Archive

Archive for December, 2016

Breaking the chains and being set free

December 28, 2016 Leave a comment

A dear friend asked me to share this personal witness for those of you afflicted with addiction or who have a friend or loved one caught in the struggle. The hope is to cast some light in the darkness. Addiction can be an isolating thing and with the ice storm shutting us in and everything down, the loneliness, the temptation, the internal conflict can be overwhelming, So, for those needing it, please heed these words and let go of all that fear and anger, of all that hopelessness and despair, to know, receive and accept the love that is in you and that is inherently you. There is no lack in you, except maybe surrender and faith. Anyone fighting the good fight will understand what the title of this message “Breaking the chains and being set free” refers to, but it is in fact applicable to so much of our human condition. The thing to know is that once the shackles are shed, all you need do is follow the light and let your spirit fly free. That’s when you can soar to the sun. The freedom starts by acknowledging you have a problem, that you can’t lick it alone and that you accept the healing gift of a higher power to break the chains holding you down. It’s all in how you think and what you do. But true freedom only comes from getting out of your head and getting in touch with your heart. And, so, with no further ado, I present my friend’s call to the heart on this cold winter’s night. May it warm you and light the way out of the dark.

 

 

Breaking the chains and being set free

The time has come to part ways.

A long time ago, you saw the gaps in me and made me believe you filled the void when nothing else could.

That was a lie, of course, but I didn’t know it then. I didn’t know it for a very long time.

Like a lost child, I sought comfort wherever I could find it.

Even when I discovered the truth, I found it hard to say goodbye.

You are such a bedeviling creature and I am such a slave to your seductive charms. You go right for my weaknesses and unless I am careful I succumb every time.

You are the ultimate illusionist. Even though I know better by now, if I find myself tired. angry, afraid, depressed or lonely, you will still appear to be the answer, the relief, the escape I desire – unless I am honest with myself and willing to see through the mask.

I know now what I seek is love of God and love of self, not lust. I seek wholeness and unity of mind, body, spirit, not betraying oaths for momentary pleasures that only splinter me. What you offer is a mirage, not even a temporary fix, but merely a distraction to numb the pain. In the end, you don’t fill me or complete me, you empty me and keep me shattered in pieces.

Like a fool, I sought to purchase love, solace, oneness. These things cannot be bought or sold. They can only be claimed as rightful, divine-endowed parts of me.

But I would not believe that I was God-worthy. I would not accept that I was created from love, by love, for love.

Feeling loveless is no way to live. Nothing good comes from the desperation and despair that follows.

In spurning God, I let a hole in my heart fester. Like the seducer you are, you are always eager to fill that void, though in reality you can’t.

You are the Pandora of the fabled box. Once I open that chest of alluring pleasures, your stream of temptress guises are too many and enticing to avoid. One or more is sure to envelop me if I let things go that far.

You are the mythic siren calling me and your bewitching powers cast a spell that pulls a veil over reality, obscuring moral bounds. so that I fall back into your wiles again, suddenly grown blind to the truth, willing to risk all, to cross boundaries, to betray myself and others.

In the haze of your intoxicating pull, it’s as if all sound judgment is rendered powerless.

You make it seem as if I have no will to resist and in fact by the time I do entertain your delights, I am in your control.

With some perspective, that we call sobriety, I now know that I always have a choice.

It begins by admitting that I have a problem but also by believing that it need not define me. It is a part of my nature. It is a chronic affliction that thrives under certain conditions. If I am in a vulnerable state of mind, heart and soul, then I am at risk. It doesn’t mean I will act out, it just means that is when I am most susceptible, therefore that’s when I need to be most vigilant.

Those of us who identify as afflicted this way find that recovery, even in our darkest, lowest times, is always freely offered and within our grasp. The solution is surrender to a Higher Power of our choice. Whatever name you give it, healing flows from this wellspring of love that is the source of all life.

This disease feeds on negative energy. Recovery springs from positive energy.

Recovery is the conscious, intentional act of walking out of the darkness and into the light. It is a choice that must be made over and over again. It means bravely facing life one day, one action, one decision, one thought, one feeling at a time. It requires basking in the glow of life, with all its intensity or boredom, its anxiety and discomfort, its pain and pleasure, rather than hiding in the gloom of shadow and looking for some artificial high.

Man in despair

I am not cured. There is no such thing as a cure where this is concerned. I am, however, informed, armed with tools, working a program, taking steps and slowly making progress. There are stumbles along the way. I sometimes take wrong turns. I sometimes relapse. Been there, done that.

I am getting too old for this shit.

The longer it is with me, the more rewiring my brain requires. A lifetime of bad habits and patterns in my thinking and reacting must be unlearned and new, healthier ones put in their place. It’s like an old dog learning new tricks.

Starting over at 58 is not a good picture or prospect, but it’s a lot better than dying alone or being a sullen mess feeding on chaos and misery. That’s where this leads if left unchecked. Ruined relationships, losing your spouse, your family, your home, your livelihood, your name, your health, even your freedom.

Did I mention losing your mind? You see, this affliction is a form of insanity. Despite my best intentions and full recognition of right and wrong, I am liable to turn a blind eye and throw everything away I say I cherish for a fix. I’m liable to lie and cheat, to break promises, vows, oaths. I’m liable to sabotage goals and plans.

I have been lucky so far. Nothing lost. Except peace of mind. Except causing various people in my life untold pain. Making amends is a lifetime project.

The past can hold me hostage if I let it. This problem can enslave me if I empower it.

Revealing my truth in this forum feels awkward but right. It is a public testimony. It is a declaration. It is a prayer. This disease is all about secrets and rituals, about holding onto old wounds and hurts and getting stuck in the muck and mire. Recovery is all about honesty and transparency, about housecleaning, about moving forward and freely. Telling my story, my truth, symbolizes my saying goodbye to something I don’t need anymore. I therefore let go of the crutch and the anesthetic of addiction. I let go of the fear, resentment and self-pity that lead me to seek these false supports and cause me to become dependent on them.

Mark this as my release – release from the bonds and chains that held me captive. I hereby claim that release for myself. I hereby resolve to choose freedom, sobriety, serenity.

I am scarred but not broken. I am healing. I am free.

 

Pot Liquor Love: Anne and Craig McVeigh bring Beacon Hills take on American comfort cuisine back to where their food careers started

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Anne and Craig McVeigh both got their restaurant starts in Omaha but it was in Lincoln they made their mark on the area culinary scene with their Beacon Hills restaurant and after a long, succesful run there they’ve closed it and opened a new Beacon Hills in Omaha’s emerging destination place, Aksarben Village. Like so many restauranters today, the McVeighs do their variation on American comfort food by adding fresh, refined touches to familiar old dishes. This profile I wrote for Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/) covers their journey in the industry from worker bees learning the ropes to entrepreneurs spinning their own take on food that makes us happy. Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

food-spirits-cover

food-spirits-beacon-hills-i

food-spirits-beacon-hills-ii

food-spirits-beacon-hills-iii

 

Pot Liquor Love:

Anne and Craig McVeigh bring Beacon Hills take on American comfort cuisine back to where their food careers started 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in 2016-2017 winter issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)

 

It is back to the future for Anne and Craig McVeigh and their new Beacon Hills restaurant at 6750 Mercy Road in Aksarben Village.

The restauranteurs got their industry start at M’s Pub and the Garden Cafe in Omaha before moving to Lincoln. As franchisees, they opened two successful Gardens in the capital city and eventually their own signature place – the original Beacon Hills.

They did American comfort food before it turned trendy. That was Garden’s staple brand and the couple refined the cuisine concept at Beacon Hills.

Craig McVeigh, who supervises the kitchen, said he and his wife are bemused by the whole comfort food revolution that’s made the tried-and-true cuisine fashionable.

“We’re not trying to catch up, we’re trying to just keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing it all along. We were doing it without even realizing the comfort food march was going on. It was cool way before it got cool.”

Anne McVeigh said, “I look at what other people are doing but I’m more concerned with what we’re doing and the product we put out.”

They long ago sold their Garden Cafes. This past summer they closed the old Beacon Hills after a 16-year run. Now the pair’s trying to make magic again with their Omaha eatery. The combined restaurant, catering operation and banquet facility opened in the Pacific Life building on October 14. Stinson Park is just to the south and Baxter Arena just beyond it. The Keystone Trail and College of St. Mary campus are to the west. A large patio features a stone fireplace, decorative pavers and a distinctive wrought-iron gate. The relaxed outdoor area is just off the Elmwood Room, an informal Beacon Hills party space that can accommodate 72 seated diners.

The Elmwood Room and main dining area feature a wood and stone motif of earthen-colors. The exposed, industrial ceiling is given warmth and texture by a fan of big wood beams and stone-splashed walls. Salvaged artifacts serve as vintage wall art. Mounted in the dining room are weathered windmill blades. Between the restrooms’ hangs an old unpainted barn door. On a back wall are splays of Spanish oak branches.

“We didn’t want to do anything cookie-cutter,” Anne said. “We’re not just going to throw something up to throw something up. We’re going to put stuff up we really like .”

The dining room is dominated by the granite-topped bar. The Elmwood Room features an over-sized credenza. Large windows let in ample light throughout.

Anne, who runs the front of the house with daughter Beth, said diners like the intended cozy, neighborhood feel. Comfort is behind much of Beacon Hills. It’s in the homey, familiar dishes like meatloaf, fried chicken, chicken pot pie, pot roast, mac and chess and crab cakes. A signature dish is the garlic-mustard-butter sauced sirloin steak.

Craig said, “The comfort food thing – it’s just good food that doesn’t go out of style. I think sometimes it goes away for a little while. But it you get a slice of perfectly baked meatloaf or fried chicken that’s crispy not soggy, who’s not going to like that. My description has always been we take the classics and put our spin on them.”

Anne said, “There’s a lot of things on this menu we’ve been doing since the first menu (in Lincoln). It all started with the crab cakes. People love them. The recipe comes from a 1940s-era Maryland cookbook. Our crab cakes are very simple. Crab meat is the star.

“Friends say that Craig and I are together because of his crab rangoon. They’re so delicious. They’re super-stuffed with real crab.”

“On the creative side,” she said “we have pretty good palates. We are not fussy people but we try to put selections on our menu that everybody will like. Our chef Elizabeth Reissig-Anderson has worked for us for 25 years. The three of us bring all of our unique backgrounds together to put together menus.”

Since their Garden Cafe adventures until now, the McVeighs have worked virtually every day together for 30 years

“Most people would say that’s insane,” Anne said, “but the reason it works so well is that what Craig does he does very well and what I do I think I do very well but we don’t do the same job. It’s always his decision when it comes to anything in the kitchen. He’s the wheel or the ramrod.”

As the expeditor, no order leaves the kitchen without Craig’s approval. Anne handles the business side, writing all the checks. It’s not to say they never butt heads.

“Now. have we had some spirited conversations from time to time? I think so,” she said, smiling.

The key is letting the small stuff go and getting together on the big stuff. It helps that they both thrive on hard work and in putting customers first.

“This comes with our shared Midwestern upbringing and value system. Nobody works as hard as Craig and I do,” she said.

The point of putting in long hours and seeing to every detail is customer satisfaction.

“When we can be part of making people’s day a little bit better for the short time they’re here with us, that really makes us happy,” Anne said.

Just as in Lincoln. their new Beacon Hills is already drawing notables and creating regulars. Craig said the goal is giving everyone, no matter who you are, the same quality service and experience.

“We just want you to come back.”

He was born and raised in Tekamah, Nebraska. Anne, in Omaha. He came here as a young man to help his brother frame houses. He did that by day and at night worked food jobs. He learned the kitchen ropes at the old Playboy Club and the Acapulco, then did a stint at Bonanza, before a chance meeting with an M’s co-owner got him hired there.

He acknowledges he “fibbed a bit” about his skill set. But with help from his old boss at the club he learned the essentials of food costing and executing fancy culinary techniques.

Meanwhile, Anne’s grandfather and father were cattle brokers at the Omaha stockyards, where she spent much time as a girl. She traces her love of restaurants to Sunday family dinners at Johnny’s Cafe. Anne worked her way through college waitressing at various venues before joining M’s, which is where she and Craig met. They both mourn the loss of M’s to fire in 2015. The “anchor” Old Market spot gave many others their start in the food industry.

The ambitious couple then caught on with Garden Cafe just as the Omaha-based business begun by Ron Popp (Wheafields) began expanding and franchising.

“We got in on the ground floor,” Craig said.

They moved quickly up the corporate ladder before seizing an opportunity they saw to buy the franchise rights for Lincoln. While other Garden Cafes struggled and the company downsized, the McVeighs’ first facility was such a hit that they built a second.

