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Celebrating 90 years, the Omaha Community Playhouse takes seriously its community theater mission

May 3, 2015 3 comments

When it comes to the arts in Omaha there are maybe a dozen artists and arts organizations with national reputations (Jun Kaneko, Thomas Wilkins, Therman Statom, Alexander Payne, Mauro Fiore, John Beasley, Timothy Schaffert, Opera Omaha, Omaha Theater Company, Film Streams, et cetera) and the Omaha Community Playhouse is the longest lived of these.  Its celebration of 90 years concludes in 2015 and what a nine decade ride its been for this theater from the community, for the community.  Two of the biggest acting names to ever come out of the city, Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, both got their start there.  But the theater’s legacy is far richer and expansive than these two.  Read my Omaha Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/) retrospective about this pillar of community theater still going strong today and find out what makes it one of the city’s cultural gems whose reputation extends far beyond the confines of Nebraska.

 

 

 

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Omaha Community Playhouse takes seriously its community theater mission

Theater from the community, for the community celebrates 90 years

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May-June-July issue of Omaha Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

Omaha’s love affair with its Playhouse nears a century

During its 2014-2015 season the Omaha Community Playhouse has celebrated nine decades of stage productions and theater arts education. On June 27 the venerable theater is throwing itself a grand Birthday Bash on its east lawn. The free 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. event, organized by the theater’s support group, Act II, will feature live entertainment, headlined by Playhouse favorite Billy McGuigan, a convoy of food trucks and Broadway bingo. All of Omaha is invited to party like it’s 1925.

When the Playhouse put on its first season 90 years ago the theater brought some much needed culture to a wild and woolly city still shaking the dust off its frontier origins. From a humble start motivated by a desire to just put on plays, it became an Omaha institution. Along the way it changed locations, survived a natural disaster, added a professional touring company, expanded facilities and welcomed many unforgettable characters. Hundreds of productions have been performed before millions of patrons.

Bound up in the Playhouse story is an aspiration to bring people together for a common goal of producing entertainment that engages and fosters community. Civic pride has made it Omaha’s theater. Ambition, determination and generosity has taken it to undreamed of heights as America’s largest community theater.

 

 

 Charles Jones, center

“The key figure in the rise of the Playhouse to the top, Charles Jones, arrived in 1974,” says Warren Francke, author of the new book, The Omaha Community Playhouse Story: A Theatre’s Historic Triumph. “The simplest reasons the Playhouse became number one were the things Charles Jones accomplished.” Jones penned a wildly popular adaptation of A Christmas Carol and created the professional touring wing, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan. Under his leadership the Playhouse’s audience, budget and staff eventually exceeded any community theater in the nation. “His adaptation of A Christmas Carol became, pardon the expression, the cash cow for decades.” That show’s a tradition 39 years and counting now.

Francke says the Caravan brought talent to the Playhouse and carried the theater’s brand nationwide. Several standouts came to Omaha via the troupe. Jerry Longe succeeded Dick Boyd as Scrooge in Carol. Bill Hutson headed the Creighton University drama department and won multiple Fonda-McGuire acting awards.

Jones was also adept at getting donors on board. “Everyone describes him as the most charming Southern gentleman they ever met and he charmed people, not just performers, but the business community and Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben leaders,” says Francke. He says Jones’ ability to get people like Marge Durham, Barbara Ford, Ed Owen and Howard Drew to see philanthropy as crucial to the future of the Playhouse was critical for the ascendancy that took place from 1975 through the mid-1990s.

He says the Playhouse’s stable of memorable personalities is led by the charismatic Jones and the flamboyant director, Bernard Szold, “an ex-football All-American opera cape-wearing character.” Dodie Brando, actor Marlon Brando’s mother, was a passionate if troubled enthusiast.

Early players and echoes of the past

Long woven into the community fabric, the Playhouse developed as the city did. Omaha was a wide open cow town when the Playhouse gave it its only legitimate theater. As Omaha grew, so did the arts. The Playhouse mirrored that evolution. In the span of a decade that saw the Jazz Age give way to the Great Depression, the Playhouse joined two other significant arts organizations in maturing the cultural landscape: the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and the Joslyn Art Museum. All made their mark and remain strong presences today. Of the three, the Playhouse has perhaps been the least stuffy.

Founded as part of a movement to democratize the arts, the Playhouse formed from the community for the community. Even with a professional staff, its grassroots volunteers have always filled out the casts and crews and supported the theater in myriad other ways. Among those figuring prominently in its early success were two families who, against all odds, produced stage and screen icons. Dodie Brando played the lead in the first play, The Enchanted Cottage. Her husband, Marlon Brando Sr., was theater manager. Their son Marlon, who changed the face of acting in New York and Hollywood, was 5 when he and his family moved away, otherwise he would likely have been pulled into the Playhouse orbit the way another future star was, Henry Fonda. Dodie recruited young Hank into the Playhouse fold. He served as a jack-of-all-trades assistant director and as an actor. His sisters Jayne and Harriet were regular players on the fledging theater’s stage.

Not long after Henry went East to pursue an acting career he returned to star opposite a promising ingenue, Dorothy McGuire, in A Kiss for Cinderella (1930). McGuire herself went onto stage and screen stardom. In 1955 she and Fonda, long established names above the title by then, came back to play opposite each other in a benefit production of The Country Girl. Henry’s then 17-year-old daughter, Jane, the future two-time Oscar-winner, made her stage debut. Jane’s brother, Peter, who also became a screen star, continued the Fonda family’s Playhouse legacy – acting there while a University of Omaha student. A cousin, Matt Fonda, later acted there.

The Fondas and McGuire are not the only Playhouse “graduates” who moved onto Broadway, film, television success. Current Playhouse president Tim Schmad’s uncle Howard Fischer used the venue as a stepping-stone to a career as a Broadway stage manager and actor.

The Fonda-McGuire heritage lives on at the Playhouse. Artistic director Hilary Adams says, “Having a pedigree is very beneficial for us. I think anything founded and initiated by people of that caliber and passion – it really is the passion in their work – has a continuing legacy here.”

Adams heard of the Playhouse while working in New York City as a much-in-demand freelance director, but she only learned about its distinguished past once she started researching it. She appreciates being part of an organization so intertwined with its community and one that boasts such a long, colorful history. “Ninety years, I mean, that’s astonishing for a theater. That’s huge. Theaters fight for their survival and the fact it could survive for that long not only speaks volumes about the work the theater is doing but also about the community support and engagement of the community in the arts . That immediately stood out for me – its history and the way it was founded as part of a desire for a community-based organization to bring culture to Omaha as part of the Little Theater Movement.”

“Ninety years, I mean, that’s astonishing for a theater…Theaters fight for their survival and the fact it could survive for that long not only speaks volumes about the work the theater is doing but also about the community support and engagement of the community in the arts… –Hilary Adams

 Dodie Brando

The only show in town

Ex-associate artistic director Susie Baer Collins says the Playhouse parlayed that pedigree into a reputation as “the premiere place for local theatrical entertainment.” She says it’s remained a considerable force even as other theatre companies have put down roots and professional touring productions now regularly come to town. “It was a little scary for all of us the first time The Lion King came to the Orpheum Theater and stayed for more than a month. I wasn’t sure if the Playhouse could survive that kind of stellar competition and still find its audience, but somehow we did. We tried to remain relevant.”

