Omaha’s Old Market: History, Stories, Places, Personalities, Characters
Omaha’s Old Market: History, Stories, Places, Personalities, Characters
The Old Market represents different things to different people but it is undeniably one of the few go-to destinations Omaha has to offer. It is a concentrated mish-mash of local culture, though still predominantly a white-bread, precious experience. It could use a healthy dose of diversity and grit, which is to say it could use some broader community representation that brings in some fresh entrepreneurial and cultural experiences and perspectives. But however you feel about it or view it, the Old Market holds some of the richest history in this city and it has been home to a fascinating mix of places, personalities and characters. Here is a compilation of some of my Old Market stories featuring some of that history and some of those venues and figures.
One of the biggest champions of Omaha’s Old Market and the history of the place has died. George Eisenberg devoted much of his life to the historic warehouse district. As boys and young men he and his brother Hymie worked alongside their father, Benjamin, manning a fruit and vegetable stand when the area was home to the Omaha Wholesale Produce Market. Later, the brothers revolutionized the family business to become niche suppliers of potatoes and onions to major food processors, operating out of offices in the commercial center. When the wholesale district declined and largely disbanded altogether the area was transformed into an arts-culture haven and George, who never left and owned substantial property there, became a landlord and an active Old Market Association member. In his later years he was advocate and amateur historian for the Old Market and proudly led an effort to get decorative street lamps installed and other improvements made. He contributed some anecdotes to a section I wrote on the history of the Old Market for a recent book, Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores published by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society. An excerpt with that section can be found on this blog. George was one of the last of the go-to sources who personally worked in the Omaha City Market. He enjoyed reliving that history and as he saw it educating the public about a way of commerce and life that is largely no more. His enthusiasm for the subject will be missed. I did the following short profile of George about five years ago for Omaha Magazine and now as fate would have it I will soon be writing an in-memoriam piece about him for the same publication. That rememberance will join one I wrote about another Old Market legend who died recently, Joe Vitale. You can find the Vitale story on this blog.
George Eisenberg’s Love for Omaha‘s Old Market Never Grows Old
@by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine
Old Market icon George Eisenberg has more than the usual attachment to the historic warehouse district that once was the area’s nexus for produce dealers, buyers and transporters. His late father Benjamin was a peddler in what used to be called the City Market. As boys Eisenberg and his brother Hymie worked alongside their dad in the leased open air sidewalk stalls whose overhead metal canopies still adorn many of the 19th century-era buildings preserved there. Once home to wholesellers and outfitters, the brick structures now house the Old Market’s mix of condos, restaurants, shops, artist studios and galleries.
After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II Eisenberg rejoined his father, delivering items by truck, and by the early ‘60s he’d modernized and expanded the enterprise and bought out papa. In 1972 his brother Hymie partnered with him. Innovations gave the company such a competitive advantage that the brothers were dubbed “the potato and onion kings of the United States” supplying millions of pounds a week to commercial customers across America and into Canada. They made their fortune and retired in 1983. Hymie died in ‘91.
The 83-year-old is proud to be a peddler’s son. He’s also proud of his continuing relationship with the district. He’s a property owner and an active volunteer with the Old Market Business Association and Downtown Omaha Inc.. Eisenberg secured the authentic lamp posts that lend such a distinctive design element to the 10th Street Bridge. He played a key role, too, in making the 11th and Jackson Street parking garage a reality. Downtown Omaha Inc. honored him with its 2007 Economic Development Award.
He’s a model landlord for the tasteful restoration he’s done and solid tenants he’s brought to his 414-418 South 10th Street buildings, properties originally owned by his father for wholesale storage, distribution and offices.
Generous with advice, he’s given counsel to many Old Market entrepreneurs, including Nouvelle Eve/Jackson Artworks owner Kat Moser.
As much as he’s involved in the “new” Old Market’s destination place identity and as much as he supports the emerging SoMa and NoDo developments, he enjoys looking back to the Market’s past. Back when ethnic blue collar produce vendors pitched their wares in the ancient tradition of the open air market. When pockets took the place of cash registers and vendors took a break from 14-hour days by reclining on bales of hay or overturned crates. It was a boisterous, press-the-flesh carnival of men, women and children using sing-song chants to hawk fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and plants. Shoppers hailed from all walks of life.
A chorus of Eisenberg shouting, “Get your watermelon — red, ripe and sweet watermelon,” blended with the pitch, dicker and banter of hundreds of merchants-customers. Accents were common among the mostly Jewish, Italian and Syrian vendors. “English was the primary language spoken,” he said, but many foreign-born merchants, like his Russian immigrant father, “conversed among themselves in their native tongues. Every ethnic group was represented in one way or another.”
All those peddlers packed in a small space shouting to get customers’ attention created quite a racket. “Our advertisement was our voice,” he said. “It was noisy, yeah.” But that noise was sweet “music.”” Besides, he said, the ruckus and color “were part of the charm of the market.”
Hawking’s not for wallflowers. “If you’re shy you don’t belong in marketing,” he said. Things only quieted down, he said, after a warning from the market master, whose job was to collect monthly fees from vendors and mediate disputes among them. Once gone, the din began again. It was a special time and place.
“It was fun,” Eisenberg said. “There was excitement.”
He said his father steeped him in the market’s history. Ben Eisenberg got into the trade through his father-in-law Solomon Silverman, whose daughter Elsie became Ben’s wife and George and Hymie’s mother. Just as Silverman began as a door-to-door peddler with a horse and wagon, Ben followed suit. Just as Solomon leased stalls in the market, so did Ben. In the early 1900s, Eisenberg learned, a bidding process divvied up the stalls. Some locations were better than others. Getting outbid caused sore feelings and fistfights broke out. The bidding system was disbanded, he said, and exisiting stalls grandfathered in. Ben had four choice spots at the northeast corner of 11th and Jackson as well as his own wholesale house.
In an era before “Thanks for shopping…come again,” he said many vendors lacked good customer relation skills. His dad, though, had a gift with people.
“My dad was a really good salesman and he separated himself from everybody else because he was very polite, businesslike, and his word was his bond. If my dad said, ‘You got it,’ you didn’t need a contract — that’s it.” Eisenberg said.
He said his father “bought and sold in big quantities,” a practice Eisenberg continued. Many of Ben’s grocery-supermarket customers were former peddlers like himself. “My dad knew all the peddlers, so when he got in the wholesale business all the peddlers came to do business with dad. They knew he was going to give them the right price and not insult them.”
Like his father before him, Eisenberg served as vice president of the Omaha Wholesale Fruit Dealers Association, a predecessor of the Old Market Business Association. In some ways he’s still hawking, still looking after the best interests of his beloved Old Market. “I love business. I love marketing. I welcome anybody who wants to hang up their shingle and start their business.” He embraces the growing community there. “That’s the district’s salvation — it’s a neighborhood now.”
- In Memory of a Omaha Old Market Original, Fruit and Vegetable Peddler Joe Vitale (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Allan Noddle’s Adventures in the Food Industry Show Him the World (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Oh, for the days when there was almost literally a grocery store on every corner and a movie theater in every neighborhood. I only know those days through articles, books, movies, photographs, and reminiscences and I am sure the reality did not match my romanticism about them. As fate would have it, the Mom and Pop grocery phenomenon I only got a glimmer of during my childhood became the subject of an assignment I was offered and gladly accepted: as co-editor and lead writer for a NebraskaJewish Historical Society book project that commemmorates and documents the Mom and Pop Jewish grocery stores that operated in and around the Omaha metropolitan area from approximately the beginning of the 20th century through the 1960s-1970s. But it was Ben Nachman, along with Renee Ratner-Corcoran, who I worked with on the project, that truly realized the book . Ben’s vision and energy got it started and Renee’s commitment and persistence saw it through. I just helped pick up the pieces once Ben passed away a year or so into the project. Ultimately, the book belongs to all the families and individuals who contributed anecdotes, stories, essays, photos, and ads about their grocery stores.
Immediately below is Jewish Press story about the project, followed by an excerpt from the book.
The book is dedicated to the man who inaugurated the project, the late Ben Nachman, who was responsible for starting what is now my long association with both the Jewish Press and the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society. Ben led me to many Holocaust survivor and rescuer stories I ended up writing, many of which can be found on this blog. My stories about Ben and his work as an amatuer but highy dedicated historian can also be found here. I also collaborated with Ben and Renee, as the writer to their producder-roles, on a documentary film about the Brandeis Department Store empire of Nebraska. A very long two-part story I did for the Jewish Press on the Brandeis family and their empire served as the basis for the script I wrote. You can find that story on this blog.
Historical Society publishes grocery store history
by Rita Shelley
11.11.11 issue, Jewish Press
Freshly arrived from Europe a century ago, thousands of men and women found work in South Omaha’s packinghouse and stockyards.
South 24th Street grocer Witte Fried, also a first generation American and a widow with children from ages 2 to 7, knew something of her neighbors’ struggles to survive and prosper. She also knew they needed to eat. According to her descendants, Fried took care to mark prices on the merchandise in her store in several languages. She wanted her customers, regardless of their German, Irish, Italian, Russian, Polish, Greek, Czech or other origins, to have an easier transition into their new world.
Fried’s story is one of many featured in Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores. Scheduled to be published in November by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society (NJHS), the book includes recollections of Jewish grocers and members of the families who operated stores throughout Omaha, Lincoln, Council Bluffs and surrounding areas from the early 1900s to the present.
“A history of Jewish owned stores is also a history of the grocery business,” Renee Ratner-Corcoran, NJHS executive director, said. “Beginning with peddlers who traveled from farm to farm to trade their wares for farm produce to sell in the cities, through one-room Mom and Pop stores with adjoining living quarters, to the first large self-service grocery stores, to today’s discount stores that sell housewares and groceries under the same roof, the Jewish community played a vital role in the grocery industry.The book was a dream of Dr. Ben Nachman, an NJHS volunteer whose father owned a small store on North 27th Street. Dr. Nachman died in 2010; publication of the book is dedicated to his memory.
Children of early Jewish grocers who were interviewed for the book or submitted recollections recall the hustle and bustle of buying produce from open air stalls downtown (today’s Old Market) as early as 4 a.m. to stay ahead of the competition. Before there were automobiles, grocers’ children were responsible for the care of the horses that pulled delivery buggies. Mixing the flour and water paste to use for painting prices of the week’s specials on the front window was also the responsibility of children. So were dividing 100-pound sacks of potatoes into five- and 10-pound packages, grinding and bagging coffee, and feeding the chickens. (A kerosene barrel and a chicken coop were located side-by-side in at least one family’s store.).