Lincoln developer Larry Price asked them to do a new venture tied to a hotel complex under construction. He died before its completion but a new developer finished the project and invited the McVeighs to open their Beacon Hills restaurant there on a handshake deal.

Developers came to them, Anne said, “because we’d established ourselves as good operators.” Craig said their Garden Cafes “did numbers that I don’t know we’ll ever match anywhere again – Lincoln was so ripe for that (concept) at the time.”

Beacon Hills cultivated many loyal restaurant, catering and banquet customers. The McVeighs’ experience helping Garden Cafe grow prepared them for having their own food ventures. It helps that Craig enjoys working through challenges until he finds solutions.

“I like problem-solving. Because of how fast Garden Cafe moved, we spent every day solving growth problems. I wasn’t involved in planning new stores but once new ones came on board I was involved in hiring people in and getting things organized.”

He said the hardest transition they ever undertook was implementing PSO or Point of Sell. Twenty years he devised a custom system he still uses today that automatically updates food costs as prices change.

The couple meant to keep the flagship Lincoln store even after deciding to open the new one in Omaha. But the hotel their Lincoln facility rented space in changed ownership and when lease negotiations stalled, Craig said “we saw the writing on the wall.” The couple have brought some veteran Lincoln staff to Omaha

Aksarben was their choice for the Omaha startup because of its dense residential-commercial surroundings, high traffic and vibrant goings-on.

“This is an A plus location and it’s only going to get better with the new HDR headquarters and the new hotel coming in,” Craig said. “Our location in Lincoln was a C.”

Being at historic Aksarben is full-circle for Anne, whose family has long ties to the rodeo, coronation and ball and foundation. She loves “the symmetry of it all,” adding, “I just love being back at home.”

The couple didn’t doubt they wanted to do a new Beacon Hills, but Anne said, “we weren’t sure we could do this again physically – we’re not young.” They’ve proved they can. Besides, not much can throw them by now. As she put it, “We’ve seen it all.”

While she appreciates imitation is high flattery, she believes some local eateries copied Beacon Hills dishes without crediting the source and, as her cattle broker family used to say, “It chaps my hide.”

But as the McVeighs know, all is fair in love, war and restaurant competition. After all, they reinvented Garden Cafe in Beacon Hills. Now they’ve reinvented Beacon Hills in Omaha. Let the good times roll.

Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Call 402-033-3115 for reservations.

Visit http://beaconhills.com/ for details.

Pot Liquor Love: Chef-owner Jenny Coco proves she can hang with the boys

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Jenny Coco is well aware she’s an outlier as a female chef in a profession that’s still very much a man’s world, but she hasn’t let it deter her from carving out a successful niche in Omaha’s dynamic restaurant scene. After making a name for herself and her food at the Flatiron Cafe, she’s made her mark as chef-owner of J Coco, where she does American comfort cuisine in a fine dining way, and now she’s embarking on a second restaurant that will feature a distinct concept all its own. Chefs are artists and just like visual and performing artists, they develop a following and fan base, and Jenny Coco has cultivated a large and loyal group of foodies who’ve followed her from V Mertz to the Flatiron to J Coco. They will no doubt support her new as yet unnamed new place as well. My profile of Jenny for Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/) charts some of her journey and what makes her passionate about what she does.

Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

food-spirits-cover

food-spirits-j-coco-i

food-spirits-j-coco-ii

food-spirits-j-coco-iii

Pot Liquor Love:

Chef-owner Jenny Coco proves she can hang with the boys

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in 2016-2017 winter issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)

 

In the male-dominated culinary field men get the lion’s share of attention. In Omaha, Clayton Chapman and Paul Kulik headline a deep roster of acclaimed chefs. But at least one woman, Jenny Coco, has proved her chops compare with anyone’s, regardless of gender.

Coco doesn’t make a big deal about breaking down the doors to this exclsuive boys club.

“It takes a certain personality, male or female, to do this and we all have the same type of mentality I think,” she said. “Since our brains are wired very similarly, it doesn’t matter that I’m a woman. I mean, if I wasn’t meant to be doing this, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Besides, she added, “I know I can hang with them.”

Like the best of her male colleagues in town, she’s been nominated for the prestigious James Beard prize. Unlike them, she never went to culinary school. She’s learned everything she knows working on the line, reading and absorbing things where she finds them. The Omaha native paid her dues at landmark Omaha eateries. She did her first professional cooking at the Baking Company in an all women-staffed kitchen – a rarity then and now.

Though she doesn’t consider herself a trailblazer, she’s well aware that women chefs are still few and far between and often face a tough road.

“I don’t want to see that keeping other women from jumping in and I’m finally seeing that change,” she said. “I can count on one hand how many women I worked with after the Baking Company 30 years ago. There’s just not a lot of women chefs. A lot of them still do pastry.

There’s so much more, there’s so much talent.”

She’s heartened by the many talents, male and female, emerging from Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for Culinary Arts.

“They’re woven into the fabric of kitchens all over the city.”

“There’s so many restaurants in this town,” she said, that opportunities abound for young chefs starting out here or going away for more experience and coming back to make their mark.

Coco really honed her skills at V. Mertz and the Flatiron Cafe, where she developed a following.

Then, in 2012, ready to break from her chef-for-hire career, she opened her own J. Coco restaurant. The chic, not fussy spot at 5203 Leavenworth is all about her fresh take on traditional dishes using refined yet simple techniques and fresh, quality ingredients. Like so many of her contemporaries, she passionately elevates American comfort food to new heights, whether the espresso and chili-rubbed pork chop or peppercorn and porcini-dusted ribeye.

Directly across the street is a venerable bakery and cafe, Gerda’s, that features a German slant on comfort food. It’s namesake proprietor is also female. Indeed, Coco said the stretch of Leavenworth from 52nd to 48th Streets includes more than a dozen female-owned businesses.

It’s a full circle life for Coco. As a girl she ate home-cooked meals that her mother, Joan Militti, who went from lunch lady to school District 66 food services manager, prepared. Now Coco’s putting a gourmet stamp on things like oxtails, short ribs and mac and cheese that she grew up eating.

“It’s just taking what everybody recognizes and maybe showing them   something different or doing a new twist on things. I want to make sure my food is prepared properly and is as approachable and clean and simple as possible, so that we’re always on people’s radar. Maybe we’re not breaking down the culinary walls, but you’re going to get a wonderful meal here and we work very hard at that.”

Tradition is important to Coco, who located her restaurant in the former Wohlner’s grocery store. The iconic Wohlner’s occupied the brick building from the 1940s until moving a few years back. Before that, the structure housed another grocer, Newman’s. All this matters to Coco because her great-grandfather was part owner of Kotera & Sloup Staple and Fancy Groceries generations ago. A blown-up black and white photograph of that store’s proprietors proudly standing in front of their wares pops at one end of J. Coco. Adorning another wall are oversized prints picturing vintage goods from Wohlner’s.

Always wanting a neighborhood place of her own, she knew she wanted the Aksarben-Elmwood space as soon as it became available.

“It’s a beautiful building with a good history to it. We wanted to keep the neighborhood connection. There were such strong feelings after the store left. People were so mad. They liked seeing their neighbors here.

They liked coming every day and grabbing the food for that evening’s dinner. It was part of their thing, their day, their routine and then it was gone and being in this neighborhood here I know that’s who’s going to support us here day in and day out.

“Residents of this neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods are dedicated, devoted, supportive. They prove it over and over again.

They’re not going past 72nd (Street) – they’re here and they don’t want to go anywhere else.”

She said she’s taken pains to make her place “very comfortable,” adding, “It’s like eating in my dining room at my house. We have family pictures up at home, so why wouldn’t we here?”

With J. Coco established, she’s about to open a second, as-yet-unnamed, spot on the southeast corner of 50th and Underwood, in a building that’s seen much turnover and recently suffered a fire.

 

“It’s a big space we’re planning on dividing to have two concepts under one roof. One side will be a lounge-bar with craft cocktails and late night food. That’s where the restaurant side comes in. It will keep regular restaurant hours and then close down, but the bar side will be able to serve food later. There’s nobody doing late night food.

“What I’d like to move into now is more playful. Like doing a food truck inside that serves street cuisine or updating the Cheese Frenchee. I want to feature small plates that people can share. That’s how my friends and I eat when we go out.”

She said she meant to take J. Coco in a similar direction, though she has pared down its entrees and expanded the starters, but she and her patrons weren’t ready for it.

“I wanted this to be a complete break from what I’ve always done

but the customers wanted to see an extension of Flatiron. That was my comfort zone, too. I knew how to cook that style of food.”

Having her own branded place in J. Coco meant quite a leap for her.

“After spending 20 years hiding in the kitchen to now having my name on the wall has been different. People expect to see me when they come. They want to talk to me. So, now I split my time half and half between the kitchen and the front of the house. It was difficult at first. But if people can’t put the face to the experience, they’re not coming back. They like that connection. They like you to remember their name or their favorite drink or entree, and that’s nice, too, because people have been supporting me for so many years. It’s just a small gesture to be able to thank them face to face.”

She’s out front more, too, because she’s overseeing construction of the second restaurant, which she expects to open May 1 or after.

Another reason her kitchen time’s reduced these days is that she has a capable cook in Pedro Garcia, who was with her many years at Flatiron before following her to J. Coco. Another member of the kitchen team she led at Flatiron also followed her to her restaurant.

“They’re just blossoming and that was my goal. At Flatiron I got to spread my wings and experiment and teach myself and that’s the kind of kitchen I want here. While I might not be cooking every day, I’m a resource. But mainly it’s their turn and they’re taking the ball and running with it. If I’m there blocking their rise, then what’s the point.”

She said whether cooking in the back or meeting-greeting up front, it’s evident how much more sophisticated diners’ palates have become.

“The Food Network and Food Channel have brought a great education to everybody,” she said. “People are more engaged with what they’re eating. They want to talk it about more. They want more explanation.

People want to know what they’re eating, where it’s from. They want to feel involved, where years ago I think they just wanted to be told what to eat. They just don’t want to be told anymore.”

She said diners want farm to table food that showcase fresh, local, organic, sustainable products, which are the same things Coco strives to provide with the help of area small growers and producers. While she said ingredients once difficult to find here are now available, more work needs to be done to cultivate farmer-chef relationships in order to take full advantage of Nebraska’s vast arable land.

Coco said the restaurant business isn’t for everyone because of the long, crazy hours that mean missing family events.

“I know what I’ve given up,” said Coco, who’s married with two step-daughters.

Knowing that her artistry satisfies patrons makes it all worthwhile.

“When people love it, well, what could be better. I have a talent, a gift and I want to share it and when people love it that’s pretty amazing. When the room’s humming, it’s a pretty awesome feeling, it really is.

There’s like no better feeling.”

Coco’s never been tempted to try her hand outside her hometown.

“I don’t mind being in a little pond if I can be a little bit bigger fish.”

Now that J. Coco’s going on five years, she wants it to be an institution.

“I want to be here for the long haul. We don’t have to be top of the heap – we just want to be part of the heap. Slow and steady wins the race, We’re here to finish.”

Business is good.

“I think we’re doing okay. Our weekends are always booked. You always need reservations.”

Frequent parties and a brisk catering trade boost revenues.

Though several blocks south of the hot Dundee food strip that has Mark’s, Dario’s, Avoli, Pitch, Paragon, Amsterdam Falafel and others, J. Coco’s benefits from the foodies those places draw,

“Dundee had paved the way.They were already bringing people to the area when we opened. That was a big thing. We need more. That’s what makes it all work.”

Meanwhile, Coco’s doing her part for girl power on Leavenworth.

J. Coco is open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to close.

Call or 402-884-2626 or visit jcocoomaha.com.

Pot Liquor Love: Doing things the Dario Way nets Omaha two of its most distinctive restaurants

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

As anyone who’s even a little familiar with the evolution of the Omaha culinary scene knows,  this burg has seen an elevation in quality and variety of cuisines, especially in chef-owner eateries that routinely push the envelope. One of the leaders in this movement has been Dario Schicke, a native of Bosnia who learned his craft in Europe and New York before making a dramatic impact here, first with Dario’s Brassiere, which continues strong, and now with his second place, Avoli Osteria. Two eateries within a block apart in Dundee, which boasts the best strip of restaurants in town can outside the Old Market, with two totally different cuisines and aesthetics. Dario has a big personality and a big story to match. This is my profile of him in the winter 2016/2017 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine.

Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

food-spirits-cover

food-spirits-dario-i  food-spirits-dario-ii

food-spirits-dario-iii

food-spirits-dario-iv

Pot Liquor Love:

Doing things the Dario way nets Omaha two of its most distinctive restaurants

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in winter 2016/2017 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)

 

Half measures don’t cut it with Dario Schicke, the Bosnian chef-owner who bears a striking resemblance to Alec Baldwin. Schicke’s helped raise the Omaha culinary scene through a pair of Dundee restaurants dedicated to distinct, authentic European cuisines.

