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Glen Campbell’s sweet goodbye

February 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Glen Campbell’s sweet goodbye

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

When pop-country crossover music legend Glen Campbell announced that he has Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, he could have retreated into the shadows but instead he made some courageous decisions that put him and the disease quarely in the public eye. First, he went public about his diagnosis. Then he went on an extensive national tour to give himself, his family, his friends and his fans one last chance to savor his talents before the ravages to his mind and body made it too late. This was a farewell tour unlike any other. Start with the fact that audiences knew up front that this Glen Campbell was already damaged goods and so any idea of flawless performances went out the window. This was all about him expressing love to his fans and the fans in turn giving their love right back. Making it all the more poignant was that Campbell’s back up band consisted of some of his adult children and longtime cronies. His wife Kim Wollen was along for the entire 100-plus cities tour.

Campbell also allowed a documentary film crew to accompany him on and off tour as his disease progressed and his faculties diminished. I recently saw that film, “I’ll Be Me,” directed by James Keach on Netflix. It is as intimate and vulnerable a portrait of an artist as I’ve ever seen. The challenges of the disease to the aflicted and to those around him are seen up close and personal but it never seems intrusive or exploitive. It’s all done out of love and public service.

The tributes to Campbell and his artisty in that film put in perspective just how respected he is by his peers, past and present, who recognize his greatness.

The film led me to search online for more things featuring Campbell and through all of it I’ve come away with a much deeper appreciation for the gifts he gave us as a singer, songwriter, guitarist and performer. He’s a consummate entertainer whose like is rarely seen. He conquered every medium open to pop-country musicians and erased boundaries between styles, genres and categories.

He’s recorded many tunes that became and remain standards in the Great American  Songbook. But there’s a particular song, “Gentle On My Mind,” whose lyrics have poignant resonance with his affliction. I have copied and pasted the lyrics below. That song, of course, originated during the peak of Campbell’s career and it’s only now, in light of his condition, that it has this other, deeper meaning.

Not long before Campbell’s mind and motor skills left him, he and producer Julian Raymond co-wrote an original song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” for the documentary and this much acclaimed song, which I only now became aware of, is one of the simplest yet most profound meditations on memory loss to be found anywhere. It is a beautiful heartbreaking ballad that stacks up with the best work this artist ever did. That he had the presence of mind to make this his final message to the world is an act of radical grace. I don’t know of another example of a recording artist who spoke so directly to the very thing that was stealing his mind andvery being even while writing and recording the piece and giving it as a gift to the world. He recorded the tune with some of his old session musician mates from The Wrecking Crew.

The words and music remind me, and I’m sure many others, of some tracks on “Pet Sounds,” the brilliant Beach Boys album he played on during his session or studio musician days.

Just as “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” fearlessly and frankly addresses his disease, his final album,”Ghost on the Canvas” does the same in exploring the ups and downs of a life that’s straight out of a Hollywood move. He went from rural poverty in Arkansas to smallt-time band work and recordings to becoming a session king to breaking big as a solo artist who won Grammys, co-starred in movies, headlined his own prime time TV show, went through four marriages, battled alcohol and drug addiction and then, when he finally got it all together, found his memory going.

The video to “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is breathtakingly moving. Enjoy it here–

Here are the lyrics to “I’m Not Gonna Miss You”:

I’m still here, but yet I’m gone

I don’t play guitar or sing my songs

They never defined who I am

The man that loves you ’til the end

You’re the last person I will love

You’re the last face I will recall

And best of all, I’m not gonna miss you

Not gonna miss you

I’m never gonna hold you like I did

Or say I love you to the kids

You’re never gonna see it in my eyes

It’s not gonna hurt me when you cry

I’m never gonna know what you go through

All the things I say or do

All the hurt and all the pain

One thing selfishly remains

Songwriters
GLEN CAMPBELL, JULIAN RAYMOND

Published by
Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Song Discussions is protected by U.S. Patent 9401941. Other patents pending.

