming out of the ’50s as lovely housewives in their aprons into an era when women were becoming doctors and lawyers and entering politics and becoming independent. Natalie was caught up in that, she had married young and suddenly was feeling like she didn’t have control over her life and here she was pregnant and the responsibility of that and how that affected what her life was going to be.

“And I think the trip, the discovery for her was that in the course of the drive and meeting the two men she was able to determine that the life that she has was a good life. What she learned was that she could be her own person with another person. It didn’t require to reject this lovely man she loved in order for her to become independent.”

LAB: What was your experience in Ogallala like?

SN: “Well, it was kind of a relief to be in one place because wed’ been driving so much so that when we finally got to Ogallala it was rather nice. My daughter came out and played with Francis’ boys. One anecdote thats’ amusing, at the time it wasn’t amusing – his oldest boy and Kaitlin were playing and they thought it would be a good idea to strike some matches in one of the rooms at the motel and they started a little fire, as children will, but fortunately I had a nanny with my daughter and she saved the day.”

 

 

 

 

LAB: Having grown up in Kansas as you did being in the middle of Nebraska was not too unfamiliar to you then.

SK: “Not at all, the Midwest, and I always say Midwesterners make the best people. You know, Midwesterners are very open and nice. I’m still very close friends with my classmates from high school. I go to Kansas quite frequently because I started the William Inge Festival in Independence years ago.

“And I must tell you I made a horrible mistake when I was in Ogallala, Neb. I was offered the lead in a film called They Shoot Horses Don’t They? and I was so tired and pregnant and i said no to that amazing role, so I made a dreadful mistake, but one does that, so that happens.”

LAB: By the way, what did you make of the young George Lucas, who was an assistant on the project and also directed The Making of the Rain People?

SK: “I thought he was adorable. Francis said to me, ‘Do you mind if this kid comes along? I saw his student film and he wants to come along with us.’ And I said of course not, the more the merrier. And I tell that story when I teach because I could have been Miss Grand Dame and said, No, no. I always say to all my students, ‘Be nice to everybody. You don’t know, because that assistant could turn out to be George Lucas.'”

LAB: When The Rain People was made you were by far the biggest name among the films’ principal talents.

SK: “Well, I have a whole theory about fame. I always say, ‘It isn’t really something to aspire to in the sense that many many people who are very famous are ridiculous. I mean, look at the Kardashians. There are people walking around who don’t know who The Beatles were. So again something I tell my students, ‘If you think your food is you want to be famous you’re going to starve to death. Your food has to be you want to do good work and you want to become better at what you do. I quit movies and went to New York so I could become the best I could at my craft.

“The fame thing is absurd…ridiculous. It has nothing to do with what an artist does. And there’s a lot of young people now who don’t know who Francis is. They haven’t seen The Godfather. They know who Christopher Nolan is. So it’s all fleeting that whole thing. The people who really know who I am are people who are my age because they’ve grown up with me or they’re people who see me in those silly Adam Sandler films I do. I have a whole flock of young boys who stop me on the street and show me on their machines, which makes me laugh a lot.”

LAB: How do you regard The Rain People today

SK: “When people ask me my favorite films I always say Dutchman obviously because I think that’s my finest performance and a lot of that has to do with the fact that I did it in the theater. You don’t get better if all you do is film, you sort of stay the same. I think Rain People is certainly up there and then the other film I think is remarkable and I don’t have the lead in is Petulia. I think Richard Lester was one of the genius directors and I got to work with him twice and I think Petulia is an amazing film. If you said this is a film about the ’60s that would be the film because it is so much the ’60s. And I think As Good as it Gets is a wonderful film as well. Sweet Bird of Youth is a wonderful film. But I would say my top two would be Rain People and Dutchman.

“When they honored Jane Fonda and I at the Rome Film Festival they showed three of her films and three of mine, and the three of mine were Dutchman, The Rain People and Sweet Bird of Youth. It was very nice.”

LAB: Have you remained close to anyone from The Rain People over the years?

SK: “You know, not really. I’ve of course spoken to Francis and when he was honored at Lincoln Center I was one of the people who spoke. I’d love to work with him again. Francis and I were both at the Rome Film Festival when they honored Jane Fonda and I.