She says the theater’s knack for putting on stellar shows, particularly musicals. grew “in the heyday of Charles Jones,” adding, “He was extremely committed to strong production values and the Playhouse gained a reputation for wonderful scenery, lighting and costumes that enhanced every production.”

Doing a Playhouse show meant you’d arrived. “It was like if you got on at the Playhouse then that meant you were doing something theatrically in the city,” says Playhouse veteran Camille Metoyer Moten. “I mean, even now it’s still a big deal.” “It’s definitely a big deal,” says fellow stage veteran Elaine Jabenis. “It opened up a whole new world for me. I met people I ordinarily would not have met,” including Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda and Dorothy McGuire when Jabenis worked backstage for The Country Girl. “There’s a lot of people I met and worked with who helped pull me up because of their talent.”

Jabenis says it’s no accident the Playhouse has held the community enthralled for going on a century. “Audiences just keep coming back for that magic, for that moment to escape their own life and to see what happens in other lives. It is absolutely magic.” The Playhouse annually nets more local Theatre Arts Guild awards than all its competition combined.

All for one, one for all

Year after year, generation after generation, the Playhouse, no matter the need or challenge, has always found the necessary community backing because it’s a vital, touchstone place for people. “You know, it’s a funny thing about feeling vital,” says Jabenis, whose first Playhouse role in a 1952 production of Father of the Bride was in the old 40th and Davenport site. “When they announced plans to build the present theater I was on the committee to help raise money. I went house to house. I was never that bold a person. I was really pretty shy. But I believed in it, I really did. I was so anxious for it to happen.”

Jabenis says her eagerness to pitch-in reflects a communal desire “to make Omaha the best in everything we do,” adding, “It’s kind of a hunger and it’s something we’ve pushed for.” She also starred in the first production, Say Darling, at the current site in 1959, taking the stage mere minutes after hosting a live remote for local television.

“It’s like the perfect storm or something,” says Metoyer Moten, whose first role there was as the title character in Evita (1986). “You had the people who started it off that had this dream and these high expectations. Somehow they were able to impart that to the next generation, who had that same passion. I don’t know how that happens. Maybe it’s because we’re in the middle of nowhere and people are hungry for culture. We don’t have mountains or the ocean, so we turn to ourselves to give that thing we can bring, which is artistic. “It’s a good common cause.”

This sense of getting behind something is not so different than Omaha’s embrace of the College World Series. It’s what happens when something springs from the community and is nurtured by it. The community theater model, dependent as it is on amateurs or volunteers, leads to misconceptions the Playhouse fights against.

“There’s been times over the years where there’s been debate whether community should be in our name,” says president Tim Schmad. “We hear that newcomers to town see community in our name and they immediately think of a renovated 70-seat church space with productions not the quality we think ours are.”

But Schamd points out community is part of the theater’s DNA and its volunteers work side by side with professionals to create work that he and artistic director Hilary Adams, a veteran of New York City theater, say compares favorably with Broadway. “We feel community definitely needs to be in our name because of the status we have in Omaha and the fact we rely on Omahans to put on our product for the most part,” Schmad says. “Our job then is to get those newcomers here just once. If we can’t get them back that’s our fault but we think if we expose them to our product they’ll understand why community definitely is a part of who we are.”

“As a community theatre, education is at the core of everything we do.”–Hilary Adams

Community engagement

Before Adams ever started working at the Playhouse she was impressed by what she found on visits there during the search process to replace longtime artistic director Carl Beck.

“It was really about community engagement – that’s what I immediately saw. And then I discovered not only do they support the Playhouse in Omaha but they support the arts in Omaha.”

Since joining the staff in mid-2014 Adams, a Drama Desk nominee for Outstanding Director of a Play, has been bowled over by the Playhouse’s singular approach to community theater.

“The quality of work is astonishing. I think it’s a real hybrid situation that’s unique to community theaters in that we have a paid staff and everything we do supports our volunteer actors, with the exception of the Caravan. What we do have here is really high quality and high support for volunteer actors, and the staff here is incredibly talented and experienced. We treat the people who walk in our doors the same or better as Equity actors or people who do this for a living get treated.

“Volunteers are at the heart of the Playhouse. We have more than 1,000 in a season. They’re involved onstage, backstage, in the box office, as ushers, answering phones, on the board, in Act II. The public is everywhere in this building.”

Her first exposure to the Playhouse in action was at a performance of Les Miserables. The seamless blending of community she witnessed that night is what she’s come to expect. “I saw all that in operation backstage, And in the front of the house at intermission for Les Mis the entire audience stood up and cheered and I still get like goose bumps thinking about this because almost the entire cast was fellow community members.” The outpouring of love happened again at curtain call and once again at the meet-and-greet in the lobby, as community members in the audience, the cast and crew expressed appreciation for each other. This mutual admiration happens nearly every show.

Schmad grew up with this sense of community. His aunt Margaret Fischer saw every production from the theater’s start until her death. Many of her friends acted on stage there and she and the rest of the family were always in the audience to encourage them. Schmad says many Omaha families claim similar Playhouse legacies. Whether attending shows and classes or volunteering onstage or backstage, the Playhouse becomes a multi-generational tradition. He says it’s not uncommon for someone to start there as a child and to either continue or resume ties in adulthood, often getting their own children involved. “That’s really symbolic of what the Playhouse is,” he says. It goes back to community being the basis for everything there.

“That is very unique. It’s all part of this cycle of “bringing theater with and for communities,” says Adams. It jives with her own theater interests, which is why she left New York for here. “I was looking for a place where I could combine the professional theater experience I had with the skills and focus of my master’s program, which is in applied theater – using theater for social change, transformation and education. I really wanted to merge those two parts of theater. I also came from a community theater background as a young person. From the time I was really small I was also going to New York and seeing shows. So I’ve always sort of been in that hybrid.”

“We learned that this place is bigger than all of us.” –Tim Schmad

 

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  • Camille Metoyer Moten

Training ground and professional environment

Baer Collins says “The performers may be volunteers, but they’re surrounded by professionalism. A great number of the designers and directors, along with the music director, choreographer, technicians, carpenters, costumers, et cetera. are employees of the Playhouse and all are committed to making each show the very best it can be.” That expertise and care shows up on stage.”The Playhouse’s professionalism continues to have a reputation among the theatre community,” she says.

“Actors who may have significant experience or training are often interested in performing at the Playhouse as a volunteer because it strives for such high-quality and its shows have such a professional look. “It was always a thrill when an audience member would say they thought the actors were professional.”

Metoyer Moten, who starred in last spring’s production of the musical Little Women, says it’s a regular occurrence, “You hear it all the time at the (post-show) meet-and-greets where people say, ‘I saw the same show on Broadway and this is way better.’ Ot they ask, ‘Where are you people from?’ It’s such a professional performance they don’t think it could be local. They think it’s a cast that’s been brought in from someplace else, when the truth is I may live around the corner from them.”