His Dario’s Brassiere and Avoli Osteria located within a block of each other on Underwood Avenue represent unique concepts at the upper end of casual fine dining. Dario’s features a French and Belgian-influenced menu complemented by imported beers. Avoli’s features northern Italian fare paired with wines of the region.

Each eatery contributes to Dundee’s foodie haven reputation. Though widely acclaimed, including a James Beard nomination for Dario’s, they were risky niche ventures made more risky by Schicke adamantly sticking to his vision. He admits he used to be even “more hardcore” demanding things be done his way but he’s relaxed some since putting together systems and staff that execute his vision.

His stubborn refusal to compromise makes sense when you understand all he went through to earn the right to do things his own way. He fled his homeland at age 20 only a few months after the Bosnian War erupted. His refugee experience began in Croatia before he moved to Germany and reunited with fellow refugees who could work but couldn’t travel. He met his wife Amy, a native of Kearney, Nebraska, at a Munich beer house where he worked.

He grew up in a restaurant family in Sarajevo. While surviving in Germany he worked various food jobs. Then he and Amy moved to New York City, where they soon took over a Greek deli that sold imported beers he set about studying. That search led him to train at the French Culinary Institute and he used those skills to transform the deli into a French bistro. The couple planned moving to the south of France when Amy got pregnant. The first of their two daughters was born in NYC. Amy got pregnant again. Then 9/11 happened – with the twin towers collapsing less than a mile away. The business suffered and the trauma led Amy and the girls to resettle in Omaha while a shell-shocked Schicke tried salvaging the business, then searching for a buyer until recouping his investment and joining his family here.

He briefly worked at the French Cafe before landing at the Market Basket. His classically prepared chef dinners found enough of a following that he and Amy invested everything they owned in order to open Dario’s. Its staple entrees and beers set it apart. For less adventurous diners it proved too much an outlier.

“At the beginning it wasn’t easy. I can’t tell you how many people would look at our menu and just walk out,” Schicke said. “We didn’t sell  anything but Belgian beers, That was unheard of at the time. We lost a lot of business but it was the only way I could push our waiters and front of house staff to learn about those beers. All those beers didn’t exist in Nebraska, We had to special order them.”

Some customers resisted the hefty prices but he explained these hearty brews are far different than even domestic crafts. Besides, he argues, you get more for your money at Dario’s.

“Nobody has a problem paying $6 or $7 for a glass of so-so house wine with their meal, but in this case you get 11 ounces of the best of the best beer.”

People who tried it, invariably liked it. The same with the well north of $10 burger and fries, “I knew our burger and fries were going to be a hit because they’re delicious, but if we sold that for $6.99 that’s all we were going to sell. We had duck breast and scallops and mussels and crepes and chicken and pork chop. We brought our sandwich and entree prices as close as we could so we didn’t turn into a burger joint.

But even if you order a hamburger you’re still going to get braisserie service – you’re going to get bread and butter, a huge beer glass and water glass, both hand-washed and polished. You’re going to get all that, plus fries, for $11. Our fries are hand-peeled, hand-cut, soaked in water overnight, then blanched. You get what you pay for. There was nothing to compare to it at the time.”

He recalled a disgruntled customer who complained about a burger, fries and beer costing nearly $30 with tax.

“This guy told me, ‘I’m not happy.’ I was like, ‘Sorry.’ Two days later the same guy came in, even angrier, saying, ‘Damn it. I couldn’t stop thinking about that burger and fries.’ Exactly. So we just stuck with our passion and now the culture’s caught up with us.”

Then, with Avoli, he filled a local gap in northern Italian food. In keeping with that cuisine’s tenets, there’s no pizza or lasagna or spaghetti and meatballs on the menu, rather a curated selection of fresh, homemade and imported dry pasta dishes.

“Both of our places are focused on a region in Europe and that’s what we’ve stayed true to from day one. Dario’s ten years now and three and a half years with Avoli. We don’t change for any trends or influences. That was the idea. As a chef and restaurant owner I really want to commit to the style and region we’re going to represent. We don’t want to deviate in any way.”

He couldn’t have crested more different eateries.

“They are so opposite these two restaurants that I can’t even mix a single person working in both places,” Schicke said. “Everything about them is different. There’s no overlapping menu items. I went so extreme even our security companies and computer systems are different. I didn’t want to open a second Dario’s – I wanted to start       something new.”

Besides, he said, “the only way for me to step outside of Dario’s was to do something else.” With Dario’s already well-established and having a “great crew there,” he devotes more of his hands-on time to supporting Avoli with its complex menu and larger kitchen and dining room. But he still starts and ends every night at his namesake spot, Dario’s.

He, Amy and friends did the interior designs of both places themselves.

“It’s very personal to us. Why pay somebody a lot of money to tell you what you like?”

Schicke’s passion for getting thing right and his hunger for always learning new things finds him taking off to hone his craft at restaurants. To prep for Avoli, he said, “I went to italy and worked in a whole bunch of Italian restaurants because I wanted to do it right. I wanted to do what today’s Italian food is. So I went all the way down deep, from product to menu to how people eat, what they eat, how they source and how we translate that in Omaha.”

There are no fussy fusions at his restaurants. The dishes are created using the same ingredients and preparations as in Europe.

“At Avoli we use only Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele. We don’t cut our parmesan, we get a wheel of parmesan every few months that’s about 95 to 110 pounds. It’s like a $1,200 to $1,400 piece of cheese. That’s what we use exclusively. When we grate our parmesan it’s like snow flakes and it just melts into the pasta. It’s a huge difference. We use certified olive oils. We went out and sourced authentic Italian olive oils. We get double zero flour from Italy. San Marzano tomatoes, farm fresh eggs. That’s what we do.”

He acknowledges his ability to adhere to such standards is made possible by the independence he maintains.

“I’m really lucky I have people at home supporting me because it could easily be a situation where partners say, “We could be making a lot more money serving something else.’ But we don’t have investors – we don’t have a lot of people involved. I don’t have anybody telling me what to do.”

If he took shortcuts, it would only spoil things for this perfectionist and traditionalist.

“I do this for passion but also you have to make a living doing it. I have a family to raise, I have a house. You have to be able to build a life around it. It’s exciting and challenging. Running a restaurant, dealing  with business aspects, being creative and cooking every day for two places, not easy, and a lot of times not fun. To mix all that in one bowl, it’s rough. That’s when those Belgian beers come in handy.

“Raising teenage girls – I need stronger than Belgian beer to get over that,” he said, laughing.

In the restaurant business there’s no option but to be committed,

“There’s too many moving parts, it’s too expensive,” he said. “Our art is probably the most expensive art in the world. We have to have heat, air conditioning, plumbing, electrical. insurance, all this stuff to practice our art. You need like a thousand bucks a day to practice, so you have to be smart about it. I tell people, if you don’t have passion, just don’t do it, do something else.

“Otherwise, you’ll get burned out.”

He said the success of his restaurants is simply a function of “our crazy passion and not giving up – we just do what we do and I’m very proud of what we’ve done.”

Even though both places feature staples that never change, Schicke allows himself and his chefs freedom to experiment with new dishes. He recently introduced Avoli staff and diners to Croatian pasta.

“You make like a bread dough, roll it really thin, then bake it. Then you break it into pieces and cook it like pasta, so it’s twice-cooked pasta that has like a bread quality. We’re going to serve goose and the dried pasta’s going to be rehydrated and cooked in those goose juices, with

chestnuts and all that stuff. That’s my comfort food.”

Some inspiration is tied to the seasons. At Avoli, for example, he said, “You get to the summer and it’s all about great olive oil, vinegars, tomatoes, basil. You can’t help it. But as soon as it gets colder, the nights are a little longer, that’s when I shine with flavorful marinades and braises. A little more complex food – using less expensive ingredients and making them luxurious,”

Meanwhile, he’ll keep pushing his skills by guest working in kitchens.

“It’s fun, it keeps me excited, I learn to do things better. Then I come back here torturing everybody with what I saw.”

 

Dario’s, 4920 Underwood Ave.

Tuesday-Sunday, Dinner, 5-10 p.m.

Saturday Brunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.

Sunday Brunch: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

402-933-0799

 

Avoli Osteria, 5013 Underwood Ave.

Tuesday-Sunday, Dinner, 5-10 p.m.

402-933-7400

 

Visit http://www.dariosbrasserie.com and http://www.avoliosteria.com.

Marlin Briscoe: The Magician Finally Gets His Due

December 27, 2016 1 comment

Marlin Briscoe has a story straight out of Hollywood and so it’s only right that a major motion picture about his life is in the works. The Omaha native made history on the field by becoming the first black starting quarterback in the National Football League but he achieved an even greater feat off the field by recovering from a serious drug addiction he developed after retiring from the game. The title of the soon to start production film “The Magician” comes from the nickname Briscoe was given during his legend-in-the-making collegiate career at then-University of Omaha when he’d improvise plays in the broken field with his arm, legs and head for big gainers and touchdowns. He played much the same way the one and only year he was given a chance to play quarterback in the NFL. Undeterred when teams denied him the opportunity to play signalcaller again, he made himself into a top-notch wide receiver who won All-Pro honors with the Buffalo Bills and back to back Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins. All through his NFL caereer he encountered obstacles and he took them all on and won, including an anti-trust lawsuit. But the biggest fight of his life lay ahead and he licked that, too. At the time Briscoe made history and overcame his demons, little was made of it, but in the ensuing years more and more recognition and love have come his way, includng induction in the College Football Hall of Fame. The movie should help cement his case for eventual inclusion in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. My new Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) story about Marlin touches on these and other threads of his life.

Link to more Marlin Briscoe stories I’ve written at–
https://leoadambiga.com/?s=marlin+briscoe+

Link to my Omaha Black Sports Legends series at–

 

briscoe-cover

Marlin Briscoe

The Magician Finally Gets His Due

December 22, 2016
©Photography by Contributed
Appearing in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Omaha native Marlin Briscoe made history in 1968 as the NFL’s first black starting quarterback. His success as a signal-caller carried huge symbolic and practical weight by disproving the then-popular misconception that blacks lacked the intelligence and leadership to play the position.

The same racist thinking not only applied to quarterbacks but to other so-called thinking-man positions on the field (center, safety, middle linebacker) and on the sidelines (head coach, general manager).

briscoe4Even in those racially fraught times, Briscoe’s myth-busting feat went largely unnoticed. So did the rest of the story. After overcoming resistance from coaches and management to even get the chance to play QB, he performed well at the spot during his rookie professional season, never to be given the opportunity to play it again. That hurt. But just as he overcame obstacles his whole life, he set about winning on his own terms by learning an entirely new position—wide receiver—in the space of a month and going on to a long, accomplished pro career. He made history a second time by being part of a suit that found the NFL guilty of anti-trust violations. The resulting ruling, in favor of players, ushered in the free agency era.

After retiring, Briscoe faced his biggest personal hurdle when a serious crack-cocaine addiction took him to the bottom of a downward spiral before he beat that demon, too.

Now, nearly a half-century since making history and a quarter-century since regaining sobriety, Briscoe’s story is finally getting its due. His 2002 autobiography spurred interest in his tale. Major media outlets have featured his story. Modern-day black quarterbacks have credited his pioneering path, and several lauded him in video tributes played at an event titled “An Evening with the Magician,” held in his honor in September at Omaha’s Baxter Arena. A life-size statue of his likeness was dedicated at the tribute event. Also in the fall of 2016, he received the Tom Osborne Leadership Award. In December he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Now, he’s preparing to watch actor Lyriq Bent portray him in a major motion picture about his life, The Magician, set to film this spring.

If the movie, produced by his old Omaha University teammate-turned-actor John Beasley, is a hit, it will bring Briscoe’s role as a civil rights soldier to a much wider audience than ever before. Now in his early 70s, Briscoe fully appreciates all that has led up to this moment. He has no doubt he’s ready for whatever may come. Growing up in South Omaha’s melting pot, no-nonsense mentors and peers steeled him for life’s vagaries. Fierce competition toughened him.

“The training I grew up with was the best training any young man or woman could have,” Briscoe says.

On playing fields and courts, in streets and classrooms, he found an inner resolve that served him well through life’s ups and downs.

“That’s where I learned resilience—from my mom, my sister, and all my mentors, and neighbors. They all had this type of mentality and grit. It rubbed off on me and some of the kids I grew up with. It prepared me for anything. If I had not learned core values from growing up where I did, the things I did, the obstacles I overcame would never have happened.”

