Archive for January 30, 2016

Making community and conversation where you find it: Stuart Chittenden’s quest for connection now an exhibit

January 30, 2016 1 comment

When Stuart Chittenden couldn’t meaningfully connect with others in his adopted hometown of Omaha he and his wife Amy began hosting conversation salons in their Midtown home.  That led to Chittenden starting a business, Squishtalks.  And that led him to embark on a project, 830 Nebraska, that saw him travel the state to explore making community and conversation.  His photos and audio recordings of people he met and spoke with are now an exhibit.  I profiled Stuart and his project last fall for Metro Magazine and you can find that piece on this blog,  Here is a new feature I’ve written on Stuart and the 830 project.  The story appears in the February 2016 issue of The Reader (


Making community and conversation where you find it

Stuart Chittenden’s quest for connection now an exhibit

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the February 2016 issue of The Reader (


Last August Stuart Chittenden traversed Neb. to test drive the idea that interpersonal communication is intrinsic to building community.

He called the project “A Couple of 830 Mile Long Conversations.” With support from Humanities Nebraska, the Nebraska Cultural Endowment,  the Omaha Creative Institute, plus Indie GoGo funding, he set out to meet Nebraskans where they are. He communed in bars, bakeries, cafes, outside storefronts, at campsites, farms, ranches, fairgrounds.

The Omaha resident intentionally went to the great wide open spaces that make up Nebraska to find the connective thread of community running through cities and towns, the Sand Hills, the Panhandle, the Bohemian Alps and the Platte River Valley.

Wherever he pitched his talking tent, people happened by and conversation ensued. He was both facilitator and participant. The photographs and audio recordings he made of these meet-ups, including the stories people told about their lives and communities, plus the trials, joys and lessons bound up in them, comprise a new interactive exhibition at the W. Dale Clark Library.

Simply titled 830 Nebraska, the exhibit is curated by Alex Priest.

It features 20 8” x10” photographs of the people and places documented. Viewers can also listen to audio excerpts from the conversations, thereby putting voices and words to faces.

Hitting the highway in search of something has a nomadic romance about it. But this was no existential On the Road personal freedom ride fueled by sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. No, this was a buttoned-down ex-pat Brit in an RV following a pre-determined path, albeit open to some detours along the way. Some of the folks he documented were encountered in the natural flow things and others pre-selected.

That’s not to say Chittenden, whose day job is Chief Curiosity Officer at Omaha branding company David Day Associates, doesn’t harbor a bohemian soul. In terms of exploring conversation, he’s both creative entrepreneur and mad amateur social scientist. He’s fascinated by the power of dialogue. So much so he and his wife Amy hosted conversation salons in their mid-town home. The salons begat a business, Squishtalks, that sees him package conversation programs for clients. Through guided talk sessions he helps organizations navigate public and community concerns.







The exhibit culled from his 830 Nebraska experiment follows a series of statewide talks he’s given in which he’s shared his takeaways from the project, The Reader recently caught up with Chittenden to get a fresh take on what he found out there, what he brought back and how it’s all part of his own quixotic journey of self-discovery.

This serial daydreamer’s youth in Great Britain was preoccupied by flights of fancy, his reveries often revolving around the very American archetypes he tapped decades later.

The pull of the American West once led him to live in Colorado. Though he’s resided in Neb. several years, living in Omaha made him feel isolated from much of the state. His travels for the project confirmed the divide between Omaha-Lincoln and the greater rural reaches. If his urban origins and British accent put off folks, he didn’t sense it. Indeed, he found he received the same good vibrations he put out. Call it the law of attraction

“If you approach any environment with a sincere openness and willingness to appreciate someone else’s voice, if you’re open to them, then it is door opening,” he says.

In that same communal spirit he found no doors closed, but rather heaping doses of hospitality and conviviality, though some folks politely declined going on the record. Whether shooting the bull with the boys at the bakery or chewing the fat with the guys at the barbershop, he was welcomed as a friend, not a stranger, and people expressed appreciation for his interest and invitation to just talk.

“That affirmation has buttressed my belief that conversation is not only something of benefit to communities and individuals but that this is my calling.”

By intent and intuition, he got people to say what’s on their hearts and minds in regards to what makes community.

“The more people talked the more other elements started to come out that suggested to me that community is a paradox. From the outside, if you try to create it, that is a very difficult thing to do. Community instead is a deliberate individual choice to behave and do things in ways that invest in something that is not directly related to you.”

Chittenden found a mix of rural communities, ranging from vibrant  cultural enclaves such as Dannebrog to robust Western outposts such as Chadron, and bedraggled hamlets in between.

“I had this expectation that rural life would be decimated and somewhat tired and there are those towns that do appear to be in a position of uncertainty,” he says. “You can feel they’re in stasis. They don’t know what circumstances are going to do to them and so they feel in flux, tired a little bit.

“Then there are those other towns that aren’t allowing circumstances to dictate what happens, they are looking at the available resources they have – people or place or history or whatever – and managing those things in ways that make them sustainable.”

He says residents in remote places like Scottsbluff or Valentine “don’t have any other choice but to fix things or make things  – you do it for yourself or it doesn’t get done,” adding, “Several people demonstrated this zest for self-determination, for sustaining themselves and coming together as they need to as people. They credit that spirit to the legacy of the pioneers.”

For Chittenden, there are larger implications for what conversation and community can mean to certain underserved and underrepresented populations. In Wayne, Neb., for example, he spoke with an openly gay couple who run a business in town. They told Chittenden they find more acceptance there than they do among young professionals in Omaha, where they get the feeling they’re not taken seriously because of the stigma that paints rural denizens as unsophisticated. More pernicious yet, Chittenden says, are the silos erected by different groups to talk over each other, not to each other.

“The more I look around me in our community in Omaha and in communities across the nation I see increasing division and inequality and I am morally outraged by that situation. As offended as I am by all the various types of inequality I see, wrapped up in very casual stereotypes and bigotry to those people on the other side of the fence, I’ve begun to see that my contribution to the better health of our society is just to increase understanding of the other. And the way to do that is to engage people in conversation.

“You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to agree with them but if you can do anything to increase rapport and understanding, you’ve already taken very bold steps to a more cohesive society.”

He says as he’s come to accept his role as conversation starter or convener, he’s reminded of an old saying he once heard that goes, “the point about conversation is that it has no point.” Thus, he’ll tell you, the real fruits of an exchange only come when the parties forget ego or agenda and genuinely listen to each other. In a world starved for rich authentic content, it doesn’t get any richer or truer than that.

The exhibit, which runs through February 29, is in the Michael Phipps Gallery on the first floor of the downtown library, 215 South 15th Street. The show is open during normal library hours. For more details, visit or call 402-444-4800.

Follow this wayfaring conversationalist at

Old Hollywood hand living in Omaha comes out of the shadows: Screenwriter John Kaye scripted “American Hot Wax” and more

January 30, 2016 3 comments

You never who you might meet in your hometown.  Veteran Hollywood screenwriter and literary novelist John Kaye has lived under the radar in Omaha since late 2014 working on a new novel but he’s coming out of the shadows for a celebration of one of the movies he wrote, “American Hot Wax” (1978).  It’s the story of rock ‘n’ roll’s crossover from fringe race music to mainstream popularity courtesy DJ Alan Freed.  Kaye’s appearing at a Feb. 7 Film Stream screening.  Here is my short profile of Kaye in the February 2016 issue of The Reader (


Love, Boxing, and Hunter S. Thompson, Part 2


John Kaye



Old Hollywood hand living in Omaha comes out of the shadows

Screenwriter John Kaye scripted “American Hot Wax” and more

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the February 2016 issue of The Reader (


Omaha is the adopted home of veteran Hollywood screenwriter and literary novelist John Kaye, 74, whose memoirs are published by the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The mercurial Kaye came 17-months ago from northern California to work on a new novel (his third) and immerse himself “deep” in a fictional Omaha subplot.

“I wanted to take a risk with what I was doing. The best decision I made,” he said from his writing-reading perch at Wohlner’s in Mid-town.

It’s not the first time he’s used Omaha as workplace and muse. In the early 1990s he researched here for an Omaha character in his first novel. Decades earlier he passed through hitching cross country on a personal Beat adventure. That drop-out, tune-in odyssey led him to Jamaica until Uncle Sam called.

On Feb. 7 Film Streams will present a 1978 film he wrote, American Hot Wax, that tells the story of DJ Alan Freed, who introduced white audiences to rock ‘n’ roll. Until now Kaye’s kept a low profile here, but that changes when he does a Q&A after the 7 p.m. show.