The book’s publication was underwritten by the Herbert Goldsten Trust, the Special Donor Advised Fund of the Jewish Federation of Omaha Foundation, the Milton S. & Corinne N. Livingston Foundation, Inc., the Murray H. and Sharee C. Newman Supporting Foundation, Doris and Bill Alloy, Sheila and John Anderson, Edith Toby Fellman, Doris Raduziner Marks, In honor of Larry Roffman’s 80th Birthday, and Stanley and Norma Silverman.Increasing prosperity meant housewives had more money to spend. Innovations in transportation and refrigeration also brought changes to the grocery industry, and Jewish grocers were among the first to embrace those changes. More recently, Jewish Nebraskans “invented” some of the country’s first discount chains and wholesale distribution networks, as well as the data processing innovations that made them profitable.
For additional information, contact Renee Ratner-Corcoran by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 402.334.6442.
Excerpts from the book-
©by Leo Adam Biga
Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores Omaha, Lincoln, Greater Nebraska and Southwest Iowa
Jews have a proud history as entrepreneurs and merchants. When Jewish immigrants began coming to America in greater and greater numbers during the late 19th century and early 20th century, many gravitated to the food industry, some as peddlers and fresh produce market stall hawkers, others as wholesalers, and still others as grocers.
Most Jews who settled in Nebraska came from Russia and Poland, with smaller segments from Hungary, Germany, and other central and Eastern European nations. They were variously escaping pogroms, revolution, war, and poverty. The prospect of freedom and opportunity motivated Jews, just as it did other peoples, to flock here.
At a time when Jews were restricted from entering certain fields, the food business was relatively wide open and affordable to enter. There was a time when for a few hundred dollars one could put a down payment on a small store. That was still a considerable amount of money before 1960, but it was not out of reach of most working men who scrimped and put away a little every week. And that was a good thing too because obtaining capital to launch a store was difficult. Most banks would not lend credit to Jews and other minorities until after World War II.
The most likely route that Jews took to becoming grocers was first working as a peddler, selling feed, selling produce by horse and wagon or truck, or apprenticing in someone else’s store. Some came to the grocery business from other endeavors or industries. The goal was the same – to save enough to buy or open a store of their own. By whatever means Jews found to enter the grocery business, enough did that during the height of this self-made era, from roughly the 1920s through the 1950s, there may have been a hundred or more Jewish-owned and operated grocery stores in the metro area at any given time.
Jewish grocers almost always started out modestly, owning and operating small Mom and Pop neighborhood stores that catered to residents in the immediate area. By custom and convenience, most Jewish grocer families lived above or behind the store, although the more prosperous were able to buy or build their own free-standing home.
Since most customers in Nebraska and Iowa were non-Jewish, store inventories reflected that fact, thus featuring mostly mainstream food and nonfood items, with only limited Jewish items and even fewer kosher goods. The exception to that rule was during Passover and other Jewish high holidays, when traditional Jewish fare was highlighted.
Business could never be taken for granted. In lean times it could be a real struggle. Because the margin between making it and not making was often quite slim many Jewish grocers stayed open from early morning to early evening, seven days a week, even during the Sabbath, although some stores were closed a half-day on the weekend. Jewish stores that did close for the Sabbath were open on Sunday.
Jewish grocery stores almost always became multi-generation family affairs. The classic story was for a husband and wife to open a store and for their children to “grow up” in it. In some families there was a definite expectation for the children to follow and succeed their parents in the business. But there were as many variations on this story as families themselves. In some cases, the founder, almost always a male, was joined in the business by a brother or brothers or perhaps a brother in law. Therefore, a child born into a grocer family might have one or both parents and some combination of uncles, aunts, siblings, and cousins working there, too.
Of course, not every child followed his folks into the family business. Because most early Jewish grocers did not have much in the way of a formal education, the family business was viewed as a springboard for their children to complete an education, even to go onto college. It was a means by which the next generation could advance farther than their parents had, whether in the family grocery business or in a professional field far removed from stocking shelves and bagging groceries.
Some Jewish grocers went in and out of business in a short time, but many enjoyed long runs, extending over generations. Some proprietors stayed small, with never more than a single store, while others added more stores to form chains (the Tuchman brothers) and others (like the Bakers and the Newmans) graduated from Mom and Pop shops to supermarkets. Some owners made their success as grocers only to leave that segment of the food business behind to become wholesale suppliers and distributors (Floyd Kulkin), even food manufacturers (Louis Albert).
Whatever path Jewish grocers took, the core goal was the same, namely to provide for their families and to stake out a place of their own that offered continued prosperity. For a Jewish family, especially an immigrant Jewish family, owning a store meant self-sufficiency and independence. It was a means to an end in terms of assimilation and acceptance. It was a real, tangible sign that a family had arrived and made it. Most Jewish grocers didn’t get rich, but most managed to purchase their own homes and send their kids to college. It was a legitimate, honorable gateway to achieving the American Dream, and one well within reach of people of modest means.
For much of the last century Jewish grocery stores could be found all over the area, in rural as well as in urban locales, doing business where there were no other Jews and where there was a concentration of Jews. In Nebraska and Western Iowa there have historically been few Jewish enclaves, meaning that Jewish grocers depended upon Gentiles for the bulk of their business. Dealing with a diverse clientele was a necessity.
In some instances, Jewish grocers and their fellow Jewish business owners catered to distinct ethnic groups. For example, from the 1920s through the 1960s the North 24th Street business district in Omaha was the commercial hub for the area’s largely African-American community. During that period the preponderance of business owners along and around that strip were Jewish, including several grocers, some of whom lived in the neighborhood. These circumstances meant that Jews and blacks in Omaha were mutually dependent on each other in a manner that didn’t exist before and hasn’t existed since. When the last in a series of civil disturbances in the district did significant damage there, the last of the Jewish merchants moved out. Only a few Jewish owned grocery stores remained in what was the Near Northside.
Until mechanical refrigeration became standard, customers had to shop daily or at least every other day to buy fresh products to replenish their ice boxes and pantries. Having to shop so frequently at a small, family-run neighborhood store meant that customers and grocers developed closer, more personal relationships than they generally do today. Grocers not only knew their regular customers by name but knew their buying patterns so well that they could fill an order without even looking at a list.
Home delivery was a standard service offered by most grocers back in the day. Some stores were mainly cash and carry operations and others primarily charge and delivery endeavors. Taking grocery orders by phone was commonplace.
Most grocers extended credit to existing customers, even carrying them during rough times. It was simply the way business was conducted then. A person’s word was their bond.
Fridays were generally the busiest day in the grocery business because it’s when most laborers got paid and it’s when families stocked up for the big weekend meal most households prepared.
Jewish grocers were among the founders and directors of cooperatives, such as the United Associated Grocers Co-op or United AG and the Lincoln Grocers Association, that gave grocers increased buying power on the open market.
With only a few exceptions today, the intimate, family neighborhood stores are a thing of the past. As automobiles and highways changed the landscape to accommodate the burgeoning suburbs, newer, larger chain stores and supermarkets emerged whose buying and selling power the Mom and Pops could not compete with on anything like an even basis. Thus, the Mom and Pop stores, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, began fading away.
Because Jewish grocers were such familiar, even ubiquitous fixtures in the community, the majority population gave little thought to the fact that Omaha Jewish merchants like the Bakers (Baker’s Supermarkets) or the Newmans (Hinky Dinky), who began with Mom and Pop stores, led the transition to supermarket chains. For much of the metro’s history then, Jews controlled a large share of the grocery market, helping streamline and modernize the way in which grocers did business and consumers shopped.
It is true the one-to-one bond between grocer and consumer may have all but disappeared with the advent of the supermarket and discount store phenomenon. The days of grocers filling each customer order individually went by the wayside in the new age of self-service.
One thing that’s never changed is the fact that everybody has to eat and Jews have been at the forefront of fulfilling that basic human need for time immemorial. The Jewish grocer was an extension of the friendly neighborhood bubbe or zayde or mensch in making sure his or her customers always had enough to eat.
Omaha’s signature arts-entertainment district the Old Market was never a foregone conclusion. It only came into being because a few people with the vision and guts to make it happen could see the potential of a derelict old produce center to be the base for a mixed-use urban village with residences, restaurants, shops, galleries, bookstores, live music, theater, and all sorts of funky creative spaces. What long ago became a chic destination place was forged from rough-hewn beginnings that to most looked unpromising. A band of artists, hipsters, and entrepreneurs applied their individual and collective talents to transforming a history-laden area into something entirely new and 45 years later it continues to be a vital melting pot for culture and creativity. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) attempts to explore how the Old Market emerged and who was there at the beginning to see its possibilities and to help shape those possibilities into reality.
Once Upon a Time an Urban Dead End Became Omaha’s Lively Old Market
Popular Arts-Entertainment District Emerged in Late 1960s-Early ’70s Thanks to Artists and Entrepreneurs
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In a state with few destination attractions, Omaha‘s Old Market arts-entertainment district packs them in. The draw is not any one or two venues, but a collective of shops, restaurants, bars, galleries and creative spaces, along with the historic character of those places.
Designer Roger duRand opened one of the first businesses there, the head shop The Farthest Outpost, with Wade Wright in 1968. duRand later designed businesses and apartments there. He was struck then as he is now by the area’s contiguous array of late 19th-early 20th century warehouses.
“I was really charmed by how coherent the neighborhood was. 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’re very honest buildings.”
If density and diversity define vital urban areas, then the Market is Omaha’s most lively concentration of eclectic spots.
It’s also a neighborhood whose residents add to the vibe.
“Having people live here makes it a 24-hour alive place,” says Ree Kaneko, an Old Market artist, arts administrator and resident whose presence there goes back 40-plus years.
Nicholas Bonham-Carter a nephew of the Market’s late godfather, Sam Mercer, says, “The Old Market works because of the multiplicity of things going on. In other historical districts they have no residence portion at all so at night when the shops close it looks dead. But in the Old Market when the shops close you know people are living upstairs. Even if you can’t see them the knowledge they’re there gives it life;”
In this same year the Market turned 45 years old its guiding light, Sam Mercer, died (Feb. 5). The Mercers are longtime property owners and landlords there. When the idea for it surfaced they were perhaps the only locals with the resources and inclination to make it over on the scale required to turn the abandoned produce center into a chic oasis.
In the mid-’60s Mercer began heeding advice that the dying wholesale district could be revived for a new use. It took vision and guts as the old buildings were in bad shape and no one knew if enough entrepreneurs would take the plunge. The four-square block area became a real life assemblage or installation that creatives reclaimed and rebirthed, one building, one endeavor at a time.
Cedric Hartman and Judy Wigton put the proverbial bug in Mercer’s ear. He’s an internationally known lighting and furniture designer who keeps a low profile at his factory on the Market’s southeast edge. She’s an arts lover. Their shared appreciation for the finer things led them to open a mid-town high-end shop, The Afternoon (the Omaha store by that name today has no relationship to the earlier store).
In 1964 the business partners went on a buying trip to Chicago and discovered Old Town – a mix of quality shops in repurposed buildings.