Metoyer Moten says the professionals employed in key positions at the Playhouse “guide mentor” volunteers to do professional-level work. “They have high expectations. It’s all about expectations. I’ve worked in quite a few theaters and I still feel like when I’m there I have the most professional treatment.”

“You feel more secure because you know they’re really pulling out the very best in you and you’re making it the very best you can,” Jabenis says.

Amid the bright lights and standing ovations, its easy to forget the Playhouse is a training ground for people of any age and experience level to get a top-notch theater immersion and education.

“As a community theatre, education is at the core of everything we do,” Adams says. “We have a very strong education and outreach program that includes adult and youth classes, youth summer camp intensives, in-school workshops and residencies, after-school programs, a Theatre Technology Apprenticeship Program, an alternative programming series and go-beyond the show programming.”

She’s proud of the two-year apprenticeship program in partnership with Metropolitan Community College and registered with the U.S. Department of Labor. “Our apprentices run a lot of the shows backstage. They are supervised, supported and mentored by our paid staff every step of the way. So here you have a professional house that looks like what you’d have on Broadway or high off-Broadway or high regional theater, with all the accoutrements, bells and whistles, and the people working that are this really unique combination, from teens on up, of people really new at it and people really experienced. “It’s an incredible program. It’s the only one like it in the country.”

Apprentice grads have gone on to work for big-time theatrical troupes, theater festivals and network television. The Playhouse is also where young talent gets its start.

Baer Collins says, “We worked very hard to bring young people into our shows, in particular A Christmas Carol. That yearly production became an amazing training ground for children to learn about the discipline and art of performing onstage. I worked with some amazing young people who grew into outstanding performers. They start with learning to smile onstage and to hang up their costumes and end up playing amazing roles like Annie in Annie or Wendy in Peter Pan.” John Lloyd Young made it all the way to Broadway, where he headlined the cast of Jersey Boys, winning a Tony for his efforts. Others who’ve gone onto stardom include Terry Kiser and two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz.

Two Caravan alums who found fame returned in triumphant roles: Kevyn Morrow, a veteran of the Broadway and London stage, headlined the cast of Ragtime in 2006; and opera star Greg Ryerson anchored South Pacific in 2008. Some Omaha natives who made it big before acting at the Playhouse have returned to play there, including Equity performer John Beasley, who starred opposite Elaine Jabenis in 1996’s Driving Miss Daisy. Former Omaha mayor and congressman Glenn Cunningham and film-TV producer William Dozier are among the notables who acted there.

 

 

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The show must go on

Hilary Adams is impressed the Playhouse has consistently dared to do provocative work. “They really came out of the gate very strong with innovative productions even in the ’20s. They were doing wonderful work here.”

Historian Warren Francke says, “Almost from the start the Playhouse was willing to tackle Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie about a prostitute. When they did controversial plays then they were defended by two board members who were clergymen, one a rabbi and the other a Unitarian minister.” Francke discovered a “wonderful story nearly lost to history” that illustrates the pressure the Playhouse sometimes felt. “A man wrote a play about Brigham Young and Bernard Szold, the then-Playhouse director, knew him and together they conspired to pick up the play. Szold went to his artist friend Grant Wood, who’d just done “American Gothic,” to do the scenic design. That’s overshadowed by the fact the night before opening the Mormon Church got the president of Union Pacific Railroad and their general counsel to convince the Playhouse board to drop 14 of Young’s 17 wives in the cast.”

Adams says community theater serves so many tastes that devising a slate of plays “is about finding the right balance and challenging people but not so far that they get upset with us. For 2015-2016 we’ve created a diverse season of offerings from new American playwrights rising in prominence as well as better known pieces. The season mixes genres and styles and includes two experimentations in form.”

Controversy over content still happens. In the 2003-2004 season profane language in the main stage production of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife elicited such negative feedback that Schmad says “it showed us how we shouldn’t mess with their Playhouse.” “We learned a lesson from that,” he says, namely that the main stage Hawks Theatre is better suited to tamer shows. “We did lose a lot of memberships because of it. Hopefully. we got some back. They sent a message. It was kind of ironic that our first show in the Hawks the next year was Hair,” the nudie musical about free love. “It did fine.”

Playhouse leadership has come under fire, too. ‘When we had some public issues in the past I learned just how important the Playhouse is to the community,” Schmad says. In 2009 friction between the administrative and artistic sides made news. “It was something at that time that needed to be discussed and it was and we came out much better because of that. We learned that this place is bigger than all of us. We all came to that conclusion.” Schmad says the upshot of that has been better communication and a clearer division of responsibilities. “The way we’ve structured it now, which is different than a lot of community theaters, is that I’m here to do the administrative things. though I do also oversee the artistic side. But I leave the management of the artistic up to them. I have confidence and trust in what they do.”

“When it comes to the Playhouse, a lot of people have worked here and given a lot of their life to this place.” –Tim Schmad

 

Tim Schmad

 

Omaha’s theater

Schmad views himself as the steward of a valued community resource. “When I first came here I said i want to be the caretaker of this place but I also want to move it forward. I feel responsible for this place. I know how important it is to people. In my decision-making I certainly have to take care of my staff and the people who come to the shows, the donors, the board members. There are many nights where I’m awake at three in the morning, but that comes with the territory.”

As for what’s next, he says, “We’re looking at the future, we’re looking at strategic planning, and that’s very important to us. It’s a combination of what we need to do administratively and artistically. There’s no question that selling tickets, donor support and remaining relevant to the community is extremely important. “Right now I think we’re in good hands. Our board is good, our foundation is strong. I’m really proud of our staff. We’ve got some real go-getters that know what they’re doing and are very talented and that love theater and love the Playhouse. “It’s not all roses but I’m kind of proud of where we are.”

A clear indication of the theater’s continued popularity is that some hit shows in the last decade broke all box-office records. Through all the Playhouse’s needs – realizing a new home in 1959, repairing structural damage from a 1975 tornado, supporting a major addition in 1986, building the endowment – Omaha’s responded. “We’ve been very fortunate the community’s come forward to support any special needs,” he says. “We are always trying to improve ourselves. Our facility looks nice but we’ve got 50-some years in this building and so we definitely have some improvements that need to be made, especially in staging and equipment that’s pretty old. So we’re in that mode right now in trying to really improve what we have.”

He expects, not takes for granted, the community will respond again. “They’ve always been there.” Everyone from philanthropists like Howard and Rhonda Hawks to season subscribers and casual theatergoers. “That’s what makes Omaha what it is. The community is proud of the arts and culture in Omaha. When it comes to the Playhouse, a lot of people have worked here and given a lot of their life to this place.” They’ve given their time, talent and treasure, too. “There’s a real sense of ownership that comes with that.” That’s why it’s called the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Visit http://www.omahaplayhouse.com.

 
 
 

Proteges of Model School Diva Nancy Bounds Pay it Forward Building the Omaha Fashion Ecosystem


This is a story I did a couple years ago for Omaha Fashion Week Magazine that I’m only now posting.