 

And here are the lyrics to “Gentle On My Mind”:

It’s knowin’ that your door is always open
And your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleepin’ bag
Rolled up and stashed behind your couch
And it’s knowin’ I’m not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that have dried upon some line
That keeps you in the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
That keeps you ever gentle on my mind

It’s not clingin’ to the rocks and ivy
Planted on their columns now that bind me
Or something that somebody said because
They thought we fit together walkin’
It’s just knowing that the world
Will not be cursing or forgiving
When I walk along some railroad track and find
That you’re movin’ on the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
And for hours you’re just gentle on my mind

Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman’s cryin’ to her mother
‘Cause she turned and I was gone
I still might run in silence
Tears of joy might stain my face
And the summer sun might burn me till I’m blind
But not to where I cannot see
You walkin’ on the back roads
By the rivers flowin’ gentle on my mind

I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’ cracklin’ cauldron
In some train yard
My beard a rustlin’ coal pile
And a dirty hat pulled low across my face
Through cupped hands ’round a tin can
I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
That you’re waitin’ from the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
Ever smilin’, ever gentle on my mind

Written by John Hartford • Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

And here is Glen performing it–

 

Camille Metoyer Moten: With a song in her heart

December 26, 2016 Leave a comment

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.”

 

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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.

 

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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.”

 

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Camille and her brother Raymond on the family home’s backyard, circa 1970s

 

 

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
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Camille’s late parents Lois and Ray Metoyer

 

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.”

 

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Camille and her husband Michael Moten back when they were first married
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Camille and Michael today

 

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.

 

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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.

Music Lives Alll2gether: Omaha Divas and Friends Present a Holiday Concert on Friday, Nov. 18

November 9, 2016 Leave a comment

Come to this heartwarming, soul-stirring concert featuring the vocal mastery of Nola Jeanpierre, Carole Jeanpierre Finch, Elyssia Finch, Johnice Orduna, with the musical gifts of William Tate, Mark Kurtz & church choirs, plus more artists.

Music Lives All2tegether                                                                                                       

Friday, Nov. 18 @ 6 pm @ First United Methodist Church, 7020 Cass Street,

UPDATE: Suggested donation $15

Gospel Choir Clipart Gospel Choir

Four of the sweetest divas you ever did see will perform a special holiday concert with some talented performer friends on Friday, November 18 at 6 p.m. at First United Methodist Church in Omaha.

Their “Music Lives Alll2gether” concert will feature sacred and popular music drawn from different eras and styles and all performed to exacting standards and in a joyous spirit of thanksgiving.

The divas are women of faith who represent three generations of singers from the same Omaha extended family. Nola Jeanpierre is a much beloved veteran performer on local and regional stages. Her sister Johnice Orduna, an ordained minister, has been singing with Nola for decades. Nola’s daughter, Carole Jeanpierre Finch, is a fellow seasoned pro in recitals, Opera Omaha chorus performances and musical theater productions. Carole’s daughter, Elyssia Finch, has followed in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother to perform a wide range of music in many different settings.

All four women are all classically trained vocalists whose control of their multiple octave instruments allows them to seamlessly transition from one genre to the next. Each, on her own, is a dynamic soloist. Together, their soaring voices blend to create a harmonious whole. Their music warms hearts and stirs souls and leaves audiences in a state of grace.

A fourth generation of the musical family, Claudette Valentine, will be a piano accompanist for the concert. This renowned Omaha music educator directs the gospel choir at Creighton University, where she is an adjunct professor.

Joining the family for the event are several friends who just happen to be among the metro’s best and brightest performers in their own right. William Tate, gospel choir director at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, will play piano and sing. Christina Gilmore, an Omaha Central High prodigy who teaches at Arts for All, will perform an original dance. Mark Kurtz, the minister of music at First United Methodist Church, will direct and play organ and piano. He will be joined by his colleague at the church, organist Marie Meyers.