His cousin Bob Rose and Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s oldest brother Josh Gibson were among a cadre of local coaches who inspired youngsters of Briscoe’s generation. 

briscoe1

“You had to go through them if you wanted to do something wrong, and you didn’t want to go through them,” Briscoe says. “Our mentors were down at the Northside Y, at Kellom School, Kountze Park, St. Benedict’s. They cared about where we were going in life.”

When Briscoe was bullied as boy, Rose gave him a “magic box” filled with the tools of various sports—a baseball, football, basketball, and boxing gloves—with the admonition that if he mastered these, he wouldn’t be bothered. He did and wasn’t. The magic box became the gateway for the Magician to do his thing.

Briscoe grew up respecting adults, all adults, even winos, hustlers, and prostitutes.

“They told you to do something, you did it, and went on about your business,” he says.

He conducted himself in a way that in turn earned him respect as a young leader. Virtually all the athletic teams he played on growing up consisted primarily of white players, which meant his entire athletic life he was advancing diversity. Long before he found immortality with the Broncos, he was the first black quarterback on youth teams, at South High, and then at Omaha University (now known as UNO).

Though he lived in South Omaha, Briscoe made a point of going to the proving grounds of North Omaha, where there were even more great athletes and a particular endurance test and rite of passage.

“Off Bedford [Avenue] by Adams Park, there used to be The Hills. It was like the barrier and motivational place where top ballplayers like Gale Sayers and myself would go and work out. Sometimes, I would be up there early in the morning by myself running those hills. I always tell young people today, ‘It is what you do when nobody sees you that defines and determines your work ethic and how you will turn out.’

briscoe3

“There were plenty of guys with more ability than myself—who were bigger, stronger, faster—and while they worked hard when eyes were on them, they slacked off when they were alone. A lot of guys who never made it regretted not putting out the effort to match their ability.”

Briscoe might never have made history if not for some good fortune. He started at quarterback for Omaha University his sophomore and junior years, putting up good numbers and earning the nickname “Magician” for an uncanny ability to escape trouble and extend plays with highlight reel throws and runs. Just before what was supposed to be his senior year, 1966, he got undercut in an all-star basketball game at Bryant Center and took a hard spill. He went numb and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors decreed he was injury-free. He started the ’66 season football opener versus Idaho State with no ill effects. He had a monster game. Then, late in the contest, he took a hit that caused his neck to swell. When rushed to the ER this time, X-rays revealed a fractured vertebra. He’d competed with a broken neck.

Doctors told him his days playing contact sports were over. He accepted the harsh news and dived into his studies, ready to move on with life sans football. Then during a medical checkup, tests confirmed his bones recalcified, and he was cleared to play again. He got a medical hardship waiver from the NAIA and went on to have a huge senior season in 1967, earning small college All-American honors and getting picked in the 14th round of the NFL draft.

He’s convinced he wouldn’t have taken snaps in Denver, which drafted him as a defensive back, if he hadn’t negotiated his own contract to include a clause he be given a three-day tryout at quarterback. He so dazzled the media and the public during the open practices that once the season began and Denver QBs went down due to injury or were benched for poor play, he got his shot and ran with it.

Briscoe’s larger-than-himself magic enabled him to make history in a crucible year for America—a year of riots, anti-war protests, assassinations, and civil rights struggles.

“For some reason, divine intervention maybe, it just seemed the stars were aligned in 1968 for a black man to break the barrier at that position,” he says. “It just seems 1968 was the pivotal year for all African-Americans, for all Americans period. For me to do it in ’68 is just eerie, the way that happened.”

So much of his NFL experience, he says, involved fighting “injustices.” Released by Denver and denied playing quarterback again, he excelled at a new position. Blackballed by the league for challenging its power, he won a hard-fought battle for himself and fellow players.

He insists he was not resentful for being shortchanged at quarterback.

“I wasn’t bitter, I was disappointed,” he says. “When you’re bitter, you give up, you take all this stuff personally, and you quit. I tell young people, ‘You’re going to have disappointments, and you’re going to be treated unfairly, but you can’t be bitter about it.’ Instead, you roll up your sleeves and fight whatever negative things come your way. Plan A doesn’t work? You go to Plan B. Life is just that way.”

Only after walking away from the game to be a broker in Los Angeles did he meet a foe—crack cocaine—that got the better of him. Before his recovery, he lost everything: his home, his fortune, his family. 

briscoe5“Here I was on a park bench trying to get some sleep in the heart of L.A. after owning homes and property,” he says.

What was so maddening about it is that he had done everything right. “It was not like I left the game with nothing,” he says. “I left the game correctly, sitting on easy street. I had wise investments. I prepared to leave the game by going to school and getting additional degrees. I was not hurt. I was in perfect physical condition.”

But in the vacuum of his post-athletic life, without the daily disciplines of workouts and team dynamics, he slipped into an unhealthy lifestyle.

“I let my guard down. I wasn’t really prepared for the L.A. scene because my whole life was always about precision, being responsible,” he says. “Then, when I didn’t have to meet all these different obligations and being single, I wasn’t rooted in one direction—I was just partying. You know, bring it on.”

No one who knew Briscoe before could believe he was in the grip of something that controlled him so completely, least of all himself.

“I had been a player rep. I was the one they always came to just as I was when I was a kid. I was the one people always came to for sage advice. And I never did drugs in the NFL,” Briscoe says.

But there he was, enslaved to a habit he couldn’t kick. Through it all, even losing his Super Bowl rings as collateral for a bank loan, he never forgot who he was inside and what he had done. Though homeless, penniless, and stuck in a jail cell when Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead a team to an NFL title, Briscoe felt he shared in that victory, too.

“I felt proud on one hand, and disappointed in myself on the other hand,” he says.

He sank lower than he ever thought possible, but he came back to whip that challenge, too: “The thing is, I always knew I would let go of that descent. I always knew and prayed I’d get back to that person all Omaha knew as this accomplished individual who conquered the NFL and enjoyed all these triumphs. The people that knew me are so elated now I’ve overcome my post-career meltdown because I had been a champion for them, fighting the NFL. I was always fighting for them and fighting for myself. I put myself in positions as a player where my voice could be heard.”

Even though it was decades ago, he believes defying and defeating the NFL’s monied interests left a blemish on his career that got further stained when he was traded several times as persona non grata.

“I’m not bragging or anything, but if I had been any other player, I guarantee you, I’d have been in the NFL Hall of Fame a long time ago. Nobody had ever done it—making history as the first black starting quarterback. People don’t realize I was also the first black holder on extra points. Counting cornerback and wide receiver, I played four different positions in the NFL, and I’m not sure anybody did that before. Then you add in the fact I made All-Pro as a receiver within two years of switching positions and went on to win two Super Bowls.”

Efforts are underway to rectify his absence as a Canton inductee via a write-in campaign to the Hall’s Veterans Committee.

Just as Briscoe wasn’t bitter about being shut out from playing quarterback after his rookie year, he wasn’t bitter that other blacks followed him into the league at that position.

“If I had not succeeded in 1968, James Harris would not have gotten drafted by the Bills as a quarterback out of Grambling in 1969. If I would have failed, they would have brought James in as a tight end. But the fact I was a litmus test and succeeded, they could take a chance on a black quarterback, and James was drafted.

“Ironically, he and I ended up being roommates in Buffalo. We knew each other’s plight. We would have conversations after practice. I would tell him different things that were going to happen to him and to be prepared for them.”

While Briscoe is known as the first black starting QB, another black man, Willie Thrower, briefly got into two games as a QB with the Bears 15 years before Briscoe’s experience with the Broncos. High off his rookie year success, Briscoe had a chance meeting with Thrower in Chicago. The two men hit it off.

briscoe6Briscoe, Harris, Doug Williams, and Warren Moon have formed an organization called The Field General that uses the still-exclusive legacy of the black quarterback to educate and inspire young people. Blacks still comprise but a fraction of the professional QB ranks. The same is true of head coaches, coordinators, and general managers. That fact, combined with the journey each man had to make to get to those rarified places, reveals just how far the nation and league still have to go.

Never in his wildest dreams did Briscoe imagine his story would get so much attention this many years after he played.

“It just goes to show that, if you never give up, a lot of these things will come your way. Sometimes things come late, like this movie project about my life,” he says.

Briscoe says he only agreed to let his story be told in a movie if it stayed true to who he is and to what happened.

“It’s not for self-gratification,” he says. “It’s hopefully as an inspiration for others that you can overcome any obstacle if you really want it. I look back on my life and see what it can do for others. It’s not just a football movie. If it were, I probably wouldn’t be a part of that interpretation of my life. My life is a lot more than just football.”

He’s sure the movie’s message of “if you never give up, you’ve got a chance” will resonate with diverse audiences. He’s proud to be living proof that anything can happen when you keep fighting.

Visit marlinbriscoemovie.com for more information.

 

Gabrielle Union: A force in front of and away from the camera

December 27, 2016 1 comment

On a per capita basis, Nebraska has been sending oodles of talent to Hollywood from the start of the industry through today. Then and now that talent has been variously expressed in front of the camera and behind the camera. While there are many name actors from the state, past and present, actresses from here who’ve made a splash in film and television are a rarer commodity. The few really big name and familiar face actresses with strong Nebraska connectiosn include Dorothy McGuire, Sandy Dennis, Inga Swenson, Marg Helgenberger, Stephanie Kurtzuba and Yolonda Ross. In terms of pure popularity and exposure though I’m not sure any of them compare with Gabrielle Union,, whose movie and TV work extends over nearly 25 years now. In addition to a very large, active body of work as an actress, she’s lately moved into producing and she’s always made a mark as a beauty pitchwoman, as an outspoken advocate, as a talk show guest and as the subject of countless glam and profile spreads in major magazines. Of course, she gets added fame and attention for being one half of a celebrity couple – her husband is NBA champion and future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade. Like many peer actresses sharing Nebraska roots, she’s maintained close ties to her home turf. I touch on a variety of these and other things paramont in her life and career in this new Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) piece I wrote about Gabrielle. I’ve been covering her for 15-plus years and it’s been fun to see her development.

You can link to my other Gabrielle Union stories at–
https://leoadambiga.com/?s=gabrielle+union

 

gabrielleunion1

 

Gabrielle Union

A force in front of and away from the camera

December 22, 2016
Photography by Contributed
Appearing in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Actress Gabrielle Union projects her natural intelligence and feistiness in whatever role she undertakes. The Omaha native is never at a loss for words or opinions. She decries Hollywood’s male-dominated, white-centric ways and lack of opportunities afforded to women of color. She recounts her experience as a rape survivor and preaches the need for women to speak up against violence.

It took Union a while to be regarded a serious artist. Early roles included that of a wealthy suburban teenager in 10 Things I Hate About You, followed a year later by a role as a cheerleader in Bring It On. Twenty years later she’s matured into a real force both in front of and behind the camera. She expertly balances being a fashion- and fitness-conscious celebrity, the wife of NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, and a mother, actress, producer, and activist.

It is not surprising that as her life has broadened, so has her work.

Ambitious projects such as Think Like a Man and Top Five find her giving deeper, more complex performances or satirizing her own mystique. Today, as the star of the popular and critically acclaimed BET series Being Mary Jane, she represents the modern American black woman navigating her way through personal and professional relationships. In mid-October, the actress sued for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation, claiming the network is combining seasons four and five to lower her pay and extend her contract.

Further proof of her take-no-prisoners attitude was her role in one of the most talked about films of 2016, The Birth of a Nation.

The film dramatizes the historic Nat Turner-led slave revolt, a subject of interest for Union that goes back to her Omaha childhood.

“It was a story my mom made sure I knew about. I remember going to the library and her telling me to do research on him. It wasn’t until later I realized my mom had noted I was very passive in the face of adversity and injustice, and I wasn’t willing to speak up, not only for myself, but for anyone else. She thought I might need some additional heroes to look up to and she introduced me to the story of Nat Turner,” Union says.

The interest in Turner continued for years.

“In college I learned even more about Nat Turner and I was drawn to the sense of pushback against oppression–the idea that there are stories situated in slavery where we are not waiting for someone else to save us but that we were actively trying to save ourselves. Really the story of black resistance and black liberation, I’ve always been drawn to.”

gabrielleunion2When the script first came to her attention, she says she determined that, “I had to be a part of telling this incredibly powerful chapter of American history.”

That chapter took years to produce. The film’s producer-writer-director, Nate Parker, who also portrays Turner, had a hard time getting financing for the project.

“There’s a reason the Nat Turner story has never made it to the big screen [before now],” Union says. “There’s a lot of fear of black resistance and black liberation. We see that with what’s happening with Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the professional, college, and high school athletes who are taking a knee to combat and shed light on racism, discrimination, police brutality, inequality, oppression everywhere. We see the pushback, we see people protesting [being] labeled as unpatriotic. I feel quite the opposite. I don’t think there’s anything more American or patriotic than resistance to oppression.”