As Omaha and fashion become less and less incompatible and mutually exclusive, I find myself continuing to write about aspects of the growing fashion scene here. The piece looks at Omaha’s fashion past through the work being done today by Alyssa Dilts, Robin Jones Gifford, Stephen Hall, and Michael Dar, all proteges of the late modeling school director Nancy Bounds, who was a legend.  Each is paying forward lessons learned under Bounds in terms of developing and showcasing emerging models. They’re some of the professionals Brook Hudson is calling on to assist the model development efforts of Omaha Fashion Week and Fashion Institute Midwest, and all part of what Hudson refers to as growing the Omaha fashion ecosystem.  You can find profiles of Brook Hudson and her hubby Nick Hudson, along with stories about Omaha Fashion Week, on this blog.  You can also find a full-blown profile of Nancy Bounds.  Special thanks to fashion photographer Michael Dar for his wonderful photo of Nancy, who was very careful about her image and reluctant to have her picture taken.  She liked to be the director.  She didn’t like being directed.  Dar said the image (at the bottoom of the post) is from the only time she let him do her hair and makeup.  The photograph was made a year before her death.

Omaha Fashion Week, ©chrismachian.blogspot.com

Proteges of Model School Diva Nancy Bounds Pay it Forward Building the Omaha Fashion Ecosystem

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in Omaha Fashion Magazine

There was a time when aspiring Omaha models took their cues from a pair of divas with their fingers on the pulse of the high fashion world.

J.L. Brandeis & Sons fashion merchandizer Elaine Jabenis drew on her experience as a stage actress and regular attendee at New York and Paris fashion weeks to produce runway extravaganzas.

But for training there was no one like the late modeling-acting-finishing school director Nancy Bounds, a charismatic figure whose theatrical graduation shows were legendary. Her Nancy Bounds Studios developed countless young men and women for careers in fashion.

When Jabenis retired in the late 1990s and Bounds died in 2007 it left a gap. With the growth of Omaha Fashion Week, the launch of modeling schools by Bounds proteges Alyssa Dilts and Robin Jones Gffford and the formation of Fashion Institute Midwest the metro now has the makings of a fashion infrastructure unseen here before.

Nebraska natives Dilts and Gifford are just two of many success stories who came out of the Bounds Studios. Others include former model Renee Jeffus, models-turned-actresses Jaime King and Rebecca Staab, actress January Jones, photographer Michael Dar, Factor Women Model Management women’s division director Stephen Hall and Ford Models Chicago director of scouting Shannon Lang.

“She gave people like us our start in the industry,” Dilts says of Bounds. “We kind of have this little network.”

Dar, who began as a model and stylist before turning fashion shooter, says Bounds gave him and others the “belief anything’s possible. She taught us to be fearless and to step outside the box. It’s amazing the things she instilled. She was such a pygmalion. Quite a force.”

Hall, who also modeled before becoming a scout, says he utilizes daily things Bounds taught him to prepare models.

“Nancy was one of the originals for this whole concept of what a modeling school is,” says Hall. “I realized when I got out in the industry how together and tight Nancy had her program and how prepared her graduates were when they got through there.

“I think she was one of the first people that really understood there’s so much more to being a model than being beautiful and having correct measurements. She somehow had the foresight to understand the direction the business is going in, which is the girl who has the right personality and knows how to handle herself on camera.”

Alyssa Dilts
Alyssa Dilts

A New Wave

Dilts and Gifford represent a new wave of local talent developers with connections to the past. Each brings years of top-flight national experience in the industry. Their classes are inspired by what they learned from Bounds and other industry pros. Just as Bounds did, both women expose students to many different facets of the fashion biz.

Following a brief modeling stint Dilts, an Omaha North graduate, taught for Bounds. After studying at the International Academy of Design in Chicago she headed the runway division for Elite Model Development there. She later worked as the agency’s director of New Faces and Development, traveling the U.S. scouting and developing new models.

A talented newcomer she developed, Maria Bradley, opened Alexander Wang’s 2011 New York Fashion Week show. Dilts accompanied her to Milan for a Versace show and to Paris for a Balenciaga show.

Dilts recently returned to Omaha to launch her own modeling school and placement agency, Development. Its name reflects her passion.

“That’s what I do, that’s what I’m known for, that’s such an integral part of the modeling industry. That’s why I decided to lend my expertise and follow my heart, which is giving young people opportunities.”

To blossom.

Gifford modeled internationally four years then scouted, developed, styled and booked new models for IMG Models in New York City. She worked at Taxi magazine before serving as director of scouting at Elite in the Big Apple, where she got her professional modeling start. She returned to her hometown of Lincoln in 1991, married, raised a family and worked in the nonprofit and corporate worlds before launching her own company, Springboard for Success, in 2007.

“I love using what I know as a model and agent to find and develop young girls,” she says. “Young models have to get development somewhere. If they go to New York and somebody takes them under their wing that’s great but it can be a very expensive venture.”

Like Bounds before them Gifford and Dilts emphasize personal development over strictly modeling instruction.

“Really what we do in our school is teach life skills so they can be successful in anything they do,” says Gifford. “I use all of my background to teach communication, interviewing, etiquette, presentations, making first impressions. Students learn poise, confidence, how to command a room. We really drill that home first and then we teach the modeling on top of it.”

Giving students a solid foundation for how to carry themselves is more important than ever, say Gifford and Dilts, because few young people are taught such things anymore and rising interest in modeling is making an already competitive field harder than ever to break into.

Robin Jones Gifford
Robin Jones Gifford

Modeling 101

“I think back in the day girls wanted to be Miss America and now they strive to be models,” says Dilts.

She says until recently a young person living somewhere far from the fashion capitals had little access to the industry except through magazines. That’s all changed.

“Now our whole industry is pushed forward through the Internet and reality TV shows like America’s Next Top Model.”

That exposure, she says, gives young people the sense “it could be a possibility for them as well.”

Gifford says shows like that also offer a distorted view of the industry, leading many aspirants to mistakenly believe modeling is easy and is only about having a pretty face and slim body.

“They’re not doing their research They don’t understand there are height and measurement requirements. You have to be fit and healthy. We want girls who know their angles, who can sell clothes, who know how to speak with their face. One look with a smile is not enough.

“You have to have the right mentality. You have to be serious about it, you have to be on time. They don’t realize it’s a job, it’s hard, it’s a business. You’re your own brand when you’re a model and if you don’t understand that and you can’t figure out how to create it, then it’s not going to happen for you.”

Hall says, “There’s definitely a method to it and there’s definitely things a model does need to be prepared for.”

Gifford says a must resource for would-be models is the website models.com. “It’s the industry bible.” She also advises anyone serious about it get busy acting since so much of modeling is role-playing.

Mostly, Gifford hammers home the realities of the modeling industry.

“I tell them the truth. I tell them how hard it is. That even most girls who sign with agencies don’t make it because they just cant take it. If someone’s still willing to go through my school after I tell them all that then they’re there for the right reason.”

She gives students a further dose of reality by taking a group to New York City once or twice a year.

“We visit models’ apartments, we visit agencies, we go behind the scenes at magazines and with designers.”

She took six girls to NYC in July. Last year her group did New York Model Camp, where she says top model Coco Rocha personally taught “the girls posing, how to come alive on camera, how to move their body, how to show tension and anger and anything you’d want.”