Also featured will be the combined choirs of Sacred Heart, St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church and First United Methodist Church performing as the All2gether Chorale.

This fall holiday concert is a-not-to-be-missed event celebrating beautiful music and its power to uplift, heal and unify. Come get your holiday season started right at this concert where love and a suggested $15 donation is the only price of admission.

First United Methodist Church is located at 7020 Cass Street.

For more information, call 402-281-5396.

Raise De Roof Gospel Gumbo At The Joe

Divas By Design: Camille Metoyer Moten & Kathy Tyree

October 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Cover Photo

 

MUST SEE ENTERTAINMENT!
Divas By Design –
Let timeless musical theater performers Camille Metoyer Moten and Kathy Tyree take you on a flashback nostalgic journey of their most celebrated signature songs over the last 30 years.

Part of the Blue Barn’s Out of the Blue Special Event Series.

Enjoy tunes from Hairspray, Funny Girl, Marvelous Wonderettes, The Wiz, Evita, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Leader of the Pack, Ragtime and other memorable musical theater shows these divas starred in.

Together, Camiille and Kathy, form a musical revue duo for the ages.

Blue Barn Theater
1106 South 10th Street,
Thursday, October 20th and Friday, October 21st
7:30 p.m. both nights

$35 in advance
$40 at the door
$120 reserved tables of four

Purchase tables or single tickets at–
http://www.kathytyreeproductions.com
or 402-575-1971
or 402-345-1576

Visit the FB event page at–
https://www.facebook.com/events/1782743872006881/

This post falls under the heading: This is why I do what I do

August 15, 2016 Leave a comment

This post falls under the heading:

This is why I do what I do.

 

Received the amazing email message below from Kac Young. She fell under the influence of a dynamic group of radical feminists at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, California of all places during the late 1960s. These were provocateurs who challenged all kinds of conformity and many of them were the nuns who taught there. These women were unafraid to challenge the status quo when it came to the Catholic Church, higher education, culture and society. They were known as the Rebel Nuns of Hollywood. They brought cutting edge figures to the campus, including activists and artists. Among the resident artists was Megan Terry, a major figure in the New York and national experimental theater scene then. Kac Young appeared in the original production of Terry’s “The Tommy Allen Show” at the college. Kac found a Reader cover story I did on Megan and Jo Ann Schmidman, who together forged compelling, socially relevant work at their Omaha Magic Theatre. Kac wanted to make sure Megan knew that one of those cheerful subversives at the college, in fact the very woman who brought Megan there, had passed away.

 

 

Megan Terry

 

You can linl to that Reader story at–

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/19/the-magical-mystery-tour-of-omahas-magic-theatre-a-megan-terry-and-jo-ann-schmidman-production/

I have also included, thanks to Kac, links to some content about the places, the figures and the times she references in her message.

Kac says some very nice things about my writing but you should know she enjoyed quite the career as a television director before changing careers a few years ago. She’s also an author. Check out her website at http://www.kacyoung.com/about-kac-young/ and her LinkedIn page at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kacyoung1.

Kac Young

Here is the message she sent that made my day yesterday and that I think you will enjoy too (that’s Kac on the right).

“Dear Leo: I was in the original play The Tommy Allen Show that Megan Terry wrote and directed at Immaculate Heart College in 1969.  I was searching for her and found your incredible interview with her and Jo Ann Schmidman. I’m now following you and what you write about because you are terrific and there are no accidents. Thank you for a great piece on Megan.  I am writing to you because I want to get in touch with Megan. The beautiful nun who hired her to come to our drama department passed away two summers ago. She was Sr. Ruth Marie Gibbons that we all called “Ruth.” She was one of the leading drama teachers and persons of theatrical merit in the 60’s and 70’s having worked with Joe Papp, The Bread and Puppet Theater and La Mama. She graduated from the then Carnegie –Mellon and was way ahead of her time and vocation. Ruth brought Megan to our campus for the experience of having a radical playwright in residence at Immaculate Heart College which was frequented by The Berrigan Brothers and other anti-war protestors. These are the nuns who rebuked the Vatican and left the church because the powers that be in Rome wanted them to get back in their habits after a two-year experiment without them. The nuns found that being out of the habit made their work in the community more effective and in line with their purpose which was to serve humanity. The uniform habits proved to be a barrier and they wanted to be effective not quaint.  They were a feisty lot and they were smart. They owned the deed to the property at Western and Franklin in Hollywood, where AFI now sits, and were able to subsidize their mission statement with the proceeds from the sale of the College land.  They formed a lay community and have been doing good in the world ever since.