With such a struggle ongoing, Union says, “I think there’s never been a better time for The Birth of a Nation to come out.”

Union plays an unnamed character who does not speak. The part was written with dialogue but she and Parker decided the woman should be mute.

“I just felt it would be much more symbolic and realistic if we stripped her of her voice, of the ability to speak, of the ability to have power over her own body and over the bodies of her family and her community,” Union says. “That was true for black women during slavery, and it’s still true for so many women, specifically black women, who are voiceless and powerless at the hands of oppressors. Sexual violence and racial inequality have always existed for black women at that very crucial intersection.

She says it was liberating to play a background character.

“Part of that was just being much more committed to the character than when I was younger. When you’re starting out, you want to stand out in every single role. I’m not as concerned about that anymore. I have enough projects where my face is recognizable and my name is out front…I’m much more interested in being fulfilled creatively.”

The film was shot on an actual Georgia plantation that stood in for the site where the historical events took place in Virginia. The dark spirit of the plantation’s past weighed heavy on Union and company.

“Every actor of color on that set felt the pain and the horror that our ancestors felt. It’s in the soil, it’s in the air. You can’t escape it, you really can’t escape it.”

She is offended that the former plantation used in the film is rented out for weddings and parties.

“It’s unfathomable,” she says.

She considers the conversations she and Wade must have with their boys about the threats facing young black males “infuriating.”

“How do you explain that to children?”

She’s banking on Birth to trigger change.

“What we keep saying is, it’s not a movie, it’s a movement. No one I know who’s seen the film is unmoved and unchallenged to re-examine everything. So I hope people walk out of the theater energized and inspired to do better, to really identify oppression and to fight back against it.”

Visit bet.com/shows/being-mary-jane for more information.

 

My Favorite Christmas Movies

December 26, 2016 Leave a comment

In thinking about Christmas movies the other day, it occurred to me that my favorites, almost without exception, are among the bleaker stories with that holiday as a theme or backdrop. These movies mostly have happy endings, mind you, it’s just that they are rooted in the difficult journey that is life, regardless of the time of year or the cheeriness of this particular holiday season in question. Like it is for a lot of people, this holiday can be hard for me. It’s filled with expectations and schedules set by others when my one true desire is to be quiet and at peace. Growing up, holidays were perhaps the most stressful times in an already strained household. That said, there are beloved family traditions I inherited and continue to this day, most of them revolving around food, which is my preferred way of gift giving to others. I love cooking and serving the traditional Christmas Eve baccala dinner that many of my fellow Italian-Americans enjoy.

But what I really want to do with this post is to share some of my thoughts about the Christmas movies that mean the most to me. One of my litmus tests for movies on my list is that they must be films that I will sit down and watch regardless of the season. Though Christmas is a clear theme in the movies, these movies work independent of that holiday and time of year. My list is sure to be missing many of your favorites. Frankly, I haven’t seen most of the more commercial contemporary Christmas movies. Perhaps I can interest you enough in some of my favorites you’re not already familiar with that you’ll seek them out and give them a try. Perhaps some of them will make their way onto your own favorites list.

My 15 favorite Christmas movies–

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

This is Ernst Lubitsch at his most masterful. A perfect balance of comedy and drama, sarcasm and schmaltz. The much-imitated storyline is handled with great finesse that only a Lubitsch could juggle so deftly in collaboration with the impeccable cast and crew – all at the peak of their powers. James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan work together beautifully as antagonistic shop workers whose pen pal relationship spawns love but this is ultimately Frank Morgan’s film. He’s the beleaguered shop owner whose lost hope is restored. This romance amidst despair will move you to laughs and tears without ever making you feel manipulated. It just flows, it just happens, like real life, and you can’t help but respond.

 

shop-around-the-corner-1

 

 

Meet John Doe (1941)

As caustic as Billy Wilder satires could be, Frank Capra could be every bit as dark and sardonic in his work. In one of the sharpest critiques of American greed ever put on screen, a female reporter (Barbara Stanwyck) concocts a circulation-boosting scheme that catapults a hobo (Gary Cooper) to fame and spawns a populist movement only to have malicious forces usurp it for their own power grabbing ends. A fateful deadline looms when Cooper, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders for having fronted a fraud, opts to follow through on his alter-ego’s plan to jump from a building on Christmas to protest the ills of the world. Stanwyck, who’s fallen in love with him and feels awful for the betrayal, races to the top of the building to save her man.

 

 

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

I recently did an entire post about this movie. It is, for my tastes anyway, as profound a statement on the human condition as can be found in a cinema entertainment vehicle. I mean, it’s all there. Man’s inhumanity to man posed right alongside man’s self-sacrifice and the enduring qualities of love, faith. loyalty and dreams. George Bailey is our Every Man stand-in and the heartache of his perpetually deferred dreams and seemingly worthless life leave him on the brink of ruin and suicide. Even if you’ve never been that low, though I suspect most of us have for at least a moment or an interlude, we can identify with George ultimately finding wholeness and oneness in the simple pleasures of family and community, service and self-sacrifice. It is a beautifully evocative lesson in the power of humility, gratitude, redemption and forgiveness.

 

"It's a Wonderful Life": The most terrifying movie ever

 

Miracle on 34th Street (1944)

I love this urbane take on a pair of career-driven single New Yorkers who use a child’s affections and an old man’s eccentricities to broker their on-again, off-again relationship. Single mom Maureen O’Hara is a hard driving Macy’s marketing executive whose little girl. Natalie Wood, has adopted her pragmatist views on frivolous matters like Santa Claus. O’Hara’s character may be a bit too brittle at first considering how quickly she softens at attorney John Payne’s overtures, but that’s a minor quibble. The real story concerns Edmund Gwenn as the charming, charismatic Kris Kringle. He plays matchmaker for the couple by winning over Wood, who doubts he’s the real McCoy until she learns to trust her imagination. Mom follows suit and an instant family is born, but not before Kris proves his good name in court.

 

 

The Apartment (1960)

Billy Wilder caught the soulless character of modern corporate America and the misogyny of the male animal in this brutally honest portrait of what an Every Man might be willing to do to get ahead under the right circumstances. Jack Lemmon is just another number at a big insurance company before he agrees to let executives use his apartment for their extramarital trysts in exchange for a promotion. Shirley MacLaine is an elevator operator there whose dalliance with big shot Fred MacMurray plays out at Lemmon’s pad. Lemmon hates himself and MacMurray when he discovers his boss has no intention of fulfilling his promise to MacLaine of leaving his wife for her. Lemmon must decide between his career and doing the right thing.

 

 

Holiday Affair (1949)

This is an unusually mature look at adult romantic entanglements for a 1940s-era Hollywood Christmas movie. Attorney Wendell Corey and department store secret shopper Janet Leigh have a long-term thing going. She’s a single mom not ready to settle down again, at least not with Corey, even though he’s a nice guy who adores her and is just waiting for her to say yes. Trouble is, her young son doesn’t much cotton to Corey. Meanwhile, the boy and his mother fall for the charms of Robert Mitchum, a veteran and drifter who drops into their lives through meet-cute plot turns that make the two men rivals for the affection of this fetching mother-son package. Corey is the pragmatist. Mitchum, the dreamer.

 

HA5

 

The Dead (1987)

John Huston was dying when he directed this beautifully muted tone poem based on the James Joyce short story. In a career of understated masterworks, Huston achieved a purity and simplicity in this work that ripples with deep currents of love and loss. It is a melancholic tale that on the surface appears to be a trifle but then layer by layer reveals itself to be about the perplexing vagaries of life and death and what it means to be a couple who’ve endured the loss of a child for which no solace seems possible. It, too, is about the nature of family and community and the ritual of gathering together over a meal to share our humanity and to find some warmth and light amidst the cold and dark. There is stark beauty and gravity attached to every word, inflection, gesture and touch in this autumnal drama where memories cling to the season like freshly fallen snow. In cinematic terms, it is a real lesson in the effective use of negative space and subtext.

 

The Dead (1987)

 

A Christmas Memory (1966)

I recall seeing this television adaptation of the Trumam Capote story on television as a child and being captivated by its intimacy and nostalgia. This movie is available for free on YouTube and I intend watching it between now and New Year’s. It will mark the first time I’ve seen it in perhaps 45 or 50 years. Geraldine Page is magnificent as the fey middle-aged woman who is best friends with her young cousin Buddy. The pair live in a rural home with stern older relatives. The woman and boy treasure being companions because their warm, close confederacy girds against the harsh world outside them. Much of the story revolves around the two preparing for Christmas – gathering pecans and buying the necessary stores for making fruit cakes they send to people they admire. Then there’s the finding and chopping down of the tree, lugging it back and decorating it. And finally, the exchange of gifts and flying their kites on what will be their last Christmas together. All of these things are acts of love. Capote adapted his own story with Eleanor Perry and Frank Perry directed.

 

A CHRISTMAS MEMORY (1967).:

A Christmas Story (1983)

Bob Clark’s adaptation of the Jean Shepherd story doesn’t try to be too coy or cute but plays its rich satire and occasional cynicism for all its worth. The movie portrays classic holiday family and childhood scenarios most of us can identify with, even though the story’s set in the 1940s and many of its references are obscure for folks born after, say 1968. The themes of bullying, bickering parents, childhood dreams and Santa anxiety are pretty universal. Peter Billingsley is spot-on as Ralphie, an All-American boy still young enough to believe in fables but getting just old enough to know all things aren’t as they seem. Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon are pitch-perfect as his harried but loving parents. For all the things that get mocked by this tale, it’s a sweet, nostalgic retelling of Americana innocence gone by.

 

 

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Perhaps the most inspired Xmas story of them all is this animated TV adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic that gives us one of cinema’s greatest villains, the Grinch, in all his mendacity, arrogance and theatrics. Who knew that Dr. Seuss was prescient enough to create an ego-maniacal character that anticipated Donald Trump? We can only hope that somewhere under the president-elect’s cold, hard exterior beats a heart that even the Grinch possessed. We just have to hope that something happens to humble Mr.Trump so that he can soften his avarice against today’s equivalent of the Who’s. Cartoon master Chuck Jones directed this classic and Boris Karloff indelibly voiced the Grinch. The primary colors and dynamic action sequences are eye-poppingly cool. Albert Hague composed the memorable music.

 

The Grinch steals a star from the tree

 

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

The languid, zen-like idyll of Peanuts reached its zenith in this TV special that has sad-sack Charlie Brown learn the true meaning of Christmas with help from his family of friends: Lucy, Linus and Snoopy. I believe the genius of Charles Schultz with his Peanuts characters was tapping into the longings at the core of the basic human condition. We all desire to be loved and we all want attention to be paid and just like Charlie Brown we’re willing to suffer indignities in pursuit of these things. Having a few friends we can count on sure helps. They may drive us crazy but we know they’re there for us in the end. The minimalist jazz score is so right on for the simple images and messages.

 

Charlie Brown Christmas

 

 

 

White Christmas (1954)

For a feel-good Christmas movie, this one’s hard to beat. Having seen the stage play adapted from it, I can see why this story has legs that crosses generations and mediums. The characters are likable and the situations engaging. In my opinion this movie works as well as it does because of Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. They make a great team as the veteran entertainers who conspire to help out their old commanding officer from World War II. In fact, I like Crosby and Kaye better than the Road movie tandem of Crosby and Bob Hope. As the retired general fallen on hard times, Dean Jagger has just the right blend of stoicism and sweetness. Rosemary Clooney and Vera Allen lack charisma and a couple dance sequences nearly stop the picture cold, but aside from those quibbles this Christmas chestnut still holds up as funny, heartwarming escapist fare. Director Michael Curtiz could still keep a story moving but this was grade B material compared to the great films he helmed earlier, Casablanca among them.

 

snow

 

 

Going My Way (1944)

Bing Crosby is the avuncular Father O’Malley come to rescue a failing Catholic parish whose curmudgeonly old pastor, Father Fitzgibbon, played by Barry Fitzgerald, resists change and resents being put out to pasture. This is old-fashioned Hollywood hokum that tickles the funny bone and tugs at the heartstrings. Director Leo McCarey had a light touch with sentimental material and though he comes close to going over the top with this one’s rather precious, nearly saccharine moments, he manages to keep things moving along and undercutting the maudlin bits with sharp humor and repartee.