Wigton recalls coming back and driving around Omaha’s city market “looking for a likely area” to relocate The Afternoon and finding a For Rent sign. She made the necessary inquiries and, she says, “On a very cold day in Dec. 1964 we met Sam Mercer. He showed us the property. We indicated it wouldn’t work if we were the only ones down there. We wanted there to be a number of shops. He seemed very doubtful about our idea for a community of shops and restaurants.”
But Wigton and Hartman persisted and kept pitching the concept.
“We became great friends. One evening we took Sam to see Jim Shugart’s wonderful house in a former Budweiser building at 1215 Jones. It made a good impression on Sam who then said that maybe what we were talking about would work. Eventually he seemed to be coming around. He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.
“We also appreciated old buildings. Cedric and I had special interest in architectural history. I had started the drive to try to save the old Omaha City Hall from destruction, but when we met with Mayor (A.V.) Sorenson about it, he made it clear a serious goal of his and city fathers was to get rid of old buildings. That conflict continued for years.
“All through 1965-1967 we talked about possibilities for the area.”
The Market happened in spite of meek support and sometimes outright opposition from Omaha city government and business leadership. The very idea of it flew in the face of conservative, parochial Omaha.
Old buildings were razed with alarming frequency then. Aging inner city neighborhoods were neglected. The Great Suburban Boom was on and new was preferred to old. Downtown Omaha was already slipping and would soon find its once vibrant retail base gone. Flipping, reinventing, transforming massive buildings simply didn’t occur here.
Bonham-Carter echoes others in arguing the Market “provided sort of the initial shove for the rebirth of downtown.”
The Market’s success undoubtedly made Omaha more receptive to preservation and revitalizing areas like the riverfront and north downtown. Even its example though couldn’t save Jobbers Canyon and its historic buildings just east of the Market.
Hard as it may be to imagine now, the warehouses comprising the Market were mostly viewed as eyesores, not assets.
Hartman and Wigton saw things differently and their dogged pursuit of what to others seemed a pipe dream paid off.
Kaneko says few realize how vital they were to the Market coming into being.
“Nobody wanted to take on these brick warehouses. The idea was planted with Sam with Cedric’s help and as these Old Market spaces were renovated Cedric provided much good advice.”
Bonham-Carter, who spearheaded the creation of the Passageway in the Market, says Hartman “sowed the seeds of what could be done. He’s a real genius.”
Hartman was so convinced of its potential he recalls “I couldn’t stop on the subject. Judy was enthused too.” His motivation was to break Omaha from its dull status quo. He’d lived in Chicago and New York, studied in France, and upon returning to Omaha found “it dreadful, nothing happening here, it seemed like a very unsophisticated place to me. I was interested in seeing something happen downtown.”
He says there was resignation nothing would really ever change.”Most people droned, ‘It seems like nobody will ever do that here, this is Omaha, forget it.'” He wasn’t deterred. “I just kept talking it up.”
In Mercer Hartman and Wigton found the receptive audience they craved and someone in a position to do something about it.
“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman.”He was very smart and a very worldly and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both flabbergasted, dazzled by his personal style. We were taken with him and in his way he was with us.
“He did respond to us in a great way and I think he was genuine. We were a couple of really arty kids and he was really arty, too, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”
Hartman recalls walking around the Market with Mercer when it was a warehouse graveyard “trying to imagine what could be done.”
With Mercer on board Wigton helped raise public awareness of the proposed redevelopment by hosting luncheons at the old Omaha Club where Mercer bent the ear of stakeholders and tastemakers.
“Sam was invariably charming and interesting and would lay out the possibilities in a very persuasive way. I especially remember a lunch there with (the late columnist) Robert McMorris which seemed to result in dozens of favorable stories in the World-Herald. Another was with city planning director Alden Aust, whose advocacy became invaluable.”
The initial businesses in the fledgling district opened in 1968. Percy Roche’s British Imports was the first.
Omaha businessman Tom Davis invested in several ventures there.
The French Cafe
It was very much a combination of the right people in the right place at the right time,” says Wigton “And then it was very fortunate that Sam’s family, Mark and Vera Mercer and Nicholas and Jane Bonham-Carter were able to move here when they did and keep everything going. It hasn’t been easy and I don’t think any other family could have done it.”
Wigton suggests, and others agree, that “perhaps it really began to come together” when the French Cafe was born in 1969. But even that anchor, signature eatery only happened because Hartman was in the right place at the right time. He spotted a condemnation notice posted on the Solomon Gilinsky Fruit Market building and contacted Mercer.
“That’s a building I promoted finding. It was not a Mercer property, it belonged to the Gilinsky family. I said, ‘Sam, we really ought to buy this building.'” Hartman’s concern was that if the structure, situated mid-way on Howard St., were razed it would interrupt the flow of what they hoped to do with the other buildings.
“If we were working on separated buildings and somebody would do something else that didn’t quite fit in that could have destroyed the atmosphere for the whole place,” says Bonham-Carter.
Mercer and Gilinsky made the deal but even then last minute fast talking was required because, Hartman says, Gilinsky had a contract with a wrecking firm to take the building down. Demolition was set for the following morning. After some frantic calls the order was canceled.
The idea to open a French restaurant there was entirely Sam’s. Hartman designed the space. He admires the chance Mercer took.
“It was a risky thing for them. Who knew if that would work?”
Kaneko says if Hartman hadn’t prevailed on Mercer at that critical juncture there might not have been a French Cafe or Old Market.
She says “credit for building the Old Market belongs to many people over the years who put their ideas, dreams and patina on the spaces in these handsome, left behind buildings. Yes, it’s true the Mercer family had the financial ability to make lots of things happen and the flare to do it right, but I would guess had it not been for Cedric Hartman who called Sam Mercer in Paris to inform him that a building in the middle of the block of Howard St. was about to be torn down that maybe it would not have happened at all.
“Paris is a long ways away for one to keep an eye on what’s happening down the block. The idea was planted with Sam…And so it started this way – the idea, the saving of a structure, then the investment in the renovation and all the wonderful ideas and people that followed.
“So many interesting people shaped this area with their ideas and energy. Each person added to the growth of the dream. They were the fiber of the place. They came to work here, they lived here, they ate here, they hung out here. They were neighbors…they were friends.”
Bonham-Carter says, “I think everyone who was down here was in some way or another very unique and we couldn’t have done it without them.”
The Edison Exposure and Omaha Magic Theatre were cutting-edge venues. The Antiquarium and Homer’s were counter-culture bastions.
The French Cafe helped legitimize or mainstream the district.
“It was getting the so-called aristocracy of Omaha to come down to our area. It was very sophisticated and its image rubbed off on the rest of the Old Market. so I think it was very important. And it generated traffic. It became sort of a magnet,” says Bonham-Carter, who helped shepherd the Cafe its first couple years.
Bonham-Cartern notes that the Market ultimately benefited from the family having meager development funds because it reinforced leaving the buildings largely alone, to retain their historic integrity. “We had a lot of bricks and mortar but not much money,” he says, “so we were always having to sort of economize and so as a result that probably made it less likely for us to make some expensive mistakes.”
The last thing the family wanted was to make the Market a glossy theme park whitewashed of age.
For Kaneko the great attraction was “space, space and more space. It’s just what artists needed. And at that time the visual arts were the poor sister in town. So this was a big deal.” She was among the early vanguard to move in as working artists. She says despite a lack of creature comforts they felt impassioned.
“It was a no-man’s land but very exciting because you were making a change happen. We felt we were doing something very important and very radical. We were saving this wonderful architecture and bringing new life to these discarded places. We had nothing but our dreams and hard work and intense desire to make it happen.”
duRand, who was there even earlier, says, “It was exhilarating really because it was all new and it was a creative process. The whole venture was kind of an artwork really. Making something out of nothing – that was really the fun part.”
He recalls the Market as “a really interesting urban environment” where hippies and artists commingled with blue collar laborers. Some wholesalers were still operating. Cafes catered to truckers and railroaders. “A lot of jobbing went on – suppliers of all kinds of mechanical stuff. The railroad cars would go up and down the alleys at night where freight was loaded and unloaded.”
For years Sam’s son Mark Mercer and his wife Vera Mercer have stewarded the family’s various holdings and ventures. Mark developed V Mertz restaurant in the Passageway. The couple later created La Buvette and The Boiler Room. They’re now developing a new eatery at the site of the French Cafe, which closed last year. Mercer says their guiding philosophy is the same as Sam’s was:
“We want to create things that are attractive and different than other places that have been infected by chains and franchises or things like that because than it’d be just like anywhere else. We pick things we think to rent to or to do ourselves that fit our tastes and our interests.”
“Something that has made the difference between the way we did it and the way other people would do it is that we determined the only businesses we would get there would be home grown, locally owned,” says Bonham-Carter. “I think we are today exactly where we hoped we would be in having a pretty good mix of tenants down there.”
Kaneko says, “The Mercers are wonderful at allowing things to take shape. They know it is a slow process, so if you come to them with a good idea and they believe it fits with their dream for the Old Market you could probably have a good chance at succeeding. They have a great sense of the mix of things that need to happen to make the Market exciting.”
duRand says the Market succeeded “because it was genuine, it wasn’t really contrived. it evolved authentically. The main criterion wasn’t profit it was for interesting things to happen. The Mercers made it very easy for interesting people to get a foothold here. A lot of times the rent was negligible. You could give receipts for improvements in lieu of rent money, and it helped everybody. It helped people on a shoestring build something for themselves and the owners got improvements at no expense to them, so it was a win-win.”
“For a long time,” he says, “Mercer Management kept the rents low and took a percentage of profit so that if people were struggling it didn’t cost them so much to be here and then if they were successful the Mercers shared in that success. It was a nice formula.”
Mercer says it didn’t take long for the Market to attract tenants.
“It really did take off pretty quickly in the sense of these groups of artists and the French Cafe and then M’s Pub in 1972, and the galleries. Rusty Harmsen did the Toad and Spaghetti Works. Then a little bit later we did the Passageway and V Mertz.
“A lot of people were excited because maybe there wasn’t something like that in Omaha, a place where you could combine music and art and new kinds of food. We didn’t have any French restaurants in Omaha at that time. There was a hunger too for a pedestrian area and arts and books and different kinds of movies that could combine. So it all seemed to get established in a couple-three years, although there were still problems with how to deal with building code inspectors. But it seemed it had gained enough momentum by then to attract people and as long as people were coming and finding it exciting…”
Kaneko says, “Things were happening and being presented in the Old Market you could not find anywhere else in the region.” Arts were always a part of the scene but the early emphasis was all local artists. The Bemis artist residency program she founded in 1981 with Jun Kaneko, Tony Hepburn and Lorne Falk introduced artists “from all over the world who added to this conversation,” she says. “The spillover into the community has been the benefit. Hard to measure but it’s alive and it’s there. The more artists and creative people in your community from all walks of life, makes for a much better place to live.”