“I wanted Megan to know Ruth died. I thought maybe you could connect me with Megan. Or at least forward my info to her.  It was 47 years ago that we worked together. I became the 4th woman to join the Director’s Guild in 1973 and have three Doctorates to my name and other rabble-rousing credits.  It would be great fun to speak with Megan and let her know what an impact she had on all of us and the theatrical world. She probably already knows that, but it never hurts to tell her again.

“I love your writing Leo and I thank you for anything you might be willing to pass along to Megan on my behalf. Thank you…Your help is much appreciated. Thank you and I’ll be reading what you write from now on.  Thanks a zillion.” -kac

Love and Heartlight

 

The Mary’s Day Parade at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles,1964

The Mary’s Day Parade at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles,1964
Reproduction permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

 

The Immaculate Heart College silkscreen room in 1956. Corita Kent is in the middle in the back, standing and pointing.

The Immaculate Heart College silkscreen room in 1956. Corita Kent is in the middle in the back, standing and pointing.
Courtesy of the Corita Art Center

 

Here are some links about the times and the place that was so alive in the 60’s.

http://www.laweekly.com/arts/the-rebel-nuns-of-hollywood-why-they-embraced-the-60s-and-broke-from-catholicism-5726544

http://www.independent.com/news/2008/aug/28/how-group-ex-catholic-nuns-saved-their-famous-mont/

http://www.skylightbooks.com/event/rebel-nuns-immaculate-heart-community-discuss-art-and-legacy-sister-corita

The most famous of them all: Sister Corita Kent.

http://articles.latimes.com/1991-01-28/entertainment/ca-236_1_fine-art

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine was performed first in LA at The Mark Taper Theater and was based on the Berrigan work.  Those were the people who gathered at the college along with Megan Terry, our playwright in residence.

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-berrigan-legacy-20160501-story.html

Room with a view: Omaha Design Center

August 2, 2016 Leave a comment

The Omaha Design Center is THE swank new spot to hold events in town. It’s owned and operated by the people behind Omaha Fashion Week and they’ve crafted a flex space that hosts a diverse slate of events. Read my story about the Omaha Design Center and the entrepreneurs who make it happen in the Fall issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/).

 

 

Room with a view: Omaha Design Center

Creative space is new home for Omaha Fashion Week and more 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in Fall 2016 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

If Nick and Brook Hudson appear calmer at Omaha Fashion Week (OFW) this fall, it’s because they’ve found a permanent home for this once gypsy event at their recently opened Omaha Design Center (ODC).

Upon founding Fashion Week in 2008, the Hudsons were its sole proprietors and producers until bringing in Greg and Molly Cutchall as partners. Now the two entrepreneurial couples have joined forces as owners of Omaha’s newest event facility. Located in the former TipTop Ballroom at 1502 Cuming Street, ODC opened in March with the Spring OFW show. Omaha native Kate Walz, an OFW veteran and star Parsons School of Design student, was the first designer to show there. The space has earned raves from the fashion community from clients who’ve held weddings, parties, receptions and charity events there.

“People are just amazed at how beautiful and open the space is,” Brook Hudson says. “It’s impressive.”

“We’ve gotten lots of good responses,” Greg Cutchall confirms.

Nick Hudson says Fashion Week regulars and newcomers “loved it,” adding, “Our attendance was up 15 percent. People really like the energy of the space.” Its size and flexibility allows OFW to do more shows, including a new Kids Rule Fashion Show.