“But you know what it’s like, you just keep going on, its’ endless.  I just finished an independent film in Oregon that I have great hopes for. It’s lovely. And I’m just about to start a Stephen King film, something I’ve never done, so that’ll be interesting. Anyway. I keep going. I’m one of the few actors evidently that has never been out of work, so I’m quite fortunate.”

LAB: Coppola always intended to make small personal art films like The Rain People and then The Godfather happened and the trajectory of his career changed. It’s only in the last decade he’s gotten back to doing what he really wanted to do all along.

NOTE: Shirley’s a big fan of one of Coppola’s later works, Youth Without Youth.

SK:  “I thought that was amazing, fascinating. It was a very mystical film.”

 

 

 

Carver Building Rebirthed as Arts-culture Haven; Theaster Gates, Rebuild and Bemis Reimagine North Omaha

December 5, 2012 5 comments

Art meets urban planning meets community engagement in the work of Theaster Gates.  The Chicago-based artist and planner is the driving force and facilitator behind a collaborative between his own Rebuild Foundation, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, and the City of Omaha in giving new life to an abandoned building in the inner city.  In an era when red lining practices confined blacks to certain areas the former Carver Savings and Loan Association helped them get into homes of their own, where they wanted to live, and now its old offices will be home to black artists from North Omaha as well as to an art gallery and a Big Mama’s sandwich shop.  I write about the venture in the following piece appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com), and allude to how this project is one of several developments in North O that are laying the foundation for the envisioned arts-culture district in the 24th and Lake area.  I will be revisiting this story over time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carver Bank

 

Carver Building Rebirthed as Arts-Culture Haven; Theaster Gates, Rebuild and Bemis Reimagine North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

A once prominent but long vacant building in Omaha‘s African-American hub is now reborn thanks to catalysts bridging the divide between need and opportunity.

The former Carver Savings and Loan Association at 2416 Lake St. was Omaha’s first black-owned financial institution. The lender helped black families avoid red lining practices to become home owners. The newly restored site now houses Carver Bank, a combined artists residency, gallery and Big Mama’s Sandwich Shop. In its new life Carver will once again provide “homes,” only this time studio work spaces for North Omaha minority artists. It also means an area once rich in jazz and blues players will again be a haven for creatives.

The endeavor is the brainchild of Chicago-based artist-developer Theaster Gates, who partnered with his own Rebuild Foundation and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha. Artist-craftsman Sean R. Ward led the construction. Volunteers from North High, Impact One and the FACT design lab at the Univerity of Nebraska-Lincoln assisted.

Gates repurposes vacant inner city spaces for new uses that support artists and engage community. He was brought to Omaha by the Bemis. The Carver Bank idea took shape after Town Hall listening sessions with stakeholders and city officials.

“On one level the city has a problem with vacant buildings and on another level there’s this tremendous need for space artists articulated,” says Gates.

Bemis chief curator Hesse McGraw says his organization’s artists residency history meshes well with what Gates does.

“The Bemis mission is to support artists,” McGraw says, “and Theaster’s ambition is to build up new infrastructures to support artists in places where artists had no support previously, specifically in black communities, in places disinvested or under-resourced.

“There’s so many places where capital has left but value still exists. I think North Omaha is such a place. If you look hard you find incredibly talented, creative visionary young artists that bring a lot of value to their surroundings but have no institutional support. We can support artists in a very focused and strategic way.”

Carver program coordinator Jessica Scheuerman says the project “discovers and recognizes emerging artists who maybe don’t have a platform or a space to present or produce their work.”

The venue’s seen as a harbinger of positive changes for a struggling inner city district poised for redevelopment. The hope is that Carver is a magnet for visitors.

The 24th and Lake intersection is ground zero for a projected arts-culture district. Players in the effort gathered for an Oct. 16 press conference at the adjacent Loves Jazz & Arts Center to announce the city’s $100,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Some of the monies support Carver and LJAC programming.

Carver’s the latest building block in what the Empowerment Network, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, the city and others envision as a revitalized 24th and Lake corridor. Loves Jazz is the anchor. The Union for Contemporary Art and its own artists residency program is a recent addition. The proposed centerpiece is Festival Square. Plans call for new Great Plains Black History Museum and John Beasley Theater facilities.