 

goingmyway00017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scrooged (1988)

Nobody does obnoxious better than Bill Murray and here he veers dangerously near alienating viewers but always pulls back from the brink, though I must admit the first time I saw this pic his performance and the overall tone of the film turned me off. But after seeing the picture a few more times, my estimation of him as a megalomaniac media czar and of this updating of A Christmas Carol has risen considerably. Murray makes a fine if loopy Scrooge and in keeping with the Tim Burton-like approach (Richard Donner directed), Carol Kane and David Johansen bring original takes to the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively. There are some nice supporting performances by Alfre Woodard and Michael J. Pollard. But this is all about Murray’s character rediscovering his heart for his fellow man.

 

scrooged

 

 

Carol for Another Christmas (1964)

Rod Serling wrote and Joseph Mankiewicz directed for television this dark as night fantasy that tackles nothing less than the human condition and humanity’s fate. In the very year that Sterling Hayden co-starred as a raving mad general who instigates nuclear war in Dr. Strangelove, he stars here as an embittered, bigoted Cold War patriot grown callous to the brotherhood of man. His Daniel Grudge is a Scrooge for the modern era whose hardened heart and cold calculus represent the madness of nationalism and the cruelty of the military industrial complex. Haunted by guilt and grief over the loss of his son. he’s visited by spirits who show him horrors and hopes that make him see things in a new way. Though didactic, preachy and slow in places, it’s well worth your time. The eclectic cast includes Ben Gazzara, Peter Sellers, Robert Shaw. Pat Hingle, Percy Rodriguez, James Shigeta, Britt Ekland and Eva Marie Saint. Henry Mancini did the music, The movie can be viewed for free on YouTube.

 

 

Some more Xmas movies that I admire:

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

We’re No Angels (1955)

3 Godfathers (1948)

Holiday Inn (1942)

The Polar Express (2004)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Frosty the Snowman (1969)

 

Camille Metoyer Moten: With a song in her heart

December 26, 2016 4 comments

Omaha has a corps of performing artists who command a level of admiration and respect that rises above the norm. These special entertainers have earned this status by the high craft and integrity they exhibit. When it comes to musical theater and singing, Camille Metoyer Moten is pretty much at the head of this class. She’s been captivating audiences for some four decades. She’s won all kinds of accolades and awards for her artistry. Not one to rest on her laurels, she’s as busy today as ever and she may just be in her prime now in her 60s. She’s as smooth and unruffled on stage as one can be, but don’t mistake her carefree manner for being untouched by trouble or pain. She’s seen plenty of both. Her from-the-gut performances draw on a lifetime of experiences, some of them tragic and traumatic, others joyous and blessed, and always informed by her deep faith, unflagging spirit and unflappable demeanor.

My New Horizons cover story on Camille appears in the January 2017 issue hitting stands and arriving in mailboxes the last week of 2016. My blog leoadambiga.com also features earlier stories I’ve done on Camille and other Omaha songstresses. Link to some of these stories at –

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/02/15/omahas-black-sirens-of-song-and-spoken-word/

And here are links to yet more stories I’ve done on popular Omaha singers:

Mary Carrick

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=mary+carrick

Anne-Marie Kenny

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/28/life-is-a-cabaret-the-anne-marie-kenny-story-from-omaha-to-paris-to-prague-and-back-to-omaha-

Karrin Allyson

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=allyson

Quiana Smith

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/01/23/quiana-smiths-dream-time-2/

 

 

Camille Metoyer Moten: With a song in her heart

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the January 2017 issue of the New Horizons

 

Lady sings the blues

Classy, sassy Camille Metoyer Moten has entertained with her cabaret singing and musical theater performances since the late 1970s. Besides being much beloved, she’s considered a real pro. Her much sought-after stagecraft has earned critical acclaim as well as Omaha Community Playhouse and Theatre Arts Guild awards.

The free, easy way she handles a song and wins over an audience belies the family tragedies and personal struggles she’s endured. Listen and look close enough and you’ll detect the wistful blue notes of the jazz vocalists she grew up listening to. Like them. she knows about pain. Her late parents were at the forefront of Omaha civil rights work before their lives were cruelly cut short. Her mother Lois died of brain cancer at age 43. Seven years later her father Ray was shot to death at the family barbecue joint at age 52.

Bigotry and bias have confronted her. Illness has attacked her.

A strong faith, a sure sense of self and a rock solid marriage to husband Michael Moten have helped Camille cope with loss and setbacks and thus avoid the pitfalls many of her idols suffered.

Music was all around her as a girl. She and her sister Lanette, also an award-winning musical theater artist, inherited their singing chops from their mom. Lois would harmonize, scat and sway to records she played in the family’s northeast Omaha home.

“She was a wonderful singer,” Camille recalled. “We grew up listening to lots of jazz albums. Dinah Washington. Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan. Nancy Wilson. That was her thing. She was so into it.”

Her mom oft-told the story how she auditioned for and was asked to tour either with the great Count Basie or Duke Ellington but turned the opportunity down. Though flattered by the offer, Lois was engaged to her future husband, Ray Metoyer, a serious Creighton University student not about to let his fiancee go on the road.

Camille began showing off her own pipes as a toddler.

“I wanted to sing but I didn’t know a song, so I would sing about the furniture and anything that came into my view.”

Encouraged by her mother, Camille learned lyrics to standards but was timid to have an audience around.

“She loved that I would sing but I was really shy to sing, so I would be like in the basement singing and if I’d hear somebody coming. I’d stop. I would always pretend there was a microphone.”

Her first time on stage came in the first grade at Sacred Heart School when she, Lanette and their brother Raymond sang “Do Re Mi.”

“I just remember being so scared but I wanted to do it so bad.

Everybody was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this little girl with this big voice.’ I think my desire to perform really got reinforced then because people made a big deal of the fact my voice was fuller. The more I sang for school programs the more compliments and confidence I got.”

 

SWING!!

 

IMG_1622

A wide music repertoire

Even early on she drew on diverse musical influences.

“There were so many things I liked. I loved the jazz. I also loved the musical theater. And I also loved classical music.”

The same holds true today.

“It’s a mishmash of several things. A lot of it’s Barbra Streisand. I always liked the way Nancy Wilson presented herself. Lena Horne, too.

Just very classy. So I always want to at least appear classy on stage because I’m really kind of an awkward person. But when I’m on stage I feel like I have a little more finesse.”

She holds Barbra in special regard.

“I think her voice is amazing. I just got to see her in concert for the first time in August in Chicago. My children bought me a $500 ticket. It was so awesome to listen to her. She’s 74-years old but she can still soar up to those high notes.”

No wonder then Camillle’s stoked about a March 31 tribute concert she’s doing in honor of her idol. The “Bubbly with Barbra” show at the Playhouse is a fundraiser for the theater’s operations.

“I’m so excited about it because I’ve been worshiping her since I was 11-years-old,” Camille said.

Kathy Tyree, Dave Wingert and Jim Boggess will join her on select numbers.

 

camille-ocp-reduced

 

IMG_1569

 

Race

The role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl that Streisand made famous on stage and in film resonated strongly with Camille, who made playing the part a life-time ambition she realized in 1994.

“I related to that character so much. She’s this odd little duck that has talent that nobody could appreciate because of her package,” said Camille, whose light-complexion, blonde-hair and green-eyes made her conscious of her nontraditional African-American appearance.

“I got a lot of comments about my look.”

The many shades of black were inescapable, she said, because “my family’s all different colors and it’s something that really sticks out.” She added, “My father was very fair, my mother was pretty brown, so all of us came out different. I came out with all the recessive traits.”

Descendants on her father’s side are of mixed race Creole heritage. Both her paternal and maternal family trees owned property in the South. There’s quite a story behind her father’s family line in Louisiana. The first Metoyer there built a plantation and his son Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer befriended a family that owned a slave, Marie Coincoin, with whom he became infatuated. He built a plantation for her and she lived in the house with him and they had children together. Threatened with excommunication by the Catholic Church, he built her a separate house in back. When he decided to have white heirs, he gave her her freedom and let her keep their children. She became a leading entrepreneur in the state, even building her own plantation. The black branch of the Metoyers lived as aristocrats.

Lanette and Camille dream of making a musical out of the story.

Their mother grew up in Mississippi and though their father was born in Omaha, thier grandfather Victor came from Louisiana. Victor worked as a railroad dining car waiter for Union Pacific. He and a fellow waiter opened a BBQ eatery. They alternated operating it based on their UP runs. When Victor was on his Omaha to California run, his partner manned the joint, and when his partner was on his Omaha to New York run, Victor handled things. Grandpa Victor also co-founded the adjacent Key Club. Eventually the Metoyer family owned the restaurant outright. Three generations ultimately ran it.

Camille’s father dropped out of Creighton just short of earning a degree in order to support his family. He worked many years as a Boys Town counselor. Camille and her siblings got to know some of the boys. One escorted Lanette to a homecoming dance. Raymond vacationed at Lake Okoboji with students his father brought to camp.

At night Ray Metoyer helped his father Victor run the family barbecue place. Ray’s eldest son Raymond, who became a television news reporter, partnered with his father and grandfather in the business.

Camille knew her dad caught flak the way she did.  “We looked alike, so he was very sensitive to making us understand that it doesn’t having anything to do with anything.”

Both parents made sure their kids knew that light or dark needn’t define them.

“They always impressed upon us that that didn’t make a difference,” Camille said. “That was their main thing with us – it doesn’t matter what you look like. Your blackness has nothing to do with your physical appearance.”

Civil rights

Camille’s parents were both active in local civil rights efforts. Her father was part of the social action group the De Porres Club whose boycotts in the late 1940s and early 1950s forced businesses to hire and serve blacks. He also headed the Urban League of Nebraska when it hosted Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson in separate events. Camille met both leaders and recalls Malcolm X as a very tall and tender man who mentioned that she reminded him of his daughter.

Her folks also participated in demonstrations by the 4CL or Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties in the ’60s. The Metoyer kids got dragged along to organizing meetings at Zion Baptist Church.

“It seems like it was always in the summer. It was so hot and packed in, everybody sweatin’ on each other,” recalled Camille.

She and her siblings were young when the civil rights marches and speeches filled the airwaves.

“I don’t think we understood the whole significance nationally. I understood there needed to be change and it was going to make the world the way it should be. Our parents sort of instilled in us this is what it’s going to be, this is what we’re working for, this is where we’re going to get to. They were dedicated to lifting black people to the place that we deserve to be. That was their focus. That, and impressing upon us that you’re just as good as anybody, so there’s no reason feeling like you’re falling short.

“It was very important to them. Sadly, we’re not there all these years later. As I reflect back on it, I appreciate more or understand better the sacrifices they made to do the things they did.”

Social justice was discussed in the Metoyer home.

“We were the family that all sat down to dinner together and all the conversation was about what was going on.”

Once, Camille was with her folks and others at a protest when they were all arrested.

“We were protesting for open housing down at the City Council chambers. I was in the fourth grade and my parents decided it was important I participate. The police came and we all sat down. I sat on my dad’s lap and when the police picked us up they had to pick us up together. He was going to make this as difficult as he could for them.”

A press photographer snapped a pic that went national of cute little Camille in braids, tortoise shell frame eyeglasses and dress carried by her indignant but dignified father like a precious bundle.

“This picture of my dad carrying me out went out on the Associated Press all around the country.”

“I remember being excited because there was so much energy. I knew what we were doing was something very important about fighting for our rights as black people. I remember being just a little bit scared by the police but my dad was there so I felt very safe with him.”

The poignant photo got new life five decades later when Camille and Lanette appeared in Having Our Say, a play about the real-life Delany sisters living through generations of racism. The themes echoed things the Metoyers experienced themselves.

Doing the play brought Camille and Lanette, who’ve always been close, even closer together. The project also gave them a chance to honor figures like their parents who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.

“It’s like finally they’re having their say,” Camille said.

 

Camille and her sister Lanette in Having Our Say
Strong stock

Hardly a day goes by Camille doesn’t think of her parents.

“My dad was the epitome of a professional, educated man, although he could be very crazy as well. But I never heard him swear. But my mother on the other hand would come out with a few things if she got irritated enough. His thing was always about professional appearance and how you present yourself. My mom was concerned about that, too, but she was more of a gregarious, outgoing, earthy person. She was maybe a combination of what Lanette and I are now,”

Her parents’ fight for equal rights got personal when her family integrated all-white Maple Village in 1966.

Camille said, “My father wanted to have a closer commute to Boys Town and he felt the education we were getting in North Omaha schools was not equivalent to what west Omaha schools offered.”

Even aspirational couples with the desire and means to live outside segregated areas had to take special measures to get around red lining practices and restrictive housing covenants. The Metoyers had black realtor George Thomas secretly negotiate with NP Dodge to arrange for the family to purchase their new house.

“We had to go through the backdoor to get that house,” Camille said.

‘We surprised the neighborhood because they didn’t know a black family was coming.”

Lanette recalled, “It eventually was known blacks had purchased the house and therefore our dad, grandfather and several white male employees that worked for my dad would spend nights at the house until we moved in.”