A 31,000 square foot flex space that is Fashion Week’s own rather than leased and that seamlessly accommodates diverse, design-oriented events is what drew the partners to purchase and refurbish the facility.

Supply and demand meet vision

The deal made sense for Fashion Week and for the catering operations the Cutchalls have. The couples met when Greg’s catering division started doing food and beverage service for Fashion Week VIP tents. They saw a shared opportunity for a year-round event space. The Cutchalls purchased the building last December and financed the remodel work. The Hudsons became co-owners in a stock swap.

“Nick and Brook are the marketing force behind the business. They’re great at creating and branding events of all kinds. My wife and I and our office team are more the business and operations side,” Greg says.

The architectural firm Alley Poyner Macchietto, who offices next door at the TipTop Building, did the redesign. The firm’s Laura Alley, a business development and community relations administrator, first recommended the site to the Hudsons.

“When Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture moved into this building and this neighborhood, we saw the potential for what it could be and we began looking for others who loved design in all its various forms. First we filled our space, then the Co-Lab next door. Then we started thinking of the ballroom. Ryan Ellis with PJ Morgan Real Estate suggested Nick and Brook might be looking for space. They were exactly the kind of passionate, design-minded, creative people we hoped to connect with.

“The space had all the right parts to fit their needs, and our design team – led by Michael Alley and Katrina Stoffel – was able to help them envision how the space could look. We are beyond thrilled to have the Omaha Design Center as our neighbor. It serves as a catalyst for some of our city’s most creative and passionate minds.”

Eight weeks of demo and construction produced an as-new, ready-to-use event space  “That’s kind of how it all came together. It was a big undertaking,” Greg says.

Makeover transforms facility

The facility’s once dull, generic banquet interior has been been remade as a chic, industrial warehouse-meets-party room. Extraneous walls and a drop ceiling were removed to open up the space, whose main ballroom has a high exposed ceiling. Polished concrete floors accent towering glass chandeliers suspended by chains from the metal beam-works. There’s also a smaller adjacent ballroom. An L-shaped granite-topped, mirror-backed bar is built into the lobby. A portion of the lobby serves as an art gallery. Another section supports pop-up vendor wares. Satellite bars can be easily set-up throughout the facility. Vintage furnishings round out the hybrid retro-contemporary feel.

Movable panels covered by sheer curtains can turn the space intimate or expansive. The panels are backlit with colored LED lights that can be programmed to create any mood or atmosphere – from casual to formal, from fun to romantic, from bridal or ball to rave.

“The lighting is immersive – it’s all around you,” Brook says. “It feels like you’re not just looking at the stage but you are a part of it. It’s really interesting.”

The remodel added state of the art lighting and sound systems. Backstage are ample amenities to support events and crowds from 200 to 2,000. There are dedicated bridal and grooms suites that double as green rooms or dressing rooms. two commercial kitchens, storage bays, a loading dock. Offices and meeting rooms are planned.

“We finally have everything we need in one spot,” Brook says, adding  that OFW no longer has to bring in things like portable restrooms or to rent off-site storage units.

The whole works remedies issues the Hudsons contended with during OFW’s first eight years, when the event got staged at various indoor and outdoor sites, most recently under a football field-sized tent in the Capitol District downtown. Certain risks and limitations come with leasing spaces others control. And where the outdoors in Nebraska is concerned, weather plays a factor.

 

metroMAGAZINE’s mQUARTERLY Fall (AUG/SEPT/OCT) 2016 Issue
ISSUU.COM

 

Finding home

Nick says, “Everything possibly that could go wrong at those events would go wrong. The building helps make Fashion Week more stable.”

Before, Brook says, “when things came up, such as inclement weather or equipment failures, we were hostage to the site. Here, we know what to expect. It’s predictable. We know it’s going to be air conditioned and heated, it’s not going to get flooded. It’s a home.”