 

 

 

Theaster Gates

 

 

Gates described his role as “a catalyst or flux to help move things forward and to help deliver a product or opportunity,” adding, “We had to be really sensitive to the fact people made their own plans already for cultural life in the neighborhood and those plans have been approved.” He says he applied to Omaha “the body of knowledge we’ve gained from restoring buildings in Chicago and St. Louis” and a track record for getting buildings occupied and busy.

“Our mission is to be open, to be a beacon,” says Scheuerman. “We’re going to be a space people can reliably come to, where they can encounter the arts, get food from Big Mama’s and really count on us to be part of the social fabric of the neighborhood.

“The (artist) residents will have 24/7 access to their studios, so they’re going to be ambassadors of this project. They’re going to exhibit their work and be part of the community. We’re going to have programming that reflects and challenges and stretches the neighborhood. We’ll bring other elements of Omaha art here to have those cultural exchanges you wouldn’t necessarily imagine taking place on 24th and Lake.”

 

 

 

Jessica Scheuerman

 

 

Gates says it’s all a result of identifying artists who need work spaces with small businesses wanting to grow into them. It required artists and the Bemis and the Empowerment Network and the Omaha Planning Commission to make this one modest intervention happen. But this modest intervention has the capacity to do all this other stuff.” He says he simply uncovered hidden potential and forged new partnerships.

“Sometimes I feel like the work I do is shining a light on the good things already there. It’s really about framing things. Then after a while the work doesn’t need me to do any light shining anymore. Other people will shine the light.  I just kind of rang the alarm. Now I think the only thing I have to offer is encouragement.”

The linchpin for the whole project, Gates says, was getting Big Mama’s on board.

“I think having Big Mama’s on the block is going to be huge. People come from all over the city to Big Mama’s. I can envision a lot of people being present who are not currently present on 24th and Lake. I think people might hang out and hanging out is super cool and leads to new friendships and to people to getting hungry and needing to use the bathroom and wanting to know what’s happening next door to the thing they came to.

“People are going to be curious about what’s happening at the Union and Loves Jazz and Carver. People who give to Bemis will have other places to land their generosity.”

He can imagine a larger impact that “will effectively model what culture looks like in North Omaha and that will create a desire for other people to model cultural activity there, which is the part that feels like catalytic work.”

He and McGraw feel Carver adds another element to a growing mix of arts attractions to drive traffic to North O.

“What I often find is that people don’t come to a place because they ain’t been invited or they don’t know something’s happening in that place,” says Gates. “Having these spaces that will have the occasion for people to come – I’m really excited about what that does.”

“I think the synergies are there and all these activities will be stronger in concert with one another,” McGraw says.

Gates believes all the organizations will benefit from working together informally or via a planned North Omaha Arts Alliance. He and Scheuerman say the Bemis provides strong backing. “The Bemis has got reach, history, reputation,” says Scheuerman. “It’s a huge benefit to have that type of infrastructure.”

McGraw expects Carver and its companion attractions are just the start:

“It’s taken a long time to get there but maybe that is a metaphor or analogy to the neighborhood on a larger scale. There has been a lot of small conversations happening and a big vision produced and now is a moment when the city is starting to see aspects of that vision come to life in a tangible and exciting way. When the pieces start to come together in a coordinated way you really begin to see there are huge possibilities within this neighborhood. It’s very exciting for us to be centered around artists and culture, not even so much in a historic or nostalgic way, but in a contemporary and real time way.”

 

 

 

Hesse McGraw

 

 

Scheuerman sees mentoring possibilities for aspiring artists and arts managers. Gates sees skilled wood and metalworkers training apprentices to fabricate interiors for new eateries as part of emerging “cultural economies.”

The Carver hosted a December 1 open house as part of the Christmas in the Village celebration. Gates is expected to partcipate in more Carver open house events this month leading up to the project’s anticipated January 2013 launch.

For more about the artist residency program and the Carver project, visit www.bemiscenter.org/carverbank.