She says Rocha impressed upon the girls know they don’t need to do lingerie and nude work to succeed. “She’s one of the top-paid model and she hasn’t. She told them, ‘Make the choice for yourself before you get in those situations.'”

Dilts also stresses the standards necessary to break through are high and the pitfalls many. Having a professional coach who’s lived it is an advantage.

“You have to up your game. Schools like mine that really know what the industry is about can give the girls the upper hand,” says Dilts. “If I represent someone with potential I can get her straight to the person making the decision because I have those contacts. They’re contacts you can’t get walking into an open call.

“My agency is very much focused on the highest caliber of talent because I know what the top agencies are looking for.”

“It’s still all about being an individual and finding your passion,” says Dar, who credits Bounds with teaching him “not to do what everyone else is doing.”

In order to make it, he says, “you have to want it,” adding, “It takes that I-want-to-get-out-of-here drive.”

Gifford and Dilts supply models to Omaha Fashion Week. Dilts conducts “boot camps” for participating models. Half-measures don’t cut it on the unforgiving runway. Every facet of a model’s walk and look must be scrutinized and honed.

“If their skill level is not up to par it’s very noticeable,” says Dilts.

Michael Dar
Michael Dar

Platform, Showcase, Resource

OFW gives fashion the kind of stage it hasn’t had here since the big shows Nancy Bounds and Elaine Jabenis organized.

“They really put on quite a show in Omaha, I was really impressed,” says Dar, who attended the spring shows.

Not only has OFW become a destination event, it’s given designers, models, stylists and photographers a high profile platform to display their wares. It’s new nonprofit arm, Fashion Midwest Institute, is a mentoring-training-development resource to help designers take their work to the next level. Because designers and models are joined at the hip and depend on one another to make fashion lines look fabulous, any edge designers get only helps models raise their performance.

“The mission is to support the fashion ecosystem in the Midwest, especially young designers,” says director Brook Hudson. “We have different program pillars: skills development, resource development, business incubation. It’s a great holistic approach to helping designers no matter where they are in their career.”

Hudson says the Institute is collaborative like the industry it supports.

“We’re looking to leverage and partner with others who are doing things that we can bring to bear to help our designers. In March we did two programs during Omaha Fashion Week for designers in the Institute. One was a pattern grading workshop taught by Isabelle Lott from Pattern Works International.

Brook Hudson

“Another was a creativity workshop in partnership with Development. Jerell Scott of Bravo’s Project Runway All-stars spent time working with designers showing in the spring shows.”

More recently, the Institute partnered with Princess Lasertron to deliver apitch workshop to help designers prepare presentations on their collection proposals for the OFW selection panel.

Dilts and Gifford look forward to working with more models to help best show off designers’ creations. They say as OFW, the Institute and their own own schools continue growing there may be more opportunities for Nebraskans to establish careers in fashion.

“I think we’ll see individuals emerging that may not have had a chance to emerge without this support,” Gifford says.

Dilts agrees, adding she’s impressed by what OFW and the Institute have done already. “They really understand the industry and have a handle on what is needed for our city. They understand we can give back to the community by nurturing and showcasing this talent we have here to further their skills.”

Hall, who’s attending his first Omaha Fashion Week in August, sees great value in “encouraging young talent” here because the industry is full of professionals who come out of small markets like Omaha.

photo
Nancy Bounds, ©photo by Michael Dar

In a real sense, Dilts and Gifford are trying to do for young people what Nancy Bounds did for them. Gifford says Bounds could be a taskmaster but her demanding ways “absolutely” helped prepare her for the rigors of modeling and other fashion jobs.

“There’s a reason why there are so many of us that came out of her school who are over the world working in different capacities, as agents, models, actors, you name it,” says Gifford.

And just as Bounds gave graduating models a runway grand finale that drew scouts from leading agencies around the world (it’s how Jaime King was discovered), Dilts and Gifford do the same.

“If you have the connections with those top agencies they’ll fly in to scout those events and see the talent,” says Dilts.

Bounds had the connections. She also had a flair for staging what Dar calls “spectacular shows” that compare with anything he’s seen. Hall agrees, saying the Bounds productions were matchless.

“Everyone knew her name,” says Dilts, “and any scout or agent of a certain age has fond memories of flying into Omaha and finding great girls, and that’s what I want to bring back.”

She looks forward to having one of her own models discovered.

“I can’t wait until I get a girl or a guy with enough potential placed. They’ll forever be ‘mine.’ I think it will be extremely gratifying.”

 

Omaha Fashion Past

February 4, 2012 4 comments

The words Omaha and fashion may seem incongruous, certainly not synonomous, and no one, including this writer, would argue the fact that as a Midwest city far removed from the fashion centers of America this place is in a perpetual state of catching up with and therefore always behind trends in clothing and accessories and other aspects of style.  Of course there’s always been a fashion scene and community of its own here, just as there is in any city of a certain size, and no matter how small or insignificant that fashion conscious segment may be by national industry standards it has still produced its share of highlights and notables, even if on a scaled down size. There was a time when high fashion in Omaha was catered to by a whole range of stores, shows, and figures.  Then owing to several factors high fashion activity here faded away.  Recently though there’s been a resurgence of interest and activity, much of it coalescing around the wildy popular Omaha Fashion Week, and the fact that this article is for an upcoming issue of Omaha Fashion Magazine is an indicator of just how far things have come around.  Omaha never had a fashion week or fashion magazine before.  And the same people who’ve made those things happen, Nick and Brook Hudson, now have the Omaha Fashion Institute in the works.  In their own way this power couple has done for fashion in Omaha what individuals and institutions like Elaine Jabenis, Nancy Bounds, J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store, and the Clarkson Fashion Show did in an earlier era.  There’s more to come in future issues on the fashion institute.  In the meantime, think of this story as a guide to what Omaha’s Fashion Past looked like and check out my other fashion stories on the blog:  a profile of fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell, who has a new book and exhibition out featuring her work; a look at Omaha Fashion Week; and profiles of past and present style mavens – Nancy Bounds and Nick and Brook Hudson.

 

 

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Elaine Jabenis, center, hosting telecast of Omaha Community Playhouse opening

 

 

Omaha Fashion Past

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in Omaha Fashion Magazine

 

Fashion Divas

Just as fashion is of the times, so is the infrastructure supporting it, which is why the Omaha fashion scene once looked quite different.

It used to be fashionistas frequented multi-story fine department or apparel stores. Attentive customer service ruled the day. The same way boutiques do, box stores employed a fashion arbiter to select the latest seasonal looks in men’s and women’s clothing and accessories from the major American and European fashion centers.

The area’s penultimate arbiter was Elaine Jabenis, “Omaha’s First Lady of Fashion.” The radio-television personality and theater actress was fashion director for the pinnacle of department stores – J.L. Brandeis & Sons. She later served the same role for the Crossroads and OakView malls. Twice a year she visited New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris and Milan to view top designer collections.

“There was a whole way of educating the customer about what the trend was and why, and Elaine was in the forefront of that,” says designer Mary Anne Vaccaro. “She was always checking on what was in fashion.”