Participants finally have a venue to display their skills to full effect.

“There’s a lot of different people involved and it’s really important they have a good platform to showcase what they’re doing for their experience and their work,” Nick says. “It’s a very growing and building experience for designers and models, for hair and makeup people, for the photographers, musicians and artists. It is too for the people planning and producing the event. Brook has a whole program of young volunteers and interns who make it their career. This new space means they can have a better experience.”

Brook says, “It’s a place where they can come and be their best.”

“The reason Fashion Week became successful was the basic concept we’re giving a professional platform for all these different creative young people who wouldn’t normally have that opportunity for free,” Nick says. “Now we can do it even more professionally. That is a huge breakthrough for us. The reason we kept moving is we could never find a space quite right in terms of infrastructure. The ceilings were too low, the space backstage was too cramped,”

Brook says, “It took a lot of energy just to compensate for all that and to reinvent the wheel every season and now we know what the wheel is. Now we can focus on just continuing to improve the productions and the creativity and the entertainment value. It opens up so much more time and energy to focus on things we’ve never been able to do before because we were busy getting water and air conditioning.”

Fashion Week audiences can expect ever more theatrical shows to go along with full, well-outfitted guest services at OFW events.

Nick says not only do participants have a better experience, the audience does, too. That’s important to an event that’s been so embraced. “Lots of people have really supported this event over the years, they’ve helped it grow, in some cases they’ve helped support some of the creatives, and because the creatives can focus more on being creative the audience is going to benefit from that as well and have a great evening, so it’s a really big step up for our community.”

Staging events in this flex space affords unlimited possibilities.

“When we have Fashion Week we design it how we want it to look and in a lot of spaces that’s harder to do – you have to take it how it is.

Here, it’s very easy to adapt it individually to what you’re looking to create,” Nick says. “It’s very creative inspiring. You come in here and personalize it to your tastes. There’s lots of things you can do.”

Brook says, “It’s a blank canvas and a playground. It can be used for many different events, in many different ways. It imposes few restrictions. Every time you walk in we have totally different events with totally different setups. It’s always something different. It’s really great.”

Design central

The owners saw that a single venue that could provide the right fit for many kinds of events is in short supply in Omaha.

“There’s a void in the market for facilities that can accommodate       mid-range sized events,” Greg Cutchall says.

“We realized if we needed something like this for Fashion Week there were all these other people who needed something like this for their nonprofit or their family or their business,” Nick says  “We called it the Design Center to reflect the designing of individual events here but also because we encourage design. Besides Fashion Week we do design-oriented things here, which is exciting, and were trying to help the fashion eco system, which this is now a big part of. The fact that it’s in the heart of this North Downtown neighborhood that could be Omaha’s design district is even more exciting.”

Creatives abound in the area. As a creative hub and staging ground,

Omaha Design Center aligns well with creative community neighbors Co-Lab, Alley Poyner Macchietto, the Mastercraft, the Hot Shops Art Center, Slowdown, Film Streams and the coming Kiewit University.

The Center is also within walking distance of several hotels and a short drive from the airport and the Old Market. The site’s already seen a broad menu of events, including a Terence Crawford victory celebration, the Berkshire Hathaway MoneyBall, a fight card and a comedy troupe. It is hosting College World Series events, a Halloween bash and a New Year’s Eve party. Everyone from models to boxers to aerialists to fire dancers to musicians have performed there. Weddings will always be, as Cutchall says, “our bread and butter.”

“We thought there would be demand for something like this and there has been,” Brook Hudson says. “We started promoting it in December and I don’t think this space has been empty since April.”

Nick Hudson says, “We’re now facilitating events for these other communities here in town. It’s exciting having these different communities and organizations coming in and doing events here. It’s all about creating community and the community building you get through events. We’re big fans of diversity. It’s always been very important to us having a really diverse crowd of people doing different things and we’re getting that same thing here. Now we just want more people to be aware there is this new space available to come celebrate through events.”

Brook says, “Yeah, we want people to come make some memories.”

“Bookings are going stronger than we anticipated our first year,” Greg Cutchall notes. ‘We’ve been very pleased and we think it will continue to grow as more people learn about the facility and see what we have to offer.”

After all the moving around OFW did, Brook Hudson is just glad to have a place she and others can count on.

“It’s good to be home,” she says. “My team is excited about that as well. All of our interviews, meetings and programming happen here now. And we get to share this great space with other communities.”

Fall Omaha Fashion Week unfurls there August 22-27.

Visit http://www.omahadesigncenter.com.

Creative to the core: John Hargiss and his handmade world


John Hargiss comes from a long line of Southern Missouri craftsmen who would never have thought to call themselves creatives, but that’s precisely what they were for the things they made with their hands and for the music they played with those same rough-hewn mitts. The owner of Hargiss Stringed Instruments is a chip off the old block who handmakes custom guitars, violins and mandolins with Old World care and craftsmanship. With those same hands, he makes and does a lot of other things, too, including repairing instruments. He took things to a whole new level recently by restoring an early 20th century vaudeville turned movie theater he discovered laying frozen in time in the complex of adjoining buildings he owns in North Omaha, one of which houses his business. The meticulously restored theater is now hosting live theater, music and assorted other events. Hargiss feels a deep connection to the people and the life rhythms from whence he came. He has found a home for himself and his work in North Omaha. This is my new Omaha Encounter Magazine profile about John and his creative life.His passion for making community in that neighborhood he moved lock, stock and barrel to from Benson is one of the angles I took in an earlier profile I wrote about Hargiss, for The Reader. Link to that earlier story at–

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/12/26/entrepreneur-and-craftsman-john-hargiss-invests-in-north-omaha-stringed-instrument-maker-envisons-ambitious-plans-for-his-new-hargissville-digs/

 

TE0816_125

 

 

Creative to the core: John Hargiss and his handmade world

©by Leo Adam Biga

©Photos by Bill Sitzmann

Appearing in the July-Auguat 2016 issue of Omaha Encounter Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/the-encounter/)

Master craftsman and stringed instrument maker John Hargiss learned the luthier skills he plies at his North Omaha shop from his late father Verl. In the hardscrabble DIY culture of their Southern Missouri hill and river bottom roots, people made things by hand.

“I think the lower on the food chain you are, the more creative you become. I think you have to,” Hargiss says.

He observed his late father fashion tables and ax handles with ancestral tools and convert station wagons into El Camino’s with nothing more than a lawnmower blade and glue pot. Father and son once forged a guitar from a tree they felled, cut and shaped together. The son’s hands are sure and nimble enough to earn him a tidy living at his own Hargiss Stringed Instruments at 4002 Hamilton Street. His shop’s filled with precision tools (jigs, clamps_, many of vintage variety.

Some specialized tools are similar to what dentists use. “I do almost the same thing – polish, grind, fill, recreate, redesign, restructure.”

Assorted wood, metal and found objects are destined for repurposing.

“I have an incredible way of looking at something and going, ‘I can use that.’ Everything you see will be sold or used one way or the other.”

In addition to instrument-making, he’s a silversmith, leather-maker and welder.A travel guitar he designed, the Minstrel, has sold to renowned artists, yet he still views himself an apprentice indebted to his father.

“He just made all kinds of things and taught me how to use and sharpen tools. Being around that most of my life it wasn’t very difficult for me to be like, ‘Oh, that’s how that works,’ For some reason my father and I had a connection. I couldn’t get enough of that old man. He was a mill worker, a mechanic, a woodsman. When he wasn’t doing that he was creating things. He was a craftsman. Everything I know how to create probably came from him. Everything I watched him do, I thought, ‘My hands were designed to do exactly what he’s doing.’ On his tombstone I had put, ‘A man who lived life through his hands.'”

Hargiss also absorbed rich musical influences.

“You were constantly around what we don’t see in the Midwest – banjo players, violin players, ukulele players, dulcimer players. There are a lot of musicians in that part of the world down there. Bluegrass. Rockabilly. Folkabilly, That would be our entertainment in the evenings – music, family, friends. Neighbors would show up with instruments and start playing. Growing up, that was our recreation.”

He feels a deep kinship to that music.

.”The roots of country music and the blues come out of being suppressed and poor,” he says. “All those incredible sad songs come from the bottom of the barrel.”

His father had a hand in his musical development

“My daddy was a good musician and he taught me to play music when I was about 9. By 11 I was already playing in little country and bluegrass bands. I can play a mandolin, a guitar, a banjo, a ukulele, but I’m pretty much a guitar player. And I sing and write music.”

Hargiss once made his livelihood performing. “I like playing music so much. It’s dangerous business because it will completely overpower you. I knew I needed to make a living, raise my children and have a life. so playing music became my hobby. I worked corporate jobs, but I kept being pulled back. It didn’t matter how hard I tried. I’d no more get the tie and suit off then I’d be out in the garage making something else. The day I quit that job I went to my boss and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore, my heart’s not in it. I’m going to start building things.”

It turned into his business.

Hargiss directly traces what he does to his father.

“I watched him repair a guitar he bought me at a yard sale. The strings were probably three inches off the finger board. I remember my daddy taking a cup of hot coffee and pouring it in the joint of that neck and him wobbling that neck off, and the next I knew he’d restrung that guitar. I think that’s when I knew that’s what I’m going to do.”

The memory of them making a guitar is still clear.

“The first guitar I built me and my daddy cut a walnut tree, chopped it up and we carved us a dreadnaught – a traditional Martin-style guitar. I gave that to him and he played that up to the day he died.”

 

Hargiss Encounter III

 

Aesthetics hold great appeal for Hargiss.

“I’m fascinated by architectural design in what I create and in what I make. I study it.”

He called on every ounce of his heritage to lovingly restore a vaudeville house turned movie theater he didn’t know came with the attached North O buildings he purchased five years ago. The theater lay dormant and unseen 65 years, like a time capsule, obscured by walls and ceilings added by property owners, before he and his girlfriend, Mary Thorsteinson, rediscovered it largely intact. The pair, who share an apartment behind the auditorium, did the restoration themselves.

The original Winn Theatre opened in 1905 as a live stage venue, became a movie theater and remained one (operating as the Hamilton and later the 40th Street Theatre), until closing in 1951. Preservation is nothing new to Hargiss, who reclaimed historic buildings in Benson, where his business was previously located. At the Hamilton site he was delighted to find the theater but knew it meant major work.

“I’ve always had this passion for old things. When we found the theater I remember saying, This is going to be a big one.”

Motivating the by-hand, labor-of-love project was the space’s “potential to be anything you want it to be.” He’s reopened the 40th Street Theatre as a live performance spot.

Hargiss is perpetually busy between instrument repairs and builds – he has a new commission to make a harp guitar – and keeping up his properties. Someone’s always coming in wanting to know how to do something and he’s eager to pay forward what was passed on to him.

The thought of working for someone else is unthinkable.

“I get one hundred percent control of my creativity. I’m not stuck, I’m not governed by, Well, you can’t do it this way. Of course I can because the sound this is going to produce is mine. When you get to control it, then you’re the CEO, the boss, the luthier, the repairman, the refinisher, the construction, the engineer, the architect. You’re all of these things at one time.”

Besides, he can’t help making things. “There’s a drive down in me someplace. Whatever I’m working on, I first of all have to see myself doing it. Then I go through this whole crazy second-guessing. And then the next thing I know it’s been created. Days later I’ll see it and go, ‘When did I do that?’ because it takes over me and it completely consumes every thought I have. I just let everything else go.”

Creating is so tied to his identity, he says, “It’s not that I can’t find peace or can’t be content” without it, “but by lands I like it.”

Visit http://www.hargissstrings.com.

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