Free Radical Ernie Chambers the Subject of New Biography by Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson

December 5, 2012 3 comments

 

Ernie Chambers.  His name variously polarizes, raises blood pressure, inspires, confounds, sparks discussion and debate, and generally elicits some kind of response .  If you’re a Nebraskan, past or present, than you not only know the name but the context for why the mere mention makes it virtually impossible to take a neutral stand about this vociferous, independent, lone wolf figure who is an open book in some ways and an enigma in other ways.  His name’s traveled widely outside Nebraska as well.  He first gained local and national noteriety back in the 1960s for his stirring presence in the documentary A Time for Burning.  He parlayed the stage that gave him and his grassroots work as activist, advocate, guardian, and spokesperson for Omaha’s African-American community to win election to the Nebraska Legislature.  He served as that body’s only black representative for 38 years, finally leaving office because of term limits, but he’s just returned to his old District 11 seat after defeating incumbant Brenda Council in the Nov. 6 general election.  When he was in office before he took many controversial and brave stands and he never, ever backed down from a fight, often employing his sharp wit and procedural mastery to humble opponents and win concessions.  He’s back alright, armed with much the same rhetoric he’s used since the  height of the black power and civil rights movements, which begs the question:  What does the 75-year-old social justice warhorse have to offer his district in an era when many of his constituents need more education, relevant job skills, living wage jobs, and transportation solutions and want economic development in North Omaha that includes them, not excludes them?  Is he in touch with younger generation and professional blacks who perhaps see things differently than he does and want specific, tangible progress now?  This story doesn’t address those things but a future story I write just might.  Instead, the following piece for an upcoming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) looks at a new political biography about Chambers by Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson, who offers some insights and opinions about the man she’s long admired.  The book is aptly titled, Free Radical: Ermest Chambers, Black Power and the Politics of Race.

Ernie Chambers, ©photo courtesy the Nebraska Legislature

Free Radical Ernie Chambers the Subject of New Biography by Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

It’s fitting a new book taking the measure of Nebraska politico legend Ernie Chambers is out just as this old social justice warhorse has proven he still owns the people’s will.

In the Nov. 6 general election the 75-year-old Chambers demonstrated the pull he still maintains by decisively beating incumbent Brenda Council to regain his old state legislative seat. Public disclosure of Council’s misuse of campaign funds to support a gambling addiction undoubtedly hurt her. But she would likely have found Chambers a formidable opponent anyway.

Amid the struggle for racial equality in the 1960s, Chambers emerged as a black activist straight out of central casting. The longtime state senator was everything the white establishment feared or loathed: a young, brash, angry black man with an imposing physique, a rare eloquence, a brilliant mind, a devoted following and a dogged commitment. His goatee and muscle shirt effectively said, Fuck off.

When he saw a wrong he felt needed remedy he would not give in or remain silent, even in the face of surveillance, threat and arrest.

The Omaha native was forged from centuries of oppression and the black nationalist militancy of his times yet remained fiercely independent. He paid allegiance only to his grassroots, working poor base in northeast Omaha, whose District 11 residents elected him to nine terms in office. He stayed real cutting hair and holding court at Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop for many years. He was forced out of office in 2009 only because of term limits, a petition effort widely seen as targeting him specifically.

At a Nov. 3 Community Day rally in North Omaha Chambers said:

“I don’t come to these kind of gatherings regularly. It’s not easy for me, even though I enjoy being around my brothers and sisters. But I’m a solitary person. Basically, I am a loner, and experience has created that persona for me because I’m in situations where bad things can happen and if I’m relying on somebody else and they don’t come through – I know what I would do but I don’t know what somebody else would do. I can’t depend on anybody else.

“So if I see an issue that needs to be addressed it’s for me to address it. I don’t go to committees, I don’t go to organizations, I don’t ask anybody for anything, and it’s not that I’m ungrateful or unappreciative. I just have to survive and my survival depends ultimately on me. So that’s why I do what I do.”

Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson well captures his enigmatic essence in the main title of her political biography, Free Radical, as he’s been a singularly reactive yet stable force these many decades. The subtitle, Ernest Chambers, Black Power and the Politics of Race, refers to the context of his public service role.