Camille said, “We had a lot of backlash. It was crazy.”

A petition circulated to try and prevent them from moving in.

The family moved in late at night to avoid a scene but some neighbors gathered outside to glare.

For several nights. Camille’s father and grandfather stood armed guard inside. It reminded her mother of what she thought she’d left behind in Mississippi.

“We knew it was something kind of groundbreaking but we were prepared because all of our lives we’d been taught to be on the front-line,” said Lanette.

The siblings remember threatening phone calls, nails scattered in the driveway, strange cars pulling up at night to train headlights in the windows, tense looks, awkward exchanges. Once, the house got egged and shamed neighbors hosed off the mess.

At their various schools the kids encountered racism.

“If things happened at school we’d come home and talk about it. We always just knew how to handle it. Before we moved there, our parents anticipated there would be issues. They warned us. But they added we have every right to be where we want to be and don’t let anybody tell you anything different.”

Camille said her parents admonished she and her siblings to  “always address discrimination from an educational standpoint,” adding, “They were like, ‘Don’t get mad, just be enlightened.'”

Whatever the sitaution, like the family being refused service at King Fong’s downtown, it became a teachable moment.

“My mom explained how it was their loss and we would encounter people that would not like us without ever knowing us. I guess they always gave the impression there was something wrong with those people – there was nothing wrong with us. They told us when you come across people who are ignorant you educate them, you don’t argue or get angry, because they need help. To this day, if I have the opportunity to enlighten somebody, I will, as opposed to getting angry. That works with my whole Christian faith.”

Finding a foundation for her music and faith

The Metoyers found acceptance if not fairness. Auditioning for a role in Guys and Dolls at Burke High School, Camille said the music director opposed her being cast on account of her race. Camille had an ally in her drama teacher, who swore “she’d never let that happen again.”

Despite resistance, her passion for performing wouldn’st be denied. She planned going to California to pursue a singing-acting career but then her mother became ill. Losing her mother, she said, “really took me off my path.” She wasn’t sure what to do next when a friend of her father’s who ran the music department at Xavier University in New Orleans convinced her to give it a try.

“It sounded just great to get away. I went and auditioned and got a       scholarship. That’s how I ended up there. The great thing about Xavier is that I got classical training but I also sang with the jazz band,

so now I’m able to do all of that – which makes me marketable.”

Still bereft by her mother’s death and far away from home, she searched for answers and came of age as a young woman.

“I was really angry and I became kind of agnostic. I thought how could God take such an amazing person. I lived like that for awhile. I hooked up with Michael and we were into the fast scene.”

Getting high became her lifestyle. Then one day Michael had a born again experience.

“He was completely changed after that day. I was still getting high and just out there and suddenly we were incompatible because he didn’t want to do the things I wanted to do anymore. My own born again experience took a while. I refused to go to church with him and continued to party while in my heart and mind knowing I wanted what he had. I just didn’t want to give up me.

“Finally one evening he was going to church and he begged me to come with him and I said no. He was literally in tears. I found out later he was thinking that if I didn’t come this was to be the end of our relationship. After he left for church I felt bad, so I drove to the church. When they had the altar call he took me down but I didn’t want to go – I was not ready.”

Her willfulness wilted in the following days.

“God made Himself more and more real to me until finally one day I agreed to pray with Michael and some of his new friends from church.  That night as I prayed God took over my tongue and I spoke in a heavenly language which the Bible explains is God’s spirit dwelling in us. And by that spirit being in us we can now be saved.

“From that moment my life changed – no more getting high, no profanity. My view of mankind changed and my purpose changed. It was no longer about me but about Him.”

A new beginning from a terrible end

Her faith was soon put to a severe test when her father was murdered at the family restaurant on a late summer evening in 1979.

“A year before there was a woman that got hired at the restaurant. He caught her taking money and also soliciting the male clients and so he fired her and she didn’t like that. She would call the house and tell people she was her man. She harassed him for a year and it was getting more and more severe: a window broken out in the house;  showing up at his job and security escorting her off campus.”

On September 17 the woman went to the restaurant and confronted Metoyer with a small caliber gun. She fired it once and the bullet struck him in the neck and he bled out on the scene.

Not long before, Camille and Michael, who were by then married and raising their first child, interviewed to be family teachers at Boys Town and they were hired. They moved to Omaha to start their new life and career in the shadow of Ray Metoyer’s senseless death.

“The thing that was so difficult about it at the start was that it was two weeks after my father was murdered, so I was coming to the place where he worked. i heard over and over again how much they admired and respected him and what a loss it was, so I was constantly reminded of him.”

It was the most challenging period of her life until a bout with cancer 30-plus years later.

“I moved across country, I lost a loved one and I had a 2-year-old. I had all of those stressors. Today, Michael looks back and says, ‘How did you get through that?’ Through a lot of prayer and believing this is where God wanted us to be.”

The decision to be a family teacher continued her parents’ legacy.

“That’s how we were raised. It’s always about giving back, contributing, making a difference, helping however you can. Besides, once Michael and I  gave our lives over to Christ it seemed like a natural thing to do..

“We had the very first girls program. Boys Town had just started the family teaching model. We had an off-campus home at 35th and Davenport. Our girls were all local, so we were able to work with and counsel parents. Then we moved to campus, where we had a transitional living home for boys to learn to live independently.”

It took some adjusting for Camille and Michael, too.

“Initially, the greatest challenge if you have children is being able to divide your time in a way that everybody has a significant amount of you without sacrificing one for the other. A lot of family teacher couples are not successful with that. My kids became very close with a lot of those Boys Town kids.”

She said an important lesson she learned is “don’t take things personally and understand what’s happening.” She added, “There were some kids that can really get under your skin but you can’t let them get under your skin. I would always think, If only I could have had you as a baby. I would have loved to have given them what they should have had early in life. That always made me soften my anger.”

Feeling burned out after 16 years, Camille left Boys Town for a job at the YWCA coordinating programs that introduced girls to nontraditional careers. Then she applied her behavioral management skills to the former Western Electric plant then recently renamed Lucent Technologies, where her sister worked.

 

camille-murphy-haar-reduced

 

IMG_0985

A performing life

Meanwhile. Michael, an ordained minister, felt the call to form a church, One Way Ministry, in 1994, that he still pastors today. For years, Camille served as music director and only recently stepped down so that she can sing in the choir.

All the time she worked regular day jobs she rehearsed and performed musicals and concerts evenings and weekends. Her music career took off when she joined a cabaret troupe formed by old friend Becky Noble. They’ve long paired as Nebraska Arts Council touring artists. Camille’s performed with the Omaha Symphonic and Opera Omaha chorus and she’s toured with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. She sang with Soli Dep Gloria Cantorum on a concert tour to Barcelona, Spain.

She’s enjoyed a long collaboration with Chuck Penington and his band. She also headlines her own band. Her keyboardist, David Murphy, offered his take on what makes Camille such an enduring favorite.

“The reason the community loves her is she’s authentic. She’s the real deal. She walks the walk and sings her heart out. It all comes from her soul. She intuitively manages to find the heart of any song,” including ones he’s penned. “It’s about the music and not about her. She consistently respects and enhances the material she tackles and still makes it her own. I absolutely believe she could’ve gone to either coast and had a brilliant career as a performer. Omaha is lucky to have her.”

When Camille’s two kids were small she dragged them to rehearsals. Even today, with her kids grown and out of the home, she’s busy booking, preparing and doing shows. Though her schedule can be draining, she said performing “fills you back up.”

Even though art should be color-blind, race can be an issue, as when she broke color barriers as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and Eva Peron in Evita, and when her voice and repertoire aren’t what people expect.

“I don’t have a gospel voice. People expect that because I’m black. I was raised Catholic, so I didn’t have that whole gospel thing. Jazz and musical theater are my influences.”

She’s also a rather subdued performer.

“It’s the purity that I’m into and not all that other stuff and I think people eventually appreciate it.”

At the invitation of friend and sometime collaborator Kathy Tyree she sang at Salem Baptist Church last summer for a gospel program.

“I don’t have gospel arrangements, so I sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ because I find that song very spiritual and they loved it. It was the most talked about song of the evening amidst all these amazing gospel songs. It was the purity of that that people related to.”

Her muted voice blended with Tyree’s big sound for a Divas By Design show they did at the Blue Barn Theatre last fall. The two go way back.

“Camille and I did our first show together 26 years ago: Sophisticated Ladies at the Playhouse,” said Tyree, “What I admired most about Camille back then is what I admire most about her now and that is her peaceful spirit and how beautifully and easily she shares her gifts. She’s not only an amazing artist but a beautiful person as well. Her unshakable faith in God keeps me in awe and her love for people is one of the many reasons I love her so much.”

Not long after Camille’s spiritual awakening in New Orleans and her resettling in Omaha, she landed the role of Mary Magdalene in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Orpheum Theater. She went in to audition for a spot in the chorus but got the plum female part. Her performance won raves and established her as a bright new talent. But she was wary before the opening night curtain rose.

“I had never done anything other than high school-college shows. It was a big leap. I remember standing backstage looking out at that full house and my heart going ker-thump, ker-thump, ker-thump. I started saying a prayer and I heard God say, ‘What is wrong with you, this is your dream, I’m giving you one of the desires of your heart – would you please enjoy it.’ He made me think how trivial this really is compared to homelessness and sickness and that I should just go out and do what I do and entertain the audience.

“I don’t think I’ve gotten nervous-nervous like that again. It just calmed me right down.”

Whether doing a play or a concert, her approach is “very consistent.”

“Doing musical theater, whatever that character is, that’s who I am. Doing cabaret, each song is like its own little vignette, so every song is its own character. When I perform my purpose is to take whatever the composer and lyricist wrote and try to interpret it with whatever he or she had in mind and bring the audience into it. I want to be true to that.

“Somebody told me a long time ago it’s not only about a pretty voice. and it really isn’t it. If you think about all the successful entertainers it really in’t about their singing … but it’s what they do with a song, it’s the passion they bring out of a song. Once you know the song and once you understand what’s behind the song then that’s what happens.”

Her sister Lanette’s seen her on stage perhaps more than anyone and she marvels at Camille’s “persistence to step outside her comfort zone and create any character she tackles and make it believable.”

 587447Surviving health crisis and moving on

Everything was coming up roses for Camille personally and professionally when she got diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. As a woman of faith, she sought healing through prayer. Heeding her Higher Power, she canceled a surgery and found a new doctor.

“She confirmed I still had the cancer. I told her my story and she revealed she is a woman of faith, too, Most doctors don’t talk about it.

She said, ‘First of all, I understand where you’re coming from spiritually and secondly you’ve had this cancer for a really long time – it is a slow growing cancer and if you’re not ready to have surgery then we don’t do the surgery because then you won’t heal.’ She had total respect for my belief. I knew God provided me her. He got me to the right team.”

Camille underwent radiation chemo treatments, hormone blocker regimens but in the end she required a mastectomy. She continued performing during most of the journey, even proudly displaying her bald head. She had reconstructive surgery in 2014 and 2015.

Not one to dwell on anything, she’s moved forward from the experience.

“The mindset I had at the time is my mindset and it goes along with my philosophy – that’s over, it was a little side step.”

She chose to share her cancer odyssey with the public via Facebook posts. She and her “prayer warriors” exchanged messages of hope about the challenges, indignities and joys of the journey. Her observations ranged from silly to sweet to sublime. Thousands followed her progress, including the inevitable ups and downs, and she later compiled her affirmations into a book.

“I just want to be able to make people understand that Jesus is our healer. We use medicine also but it doesn’t always work. He’s the plan and medicine is the backup plan. I think the more people understand that the better the outcome is.”

Camille’s as busy as ever these days. “I just think of it as this continuum that keeps going.” It’s not like she’s slowed down since realizing her dream of playing Fanny Brice. “That was a high, high point for me but then as things developed there’s been so many other high points.”

It always comes back to keeping it real and finding the root.

“Somebody told me not too long ago, ‘When you sing, you sing from here,’ putting her hand on her midsection. I said, ‘Oh, thank you very much,’ and she said, ‘I mean that, not everybody sings from there.’ And I think she meant from my core, from my heart. That’s what I strive for, that’s my intent.”

From her gut, springs all the glory.

Visit www.musicbycamille.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

40th Anniversary of “Rocky”

December 18, 2016 Leave a comment

40th Anniversary of “Rocky”

By writing the screenplay for “Rocky,” holding out to play the title character and then delivering the goods in a surprise monster hit that earned industry praise, Sylvester Stallone pulled off a miracle every bit as dramatic as his fictional alter-ego Rocky Balboa going the distance with Apollo Creed.