It’s helped that the Mercers are art lovers. Sam painted as a hobby. Vera’s a noted photographer and painter. Mark’s designed the family’s restaurants.
Not everyone agrees with the direction the Market’s gone. duRand feels it’s over-gentrified compared to its counter-culture roots. Underground newspapers were published there. Edgy film, theater and art happened there. The drug culture flourished there.
Mercer concedes it may have been more adventurous early only.
“Maybe in the beginning it was a little more rebellious and exciting in finding different things,” he says. “In the early days it was, well, newer. Maybe a little more controversial and a little more avant garde.”
Hartman despairs the Market’s overrun with bars and restaurants.
Bonham-Carter feels it might be time for another big project, adding that “a little extra sprucing up might be nice to do over the years – tuck pointing here and there. We don’t want it to look too worn out or too overdone.” The recently announced $12.8 million Jones13 apartment project at 13th and Jones may be the next large scale endeavor. It’s being developed by a private company.
Mark Mercer says, “As long as we can I guess we’ll keep trying to do new things and find new things that will enhance the Market, enhance the area,” Vera Mercer says the passion still burns. “I think we are as excited as before about doing something new. We are still looking for new things.” As for who will carry the torch in the future since the couple have no children, he says, “We have to think more about that.”
Kaneko, who with her husband, artist Jun Kaneko, has developed an arts campus there says the district illustrates how the arts act as a catalyst for renewal. Looking ahead, she says, “The next period of time in the Old Market’s life is what I call cultural in-fill. A time of refinement. If we are lucky and if we are wise we will maintain the quality, respect and excitement that this urban area needs and this city deserves.”
- Omaha for Art Lovers (apartmentguide.com)
- Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jazz Pianist Paul Serrato is Back in His Hometown of Omaha After Decades in New York City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Any urban place worth its salt as a destination to visit bears the imprint of the people who shaped it. Omaha isn’t known for much outside Nebraska but one area just south of downtown has become its primary tourist destination, the Old Market, which at its core is a historic district whose collection of late 19th and early 20th century warehouses offers the city’s most eclectic concentration of restaurants, shops, and arts-cultural venues. Many people have had a hand in molding the Old Market but the most critical guiding hand belonged to the late Sam Mercer, who had the vision to see what only a few others saw in terms of the potential of transforming this old produce warehouse market into a arts-culture-entertainment haven. My story about Mercer and the small coterie of fellow visionaries he developed a consipiracy of hearts with in creating the Old Market appears in Encouner Magazine. You’ll find some other Old Market-related stories on this blog and coming this spring I will be postiing a retrospective piece on how this creative hub became the Old Market and how it survived and thrived against all odds. I will introduce you to the people who turned the spark of an idea into reality.
Sam Mercer, center ©Photograph by Vera Mercer
The Old Market’s Late Godfather Samuel Mercer Casts Long Shadow in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine
Sam Mercer; By: THE WORLD-HERALD
The Old Market’s undisputed godfather, Samuel Mercer, passed away Feb. 5 at his home in Honfleur, France. He was 92. Services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Omaha.
This continental bon vivant was not a typical Nebraskan. The son of prominent Omaha physician and landowner Nelson Mercer, he was born and raised in privileged circumstances in London, England and educated at Oxford and Yale. After living in Washington D.C. he based his law practice in Paris, where he mostly lived the rest of his life. He held dual citizenship.
In Paris he cultivated relationships with avant garde artists, A watercolorist himself, he made artist Eva Aeppli his second wife.
On his handful of trips to Omaha each year he cut an indelible figure between his shock of shoulder-length gray hair, his Trans-Atlantic accent and his waxing on far-ranging subjects. He spoke perfect French.
“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy…I liked him immediately and enormously,” says designer Roger duRand, who with Percy Roche opened the Old Market’s first business, The Farthest Outpost.
When the death of his father in 1963 Mercer inherited his family’s property holdings and he took charge of their Mercer Management company here. He appreciated the century-old brick warehouses, some Mercer-owned, comprising the wholesale produce market just southeast of downtown. But it was someone his junior, designer Cedric Hartman, who first advocated doing something with those buildings, which by the mid-1960s were largely abandoned and in disrepair.
Hartman, an acclaimed designer of lighting and furniture pieces made at his 1414 Marcy St. factory, recalls the genesis of the Old Market. He and Judy Wigton were partners in a high end gift shop. Like Mercer they admired the dying produce district’s buildings and in 1964 began meeting with him about these structures as potential sites for exciting new ventures, such as fine shops, galleries and restaurants. Those conservations in turn sparked Sam’s efforts to preserve and repurpose the Market as an arts-culture haven.
“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman. “He was a very smart, very worldly and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both wowed by him and in his way he was with us.”
Wigton says, “He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.”
“He did respond to us in a great way,” Hartman notes. “We were a couple of really arty kids and he was really arty, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”
Those early encounters formulated the vision for what became the Old Market.
“I remember we walked around the streets trying to imagine what could be done. I’d say, ‘Now look at this building, here’s we could do this with it,’ and he’d just respond right in kind,” says Hartman. “I couldn’t have done that with anybody else. He hooked into all this stuff really fast.”
A sense of urgency set in when city officials and property owners began eying some Market buildings for demolition.
Hartman tipped off Mercer to the condemnation of the Gilinsky building that sat in the middle of Mercer-owned properties on Howard Street. It was Hartman too who brokered a meeting between Mercer and Peaches Gilinsky. A deal was struck that led Mercer to acquire the site.
By 1968 Mercer moved strategically to gain control of a collection of buildings there.
“Sam did not want anything said about the project until he could acquire options on enough other properties in the area to insure the success of the redevelopment,” says Wigton.
It was Mercer’s idea to make the groundfloor space of the former Gilinsky fruit company into a French restaurant. There, Hartman designed the Old Market’s signature spot, the French Cafe, as well as apartments above it. Ree Kaneko, a fellow Old Market pioneer, says the restaurant, opened in 1969, was “very important” in helping solidify and legitimize the Market.
“It was a risky thing for him to do,” Hartman says “Who knew if that would work? However, it was a great success.”
More anchor attractions followed – Homer’s, M’s Pub, Mr. Toad, the Spaghetti Works, Nouvelle Eve, eh Firehouse Dinner Theater, the Bemis.
Designers duRand and Hartman advised Mercer and his son Mark, daughter-in-law Vera, nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter on this never planned but organically developed area. The Mercers created one of the Market’s most distinct features, The Passageway, and later opened their own distinguished enterprises – V Mertz, La Buvette and The Boiler Room.
“We worked to shape the Old Market neighborhood in the most authentic and benign ways possible, gently guiding new tenants away from the cliched and vulgar, and to more thoughtful and honest approaches to development of the beautiful old structures,” says duRand. “Even though Sam lived and worked in Paris, his presence was in every decision of significance in nurturing the Market. He made frequent visits to Omaha in the early days, and was instrumental in bringing the city fathers around to acceptance, then eventual approval, and finally enthusiasm for the preservation and rebirth of our neighborhood.
“His passing leaves a permanent and poignant void.”
Sam Mercer viewed the Market as an evolving social experiment and art project aligned with his own desires. Mark Mercer says the family’s continued that philosophy by encouraging unique ventures that “fit our tastes and interests.” He and his wife, artist Vera Mercer, say “creating” new things is their passion.
Ree Kaneko has high praise for the Mercers’ stewardship and their “allowing things to take shape” by nurturing select endeavors. She adds, “They know it’s a slow process,. They have a great sense of the mix of things that need to happen to make the Market exciting.”
“It hasn’t been easy and I don’t think any other family could have done it,” Wigton says.
Mark and Vera Mercer say Sam remained “very interested” in the Market. They vow retaining the vibrant charm of this historic neighborhood he lovingly made happen.
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.
Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine
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.”
“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.
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.
- Carver Building Rebirthed as Arts-culture Haven; Theaster Gates, Rebuild and Bemis Reimagine North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
The Old Market. Make that Omaha’s Old Market. Sure, it’s a place, in this case a historic warehouse district that’s been gentrified into an arts-cultural hub and destination stop for locals and tourists alike. But like any place worth it’s salt, it’s the people that make it. One of the real holdover characters there from when the Old Market was still a wholesale produce center was Joe Vitale. As the area transformed from industrial to retail consumer mecca he stayed on with his fruit and vegetable stand , still doing his thing amidst head shops, galleries, restaurants, bars, and live music spots. When Joe passed away a couple years ago a little piece of the Old Market passed with him. The following story for Omaha Magazine is a kind of homage to Joe and the slice of Old World commerce he kept alive.
Remembering Omaha Old Market Original, Fruit and Vegetable Peddler Joe Vitale
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine
The late Joe Vitale was the last of the old-time produce vendors plying his trade in the Old Market. Long after the Omaha City Market closed, Joe stayed on.
The World War II combat veteran made a good living back in the day, first working for his parents Angelo and Lucia, and then with his business partner, Sam Monaco. By the time the Old Market took off, Vitale was set for life and well past retirement age, but he hung on there, wintering in Las Vegas.
Why keep at it, even into his 80s?
“He did it because of the love of doing business, being self employed, selling to new customers and former customers who wanted to buy something from the historic Old Market,” says George Eisenberg, a former wholesaler who did business with Joe.
“He was not only a throwback but he was the only one of the original market vendors that lasted that long.”
“I guess he enjoyed being down there with the people and doing his work,” says Tootsie Bonofede, who grew up with Joe. “You know, when you enjoy something you don’t want to give it up.”
Joe stayed through the area’s transformation from a wholesale-retail produce center to its rebirth as a cultural district. Manning the corner of 11th and Howard, he and his stand were fixtures before the modern Omaha Farmers Market started up.
Vitale, who died March 29 at age 92, was a popular figure among tourists, business owners and residents, who viewed him as a vital, living remnant of what used to be.
“He brightened up that corner,” says Mary Thompson, whose mother, Lucile Schaaf, was an Old Market entrepreneur and favorite of Joe’s. “He was a super guy. He was an energetic, happy person, and he always had a good word to everybody. He had been there for so many years, you could say he was almost the last of the originals.”
More than a merchant dealing in fruits and vegetables, Vitale was an engaging presence. “He had a lot of personality,” says Bonofede.
“That was about the lowest fee I’ve ever collected,” says Boyle. “Joe was really one of life’s great characters. He had a wonderful sense of humor and added a lot of color to that corner.”
Samuel Troia recalls he and his brothers going to Joe for business advice, not expecting much, but getting more than they bargained for.
“It was a great meeting and he helped us out tremendously, and with nothing to gain, other than to help these young kids, because we were in our 20s. He sat us down and said, ‘OK, this is who to talk to, and I’ll make a phone call for you.’ He told us about delivering what you promise. Joe talked to us just like he was our father.”
From that time on, says Troia, “every time he saw me he’d holler, ‘Troia,’ and my wife and I would walk over and buy fruit, and he’d wash it for us. It was so nice and refreshing to see him. It was just like having a family member down there in the Old Market.”