“We never let our customers down. People understood what we stood for and what was important,” says Jabenis, who found a happy medium between West Coast daring and East Coast sophistication to fit the Omaha market.

 The French Room at J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store

 

 

Always an innovator, she integrated theatrical elements into her runway shows.

“I felt all the shows I had seen were very boring. Models just walked down and somebody talked forever. It was kind of nothing. I thought there must be a better way to do this. I wanted music, dance, interesting staging. I decided to break it up into scenes and do a color story, a trend story, transition from day to night and night to day. Brandeis really loved that and the audiences loved it too.”

“Elaine’s shows were great,” says stylist David Scott, who with Rick Carey designed hair and makeup for Jabenis shows.

She went over-the-top with sets, actors, singers, musicians, celebrity guests.

“That kind of show could never be done today. You could never afford it,” she says.

As corporate fashion merchandiser she implemented themes throughout the entire Brandeis chain, extending to window displays. Models strolled through the stores. In-store fashion illustrators and copywriters carried the themes into print ads, articulating the look and feel of garments in a few strokes and well-chosen words.

The work of fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell is now showcased at Durham Museum.

Always attuned to trends, Jabenis was a pioneer in focusing on plus-sized women. “I was really a maverick,” she says. Mademoiselle and Seventeen magazines recognized Jabenis, who’s authored fashion merchandising books.

“Elaine is the crowning diva queen of all fashion ever in Omaha,” says Scott.

Other fashion forward figures made their own marks. The late modeling agency maven Nancy Bounds put on a smashing graduation show that launched international modeling careers, including Jaime King‘s.

“Nancy Bounds had a huge impact for not only opening up doors for young models but also creating a great sense of style in Omaha,” says retail consultant Wendy Chapman.

Fashion Culture, Then and Now

Upscale retailers abounded (Nebraska Clothing Co., Topps, Zoob’s, The Avenue). Stores, large and small, strutted their wares at the Clarkson Fashion Show – “THE huge fashion happening here,” says Scott. Trunk shows featured major designer lines and sometimes the designers themselves. Vaccaro met Oscar de La Renta at Brandeis. Scott recalls Michael Kors, Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene and Halston all coming here.

Mary Anne Vaccaro

 

 

Local designers like Vaccaro turned heads too with their custom couture works.

Though the Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation and Ball is not a fashion show per se, socialites used it as a stage to out-dazzle each other in their designer gowns.

“Everybody would wait to see who was going to wear what by these famous designers,” says Scott. “Everybody held their breath for Rosemary Daly to come from Paris. As she swept in she would have on Yves Saint Laurent and the crowd would ooh and ahh.”

The fabulous traveling Ebony Fashion Fair often stopped here, giving locals a chance to ogle the latest European and American lines.

When the Clarkson show ended after 1999, the era of big Omaha shows, with the exception of bridal wear events, ended too.

“The audiences became less and less. Fashion sort of became passe,” says Scott. “It wasn’t as prominent in people’s lives because then things were coming off the racks and fashion wasn’t just a one-of-a-kind thing for a woman. Anybody could go buy it.

Chapman says where the emphasis was on building wardrobes of enduring high style, “I think today some of that is lost because things are more geared to disposable fashion. It’s all about getting the look and if the customer knows she’s only going to wear it four times, she doesn’t care if it’s going to fall apart.”

Many exclusive department stores, Brandeis included, disappeared. No longer, Jabenis says, did someone tailor selections to the Omaha market. The big chains, she says, “don’t buy on a personal level” but rather via “a central buying office.” The intimate connection between store and customer faded. “The human touch is gone, service is gone. It’s not at all the kind of thing it used to be, consequently the department store is losing its foothold and the specialty shop is doing much better.” Nouvelle Eve, Tilly’s and Trocadero are among Omaha’s high-end boutiques today.

Fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell

 

 

Chapman says department stores “need to continue to reinvent themselves to be relevant with customers.”

Malls and national chains (Ann Taylor) featuring ready-to-wear designer brands became the new norm. The changing times made it tough on specialty shops too.

“People started going to Target and buying online what they bought in designer stores,” says Vaccaro. “In the fashion business if you go sour or you cannot sell one seasons’s collection, you’re in trouble. That’s the way it is. To outlast all the challenges coming at you you’ve got to have the strength of God practically.”

Changing Times, New Directions

“This industry has just changed so dramatically, I wouldn’t say either better or worse but just that fashion is moving much faster,”says Chapman. “Things are instantly knocked off and on the streets.”

“Today, fashion is about celebrity and it’s quick and it’s highly competitive,” says Vaccaro. “There’s not a few big name designers, there’s one celebrity designer and stylist after another.”

Vaccaro has changed with the times. She still has a design studio, but she’s mainly an image consultant these days. She says, “If you’re not willing to change then you are not a person of fashion anymore. You have to be what it is.”

Scott pines for what once was. “I miss it in the fact it was such a fantasy era,” he says.

To the delight of Scott and Co. fashion matters again in Omaha, where magazines, events and organizations support the emerging local design community.

“It’s an exciting look back and an exciting look forward with the evolution Omaha’s gone through and what’s happening now with Omaha Fashion Week,” says Chapman.

 

 

A runway show at Omaha Fashion Week

Theater-Fashion Maven Elaine Jabenis

August 4, 2010 3 comments

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©Photo by Bill Sitzmann

 

Cities the size of Omaha or smaller have their local theater legends.  Omaha claims many, including at least two figures, in Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, who became legends on a much larger stage.  One of the local legends who stayed local but whose talent might have played well beyond these confines had she sought to try is the subject of this New Horizons story.  As I was growing up, Elaine Jabenis epitomized glamour by the way she carried herself in theater, in fashion, in television, and at community events.  She was a queen and a diva without the baggage. She seemed apart from yet wholly approachable.  When I finally met her seven years ago I found she is still that charming mix of Grande Dame and down-to-earth hometown girl.  She’s still full of vitality and curiosity.  I must admit that I’ve never seen her perform in the theater, the domain where she perhaps made her biggest impact.  But I saw enough of her on television to appreciate her expressive talents. And even interviewing her at her home I was captured by her magnetic charm. She gives off a positive energy that you can’t help but be energized by yourself.

As if I needed proof, not long after my story appeared Elaine appeared with Michal Simpson in the SNAP! Productions staging of Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, earning as usual rave reviews. She’s gone on to win a series of lifetime achievement awards. Look for a new story about Elaine and her unaging passion in a coming post.

Theater-Fashion Maven Elaine Jabenis

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Elaine Jabenis

 

 

When considering her charmed life, Elaine Jabenis, that pert, pretty, petite bundle of energy Omahans have come to know as a well-versed radio-television personality, veteran stage actress, longtime fashion maven, seasoned author and perennial woman of style, has to admit it reads like “a storybook.”

Take the time she was waiting out a rain storm in the Times Building as a young newlywed in 1944 New York, where her husband Mace, a Kansas City native, was stationed as a flight crew member aboard Army Air Transport Command missions over the Atlantic, when she decided, on a whim, to put in an application at that bastion of American newspapering — the New York Times.