Chambers was not the first black leader in Nebraska. Nor was he the first to hold public office. But he was the first to command wide respect and wield real power. During a 38-year run in the legislature that made him the longest-serving state senator in Unicameral history he mastered the art of statecraft. Trained as an attorney and possessing a facile mind even his critics admired, he adeptly manipulated legislative rules and procedures. Though he represented a small, poor constituency and uttered divisive rhetoric, fellow senators needed his support if they wanted their bills advanced. He couldn’t be ignored.

The arc of his political career is a major focus of Johnson, who at one point was in charge of his personal papers.

“She had access to information that other people didn’t have access to,” he says of his biographer.

Overall, he’s pleased with the final product and its depiction of his career.

“I don’t have any objection to what she did.”

In terms of fairly and accurately capturing his work as an elected official, he says it’s right on “as far as it went,” adding, “Many articles have been written that go into more depth on some things than Tekla wrote about in her book.” He says he understands “there are things someone will emphasize that I wouldn’t and there are things I would emphasize that they wouldn’t. But that’s the way it goes. No two people see a complex issue the same way. Even people called historians are really interpreters. They can’t write everything about everything, so they select what they think is important in order to convey the message they have in mind.”

He says he had little input into the manuscript.

“There may have been something when she got through that she sent and I dealt primarily with grammar and inconsequential things. I didn’t try to change the thrust of it or tell her what to write.”

Johnson confirms the same, saying she only sought his opinion on certain matters and even then they sometimes disagreed. In order to maintain her scholarly freedom she says she only began writing the book after she left his employ and then had little contact with him during the writing process.

In the end, he’s flattered his political life has been documented.

“I appreciate the fact that somebody thought enough of the work that I’ve done to compile material between two covers of a book and make that available to whomever may choose to read it.”

He says he’s doing interviews in support of the book “mainly because of Tekla, the amount of time and effort she put into the work, and I don’t want to say or do anything that would diminish in any respect what she has done or the value that I place on it.”

Perhaps the most telling vantage point of Chambers she gained came when she worked as his legislative aide.

“I actually got to see the day to day process,” she says of the experience.

 

bio_johnson_tekla.jpg

Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson

The book began as Johnson’s history thesis at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She served as a consultant to the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha and helped catalog its collection. Today, she’s an assistant professor of history at Salem College (N.C.). Her Texas Tech University Press published book is available wherever books are sold.

Johnson says when she hit upon the idea of making Chambers her thesis study a professor told her, “That’d be great, except he won’t let you. He won’t let anybody that close to him.” She found a way in, however. “I decided to go to his office. I didn’t actually ask him. I talked to his legislative aide, Cynthia Grandberry, and said, ‘Look, I want to write my dissertation on Sen. Chambers,’ and she said, ‘Sure, if you help me clean up the office.'”

This was 2001.

“He produced such enormous volumes of materials that despite an excellent filing system he literally had overrun the file cabinets many years before. I actually spent the first two years of the project processing his papers,” says Johnson.

The project was a labor of love about a figure she idolized as a girl.

“I grew up knowing about Sen. Chambers. I’m from North Omaha and he was always sort of somewhere there in the background. As a young woman I would occasionally see him speaking at an event, especially if there was something dire that had happened in the community.”

Immersing herself in his vast collection she says she acquired a new appreciation for his advocacy and for how her own coming-of-age intersected with his work.

“One of the things I first noticed in working on the collection is that almost a third, but a full fourth for sure, of his papers are about police violence and killings, police harassment, complaints from citizens in North Omaha. It took up a large section of one of the four rooms his papers are housed in. It was enormous.

“I also found I traced back to myself. I came across police incidents that happened when I was young that I remembered Sen. Chambers speaking out against. One of those was when I was 10 years old and living in Lincoln (Neb.). On our corner Sherdell Lewis was shot (and killed). We knew him. My sister and I were his papergirls. He was shot on his doorway by Lincoln police. Shortly after the shooting the black community came to my mother’s house because they needed a place nearby (to mourn and vent).”

Johnson says many questioned whether the shooting was justified.

“I had totally forgotten about that. There’s a picture in the book of Sen. Chambers leading a protest march along with the victim’s mother.”

Similarly, she says Chambers was a vocal critic of the shooting of Vivian Strong that sparked urban unrest in Omaha in 1969 and of other cases where excessive force was used.

She says any understanding of him must start with “the deep dedication of North Omahans to Sen. Chambers because even at his own expense he would not back down when he felt like the community was endangered or when he felt there was no respect for the lives and the civil rights and human rights of people in the community.” She says coming from a bi-racial home (her father’s African American and her mother’s Caucasian) she “sort of got to peek” at how blacks and whites viewed Chambers from different lenses. She also got to know how he understood that his rails against police brutality played differently to different audiences.

“He knew it was hard to believe for whites who lived in west Omaha or small towns. because those things were so far out of their experiences.”

She admires how he never let go of what he deemed important. His response to allegations of extreme police misconduct is illustrative, she says.

“In most cases when there was a police killing in the community he would request an investigation by the city. If that wasn’t done, if it was deemed a no-fault killing, if nobody were to be held accountable, then he went to other authorities. There are several (incidents) documented in the book where he filed for federal investigations into killings with the Department of Justice.”

She says one of his lasting achievements was sponsoring and winning passage of legislation requiring a grand jury be convened and an investigation be done anytime someone dies in police custody or in jail.

“I remember him having said, “We’re tired of our people being killed.’ So this is definitely an important part of the book to me. What he says happened in North Omaha I know it happened. It was real.”

Bad things continue happening. He grieves for the gun violence plaguing his community today, much of it black on black. In too many cases innocent folks are caught in the crossfire.

“I can’t tell you all what it does to me when I see something horrible happen to a young person, to anybody,  but the helpless ones, the trusting ones, the ones who are trying for something better from us…they need help and we’re not there to offer it,” he said at the Nov. 3 rally.

In a public setting like the Community Day rally, the preacher’s son comes out in Chambers. the presumed agnostic, whose elocution has the melodic flair of the late jazz musician-radio host-lecturer Preston Love Sr. He holds an audience through his impassioned delivery and sheer magnetic presence. He sprinkles in metaphors and allegories from the Bible. It’s in settings like these the affinity between Chambers and the people becomes clear.

“He’s really in step with them. While Sen. Chambers didn’t form a group or join a group his ongoing dialogue with the community is the reason he maintained their trust and respect and why he actually was a liberating figure,” Johnson says. “To do that he insisted on passage of legislation that legislators could get collect calls, so he was able to get calls from all of his constituency. He also kept his job at the barbershop for years, in the summers and on the weekend, so people would have a place to come and talk with him personally.”

 Ernie Chambers, Bill Youngdahl in A Time for Burning

Ernie cutting heads and broadening minds in A Time for Burnng

 AP file photo

Ernie acting as watchdog and martyr for his people

Chambers himself says that even when he lost his legislative seat he was still the person District 11 residents turned to for help, not black elected officials. That doesn’t surprise Johnson, who says he long ago earned people’s trust.

“He wasn’t the first person to take the role of leader in the community. Charlie Washington was a point person before him community members would go to.

But Sen. Chambers, because of his unusual ability intellectually, rhetorically, in terms of statecraft and the law and just his down to earth nature, earned an enormous following.”

Another of his greatest achievements, say Johnson and others, was getting district elections for the Omaha City Council, the Omaha School Board and the Douglas County Board of Commissioners. It’s resulted in many black elected officials for North Omaha. His open disdain for many of those representatives, whom he considers stooges for the white power structure, has distanced him from portions of the black elite class. Chambers being Chambers, he doesn’t much care.

“I think what has happened is they have been absorbed by the Democratic party and he chose to remain independent and I think that is probably the biggest divide,” says Johnson. “He was and is utterly completely free.”

Johnson believes he arrived at a point where he realized that as the lone black representative in the legislature representing a poor black constituency, the most he could do was to be their voice.

“All the legislators have to list their occupation and for a number of years he listed barber, but I think when he changed his written vocation to ‘Defender of the Downtrodden,’ it actually marked a change and a decision on his part that sort of is fatalistic. He decided that because of the politics and power lobbying that go on within the formal political parties and because of his own independence and insistence on speaking for the most disenfranchised, the poorest, and insisting government should haven in place support for their needs, he got to the point when he thought he would not be able to change the way that government in Neb. functions with respect to low income people.

“I think it was also the point when he was refused chairmanship again and again of the judiciary committee.”

In terms of legacy, she says, “he was at once respected but feared and unpopular among some of the senators. He would stop their bills if he didn’t get some of what he wanted and what he wanted was legislation or concessions that protected his people, that didn’t allow, for example, the Omaha Housing Authority to go into closed session and make decisions without public input. He did all kinds of things like that. He fought tooth and nail legislation to reduce allocations to people on aid to families with dependent children. He really fought those battles.”

“He’d get so frustrated, saying, ‘Y’all don’t know what it takes to make it on $320.’ Yes, it was rhetoric but it was heartfelt. He’s seen people struggling and he felt it was within the power of the state legislature to provide some relief. He felt at times they didn’t do it because of petty politics, because of western Neb. versus eastern Neb., because of racism, because of just indifference, and that made him angry.”

Ernie holding court at the barbershop today, ©danielj-v.tumblr.com

She says even though he often stood alone, he knew how to play politics.

“He never compromised his principles but he is a politician. He would come in on the weekends during the summer when session was out – this is what I gained from being able to actually observe – because he wanted to read up on all the other bills. He read up on what the interests of the other senators were. He knew their backgrounds, he knew everything about them. It’s not just the rules he employed, he played politics in terms of, ‘Look, if you want something from me, if you don’t want me to stop your bill or to filibuster, then you’re going to have to provide some concessions to things my constituents need.'”

Johnson says, “I don’t think he could have been more effective by doing it any other way. They dubbed him Dean of the Legislature because he was maximum effective for that base. I think the only way he could have been more effective is if those other senators had read as much about him and learned as much about the community he served and actually taken an interest, and I’m not saying a few didn’t, in how do we raise the standard for everybody in the state. If they had taken that position and cooperated with him more then he could have been more effective.”

Chambers operated much like his black peers in other states.

“African-American legislators across the country tended to be fairly effective just like Sen. Chambers in stopping legislation and not as effective at passing legislation. The ones who tend to be the most effective in working for the community tended to be on the out with the majority because they were battling all the time and they were always having to stand firm.”

Johnson wishes Chambers prepared the way for a successor.

“I do have a critique of him and it’s something I’ve openly talked to him about. He didn’t groom anybody (to replace him). It’s something I wish would have happened.”

As far as legacy, she feels his efforts in making Neb. the first state to pass any resolution for divestment of state funds from South Africa in protest of its apartheid practices “may be the thing he’s remembered for.”

Though serving 38 years in the legislature involved “self-sacrifice” on his part, she says it clearly hurt him when he could not run in 2008.

“I think he was not just disappointed because he had to leave for four years but the subtext for his career, besides trying to end police violence and confronting racism, was to gain political power for his constituency relative to other legislative districts in the state. His having to leave office made him feel that what he’d worked for had gone backwards because he felt the will of the people was being overridden by term limits. His constituency couldn’t elect him if they wanted to.”

She notes he ran unopposed several times and that he kept running because “I don’t think he saw anybody else as talented as he was who could really do the job as well as he did. That and the fact people let him know they wanted him to run again.” Now that he’s returning to the legislature she’s fascinated by how he and his new colleagues will work together.

“The body has changed because of term limits. The expertise that was there is no longer there. It hasn’t necessarily served Neb. well to have a constantly revolving, often times very young body at the helm. Who knows, maybe they’ll be more open to working with him. Maybe they’ll be less entrenched.”

An obvious advantage he’ll have, she says, is his vast experience.

Remarking on what people can expect from him, Chambers says, “For better or worse people have to see what it is that I am. They have to know what they’re getting if they come this way, and if they don’t like what it is I’m not the least offended. I probably wouldn’t like somebody like me. I would respect somebody like me. But likability is not an anything I cultivate because it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t achieve anything.”

He simply promises to be the same person he’s always been, which is to say someone “who never yields, never wavers, never accepts handouts from anybody, and whose only loyalty to a group is to this community.”

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