Joe treated everyone like a family member or friend.
“He was one of the most down to earth guys you’d ever want to meet,” says Troia.
“Everybody knew him and everybody loved him,” says Bonofede. “They can’t say anything bad about Joe. He was so kind to everybody.”
- George Eisenberg’s Love for Omaha’s Old Market Never Grows Old (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
For better or worse, the following story for the New Horizons is a reflection of what I do as a writer when allowed the opportunity to tell a story at length. I don’t claim that there’s anything special about my work, but if it is distinguished by anything, it is my interest in tapping into stories of passion and magnificent obsession, which is very much how I think of the subject of this piece – the late Lucile Schaaf. I then take that interest and try to express it to the best of my ability. I always wanted to tell this particular story, that is Lucile’s story. I never met the woman, but I heard tales about her and then I got to know one of her daughters, Mary Thompson, who is quoted extensively in the piece. I earlier profiled Mary in a story you can find on this blog entitled, Extremities. Mary’s mother, Lucile, the profile subject of the story below, was a kind of patron saint of the Old Market, the historic district in Omaha, Neb. that has been transformed from the former wholesale produce center to the cultural hub of the city. To get to the heart of a story like hers requires some space, and New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt is about the only one left around here that accords me the space I need to tell a story like this at the length I believe I need to communicate its layers and nuances. The Old Market was made by people like Lucile, eccentric visionaries who did their own thing and followed their own muse. There are many more Old Market stories I would like to tell. Writing this piece also only confirmed my very intentional niche as a journalist who tells the stories of people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. Like I said at the top, for better or worse it is my brand as a writer and it is what keeps me doing what I do.
My story about Lucile’s daughter, Mary Thompson, who is much quoted here, can be found on this blog. It’s entitled, “Extremities.”
Lucile looking out a window of her Old Market residence
Lucile’s Old Market, Mother Hubbard Magnificent Obsession: From One Eccentric to Another – Mary Thompson on her Late Mother, Lucile Schaaf
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
As once upon a time stories go, the late Lucile Ann Schaaf’s saga is a fractured fairy tale that like the pint-sized woman embodied herself, is made up of quirky twists and turns that leave you scratching your head or smiling.
When she passed away in 2009 at age 91, Schaaf was variously remembered as a mother, grandmother, entrepreneur, collector, preservationist, Christmas fanatic, and someone for whom the color orange was a personal brand.
After her marriage ended in divorce, Lucile, her children grown and flown the coop by then, asserted her independence and curiosity in a series of enterprising and creative adventures. Earlier in life, the former Lucile Duda exhibited an adventurous streak when, fresh out of Central High School, she left home to attend Scripps College, a women’s school in Claremont, Calif, where she studied art and architecture at a time when women pursuing higher education was a rarity.
Given the moxie it took to leave home for the west coast, it’s not surprising that years later she thought nothing of journeying all around the Midwest in search of architectural remnants from buildings and homes under the wrecking ball. Lucile developed a network of contacts in the demolition and salvage field that tipped her off to projects that might contain objects of interest. Whenever she got a lead on something, whether furniture or ornamental design elements, she set out to acquire it. Daughter Mary Thompson often accompanied Lucile on these treasure hunting jaunts.
“Mother became acquainted with a gentleman called Rock the Wrecker. I worked for him for many years driving a pickup and hauling all kinds of stuff. I would go to sites and I would help salvage and bring stuff back for Mother, and Mother and I would go on trips to demolition sites to gather materials. I carried wrecking tools behind the seat in my truck. Mom and I would take off and drive down to Kansas or over in Iowa or up to South Dakota if Rock would call to say, ‘We’ve got something, come get it,” said Thompson.
“We went to Des Moines (Iowa) one time time to get some marble clocks. It was rush hour and there were fire engines all over the place and when we finally got to the building it was on fire, but we got our stuff. Another time we drove to Coffeyville Kansas and we picked up an 18-foot chandelier, put it in the back of my El Camino and drove it back home.”
Then there was the time Lucile got it in her head that she had to have a double decker bus for sale two thousand miles away. This was in January. So, Thompson and her mother flew to High Point, N.C. and the intrepid duo drove the bus back to Omaha in the dead of winter.
“The whole trip was hilarious because we had all kinds of problems and everything else,” Thompson said of the experience as if were a big lark. “It was 20 below zero when we pulled into Omaha, wearing our snow mobile suits.”
But why a double decker bus?
“We used it for tours around the city,” said Thompson. “We’d take ladies groups, school groups. My kids were going to Jackson Elementary School at the time and anytime there was something the school needed to go to everybody from Jackson went in the double decker bus. They thought that was pretty nifty, and it was.”
Lucile’s daughter, Mary Thompson
The bus and tours were examples of Lucile and Mary, who closely resembles her mother, doing something just for the fun of it, no matter how impractical.
“That’s exactly right,” said Thompson,
Whatever Lucile thought up, her family fell right in line.
“We never questioned her or anything she did,” said Thompson. “It seemed, ‘Well, Mom did it, it must be right.’”
Thompson inherited Lucile’s sense of adventure and compulsion for collecting things. But where Mary’s collected most everything at one time or another, Lucile’s stockpiling was more focused on assembling stores of antique architectural details and Christmas decorations.
Said Thompson, “Her collecting was like anything, once you start, you can’t stop. You find a coin you’re really intrigued with and so you think, I’ll start collecting more coins like this, and pretty soon you’ve got an entire collection. If it’s a gorgeous stained glass window, well there’s another one, and so you get yourself to the point where pretty soon you’ve got a fabulous collection.”
For Lucile it meant acquiring everything from stained glass windows to bannisters to fancy doors to fireplace surrounds to built in wall units, and just about anything in between that caught her eye or captured her fancy.
“It just became more and more and more and more,” said Thompson. “People brought it to her too.”
The operating principle Lucile came to live by, said Thompson, is that “if it’s something that still has some life in it, it’s good, let’s not destroy it, let’s not put in the landfill. So she started acquiring all this stuff and saving it. It just goes back to the old adage that one person’s trash is somebody else’s treasure. That’s the fun of it ”
“Work with what you have” was one of Lucile’s favorite sayings.
In this sense, said Thompson, Lucile’s emphasis on recycling things and preservation was well ahead of the curve.
Lucile’s obsessive collecting accumulated so many objects that she turned her passionate hobby into a business. Needing a place to store everything, she bought an abandoned Danish Lutheran church near downtown Omaha and converted it into an antique shop that she called Steeple Studios.
According to Thompson, “At one time Mother had the largest collection of antique architectural details between Chicago and San Francisco and people came from all over the country because they knew she had all this stuff.”
Lucile brought her business acumen and appreciation for history to the Old Market, where she became one of the pioneering merchants and denizens of that then fledgling enclave. In the late 1960s she was one of the early shop owners and one of the few residents in the former wholesale produce district that most city leaders and developers viewed as a wasteland.
Jeff Jorgensen and Joe Montello, whose Tannenbaum Christmas Shop in the Old Market occupies the same bay Lucile did business in at the southwest corner of 10th and Howard, got to know her as a benevolent landlord and neighbor. Montello had worked for her at The Place. They respected her as an Old Market original.
“She was definitely one of the first people who saw the potential of the Old Market,” said Jorgensen, adding that she recognized the area as not only a burgeoning commercial center and cultural-arts oasis but as a historic district in need of preservation. “I think what motivated her was finding new value in old things. It’s what made her such a natural to be an Old Market pioneer.”
Lucile put her money where her mouth was as owner-operator of The Place, a gift shop that expressed her eclectic tastes. She later had the Christmas Shop, a one-stop decorations and collectibles store, and The T Room sandwich shop. Lucile laid the brick walkway in front of her Howard Street bays. She was also active in the Old Market Business Association.
“I always thought she was pleased to see a Christmas shop continue here within her domain,” said Jorgensen. I think the fact that Joe worked for her and was involved here meant a lot to her too.”
She purchased adjoining buildings between the southwest corners of 10th and Howard and 10th and Jackson and converted them into her personal residence. What once housed Frank’e Cafe, the Pickwick Bar, Pioneer Uniform, a flophouse and a whorehouse, among other enterprises, became this lovable eccentric’s home. A walled-in courtyard or secret garden was created in back to offer a tranquil, private sanctuary amidst the Market’s hustle and bustle.
Schaaf was a recognizable figure in the Market or wherever she went because of her penchant for dressing entirely in orange, no matter the occasion. It’s hard to find a color photo of Lucile that doesn’t picture here in her flaming shade of choice.
There is an orange room in the Old Market residence. At one time Lucile had it entirely done over in her favorite color, complete with decorations and clothes, beautiful things, plain things, but in all instances orange things.
Antique dealer Vic Chickinelli hired her once and when he went out one day he came back to find she had painted the walls and shelving a bright orange. If Chickinelli asked her, as many did, Why orange?, her comeback would have probably been what she always said when people questioned her about it:
“Is there any other color?”
“She decided that that was the color of her life,” is how Thompson explains it.
So identified was Lucile with the color that she came to be known affectionally as the Orange Lady. At her Old Market shops she not only greeted you in full orange regalia, from head to foot, but took to wearing a clock around her waist set to ten minutes to four, or tea time, a reference to the tea party in Alice in Wonderland, a story she loved. She also loved throwing tea parties.
All in all, she fit right in with the other free spirits, artists and bohemians populating the Old Market.
“It was a good place for her,” said fellow Old Market pioneer Roger Durand, a designer and architect who opened a head shop there. “She was a real character, she was a real original, and she was a very colorful personality. Back in the early days it really took an adventuresome spirit to try and establish anything down there. It was an uphill struggle.”
For 30-some years Lucile’s 10th and Howard building was as much a warehouse for her collection of salvaged architectural remnants as it was a residence. Her dream was to incorporate these myriad details into the decor.
Working with an old-school master craftsman, Walt the Carpenter, the project made progress but then Walt took a bad fall, breaking his leg, and then her arthritis began slowing her down. However, she remained active enough to teach a water aerobics class at the YMCA.
Another daughter, the late Stephanie Schaaf, took it upon herself to fulfill Lucile’s dream. She hired a team of craftsmen to install, in some cases repurposing, hundreds of items — ranging from chandeliers to doors to stained glass windows to wrought iron gates — throughout the 7,300 square foot structure.
A kindred spirit of Lucile’s, Omaha architectural recycler Frank Horejsi, also described as an “urban miner,” said he liked what Lucile was doing with the place and he assisted Stefanie with getting the project done.
“If they had problems, I was kind of a go-to guy. It’s neat to see that old historic stuff incorporated. It’s a neat place.”
The result is a mosaic of a home of mixed and matched elements:
• Griffons from the original First National Bank Building adorn the exterior sides of Lucile’s place facing 10th Street and Jackson Street
• Crown molding from the old Cornhusker Hotel gilds the foyer
• Skylights from the Packers National Bank bathe the foyer in natural light
• Mahogany walls and stained glass cabinets from the City National Bank appoint the dining room
• Murphy bed doors from the Morris Hotel serve as ceiling panels above the dining room
• The great room, where receptions or dinner parties are held today, utilizes office doors from the City National Bank as wall panels, some with the names of the executives who toiled away behind them
• Telephone booth walls from the City National cover the ceiling
• The solid oak fireplace and leaded glass window in the sunroom hail from the Wilcox house in Council Bluffs
• Massive cabinets come from a physician’s home in Norfolk, Neb.
• French doors come from an opera house in Carroll, Iowa
And so it goes, on and on.
Roger Durand said the home is an expression of “the architectural odds and ends she found unusual uses for, and in aggregate they create sort of a world of Lucile.”
“What people sometimes don’t comprehend is that there was nothing here, it was a blank canvas, and it was my mom’s vision in putting things together and making it a whole unit that brought it to life,” Thompson said with admiration.
Almost everything in Lucile’s Old Market retreat originated elsewhere, salvaged off-site and brought there, like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. Only Lucile knew how they were supposed to fit together.
“She could find things and just know exactly where she was going to put the pieces in,” said granddaughter Amy Waskel, whose mother, Stefanie, became Lucile’s caregiver and legacy keeper.
Not everything Lucile collected at the Old Market place was used. There was so much inventory left over that an estate sale was held over two weekends.
The Old Market residence was not Lucile’s first salvage project. Thompson said her mother built a cabin near Merritt’s Beach using almost entirely recycled materials. There was apparently a recycle streak in the family’s DNA because Thompson said her grandparents built a farmhouse out of reclaimed materials long before that.
“The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” is how Thompson puts it. “Mom had the ability to visualize something not for what it was but for what it could be, and I feel I’m blessed with that also because if you look at my house you see how I intertwined everything into it.”
Mary’s Little Italy area home and another she owns next door overbrim with the surplus of her own collecting habit. Her affliction for acquiring and holding onto things was portrayed earlier this year on TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” reality television series.
There is a like-mother-like daughter pattern at play in the family. Other ways Mary takes after her mother is with a flair for entertaining and a wardrobe fixation, not with a certain color per se, but with hats. Mary’s fondness for hats grew to a collection of hundreds. So identified is Mary with her crowns of glory that she’s known as the Hat Lady. Until “Hoarding” she was perhaps best known as the Tax Lady for all the returns she filed for people as an IRS agent and AARP volunteer.
Mary doesn’t mind being known as a hoarder now that she’s taken steps to declutter her life with the help of professionals, friends and family, including a “Stuff” sale at the Bancroft Street Market in September.
For a long time, said Mary, her mother’s Old Market residence was overrun with artifacts that sat unboxed and uncovered, subject to the effects of not just dust but of the many critters, mostly cats and dogs, she kept. Mary’s also a cat lover.
“Stuff had been heaped in piles for so long,” Thompson said of her mother’s place.
Lucile was renowned for how elaborately she decorated her previous home in the Gold Coast neighborhood, but for the longest time the Old Market residence was more a storage and work space then a living space — more potential than realization, awaiting the day when Lucile’s vision for it would be complete.
“It wasn’t a pretty house like she was used to,” said Waskel. “Moving in here she just got down and dirty. That’s why finishing it was so important and that’s why it’s fun showing it off now and why it’s going to be fun decorating it for the holidays.”
Even though Lucile’s gone now, Waskel said she and other family members feel her presence watching over them, noting their every move. “She knows we’re not going to do it as well as she did. The joke within the family is that she’s going to be sitting there going, ‘You should do this.’ She was a perfectionist.”
Despite never decorating the place for Christmas, Lucile’s main floor bedroom was trussed up for the holidays once she became bed-ridden in 2004, and even then she liked calling the shots.
“We would decorate her room for her,” said Waskel. “We would put up a little Christmas tree for her and she enjoyed that because she enjoyed telling people how to do it and it never being right — well, not to her standards.”
An incongruity about Lucile was that she could be a stickler about everything being just so, yet she could live like an Old Mother Hubbard surrounded by artifacts strewn loosely everywhere. Her Gold Coast home was impressive, said Mary, yet Lucile shared the place with her cats and even a pet rooster. Things only got more unkempt in the Old Market.
Waskel said Nebraska Educational Television did a story on her grandmother as an example of “how not to save your antiques — like this is what you don’t do. We have a lot of damage to wood. Some of the stuff is just so far gone. The whole back area was just full of wood and dust and dirt. A lot of it was junk.”
She said it took countless man hours to clean up the mess.
“We had to finish everything,” said Waskel, who helped Stefanie in completing Lucile’s dream. “And we’re still working on it.”
Waskel, who as event coordinator at what is now called Lucile’s Old Market is tasked with booking events there and maintaining the cavernous space, has a new appreciation for all that her grandmother and mother did.
“I’m here everyday and there’s not nearly the work to do that my mom did or that my grandmother did and I still feel overwhelmed and go, How the hell did they do it?”
Lucile’s is still in the family, only now as a singular rental showplace that hosts weddings, dinners and all manner of private parties and receptions. Tours are available by appointment. Old Market Gallery Walks generally include a stop there. And it’s a featured spot on the December 11 Holiday Lights Tour
The woman for whom the building is named never saw the project completed as her eyesight declined severely in old age. Due to her diminished vision she became somewhat reclusive near the end of her life. For a long time though she was a public figure whose passions grew into magnificent obsessions enjoyed by thousands.
First, there was her fixation with Christmas displays. For the first half of her life she contented herself with the usual yuletide garnishes. But when she moved into the big home at 38th and Dewey Avenue it’s like a switch went on and she felt inspired to trim the multi-story edifice from top to bottom, complete with fully dressed trees, wreaths, garland, candy canes, stockings, Santas and lights.
It all started with a Christmas tea organized by Lucile.
Mary Thompson remembers how what began as a small, semi-private affair for mothers and daughters grew into a public extravaganza:
“My older sister’s class was invited and we made little cut-out white bread finger sandwiches with butter and powdered sugar over them, and Mom had us stand in a receiving line to meet everybody. It became a Christmas tradition. Every year a little more was added. Pretty soon it got so that during the month of December Mom had the house decorated from top to bottom, and every year it got bigger and better.
“We invited people from church and school. Others heard about it and came. We would all dress up. The last Christmas tea we had became an open house and we probably had about a thousand people. People came from all around.”
The Christmas House became a destination stop, complete with tours.
By the time Lucile stopped putting on the Christmas tea in the 1970s, she and her soiree and decorations had become so well known, said Thompson, that “people that wanted to get a hold of Mother would address mail to the ‘Christmas House, Omaha, Neb.‘ and it actually came to the house.”
Lucile didn’t stop at decorating her home. She also took charge of decorating the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church and the big Xmas tree at the old Union Station (Durham Museum). Then there was the Christmas Shop. It’s why Lucile was known as the Christmas Lady.
“The whole situation became such a passion for Mom,” said Thompson. “This was her outlet.”
Whether people knew her as the Orange Lady or the Christmas Lady, Jeff Jorgensen said “she enjoyed both of those roles very much. She made an impression on lots of people she came into contact with. She really wasn’t eccentric at all but if you thought she was I think that probably made her very happy.” On reflection, Jorgensen added, “Maybe she was a little.” Or as Joe Montello once described her: “She wasn’t afraid to be unique in her own way.”
The phrase “let your freak flag fly” refers to the uninhibited Luciles of the world.
The decorum at the fancy tea parties was sometimes shattered by a silly or peculiar happening, like the time Lucile’s pet rooster, Lucky, turned party crasher.
“One time this woman was sitting on the couch with her coffee and cake and there comes Lucky out of the kitchen. It looks around and comes over and takes that cake right off the lady’s plate,” said Thompson.
Another time, a visitor got more than she bargained for on a tour.
“When my two kids and I were living at Mother’s home our rooms were up on the third floor, and since the bedrooms were all decorated we slept in the 7-by-12 walk-in closets,” said Thompson. “This one time I put the kids to bed and Mother phoned from downstairs that these people were on their way up. So I stepped into my closet, closed the door and sat on a chair waiting for the tour to come through. I’m sitting in there when this woman opens the door — and the look on her face was priceless. I just said, ‘Hello,’ and she stepped backward, closing the door behind her. I could hardly wait for them to leave so I could run downstairs and tell Mother.”
They had a good laugh over that one.
Faux pause aside, Thompson said Lucile had a lot of Martha Stewart in her.
“She was a gracious, grand hostess, and she set a beautiful table. She was a fabulous cook. My sister and I learned all these culinary skills from our mother. These are things we did automatically and we didn’t even think about it.”
Lucile never got to play grand hostess at her Old Market residence, but she approved of opening it up to parties and took vicarious pleasure in the first events held there a few years ago. And even though by the end she couldn’t see much besides light, she helped guide her daughter Stefanie and her granddaughter Amy in finishing out the place. All concerned are satisfied the interior is a close approximation of what Lucile intended.
Until opened as a rental space, the building’s street-level windows were boarded up, peaking the curiosity of passersby, who could only make out tantalizing tidbits. Some peepers climbed the gates for a glimpse inside a second floor window.
Thompson said some naturally mistook the residence for an antique shop. Only family, friends and area merchants and residents knew the truth. Now that it’s a much-in-demand rental space, the reputation and history behind it, and the story of the woman who made it possible, Lucile Schaaf, are becoming more widely known. Yet Amy Waskel said most first-time visitors remark “we had no idea this was here.”
“The whole thing just started with, ‘I’ve got these things, I’ve got this place, I’ve got this box, I’ve got all these things inside it, let’s put it together. It was thinking outside the box,” said Thompson, “and look at what she’s got, she’s got a box of fabulous things and wonderful memories. I’m hoping one day it’s a museum. I think more people could enjoy it if we could do more with it. But it’s an old building and it needs a lot of things done to it.”
Old and imperfect as it is, Jorgensen said, “it’s perfect for the Old Market. I mean, it’s adaptive reuse, it’s work-with-what-you-have, it’s an example of finding new faces for old places. That’s what she did. She found new life for a building and an area that needed a new reason to exist. Lucile had that vision for what it could be.”
The Mercer family of Omaha, headed by Samuel Mercer, led early efforts in transforming the former City Market into the Old Market. Mercer Management, which Sam’s son, Mark, heads, is still the primary property owner and developer there. Mark said his father felt that he and Lucile “shared a desire to see the Old Market buildings restored and reanimated by local individual businesses. He always had a cordial and friendly relation with her.”
Artist and arts administrator Ree Kaneko, who first got to know Lucile during the Old Market’s emergence in the late ’60s-early ’70s, said, “the Lady in Orange was a wonderful soul.”
Jorgensen said not having Lucile around is “a major loss.” But her world lives on at Lucile’s Old Market, 510 South 10th Street. To book an event or arrange a tour, call 341-3100 or visit http://www.lucilesoldmarket.com.
- Gary Kastrick’s Project OMAHA Loses its Home Base (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Passion for Fashion (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Long and Winding Saga of the Great Plains Black History Museum Takes a New Turn (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Olde Good Things Store Profile (apartmenttherapy.com)
- A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain by Owen Hatherley (guardian.co.uk)
- Not Built to Last: China’s Overused Wrecking Ball (time.com)
The Old Market in Omaha is a both major attraction and a laidback state of mind that’s made up of the places and personalities, past and present, expressed there. Two of this historic arts and culture district’s longest sustained restaurants, M’s Pub and Vivace, share the same owners and executive chef, and in 2013 these each of these eateries celebrates a milestone anniversary. M’s Pub is 40 years old and Vivace 20 years old. Owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson discuss their successful enterprises in the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and along with Old Market pioneer Roger duRand they look back at the force of nature who started M’s, Mary Vogel, and who personified the visionaries and characters that have made the Market the singular destination and experience that it is.
Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Signature Old Market spot M’sPub celebrates 40 years in business this year. It’s a milestone for any independently owned restaurant. But reaching four decades takes on added meaning because when M’s opened in 1973 (a planned 1972 opening was delayed), the fledgling Market’s survival looked unsure.
The Market though went from counter culture social experiment to mixed use success story. M’s owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson doubly appreciate a thriving Market as their highly reviewed eatery is a fixture along with a second respected restaurant they own there, Vivace, which marks its 20th anniversary this fall. The establishments are emblems of the district’s sustainability and growth.
The well-connected woman who founded “M’s” and was its namesake, the late Mary Vogel, wanted to be part of the emerging Market scene. She commissioned architect John Morford from the Omaha firm headed by Cedric Hartman, who designed the French Cafe, to transform the former Sortino Fruit Company warehouse into a sophisticated, cozy environs inspired by her favorite dining-drinking nooks from around the globe, particularly the pubs of England and Washington DC. Some argue M’s is more bistro than pub but whatever it is M’s owns a reputation for quality food, superior service and laid-back charm that’s both cosmopolitan chic and homespun Midwest.
The small space is dominated by a three-sided green marble topped bar, exposed white brick work, a high ceiling, large mirrors, which make the room seem bigger, and picture windows that provide a glimpse of 11th Street on the east and peer into Nouvelle Eve on the south. The open kitchen is about the size and shape of a train’s dining car and overflows with activity, though the culinary action mostly happens in the downstairs prep rooms.
“It’s just a great open plan,” says Samuelson. “Timeless. And that’s why we don’t change anything about it because we see a lot of fads come and go and as tempting as you might be to say, ‘Well, it seems like that’s what everybody’s doing today – maybe we should try that,’ it’s not going to work here.”
M’s is indelibly of the Old Market. Like its neighbor shops it resides in a historic, 19th century building that exudes character earned with age. It adheres to tradition. It pays attention to detail. Its personality can’t be replicated or franchised.
“I don’t think we could take our sign and throw it in a place out west or anywhere else really,” Samuelson says. “I just don’t think it would transfer.”
The affable, attentive, knowledgable wait staff wear crisp white and black uniforms with none of the attendant starch.
Samuelson says, “We’ve worked really hard for a really long time to position ourselves as a place where you can come sit by side with the table that has a $150 bottle of wine and a couple steaks and you can have a beer and a Greek sandwich and not be treated any differently by the waiter. A lot of our people have been around here for a really long time. We have people that we trust.”
When Vogel sold M’s in 1979 to Mellen’s parents Floyd and Kate Mellen she stayed on as hostess and matriarch. Ann Mellen began working there around then and she soon grew fond of this force of nature.
“She would sit at the bar every day after lunch and count how many drinks we sold,” Mellen says of Vogel. “She was a trip. A very energetic lady, very world traveled, very knowledgable, very opinionated. But very helpful – when things went wrong here she knew who to call.
“She had a passion for this place. She knew exactly what she wanted it to be and she did it right. She totally designed M’s after her favorite places all over the world. She was like the mother of M’s pub. It was her baby.”
Market pioneer Roger duRand writes:
“Mary Vogel was a dame, A socialite with a heart of brass (polished). Mary was equal parts Mayflower pedigree, finishing school gloss and ribald cocktail raconteur. When she courageously cast her lot with the Old Market demimonde of 1972, she found a welcoming environment among the artists and adventurers. Her vision of a tearoom for ‘ladies who lunch’ that doubled as a bistro for ‘lads who lust’ became the elegant and reliably satisfying M’s Pub that remains little changed from its first days.”
Samuelson, who went to work there in 1986 after restaurant experience in Omaha, Texas and Colorado and then quickly partnered with Mellen, admired Vogel’s “indomitable spirit,” adding, “I think she was way ahead of her time. I think that’s probably why she got along with the Mercers so well. They needed people like that to incubate ideas and to establish a core of anchor businesses.”
Mellen’s parents, who’d never operated a restaurant before, bought it with the intent of their restauranteur son Joe running it but when he passed Ann stepped in to lend her folks a hand. Her passion for the business bloomed.
“I liked working for myself basically,” says Mellen, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism grad who worked as a reporter and advertising copywriter before M’s. “Then I came here and never left.”
She and Samuelson pride themselves on being hands-on owners. One or the other or both are at their restaurants most days. A tunnel connects the two sites.
Though an institution today, M’s first decade was a struggle.
“Times were hard,” she says. “The Old Market was a totally different place then.
The Omaha (homeless) mission was just up the street. A lot of people were afraid of the Old Market. But even then it had a family, neighborhood feeling and I liked that a lot.”
“It gets under your skin,” Samuelson says of the Market.
By the early ’80s, Mellen determined the Market was here to stay.
“It just got busier and busier and we saw more tourists coming to the area. You could just tell it was an exciting, upcoming area.”
She and Samuelson, both Omaha natives, make a good team.
“We’re a good fit personality-wise and professionally,” he says. “We share the same passion for the Old Market and the same visions and goals for M’s and Vivace. It’s rare we have a disagreement about and when we do we do it respectfully.”
“I don’t want to seem like an old married couple but a lot of people think we’re married. We’re not,” says Mellen.
She does all the books. An acknowledged foodie, he deals more with the culinary side. Both partners enjoy engaging with people.
“We feel the same way about how to treat people – our clientele as well as our employees,” he says.
The fierce devotion of M’s regulars is appreciated but it can be too much.
“Somebody who’s been coming here for awhile may have an opinion about what you’re doing and if you don’t take their advice you can ruffle some feathers that way,” says Samuelson. “We listen to people a lot and we always end up making decisions based on the good of the whole, which I think is responsible ownership.”
He says that with M’s “in good hands” he and Mellen decided to launch Vivace in 1993 ” to fill a gap we saw in the landscape of the restaurant scene in Omaha for Mediterranean-influenced Italian food. We wanted to fill a niche for the community but also complement what we do at M’s.” He’s proud of its pasta and pizza.
Vivace’s larger space is perhaps warmer than M’s but not as intimate.
Executive chef Bobby Mekiney is in charge of both kitchens. “He’s young and kind of bridges the generation gap for us in a lot of ways,” says Samuelson. “He’s as talented a guy as we’ve ever had here. He makes it work.”
Samuelson’s proud that M’s Pub and Vivace express the same “meticulously adhered-to, single-minded vision of passionate, locally-owned” venues that make the Market “a community treasure.”
- Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- OmahaNightOutGuide.com Announces its Arrival as Omaha’s New Internet Directory for Dining, Entertainment and Night Life; Making it Easy to find something to do in Omaha. (prweb.com)
- The Troy Davis Story: From Beyond the Fringe to Fringes Salon (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Here’s another story from deep in my archives, this one from 1990, about Dick Mueller and the revival he led of his Firehouse Theatre in Omaha. Though this bid to remake the former dinner theater into a nonprofit began promisingly enough it soon fell under its own weight. The tone of this piece is expressly optimistic because that’s how Mueller sounded a couple years into the experiment. Even though the Firehouse didn’t make it in its reinvented state, the topic of theater and arts sustainability, which was very much on Mueller’s mind at the time, remains as cogent today as it was then. Only a few weeks ago a well-known local theater, the John Beasley Theater & Workshop, announced it was on the verge of closing unless it could secure donations and pledges in excess of $10,000, which it thankfully did. Mueller did not have the best opinion of the Omaha theater scene then, and I wonder what he thinks of it today. In some respects, there’s been no change from the status quo, in that Omaha now as then has little in the way of professional, Equity theater. However, several new theater companies have sprung up in the intervening years and the Great Plains Theatre Conference has emerged as a vital event and presence.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Midlands Business Journal
It is tempting to frame Firehouse Theatre founder Dick Mueller’s story in dramatic terms. The 53-year-old impresario, director and actor has the youthful gleam and gait of, well, a Golden Boy whose future success seems assured despite adversity.
Like the boxer-violinst of the Clifford Odets play, Mueller is both a fighter and a dreamer who has battled steep odds to make his fondest wishes come true. He’s the Golden Boy of Omaha theater. He has recently rebounded from bankruptcy and the closing of the Firehouse to reopen the theater and set it on a bold new course he hopes will shake up lethargic old Omaha.
A life in the theater has been Mueller’s destiny since a night in 1961 when he saw a play and was stagestruck.
The Omaha native sang professionally at the time with a quartet called The Bachelors, which began at his alma mater – Central High School. The group was making the rounds on the national nighclub circuit and recording on the Epic Records label when Mueller followed a hunch and caught a new Broadway show. The show was Lerner and Loewe‘s My Fair Lady and “that theater experience is probably why I’m sitting here today in 1990,” said Mueller from the Firehouse stage. “I had no idea what theater was. I thought the ultimate entertainment experience was in a nightclub.”
He said, “I bought a standing room ticket for $3 and saw the original production of My Fair Lady, and there was no question in my mind when I walked out of that room three hours later that I was wrong – the nightclub did not offer the ultimate experience.
“Since then I’ve had 10 or 12 nights in the theater that really changed my life and I think it happened for other people in this room,” he said, referring to the Firehouse. “It has to do with what happens between a playwright, a good director and good actors telling a good story. It doesn’t happen very often, but you’ve got to have some of those nights…otherwise you stop going back to the theater. It can’t happen to me here (the Firehouse) because you really have to be a virgin. If you’re too involved in the production it won’t happen.”
Mueller turned his back on a singing career to do the starving actor’s bit. He returned home some years later a veteran of Broadway tryouts and Saratoga summer stock to start the Firehouse Dinner Theatre in 1972 in the then-fledgling Old Market. It was an instant hit. He and the theater, which dropped the buffett a few years ago, are synonomous. One cannot be discussed without the other.