Mind you, she’d never worked on anything but the Omaha Central High School Register staff and had only taken a few courses at Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism before her money ran out. But, showing the penchant for imagination that would define her life, she bent the truth a little, well, a lot, by inventing from whole cloth a high-gloss work background, including a fictitious World-Herald reporting stint. What gave her the chutzpah to pull such a cheeky stunt?

“I was really doing it as a kind of lark,” she said. “I exaggerated, never in the world expecting to get a job. I was just playing this silly little game. This was the sense of drama in me” coming out, a vivacious Jabenis said in an interview from the home she shares with hubby Mace in Omaha’s exclusive Loveland neighborhood. The rich, tasteful decor of the home, featuring art objects from the couple’s wide travels to China and elsewhere, is a reflection of Jabenis, whose well-coiffured hair, stylish ensembles and trim figure, still make her every inch the fashionable lady.

After all, there wasn’t a chance in hell she’d get on at the venerable Times, right? Wrong. In a case of being at the right place at the right time, she was on her way out the building when a certain Mr. Tootle flagged her down and, much to her disbelief, offered her, on the spot, a temporary job filling-in for a secretary taken ill that day. She accepted and in typical Jabenis fashion she displayed such poise, industry and charm that at the end of her term she was kept on as an assistant in the high-octane city room. Thus, what began as a lark turned into a three-year whirlwind that provided invaluable experience and exposed her to the high-end creative world she would make her life’s work. “That application was probably the best piece of fiction I ever wrote,” is how she sums up the episode today.

Despite the frivolous attitude she adopted when applying at the Times and the fortuitous manner in which she got hired there, she really did have a hankering to write. Growing up one of three children of Sol and Ida Lagman, Russian immigrant grocers whose Laggie’s Market was a north Omaha fixture, she said, “I always had a pencil and pad under my pillow and I was always writing poems and stories.” At Central, she was encouraged to pursue writing by journalism department head Anne L. Savidge, who persuaded her to continue her studies at Northwestern.

 

The New York Times entrance Editorial Photo

 

At the Times Jabenis was first assigned to the Town Hall page and later as an aid to several experienced journalists under whose doting tutelage she learned a thing or two about writing, working under deadlines and trusting her muse. As a young reporter-in-training, she did a little of everything, from fielding phone calls to fixing copy, and sometimes accompanied beat writers on assignment, once to the first meeting of the United Nations security council.

One of her mentors was education editor Benjamin Fine, who advised Jabenis on her ambition to be a serious writer with this admonition: ‘Go home and write a million words and then tell me you’re a writer. The only way to be a writer is to write all the time.’” And, like a good pupil, she took his sage advice years later when, writing “every single day,” she authored a suspense novel, The Burning of Georgia, set amidst the fashion world, an arena she knows well from her years as fashion guru for J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Stores. In the early 1970s she penned the first of her two long-in-print fashion merchandising college texts published by John Wiley & Sons. She’s also written the book for two musical plays. Her Generation to Generation, with music and songs by composer and producer Karen Sokolof Javitch, is “a celebration of life” about a dying Jewish woman passing on her legacy to the grandchild she won’t live to see. Generation won the best new script award from the Theater Arts Guild.

Two other Times staffers she worked for, drama critic Brooks Atkinson and film reviewer Bosley Crowther, were living legends whose printed words carried much weight, but none more so than those of Atkinson whom Jabenis describes as “the most feared theater critic of all time. I mean, if Brooks Atkinson put his thumb down on a show, it could close tomorrow. He didn’t pull any punches.”

Looking back on her Times experience, she said, “It was a wonderful training ground. I gained so much while I was there. I was like a sponge just soaking up all that knowledge.” Her association with Atkinson afforded privileged access, via her Times press pass, to stars, including rubbing shoulders with Rex Harrison at the swank Stork Club, and taking in scores of Broadway opening nights for such classics as Oklahoma and Moon for the Misbegotten. Her total Broadway immersion prompted her own passion for theater, until she knew her place was not in the audience anymore but on stage. “I began to think — I don’t want to be down here, I want to be up there. I just began to love it. It was always there, that desire to act or to perform. If that basic temperament is there, it only needs cultivation to bloom.”

With a hoped-for life in theater or journalism before her, Jabenis was in an envious position, but reality has a way of tempering dreams. It was, after all, wartime and she had more pressing concerns than what professional path she should take. She explains, “My husband was crossing the Atlantic on ATC missions and my mind was more on, Is he coming home safely this trip? than on what I would do” for a career.

A life in the theater did indeed come to fruition for Jabenis, only in her hometown of Omaha, where she and Mace moved a year after the war ended, not in New York, where she longed to study at the famed Actors Studio but never found the time and where she ached to trod the boards but never took the plunge. As she would soon discover, her destiny as an actress lay on the Omaha Community Playhouse stage, not on Broadway. But before launching her six-decade run of success with the Playhouse, which in July honored her with its Dick Boyd Award for lifetime achievement, she had an unexpected brush with Hollywood.

About the same time her thespian ambitions flowered in New York, she said, she was offered a screen test by a major Hollywood studio, she thinks Paramount, a heady thing to have happen to “a country girl” with stars in her eyes and greasepaint in her veins. Flattered and flummoxed by the offer, Jabenis sought the counsel of one of her Times mentors, Crowther, whose resulting bromide may have dramatically changed her life. “

He said, ‘Elaine, don’t do it.’ And I said, ‘Why, because you don’t think I have the talent or the warmth or something?’ He said, ‘No, you probably have both, but you don’t have a killer instinct and without a killer instinct they’ll destroy you. You don’t want to be a part of that world and those ruthless people.’” A deflated Jabenis heeded the warning, even though “it was very hard to hear,” at the time, she said. “He just decided I was a nice Midwestern girl” unsuited to the cruel vagaries of Hollywood or New York. “Later, I was so grateful because after I got back here (Omaha) I had the best of both worlds. Not only could I have theater as an avocation, I had New York through my fashion career and I was able to raise my children and have a decent life.”

In Omaha Jabenis wasted little time embarking on her entertainment career. “Almost immediately I got a job as a continuity writer at WOW Radio,” then aligned with WOW-TV. “I wrote commercials and copy for on-the-air people,” she said. Then, one day an unlikely chain of events propelled her into the performing spotlight.

As Jabenis recalls, “Shaver’s Food Mart wanted a commercial tailor-made for them” and she obliged with one, which the general manager had her put on tape. “I went in the announcer’s booth of a little studio and recorded it and they took it over for Mr. Shaver to hear and he liked the concept really well and bought the package.” Then, the story goes, when Shaver was told, “We’ll get you an announcer” to cut the spot, he balked, saying, “No, I want the voice I heard on that tape.” When pointed out to him the voice belonged to a writer, he persisted, “I don’t care, I like what she said and the way she said it.” Acceding to “the customer is always right” credo, WOW put Jabenis on the air and, she said, “before I knew it I had a show of my own” — Saturday’s Scrapbook — and a star was born.

Saturday’s Scrapbook, which Jabenis co-hosted with Ray Olson, was what she calls “a forerunner of the talk show.” She added, “We talked back and forth. We had music and special topics. We did it quite loosely, but I think that’s what made it work.”

The program was recognized by Billboard Magazine as one of the best of its kind. Soon, she joined the television side of WOW, serving as spokes-model for commercials on evening newscasts, as featured guest on local morning programs and as host of prime time special event broadcasts, such as the Ak-Sar-Ben ball. It was all live, too. “There was no such thing as teleprompters or idiot boards. You just got up there and talked. It was very stimulating,” she said of those halcyon days. “Back then, television was just coming in and none of us knew what we were doing. We just did it. It was, Let’s try this, let’s try that.”

Among the talents at WOW she worked with was a young fire brand named Johnny Carson. At the time he was hosting his Squirrel Cage TV show and one day she came on to read some prepared copy when Carson, already known for his free-spirited, anything-goes ad-libbing, forced her to improvise as she joined him on set.

“I came in scripted and he knew I was going to want to look at those notes and he just tore up the script and cleared off the desk, sending stuff flying across the studio, and he said, ‘OK, Lainie, what did you want to tell me?’ That taught me.” From then on, she said, she knew to be ready to just wing it. Lainie is what Carson always called her and the nickname, which no one else but her mother used, endeared him to her. “It was such fun. He was always doing silly things. We always had a good time together. We were good friends. I like him a lot.”

The rapport they enjoyed is evident in a 1966 interview he gave her during one of his rare Nebraska visits. On the tape, the two engage in the easy, intimate banter and horse play of old chums, as she playfully slaps him and they embrace like schoolkids. “It’s so funny to be in this position of interviewing you,” she tells him.

She and Carson stayed in touch over the years. Once, returning from the West Coast after having given himself a year to make it out there, he tried coaxing Jabenis to join him in L.A., where he predicted great things for her. But she declined. By then, she and Mace had started a family and well, just like the Hollywood opportunity before, who’s to say whether she really would have succeeded or not and whether it was right for her or not? “I wasn’t that adventurous to pack up and move my family and risk everything on that chance.” Mace was in business then with his brother Eli as owners of Travelware Luggage.

In her career Jabenis has had the privilege of working with major talents. There was Carson, who forever put his stamp on the late-night talk format as host of The Tonight Show, and, more recently, there was John Beasley, a top character actor in movies (The Apostle) and television (Everwood). “Absolutely. I have found that when you’re around very talented people it just brings your level up,” she said. “I know when I played opposite an actor of the caliber of John Beasley in Driving Miss Daisy at the Playhouse it was a thrill because John is such a perfectionist and a professional. He really brought me to places where I never knew I could go.”

 

 Elaine Jabenis, center, hosting live TV special atopening of the new Playhouse

 

 

 

Jabenis got so busy working as a freelance commercial talent with Bozell and Jacobs and its stable of clients that some nights found her hurrying from station to station to pitch products on the evening newscasts.

“I would be booked into a commercial at Channel 3 for Peter Pan Bread, which I’d have to commit to memory and do live, and then I’d get in the car with the script for another spot beside me and as I drove up to WOW I’d be reviewing the lines I had to do for MUD and its new gas ranges. And then I’d go over to host a late-night movie show on Channel 7 and do the live cut-ins.” The excitement was intoxicating. “You just had to really move. But, boy, that really taught you to think fast on your feet. I loved the action. I loved the electricity of all those personalities and how ideas bounced off of each other. You began to pick up the pace of that kind of life. It was really wonderful.”

While her TV career flourished, she pursued a parallel career in drama.

“There was that pull to go into the theater,” she said.

So strong was the pull that in 1952, six weeks after giving birth to her second child, she played the ingenue in Father of the Bride at the Playhouse, then at 39th and Davenport. Years of award-winning lead and character roles followed, the most recent a 2001 supporting turn in My Fair Lady. Like a true calling found, the theater became her second home. “Yeah, I really loved it. I could just hardly wait to get into the next play, but it was very hard at first because I was raising our two children. I kept watching to see what was coming up next that had a good part for me.” Her passion extended to all aspects of theater. “There were times I worked backstage…props, costumes…I would do just about anything because I wanted to be in the environment of the thing I loved.” She could only pull it all off, she said, with “the support of Mace.”

 

 Omaha Community Playhouse

 

 

Whether as a radio-TV personality or theater actor, Jabenis proved a natural. Without any formal training, she simply took to it.

“I had an aptitude for it, I guess,” is how she explains it. “Nobody had to tell me. I just think it’s something you do and you know. I think it’s in here,” she said, patting her heart. Natural or not, Jabenis still battled stage fright. “I was terrified every time I went on camera, but the minute the light went on I was fine. That’s the same way it was with the theater. I’d stand back in the wings and feel like I was going to have a heart attack before the curtain went up, but once on the stage I forgot about Elaine and became whatever I had to become.”

Her absorption in her craft is complete. Take her approach to acting.

“What I think is important is to have a moment of truth with the audience…to give an honest interpretation of the author’s words. It’s exciting when it happens. It really is,” she said. Now, forget the glamour of the theater and consider the grind of working a full-time job, as she did 23 years at Brandeis, then coming home to shower and catch a bite to eat before spending hours in rehearsal or performance. “Once I got involved with the Playhouse it was totally consuming,” she said. “You have to be up every night.” Her devotion is such that one night during the run of Wingless Victory the trouper went on despite a high fever. “I was just going on sheer guts,” she recalls. “I just had to do it.” After her final exit she was delirious in the wings. “I didn’t know where I was. I was really sick. I was in bed the next two days.”

Broadcasting and acting success led Jabenis into another creative field — fashion. It happened this way. Having covered the Ak-Sar-Ben ball, Jabenis “got very well acquainted with the buyers and presidents of the stores furnishing gowns for the event. Brandeis invited me to be a guest commentator for fashion shows and this and that. Then, one day I got a call from Dick Einstein of Brandeis asking if I’d like to make it a permanent arrangement.”

As Brandeis fashion coordinator and, later, fashion merchandising director, she canvassed the designer market by reading the industry trades and by frequently visiting New York, Los Angeles and Europe to catch the biggest shows and identify the hottest trends. She met the top name designers — from de la Renta to Cardin — and worked with celebrities — from Irene Dunn to Vanna White. She recommended entire lines and styles of clothing for the store to purchase and pitched those fashions via all size and manner of shows.

“I was probably the first one to introduce theatrical pieces into fashion shows here when I started adding singers and dancers and that kind of thing,” she said, adding that she drew on her theatrical acumen in staging events. After Brandeis was sold she formed her own fashion production company and dished-out fashion advice as a TV and print commentator. Her biggest fashion forum has become the Woman of the Year Gala she created as a benefit for the Arthritis Foundation. As she said, “All stops are pulled,” for the extravaganzas. “That’s right up my alley.”

Reticent about revealing her age for professional reasons, it’s safe to say Jabenis is years removed from traditional retirement age, but she does not concede anything to mere numbers. “I haven’t retired from anything, honey,” she told a visitor to her home. “I don’t believe in that. I’m not going to let chronological years interrupt what I want to do.” What she wants to do is continue traveling, writing and acting. She’s already planning her next novel and she’s awaiting the next prime part to come her way.

“I’ve always felt there’s some kind of little angel sitting on my shoulder guiding me and taking care of me. I feel like I’ve led a charmed life.”

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