Kaye grew up in a West Los Angeles malaise of stale Hollywood dreams. He entered the ferment of 1960s social rebellion as a UC Berkeley and University of Wisconsin (Madison) student. He served in the Marine Corps Reserves, where his Jewish, college-educated background made him a target.

This child of Old Hollywood and New Journalism, “inspired by the galvanizing youth culture thing,” indulged in the era’s excesses. He was a researcher for David Wolper Productions, where colleagues included William Friedkin and Walon Green. He was an underground journalist, a CBS censor and a producer-writer for the KNBC late night sketch comedy show Lohman and Barkley. Anticipating Saturday Night Live, the show sped the careers of Barry Levinson, Craig T. Nelson and John Amos.

“It was a fascinating moment.”


American Hot Wax



Then Kaye got fired. Hedging that “disappointment” was the mentoring he received from Mission Impossible and Mannix creator Bruce Geller. Then Geller died in a plane crash.

Kaye’s ex-wife and first love was institutionalized, leaving him to raise their son. She later committed suicide.

“It was a very chaotic time,” he recalls.

All the while he wrote scripts but sold none.

“I was really struggling.”

One day he picked up two young women thumbing rides in L.A. He ditched them after realizing they were Manson girls – post-Charlie’s conviction. The incident sparked the idea for his first industry feature, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975). This nihilistic screwball comedy is a shambling, anarchic take on three broken people hooking up for a road and head trip. Sally Kellerman and Mackenzie Phillips teamed with Alan Arkin. Dick Richards directed.

“It was a time when you could write a road movie,” Kaye says of its meandering, seriocomic style. The approach became his niche and hit its peak with Hot Wax. His friend Floyd Mutrux directed. Tim McIntyre, Fran Drescher, Jay Leno, Laraine Newman, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis star.


RAFFERTY AND THE GOLD DUST TWINS, US lobbycard, from left: Sally Kellerman, Alan Arkin, Mackenzie Phillips, 1975 - Stock Image



Kaye’s own counterculture leanings drew him to Gonzo hipster Hunter S. Thompson, whom he made the basis for his Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) script. Bill Murray plays Thompson. Kaye’s then-producing partner Art Linson directed. The serious take Kaye envisioned was hijacked by “a make it funny” decree from studio suits. Hanging out with Thompson in New Orleans, an old Kaye stomping ground, while placating moneymen hell-bent on laughs “turned out to be fun but really insane,” said Kaye.

Unkind reviews “singled out” Kaye’s writing. “It was a blood letting. Very painful.”

The experience, he said, gave him “thick skin” and taught him “not to be too invested in something.” Still he said, “It definitely set my career back.” He takes small consolation the movie has a cult following, even admitting, “I’m not sure it holds up as well as Hot Wax.

_ _ _


“Where the Buffalo Roam” screenwriter, John Kaye shares pieces of his memoir in the mad styles of Hunter S.T. on one of my favorite literary sites, the Los Angeles Review of Books. The memoir covers all the greats from Kaye’s own unique experience like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, his friend — Hunter S. Thompson, a coked up cheating married hotel clerk, a sober travel agent, the word “colored,” and another word I just learned — ‘truculent.’ This one will require a considerable amount of time and commitment. It’s easily a 45-minute read so buckle up


_ _ _



Kaye’s last screen credit came as writer-director of Forever Lulu, a 2000 film starring Melanie Griffith and Patrick Swayze.

“I decided I wanted to write sort of a valentine to my ex-wife.”

The lead characters have a college affair and years later she escapes a mental hospital to find her old beau, now married, to inform him he fathered a child she bore and was forced to give up for adoption. The pair set out to visit the son who doesn’t know they exist.

A negative trade review cost the film a theatrical release.

The producers, he said, “kind of left me alone,” adding, “It was a great experience for me because I really felt I had stepped out and done something.”

It’s the same feeling he had writing his first novel, Stars Screaming.

“Spending eight years writing this book and getting it done, I realized I would not quit on something and that I had it in me to write it. Even though I wrote myself into complete poverty doing it, I finished it. I stepped through enormous amounts of fear to work to my potential.”

Then came his second novel The Dead Circus. Even with his new novel nearly complete, he says he may linger on in Omaha awhile.

“I’ve fallen in love with this town.”

For tickets to the Feb. 7 screening, visit


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