After years of near uninterrupted success – revivals staged by the likes of Joshua Logan, critically praised world premieres and strong box office performances the Firehouse slumped in the mid-’80s. Eventually, Mueller declared bankruptcy and the theater closed New Year’s Day, 1989. The New York Times even chronicled Mueller’s travails in a January 1, 1989 article.
Always the scrapper and visionary, Mueller announced almost immediately he would be back. His never-say-die tenacity, combined with about $50,000 in donations from a fund-raising appeal, got the theater back on its feet and reopened by that April.
Mueller surprised many local arts observers by resurrecting the Firehouse in a new guise, Frustrated by his theater’s future hanging on uncertain box-office receipts – its primary source of income since Day One – the reorganized the for-profit business as a nonprofit corporation.
Mueller, who was the theater’s sole owner at the time of its demise, has given up proprietary interest and turned the facility’s management over to a board of directors and professional staff. He’s glad to do it, he said, because now as artistic director he can focus on the plays without worrying about the business.
Jeff Taxman, 37, has been hired as the theater’s managing director, and both he and Mueller sit on the board, whose president is Louis Lamberty.
So within two years the Firehouse has gone, as Mueller put it, “legit” – from a full-fledged commercial dinner theater to a non-profit producing organization with ambitions of being what he terms “the Heartland’s regional theater.”
According to Barbara Janowitz of Theater Communications Group in New York, which publishes American Theatre magazine, the Firehouse metamorphosis is indeed “unusual.”
Mueller said the jump from the for-profit to the non-profit world was his only option to secure the theater’s financial future and one he’d been contemplating.
“To be honest, this place has been 20 years of my life and I always saw it becoming a non-profit regional theater because I’d like to see it last. It wasn’t something that I wasn’t prepared to see happen at some point. I only wish it happened under better circumstances, but…by the time we ran into the wall financially the non-profit corporation was already in existence and just sped up the transition process.”
He didn’t want to sell the business to new owners who eventually might get tired of it. “Then it just dies and goes away,” he said.
He feels some factors made it diffiult for the Firehouse to survive on ticket sales alone. Principally, he blames the depressed economy of the mid-’80s for cutting into one of the theater’s most vital markets – the rural tourist trade.
“This theater has always drawn from hundreds of miles away. Bus loads from small towns put together by tour brokers or banks come to Omaha for their theater. And we lost an awful lot of that business because the people who supported it lost their income and in many cases lost their farms or buisnesses,” he said.
“Group sales have always veen a mainstay of this theater. We do 10,000-piece mailings to every tour group within 500 or 600 miles of here.”
The Greater Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau ranked the Firehouse as one of the city’s top tourist attractions as recently as 1988. Mueller said the theater’s sales efforts to groups outside Omaha promote other attractions “because we feel it’s easier for us to get people to Omaha if there’s a variety of great experiences. We’ve been a minor Chamber of Commerce here for 18 years.”
He estimates “at least 50 percent” of its annual ticket sales are to patrons outside the city. He said after a slow start the theater is regaining its audience now that the bankruptcy and closing are old news and the farm economy has recovered.
“Thank God we’re beyond it and we’re building back. People have forgotten about that. We worked real hard to make good to all those people who had season tickets and gift certificates because we didn’t want them to think bad about our efforts to run this place.
“We opened with very little strength a year-and-a-half ago, but life is getting better for us. We wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t started to come back a little already.”
The current production, Driving Miss Daisy, has “the largest pre-sale of group business of any show I can remember,” he said. Two mid-week matinees have been added “because the demand is there and probably 90 percent of that demand is from out of town. I hope we’ll build on that momentum and in a year from now it’ll be even better.”
Jeff Taxman said the realities of the business are such that “it takes 30 to 40 percent of the house to cover the cost of running the theater” or break even. “Daisy looks like it’s going to do better than that, so this will be a surplus.”
One of Mueller’s long-range goals is to average 80 percent of capacity per year. “Eighty percent would be a big surplus position and would create the capital to do all kinds of innovative things,” Taxman noted. The theater’s best one-year box-office showing netted a 70 percent house average.
Another factor Mueller said adversely affected the Firehouse was the competitive advantage he feels non-profit theaters have in seeking donations, grants and other public and private forms of funding generally unavailable to private business.
“We had no means, unless someone was crazy, to get donations because people wouldn’t get any tax benefits by giving their money to us,” he said.
“The funding of the arts, in some respects, has legislated business out of the arts. This place did very well as a commercial theater for a long time and today it’s very difficult for us to compete with the advertising that even small community theaters are seemingly able to muster. You add that to their volunteer help…and I think the non-profit world was successful to the detriment of the commercial world in the arts.”
He feels fortunate the Firehouse is an established entity now that it seeks funds from the same pool or resources as other non-profits. “I think it would be impossible to start something new in Omaha today. You’re not going to get funding right away because that’s sort of locked in – in the funding apparatus out there,” he said.
“And the public is not as curious and willing to function on their own as they were 15 years ago, so it’s more difficult to get people in the seats.”
He believes one reason why people are less adventurous is the lack of professional theater locally. The Firehouse, which uses Actors Equity performers, is the city’s only professional theater operating year-round and paying its actors a living wage. “The place plays 52 weeks, or close to it, a year,” said Taxman, “and that’s a unique aspect of what we do.”
“I’d like to see another professional theater right accross the street. I think it would be good for us, but I also think I’m totally alone in that philosophy,” Mueller said. “If they can excite their audience then I’ve got a chance of getting their audience.”
He added that another theater would also bolster Omaha’s shallow talent pool by enticing more artists to come here and more natives to stay. He noted Omaha was a theater hotbed in the early ’70s, when the Firehouse, Westroads Dinner Theater and The Talk of the Town all operated. “It was great fun and it was much easier to cast because there was more talent.”
Mueller feels Omahans suffer an acute case of provincialism in warily embracing new arts groups or concepts: “The arts community gets very protective of their own organizations and takes a very limited view. It’s always puzzled me.”
He wants to assuage any fear other theaters might have that the Firehouse is somehow a threat to them. The scenario reminds him of when the Guthrie Theatre opened amid “epidemic fear that it was going to kill all of the community theaters in Minneapolis. And, you know, the Guthrie did nothing but good for the theater community. It busted it wide open. None of those fears, I suspect, had any basis in reality.”
While Mueller has received a few letters indicating Omaha can survive nicely without the Firehouse, he said most of the reaction to its reopening has been positive.
Taxman, who is designing the theater’s development program, said, “I find those people I talk to are very happy to visit and are excited about the idea. The real measure in terms of opening checkbooks is still an open question, but we’ve only been at it three or four weeks.”
Mueller said that besides a $15,000 grant from Douglas County “our non-profit status has not produced any mother-lode. We’re still pretty much making it on our own.”
Taxman is working to change that. He is writing grant applications to private foundations, corporations and government agencies as well as coordinating a direct mail campaign aimed at the theater’s long-time patrons – its season ticket holders and group tour participants. He expects to conduct a community-wide public campaign by the fall.
He said individual giving is vital in demonstrating to grant review panels “there’s a lot of local support” and is confident that support will come. He anticipates the theater’s fundraising efforts to show “some significant” gains within 12 months. The theater, he said, sells itself.
“This is an institution that generates 90 to 100 percent of its nut from earned income. So every dollar you give really is leveraged 9 or 10 times in terms of the organization’s effectiveness. It’s been around for a long time and has a long track record of excellent performances.
“One of the positive aspects is that the amount of money that has to be raised to make this place work and healthy is not a staggering number. And because of that I think its future is very viable – without the community sagging under the burden of another institution to support.”
The Firehouse budget is $978,000. The theater is labor-intensive and about half the weekly $4,500-$5,000 costs of staging Daisy, for example, are for actors’ salaries. An expense that has risen dramatically in recent years is the royalties fee, which for Daisy is about 10 percent of the weekly box office take. Mueller recalls doing Noel Coward for $100 a week.
“The overhead of the theater is really very efficient and stable, so the variable is really the production costs,” said Taxman.
Another priority is recruiting board members who share Mueller’s vision of the theater. Although no longer the owner or manager, he is still very much the Firehouse Svengali. He’s proud and protective of its past and bullish on its future.
“This room has provided just a little over 9,000 weeks of gainful employment for theater talent – actors, directors and musicians – since it opened. And I don’t believe there’s ever been a theater in Nebraska that has even come close to that,” he said. “That room is as good as any in the country for a Daisy or Steel Magnolias, which is the kind of kind of material I really like to do – actor-intensive, not spectacle. Intimate theater.”
He said that while the “dinner theater concept made this place,” the new Firehouse is more to his liking. “It makes a much better, more comfortable and cleaner theater. Eighteen years ago dinner theater was really an exciting new thing and there are still some places making it work, but I think it’s had its major day.” Besides, he said the Firehouse can book dinner for patrons downstairs at Harrigans (a nouvelle pub) if they do wish.
Mueller wants the theater to continue doing what it’s done best in the past and to branch out in some new areas.
“I would like to see us do at least one new production a year. In five years it would be nice to think one of those had made it to New York or Chicago as a modest success.”
The Firehouse has presented four world premieres and is bringing another , Lawrence Broch’s Joan in October. Mueller is considering restaging a work that premiered there in 1982, Dale Wasserman’s Shakespeare and the Indians. To this day he rues not having the time or foresight to perfect that play and then take it to London, where he thinks audiences would have eaten it up.
“But that takes perspective and having other people to shoulder some of the day-to-day operations. We didn’t have that luxury then.”
The Firehouse does now and that’s why Mueller is anxious “to turn Omaha on its ear” with more premieres and “a broader menu of material.”
“I feel what we’ve done for 18 years is pretty much the program. It’s true I’d like to expand on that, but it’s not like we’re turning our back on everything we did and going in a different direction. We know we can do certain showd every bit as good on this stage as the Guthrie or Broadway could do on those stages. We’ve got a pretty decent national reputation right now and I’d like to see that improved.”
He does see a possibility of producing on other stages when it’s appropriate to the material, as the Firehouse did at the University of Nebraska at Omaha with Battle Hymn.
He also said the theater may one day tour productions. One thing he rules out is forming a resident acting company.
What he wants most, however, is for the Firehouse to lead a theater renasissance of sorts in Omaha. For the city to be a theater center where people can have more experiences like the one in New York 30 years ago that changed his life.
“I’d love to see every theater in town producing those kinds of experiences because then we’d have a potential audience in town that is far larger then what it is now. Good theater begets more and hopefully better theater and less is on the way to a ghost town.”
- John Beasley and Sons Make Acting a Family Thing at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop and Beyond (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Is Over-the-moon for Jersey Boys (boneaubryanbrown.com)
- For Chicago Actress, A Broadway Debut Opposite Connick in “On a Clear Day” (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
- From the Archives: Monika Kelly Recalls her Late Father, the Beloved Clown and Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Legend, Emmett Kelly Sr. (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)