Stallone literally wrote his own ticket to stardom. When he made the deal to sell the script to United Artists on the condition he star in it, he was an obscure character actor with no real prospects for a feature career. Stallone, much like the character of Rocky himself, had nothing to lose. That’s why he could afford to decline big money offers to sell the material so that the studio could cast Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Robert Redford or some other established star as the lead. He was in a once-in-lifetime bargaining position to say, you either make the movie with me or I take it somewhere else. Of course, there was no guarantee UA or any other studio would want his script bad enough to accept his terms.

Rocky is an interesting property because it bridges old and new trends. On the one hand, it’s very much in the tradition of old Warner Bros. urban dramas with the requisite love story and comedic relief thrown in. On the other hand it’s very much in tune with the new humanistic, ultra realism of late ’60s-early ’70s cinema that’s stripped away of easy sentiment. Under John Avildsen’s direction, the story is anchored in that dour, gritty, work-a-day world truth yet, when called for, it’s carried away by delirious, romanticized sentiment. The movie even anticipates the flawed Marvel superheroes who would come to dominate the American cinema box office decades later. As over the top as the ending of “Rocky” gets, it somehow all works and I think it’s because of the cumulative weight of all that transpires before it and by how much we invest emotionally in the lovable loser characters Stallone created.

Stallone followed his heart,, passion and instinct in drawing on real life elements and populist themes to create an original script that had box office written all over it but that no one outside Stallone, producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler and director Avildsen believed he could carry. Sure, any number of actors could have played the role, but no one knew the character as well as Stallone because Rocky Balboa grew out of his own personal and professional struggles. Stallone tapped his own demons and aspirations to conceive this anti-hero and then he used all those emotions again to bring that character to life on the set and on the screen.

Rocky hit at just the right time, too, in terms of the national zeitgeist. America was cynical and weary coming out of Watergate and Vietnam and so the moviegoing public was ready for an escapist, feel-good experience, Just as “American Graffiti” and “Jaws” had before it and just as “Star Wars” and “Superman” did after it, Rocky caught the wave of popcorn fare, only not relying on nostalgia or thrills or special effects like other blockbusters of that era, but on good old-fashioned storytelling and richly developed characters. Rocky was much closer in tone and content to, say, “On the Waterfront,” than to the other major boxing-themed movies of that period, John Huston’s “Fat City,” Martin Ritt’s “The Great White Hope” and Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” Which is to say that at the end of the day Rocky, like those other pictures, is not so much a boxing movie per se as it is a slice of life portrait of someone who just happens to be a boxer. “On the Waterfront” is essentially a crime film and morality play whose protagonist, Terry Malloy, is an ex-prizefighter. “Fat City” is a stark, nihilistic view of down-and-outers in skid-row Los Angeles, where a veteran club fighter mentors a new arrival. “The Great White Hope” profiles a black man, Jack Johnson, who refuses to live by the white man’s rules. “Raging Bull” is an expressionistic look at the demon’s that drove Jake LaMotta.

In my opinion, there are better movies about boxing than “Rocky,” such as “Creed,” “The Fighter,” “The Set-Up” “Ali,” and “Cinderella Man.” The fight scenes in “Rocky” are just too unrealistic for my tastes, though they mostly do work dramatically. But, again, “Rocky” transcends the boxing genre into something else again.

“Rocky” is a classic redemption story. In this first iteration of Rocky Balboa, Stallone gives us a man who could have been something as a fighter but has given up on himself just as others have given up on him. Then, he finds the love of a good woman and when presented with an extraordinary opportunity, he rededicates himself to his craft and rises to the challenge of facing the champ. Stallone was able to pour himself into the character in writing the script because he could so closely identify with the story of a guy everyone considers a loser who gets one chance to make things right. Art imitated life again when the studio relented and bankrolled his movie with him in the lead despite their grave reservations and he turned this million to one shot into the talk of the 1976 movie season and the catalyst for a career and, as it happened, for a four-decade long franchise.

In the sound era when has an actor been as responsible for his or her own star-making vehicle as Stallone was with Rocky? After all, he wrote the part that launched him into mega-stardom and gave him an enduring character he’s still playing 40 years later. The closest comparisons I can come up with are Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane,” which he co-wrote, directed and starred in, though that film didn’t really make him a star, and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in “Good Will Hunting,” which “the boys” co-wrote and co-starred in, though Damon already had several major screen credits before Hunting.

Of course, in the silent era Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton wrote and directed pictures starring themselves and in the process created their own signature comic personas. In the early talkies era Mae West wrote the scripts for her own popular starring vehicles.

Surely other come-out-of-nowhere Hollywood stories have followed, but I doubt if any compare to what Stallone did with Rocky. First, there’s the enduring appeal of that original film that won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing. Everything had to come together to make Rocky work and it did. Stallone found the right producers in Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler and the right director in John Avildsen and the right supporting actors in Talia Shire, Burt Young, Burgess Meredith and Carl Weathers.

The authentic locations in Philadelphia brought a real sense of verisimilitude to the action.

Then there’s the fact that Rocky was hardly an isolated experience for Stallone. He has “screenplay” and “written by” credits on dozens of films. including some very good ones: “F.I.S.T.”; “Paradise Alley”; “Rocky II”; “First Blood”; “Rocky Balboa.” And his interpretations of Rocky in the franchise’s later movies, as the character’s moved into middle age (“Rocky Balboa”) and beyond (“Creed”) are richer and more nuanced, filled with the experience of a life lived. Even though I am not that big a fan of his work, I personally rooted for him to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Creed” because I thought he gave a superb performance that totally anchored that very good movie. I actually think his work in “Paradise Alley”, as an actor. writer and director is among the best he’s ever done but that cult favorite remains little seen and appreciated and apparently the studio forced him to make cuts against his wishes. I also admired what he did as an actor in “Cop Land,” when he played against type, though I think the script and direction by James Mangold undercut the power of Stallone’s performance by making his character’s slow burn too gradual.

Now that Stallone has aged into character roles, I love that he’s playing a succession of mobsters in upcoming projects: “Scarpa”; “Omerta”; and “Idiot’s Eye”. He has the presence, the charisma and the chops to bring his own take to these familiar types and to perhaps make them new.

Stallone’s path after “Rocky” has followed the inevitable highs, lows, excesses, failures and comebacks that accompany anyone’s life and career over a long span of time. It’s been 40 years since he gave us “Rocky.” It’s a testament to the indelible figure of Rocky Balboa he created that the film, the character and the resulting franchise still resonate this many years later. The “Rocky” brand is still going strong alongside other movie franchises. But unlike the others, “Rocky” doesn’t rely on visual effects and superhuman conceits. Even with its occasional flights of fancy, the “Rocky” series is firmly rooted in reality. That’s saying something in today’s CGI cinema universe.

I had an idea for an anniversary screening of “Rocky” in Omaha with hometown world champ Terence “Bud” Crawford introducing the film and serving on a panel after the screening. Fellow panelists would have included Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander and Bruce “The Mouse” Strauss. Sadly, I couldn’t get support for the project. Oh, well, maybe for the 50th.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” speaks to our troubled times – calling us to be agents of change and hope

December 15, 2016 1 comment

 

“It’s a Wonderful Life” speaks to our troubled times – calling us to be agents of change and hope 

©by Leo Adam Biga, author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” (now available online and in bookstores)

 

For many of us, the ugly, vitriolic tenor of the presidential election combined with the incendiary comments and divisive ideas expressed by president-elect Donald Trump have cast a dark pall on things. That’s why there’s no better time than now to watch that great American chestnut of cinema, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” than this particular holiday season.

Film Streams in Omaha is screening this tragic-comic masterwork directed by Frank Capra beginning Dec. 17 on select days through Christmas. The project was Capra’s response to the horrors of the recently concluded Second World War and the recent Great Depression. What Americans today forget is that while the Allied victory over Germany and Japan was greeted with relief and jubilation, the scars of that conflict and of the harsh realities experienced by those who fought it took a deep psychic toll on the nation. Just as America lost its innocence during the Civil War and World War I, it lost any pretense of an idealized world following WWII. Oh, sure, the nation bt on with the business of work, marriage, family and the creation of the consumer age we’re now hostage to, but Capra knew that Americans were an insecure, wounded people behind all that bluster and bravado. It’s no coincidence that that dark cinema of film noir found its apex of expression in the years immediately following the war.

The message of the 1946 film has never been more relevant now as people reeling from the last few months despair over what policies and executive orders will undo the fabric of a nation that for all its inequities does have programs and measures in place to protect the vulnerable among us.

Many folks upset with the election results and fearful of what might be in store the coming four years. feel hopeless, as if their votes and wishes don’t count, and perhaps even harbor a sense that they just don’t matter in the cold calculus of the new world order.

If you’re familiar with the plot, then you know that protagonist George Bailey played by James Stewart is a small town dreamer forever putting off his personal desire for adventure in service to his family’s proletariat building and loan. The business is the last hold out against ruthless Bedford Falls tycoon Mr. Potter, a banker and real estate magnet whose power grab lust will make him stop at nothing to crush his competition. Where George and his late father before him have worked with clients of all races and ethnicities to get them in or keep them in modest homes they could afford, Potter’s only interest is the bottom-line, and if that means pricing them out, then so be it. He represents the bourgeoisie at its most heartless.

It is the classic conflict between the Everyman and the Privileged Man, between the haves and the have-nots, between the forces of good and the forces of evil, between fascism and pluaralism. All sorts of parallels can be found between Potter and Trump. Both are pompous assess who are unfeeling and unbending in their pursuit of wealth and power and they make no apologies for the corners they cut, the contracts they break, the lies they tell and the damage they do.

George Bailey is a young progressive who would have supported FDR then and would have backed Hilary or Bernie today. The disenchanted majority who feel Trump usurped their presumptive president elect by using fear and hate mongering rhetoric are adrift now, no longer at all certain that the democratic process works the way it was intended. Many have thrown up their hands in frustration and worked themselves into fits of anger, desperation and anxiety in anticipation of the Trump administration. In the movie. George loses his faith in America and humanity when things go from bad to worse and it appears to him that all his work and life have been a waste. The tale, which can best be described as a light romantic comedy fantasy meets gritty film noir fable, has George grow so depressed that he contemplates suicide, uttering the wish that he’d never been born. A surreal heavenly intervention shows him how different the world would have been and how empty the lives of his family and friends would be without him having made his mark.

The populist message with spiritual overtones is a reminder, even a challenge that life is a gift that we are expected to cherish and that our imprint, no matter how small or insignificant we believe it to be, is irreplaceable and unique only to us. In this spirit, “It’s a Wonderful Life” calls each of us to do our part in finding our path and following it to do unto others as we would have them do to us. We may not like or understand the path, especially when it grows hard and we grow weary, but it is in the doing that we fulfill our destiny.

In a recent interview I did with Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne he expressed his immeasurable regard for the professional extras who once populated the Hollywood studio factory system. He marveled at how perfectly cast these variations of character actors were and how fully realized, detailed, curated and directed were the business they did and the wardrobe they wore, whether in the background or foreground of shots. He used the example of “Casablanca” as being the epitome of this. “It’s a Wonderful Life” illustrates the same. By the way, the reason why Payne discussed extras at some length with me is that he used a lot of them, as in several hundred, perhaps even a few thousand, not ever all together in any one shot or scene mind you, in his new movie “Downsizing.” He and Kevin Tent are editing the film right now and presumably getting it ready to show at Cannes in May.

Look for a new post this week about “Downsizing” and why you should start the countdown to its fall release. Here’s a hint: its themes become ever more prescient with each new American blunder and world crisis.

Just as “Downsizing” will reflect back to us where America and the world have come and where it might go, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an ageless morality play in the Shakespearean mold are that reveals universal truths of the human heart and soul in extremis.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” has had a profound effect on me the many times I’ve seen it and I have no doubt it will move me again.

http://www.filmstreams.org/film/its-a-wonderful-life/

 

One of the most beloved holiday films of all time, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a good man who’s spent his entire life putting other people before himself. When George falls victim to the antics of a greedy banker, he’s cast into a life-threatening despair — that is, until a guardian angel named Clarence shows George what the world would have been like had he never been born.

Additional Information

Also Shown: December 19, 20, 24 & 25, 2015

December 14 -17, 2012

December 17-18, 22, 24-25, 29, 2011

Directed By
Frank Capra

Starring
James Stewart
Donna Reed
Lionel Barrymore
Thomas Mitchell
Henry Travers
Beulah Bondi
Frank Faylen
Ward Bond
Gloria Grahame

Running Time
130 minutes

MPAA Rating
PG

Distributed By
Paramount Pictures

Country of Origin
USA

Language
In English

Release Year
1946

Year Shown Last
2015

%d bloggers like this: