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Keiko Matsui: Music of the heart

December 9, 2018 Leave a comment

Keiko Matsui: Music of the heart

©by Leo Adam Biga,

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of The Reader (www/thereader.com)

Keiko Matsui

 

When the Dave Koz and Friends Christmas tour wends its way to Omaha’s Orpheum Theatre on Monday, December 10, Keiko Matsui will be among the guest artists.

 

A native of Japan, Matsui is a composer and pianist whose music defies easy categorization. The industry labels her ethereal, emotive, rhapsodic sounds as smooth jazz, new age or adult contemporary. She burst on the scene by earning Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Artist of the Year nod i 1996.

After 30-plus years of global recording and touring, she identifies as a world citizen. She won’t be the only international artist at the 7:30 p.m. Omaha show though, as South African guitarist-singer Jonathan Butler will join American saxophonists Koz and Mindi Abair and American vocalist Shelea.

Each artist on the bill has followed an independent path.

Matsui’s journey has seen her break down barriers. Born in Tokyo, the classically trained Matsui draws on jazz, rock, pop and other forms in a blend of Western and Eastern influences that transcends boxes, For Matsui. making music is a direct expression of her innermost being that intimately connects to people.

“Maybe the music business people need to categorize – but not me,” she said by phone from her Southern California home. “It is just my music and I express myself through it. Of course, you might find some influences in it from different genres, but I really hope my melodies touch the human heart.”

This mantra informed the title of her last album, “Journey to the Heart.” Now she’s doing the final mix on a new album set to release in February. As usual, this new work will feature all original compositions.

“Each album is like a mirror whose music is reflecting me – my thoughts, my experiences and my emotions at that time. For me, it’s not just an album. It is a statement expressing myself – how I am,, how I want to be.”

Always open to discovery, on “Journey to the Heart” she collaborated with noted Cuban musicians who toured with her. For her new album and forthcoming tour she’s exploring a hybrid of acoustic and electric sounds with musicians she goes back with a long time.

“It’s like a reunion,” she said.

Matsui sincerely believes in the ability of music to heal and to unite. She feels its salve is more important than ever in a world of great hurt and division.

“There are so many problems on this Earth. Everyone has a reason and a theory. Whatever it is, music will affect it some way,” she said. “I feel music has magical power to change something on this Earth. I really feel this is my mission. I receive the melodies and I create the albums and I deliver my music by traveling to different places. I travel across the U.S., Europe, Africa and Asia, so I see many different audiences.

“At every concert in every country I really feel the experience that my music unites – no matter people’s nationality or ethnic  background. Music goes beyond those things. Music has no borders.”

She often hears from fans who use her music as a soothing, meditative aid. Some physicians report using it in operating and birthing rooms. Artists tell her they create to it. Matsui appreciates its many applications.

“I’ve learned through these experiences that my music really touches people and connects to their lives very deeply. I feel honored and grateful my music is living with someone else.”

But the composer-instrumentalist doesn’t consciously try to conjure a tune. It just happens.

“I never intentionally set out to write a single song. They just come to me. I hear the melody and I catch the melody and I go where the melody goes. I have pure freedom to create anything. I can draw on a blank canvas. I feel there is infinite possibility.

“It is not like me trying to compose melodies. It is like a very mystical thing I receive. Sometimes I hear it in my dreams. When I wake up and the melody’s still there, then that’s it – this has a special bond. Sometimes a song is really speaking to me in my head. It’s ringing all the time. Then I’m like, I’ve got it, I will record you.”

Her creative method is about quiet, stillness and receptivity.

“When I am composing I am not thinking anything and I am not forming any words because I just want to have the freedom. By listening, my music can go anywhere I sit down at the piano waiting to hear something from   somewhere. I feel I am touching notes from the silence in this magical ceremony and time. It’s very spiritual.

“Once I start hearing it then I catch the melodies of the piece and I write it down on music sheets or I record it on my iphone. I collect about 100 or so motifs before I start really narrowing down to the 10 best songs. I go through the same process for every album. There are all these things happening when I am  in the creative mode and this upcoming album was mostly like that. That for me is a good sign.”

Music is her livelihood, but so much more.

“Of course. I am making a living with my music,” Matsui said, “but for me music is not a business, it’s not just a job. For me this is a special opportunity to connect to other souls. Some of my really loyal fans who have been living with my music for over 30 years are really spiritual and they really dig into the elements. I really feel we have a special bond.”

Devoted Matsui fans will no doubt be out in force for her rare Omaha appearance, where she’ll likely win new fans, too. The communion she feels she and her music makes with audiences extends on-stage.

“During the show I am pouring my heart and soul into it. I’m using lots of energy and expressing lots of emotion and I am receiving the same from my fans. It is like exchanging energy together. We share an emotional experience together.”

Visit TicketOmaha.com or call 402.345.0606 for tickets and details.

Follow the artist at http://www.keikomatsui.com.

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

 

KeikoMatsui_MainVisual

 

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Putting it on the Line: Omaha’s Amber Ruffin making a name for herself in late-night TV

December 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Omaha’s Amber Ruffin has so much to say and so much going on that I couldn’t fit it all into one story. That’s why in addition to the recent Omaha Star cover story I did on her, I wrote a Reader feature on this writer-actress best known for “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” While she came to national attention with her work on that show, she’s no overnight sensation. She put many years into an improvisational comedy career before network TV gave her a mass media platform for her talents. Her performing start goes clear back to Omaha Benson High School and local theaters.

But first, here are some thoughts about Amber and her being part of a long legacy of African-Americans with Nebraska ties making their marks in the entertainment industry.

Amber Ruffin: A consideration

For the second year in a row Ruffin came home to headline the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving event.

There’s little doubt we will be hearing and seeing a lot more from this smart, engaging writer-performer who often skewers wrongdoers and haters with her subversive, silly, serious takes. Her humor, especially when it deals with race and other social justice issues, resonates strongly because it’s grounded in reality and truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if she proves herself a fine dramatic actress as well.

She’s part of an impressive contingent of black creatives from here to make their mark variously in music, theater, film, television, literature and media.

These talents include:
Noble and George Johnson
Lloyd Hunter
Preston Love Sr.
Wynonie Harris
Anna Mae Winburn
Mildred Brown
Helen Jones Woods
Ruth Norman
Buddy Miles
Arno Lucas
Calvin Keys
Victor Lewis
Cathy Hughes
Carol Rogers
Nole Jeanpierre
Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris
John Beasley
Monty Ross
Kevyn Morrow
Randy Goodwin
Camille Steed
Sandra Organ
Alfred Liggins Jr.
Jade Jenise Dixon
Gabrielle Union
Yolonda Ross
Q Smith
Carleen Brice
Kim Louise
Victoria Benning
Omowale Akintunde
Michael Beasley
Lafayette Reed Jr.
Tim Christian
Beaufield Berry
Symone Sanders
Chanelle Elaine

 

Putting it on the Line

Omaha’s Amber Ruffin making a name for herself in late-night TV

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Since joining NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” in 2014 as a writer-performer, Omaha native Amber Ruffin has made a name for herself. The gig made her the first black female writer in U.S. late-night network television.

Her strong Afro-centric takes on social issues are part of a disarming package. She can be sweet, silly, manic comedian or edgy commentator and provocateur.

In the recurring “Late Night” segments “Amber Says What” and “Amber’s One-Minute of Fury,” she skewers newsmakers and outs injustice. Her subversive bits play like funny truth sessions by a righteous sister reporting from the trenches of Being Black in America.

“That’s my goal,” Ruffin said. “You’ll never be wrong when you say police should stop murdering children in the street. That (racism) being a lot of my subject matter just gives me tremendous confidence because it’s never been more right and it’s never been more important.”

This fresh TV face and voice is steeped in a long, deep improv background that started here and took her to comedy capitals. Last month she came home to display her authentic, unvarnished self during an Inclusive Communities event at Slowdown. The audience got a taste of her formidable improv skills.

Replicating improv on TV is elusive.

“Oh, how I wish the feeling of improv translated to television. A lot of people have tried to get that feeling in a show, but it’s pretty difficult.”

Playing off a live audience is crucial.

“You’re constantly adjusting your tone, cadence because you have instant feedback and that allows you to give the best performance.”

Working in a corporate culture is still an adjustment.

“It is crazy for comedy to exist in an office. I’d never seen it before I was a part of it. I still find it shocking that it works.”

She’s learned to work within network TV boundaries.

“You can’t be crazy politically incorrect. When you’re on stage doing improv it only exists in that moment, so you can say whatever comes to mind, but on this show whatever you say exists forever. So you have to get it right so that 20 years from now when someone plays it you’ll still stand by it.”

Going out on a limb is a Ruffin trait.

“We are a little adventurous,” Ruffin said of her family. “My mom graduated high school at 16. Every summer she went to New York to find out what the world was about. My oldest sister lived in Panama. Another sister lived in Namibia. It’s just in our bones to see what’s out there.”

Her retired military parents are from the South. They met at Offutt Air Force Base. They later ran their own daycare business. Amber’s the youngest of their five children. Her sisters are also published writers.

Growing up, Ruffin used humor as escape.

“Humor WAS my way to survive. When kids make fun of you, it’s nice to give them something else to laugh at.”

That experience still informs her.

“My day-to-day humor stems from a need to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable and happy, which stems from getting made fun of so badly. It’s assumed people use comedy to put up walls, but I think in many cases the opposite is true. I can say exactly how I feel no matter how uncomfortable it makes you – if there’s a joke attached.”

Musically and dramatically inclined (she plays piano and sings), she developed an early passion for theater.

“I just love musicals.”

The movie The Wiz made a big impression for more than the music.

“It was rare to see a show with an all-black cast that has nothing to do with being black,” she said. “Often times, black people have to talk about their experience being black to be valued. But these people didn’t. It was just a story of joy. The movie, the live musical, every performance of it leaves so much room for you to express yourself. It reminds us the world wants us at our weirdest. When you pretend to fit in, you fade away.”

She contributed to the book of a new stage version of The Wiz that premiered in June at The Muny amphitheater in St. Louis. She hopes a national tour comes here on what could be a Broadway-bound path.

“What distinguishes our version is its timelessness. I wanted it to never have to be rewritten again.”

The stage bug bit while playing Princess Winnifred in an Omaha Benson High production of Once Upon a Mattress. The Benson grad honed her craft via Stages of Omaha at the Millennium Theatre. She did improv at the Shelterbelt and Blue Barn.

Encouraged to try it in Chi-Town, she caught on with Boom Chicago – working with Jordan Peele, Matt Jones and Jessica Lowe – and then Second City. In between, she did a stint with Boom’s company in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Within days of an unsuccessful “SNL” audition, she got hired by “SNL” and Boom alum Seth Meyers.

“I think it’s been a natural progression because I have always been writing my own black point of view. I haven’t found it (TV) to be too crazy because at Boom Chicago we would do short form, where the audience suggests the set-up and then you have to deliver punch lines. You have three or four seconds to come up with something. But on “Late Night” I have all day to come up with a punch line. It’s much more relaxed.”

She usually has a week to hone her “Late Night” routines.

“You write it up and you rewrite it a bunch and you show it to the audience and you get one last rewrite and then it has to go in the show.”

She believes she provides a good change-up.

“Because Seth is so grounded in his comedy there is room for an insane person like me.”

She doesn’t make a big deal about having been the first black female writer in the late-night lane.

“I am not sure if any of that matters. What matters is knowing that we exist and being able to see us. What matters is that everyone knows there’s room for them – because there is.”

She says she was long ready for the opportunity. “I could have done this job years ago, for sure.” But happening when it did kept her real. “Now that I’m in this environment, I’m still me. If I had got this job years ago, I would have bent to what the culture was, and it’s my not having done that has made my career what it is.”

Her go-to topic, racism. is informed by her travels.

“The racism in Omaha is different than anywhere else. We don’t have a huge history of lynchings, scary slavery and Confederate monuments, and so we feel we are above racism, which is what puts us so far beneath it. No one’s really angry because you’re a black woman. People don’t think of you as much as a threat. They just think you are kind of gross.

“Omaha’s pretty bad. It’s way less in Chicago. In Amsterdam, way less, but still there – just a different kind. In L.A., there’s less palpable racism. It’s all institutionalized instead of in your face. In New York, people say something the tiniest bit racist and everyone knows it and sees it. It has gone from me being gross to racism itself being the gross thing, which is a relief.

“Now racism is fixed and over, so we win. Just kidding.”

Coming of age here, she craved diversity.

“I remember being in Omaha and just wanting there to be more me and to have a place where you felt like you could belong, and there wasn’t. I still don’t have a lot of me. I just see how critically important it is, especially for young kids.”

Her diversity advocacy made her an apt choice as special guest for the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving fundraiser.

Meanwhile, she has an NBC development deal for a show, “Village Gazette,” on which she has co-writing and executive producer credits. It’s set in fictional Benson, Nebraska. The name is inspired by her real-life alma mater, Benson High, and the neighborhood that school is in.

She’s also writing feature film scripts. And she can be seen on Comedy Central’s “The Detroiters” and “Drunk History.”

“I shouldn’t be doing this many things, but I figure you only have so much time. I want to give it a shot.”

Follow Amber on Facebook and Twitter.

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

Chip Davis: The man behind the Steamroller machine

November 26, 2018 3 comments

 

The man behind the Steamroller machine

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of New Horizons

Music is a birthright for Grammy Award-winning American Gramophone and Mannheim Steamroller founder Chip Davis.

The Omaha transplant has built an international following with his music, which has earned some half a billion dollars in retail sales over four decades. Millions more have come from performing multimedia concert dates across the U.S. and the world.

An acknowledged entrepreneurial and branding whiz, he’s leveraged his music’s appeal to partner with Walt Disney Company, NBC, Universal Studios, NASA and the National Parks System.

In terms of fame and riches, only one other Nebraska musician can rival Davis singer-composer Paul Williams, a Grammy and Oscar-winner. But where Williams is a solo act, Davis fronts a multi-dimensional machine under the Mannheim Steamroller name.

Davis maintains a large production-recording-distribution complex in North Omaha. It covers five acres and four buildings, three of which are interconnected. He sponsors two national touring bands performing Steamroller’s popular Christmas catalogue. The tours nearly rival the Nebraska Theatre Caravan’s tours of A Christmas Carol.

Due to a bum arm from neck surgery, Davis no longer tours, though he still makes surprise appearances. His touring musicians travel via luxury buses, but the grueling every night schedule is too strenuous for him.

His private Hawker 900 XP jet gets him wherever he needs to go quickly and in comfort. He keeps a vacation home in Florida.

In December he’ll fly to Orlando to conduct a 60-piece orchestra at Universal Studios playing the music from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The concerts are held in an outdoor bandshell he calls “absolutely beautiful.”

He creates and oversees a branded line of non-music products, including food items that range from a spay-on meat baste to a cinnamon hot chocolate mix.

Breaking the mold

This third-generation musician from small town Ohio is credited with helping give birth to the New Age genre for his signature fusion of classical and rock. Before that though he was hard on the path of becoming a symphony orchestra player. But then a funny thing happened on the way to his dream. He went from the world of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart to the great American Songbook to a rock opera to advertising jingles to winning country music writer of the year to hitting upon his synthesized Steamroller sound of baroque meets easy listening.

It wasn’t the first time someone in his musical family made a detour. His parents made their own break from classical to commercial. His father Louis played saxophone in the Glenn Miller touring band. His mother Betty played trombone in the NBC Symphony and in Phil Spitalny’s All Girl Orchestra.

His family’s connections to American popular music run deep. His country doctor grandfather loved the (John Philip) Sousa marches and the lead trombonist in the Sousa band taught Chip’s mother in high school.

His folks. plus an aunt and uncle, studied at the University of Michigan’s prestigious music school. His father taught music, led choirs and built instruments. His  mother also taught music. Davis intended following suit as a teacher and classical performer.

Influences

Reflecting on how much of his own musical predisposition is inherited and how much is a result of environment and exposure, he said, “I think there’s probably a combination of both. I grew up around it. Third generation both sides of my family.  Music was flowing in my veins from the time I was born. In fact, my mother said when I was 6-months old I could hum the melody to ‘Silent Night,’ which is pretty crazy at that age. So I must be just full of music.”

The precocious only child started on piano at 4 with his grandmother as his first teacher. He conducted in front of the family console radio. At 6 he composed a four-part chorale ode to his pet dog, Stormy, who died.

“It broke my heart.”

In addition to being immersed in music and feeling compelled to create it, he said, “I had some of the best teachers you could ever have.” His accomplished father taught music theory-music history and was Chip’s main teacher through high school.

“I had all of that and then I went to the University of Michigan’s famous music school.”

For his primary instrument, Davis chose bassoon though he’s best known as a percussionist. It may surprise some this instrumental icon was a singer through his early 20s.

“I sang in a boys choir when I was about 10-years old in Oregon after our family moved there.”

He was invited to sing with the Vienna Boys Choir.

The family moved back to Ohio, where Davis was in his dad’s high school choir.

At Michigan Davis sang in the glee club and played drums in the marching band. He joined select students performing with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra.

His classical tradition focus was so intense he missed the en vogue music of the 1960s.

“I wasn’t sensitive to it at all. I mean, I certainly knew who Diana Ross and the Supremes were because they were right over in Detroit. I had roommates not in music that would go to concerts at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. But it kind of slipped by me. I was so classically oriented that I didn’t really notice what was going on.”

While his friends listened to the latest hits from Motown and British Invasion rock bands, he stuck to classical.

“I listened to WJR Detroit – a big 100,000 watt AM station –  primarily because Karl Haas (later an NPR fixture) had a classical music program on every day and I would listen to that. I actually learned quite a lot from his explanations of different things, of composers and pieces and the way they’re constructed.”

Music kept him so preoccupied he was oblivious to the Vietnam War and civil rights protests on the Michigan campus, which was a hotbed of student activism.

“I didn’t even notice that.”

He did not participate in the counter-culture revolution at Michigan, but the school gave him the foundation for his professional music career.

“I still have a close connection with them,” he said. “When I was first there as a student the university opened a new music building. Now they’ve added a new wing and I’m fortunate enough to have my name on the Chip Davis Technology Studio. It’s full of computers and things we use for composing today.”

He donated about a million dollars to create the tech suite, which serves as a project workshop, research laboratory and multimedia gallery for courses in Sound Recording and Production, Interactive Media Design, Immersive Media and Performance Systems.

Davis finds it ironic that Michigan became a legacy school – “a lot of family ended up there” – when his family’s from Ohio, not Michigan.

Little did he know a youthful fascination with electronics  would be revisited when his music career took off.

“I had this ridiculous notion in high school I was going to go into electrical engineering – until I found how much math it took. Then I was like, Well, I’m pretty good at music, I guess maybe I’ll do that. I built electrical things, including an oscilloscope, from a Heath kit. For a senior science project I used it to analyze music notes. For example, flute is almost all sign waves.”

He could never have imagined how electronics would intersect with his music years later.

“Right, exactly,” he said in his state-of-the-art recording studio where everything’s digitally programmed.

The room’s on its third control board, though it too has grown nearly obsolete in the new digital age, he said.

“We don’t even use it anymore. Everything’s done on Pro Tools” (an Avid Technology digital audio workstation for Microsoft Windows and macOS). Everything’s in the computer as far as controlling levels and all that.”

Exploration

Ever the searcher, Davis loves the freedom technology affords to explore.

“Something astounding you can do today you couldn’t just a few years ago is sample different instruments. I have a new album coming out called ‘Exotic Spaces.’ I wrote pieces about exotic spaces like the Taj Mahal. I had access through Pro Tools to all these Indian instruments. I wrote with those instruments and I did it in the style of Indian music but with my Mannheim spin.

“I wrote another piece about Egyptian pyramids and I found Egyptian instruments, including one called the nay, which is a flute that almost sounds like a bagpipe.”

Perhaps his “farthest out” experiments have involved capturing natural sounds.

“I’m a scuba diver. I’m way into that,” he said. “I have Navy grade hydrophones because I’m interested in capturing sound under the surface of the ocean. On one dive we recorded a whale singing. On this new album ‘Exotic Spaces’ I use the whale song as the basis for a song I wrote the accompaniment around.

“I almost always write in the key of C because you don’t have sharps and flats and all that unless you want to add them. It’s an easy key signature to maneuver around in. Well, that darn whale was singing in the key of C. I had no idea beforehand. but when I put down the whale song track in the mix  I discovered it was singing in the same key I write in.”

His Ambience series records terrestrial sounds.

“I’ve got microphones out in the woods back on my farm. They’re 200 feet apart in a square and record the sounds of nature out there. The sound engineers here come out and run the gear for me.

“I wanted to go further. I used to go to Canyon Ranch (Arizona) quite frequently as a chill-out place. Once, my crew and I home-based there and went out and recorded desert sounds, which are entirely different from Great Plains sounds. Then we went to the west coast and got the sounds of waves.”

On a Northern Minnesota excursion to record loons he and his crew arrived at Black Duck Lake. Listening devices were strategically placed before inclement weather set in. The team holed up in a cabin listening to what the remote devices picked up.

“Out of the blue, we heard a loon. I said, ‘Hey, hit the record button quick.’ We were getting this great loon sound. Then all of a sudden the door to the cabin opens and my son comes in, saying, ‘Did you get that?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘That’s a loon whistle i got down at the Sinclair station.'”

Integrating music wit nature adds an ethereal depth of atmosphere and background listeners find soothing.

“I write the music over it. I write the music around the sounds. The sounds take precedence. The amount of music content is maybe only a third out of an hour. It’s not music heavy, it’s nature heavy. We’re hardwired to recognize those sounds.”

The Ambience series is available in four-channel DVDs. Davis sends film crews to capture images of nature that are then married with the nature sounds and music.

“People can play the DVDs in their home theater systems. Within three minutes, you are there. You close your eyes and you’re in the desert, you’re at the ocean. It seems to be real good chill out kind of stuff.”

He’s since applied this nature-music sonic approach to health and healing. His Ambience Medical company creates calming psychoacoustic tracks for use in medical settings. His Ambient Therapy combines specially-recorded sounds of nature with distinctive music content via a patented Ambient Therapy System.

The system is used in post-op treatment rooms at the Mayo Clinic, for example.

He also has a series on seasons.

Nature

This work combining nature with music has intersected with his abiding passion for wildlife conservation. His interest in the natural world, he said, goes back to his childhood, when he “played all the time in the woods.”

His “Yellowstone: The Music of Nature” project raised over $3 million for conservation efforts between the concert tour and album.

“I did ‘True Wilderness’ for Glacier National Park. The head ranger at the time was from my dad’s high school choir. She had grown up in my hometown. One of those quirky things. I did ‘Saving the Wildlife’ in conjunction with Lee Simmons as a fundraiser for the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo’s Species Survival program.”

He recently gave $350,000 to fund an Eagle Mew for the Raptor Woodland Refuge at Fontenelle Forest.

At his 150-acre farm nestled in Ponca Hills north of Omaha, Davis keeps horses and wolves. A buddy built his rustic-chic 10,000 square foot Swiss Chalet-style home there.

From classical to country

The expansive breadth of his musical life may not have blossomed had he not diverged from the classical path. Soon after graduating college he got an opportunity that changed the course of his life and career when he signed to sing with the famed Norman Luboff Choir.

“I met Norman when he came to do a workshop in Toledo. He took new singers on every year. I asked if I could audition and at his invitation I went to his New York apartment to audition. He hired me on the spot.”

Singing tenor with Luboff freed Davis to be more diverse in his own music appreciation and experimentation

“Absolutely. It was the way Norman was. He wrote original compositions but he was a fabulous arranger.

He had songs of the West and songs of the South, and we did those different songs on tour. So I became very familiar with a lot of different styles that my classical      upbringing kept a clamp on. It really opened a floodgate of, Hey, let’s try this.”

Thus, when Davis came to Omaha for an early ’70s workshop, he was ripe for branching off in new directions. While here he met the late noted choral conductor Mel Olson (Master Singers), who informed him Talk of the Town Dinner Theatre needed a music director for a regional production of Hair.

Davis had never seen the musical but was just curious enough about the opportunity to apply. He got the gig.

“They needed somebody to rewrite the arrangements from the Broadway size down to where it could be played by a handful of players. I wasn’t familiar with any of that type of music and I had to learn it and then figure out how to rearrange it. So I did.”

The show proved a smash.

“We did six shows a week. It was supposed to run six weeks and it ran 26.”

Singer-actress Karla DeVito was in that production and Davis became good friends with her. She later performed with national rock acts, on Broadway and in feature films. She’s married to actor Robby Benson.

Omaha began as a waystop for Davis but he found his creative home and career-making work here.

“It completely opened me up. During that time I met the guys at Sound Recorders. They asked me to write jingles for their ad agency clients, On my off days (he was teaching) I started writing jingles. I found out I could make a really good living doing that.”

He became music director at Sound Recorders, where  he met Bozell & Jacobs creative director Bill Fries.

“Bill and I started on the C.W. McCall path and that just took precedence over everything.”

 

“Convoy” Creators Chip Davis and William Fries Roll On To Success

 

Some Steamroller fans are too young to remember, but Davis first made the big-time writing music to a series of Old Home Bread commercials penned by Fries. The folksy campaign was built around a fictional trucker named C.W. McCall, the Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep-on-a-Truckin’ Café and a waitress named Mavis.

“Bill was writing these sagas of C.W. McCall and he was trying to find voice talent to do it the way he heard it in his head and the guys at the studio said, you sound great doing it, just do it yourself. I got involved writing the arrangements and songs .

“The C.W. McCall thing picked up and really took off.

People knew the commercials.”

The spots not only boosted the regional food company’s sales but caught the attention of media, advertising and music executives, especially when the campaign won the ad world’s highest honor – the Clio.

“Then we started writing a lot of original material,” said Davis. “I think we wrote 90 songs altogether.”

Realizing they were onto something big, Davis, Fries and Sound Recorders owner Don Sears formed American Gramophone to capitalize on these country and western musical tales, which they packaged and released as albums and singles.

“When we made the first 45 (record) we got it into all the jukeboxes. We had an ad campaign with a budget of $50. We turned it all into quarters. Everybody at the studio would grab a pocketful of quarters and go punch up the tune on jukeboxes at bars around town so that people could hear it and know that it existed.

“Later, we hired an independent promoter to go out and plug radio. In a very short period of time we sold 350,000 units.”

A subsequent single, “Wolf Creek Pass.'” was a crossover hit – even making Casey Kasem’s nationally syndicated “American Top 40” countdown show..

The second McCall album, “Black Bear Road,” contained a song called “Convoy” with an elaborate CB (Citizens Band) radio narrative. To everyone’s surprise, the single went viral.

“On the album we had ‘Convoy’ buried in the middle, as the seventh cut, because we thought it was too crazy. The DJs found it on their own. The DJs made that work. We didn’t push it at all.”

The success of “Convoy” led to commercial endorsement deals for CB radios, even lawnmowers.

Nashville came calling.

It even led to a 1978 major motion picture, Convoy, that took the song as its title. The legendary but troubled Sam Peckinpah directed the movie for EMI Films. It starred A-listers Kris Kristofferson, Ali McGraw, Burt Young and Ernest Borgnine.

The film shot in New Mexico. At that point in his life Peckinpah was an alcoholic and drug addict. He was nearly fired from the chaotic production and when he submitted a nearly four-hour long cut, the studio did ax him and editor Garth Craven. A new editor, Graeme Clifford, recut the film and drastically shortened it. Davis was then approached to score the film that his song inspired. The studio asked Davis to record a sample track before committing to him.

“They wanted me to record it in L.A. and I said, ‘No, I want to record it in Omaha.’ They were like, ‘All right, go try it.’ I recorded two or three cuts and synched it to film. We knew how to do all that stuff down at Sound Recorders. I took the sample out to L.A. and played it for the suits and they said, ‘You’ve got the job.’ I asked, ‘When do you need it?’ ‘Three weeks.'”

Doing a complete film score in that short of a window pushed Davis to the limit but he loved the challenge.

“It was frame-to-frame scoring. I had to synchronize all the music to the cuts.”

The movie did good box-office, due no doubt in part to its subject coinciding with the CB craze.

 

 

Finding his niche with Mannheim Steamroller

Davis was tempted to try his luck as a freelance film scorer in L.A. but thought better of it.

“It’s right when Mannheim Steamroller was about to start. I thought if I go out to L.A. I’m going to be up against these hot composers like James Horner and John Williams and I just decided that seems pretty competitive and out of my control. But I have a lot more control with my own record label and music back in Omaha, where I have a shot of maybe making   something out of this.”

The money Davis made off McCall funded his 18th century classical rock endeavor. As Davis readied his first Steamroller album, ‘Fresh Aire I,’ he had no idea how it would be received by the masses.

The first inkling he was onto something came from music producer Jimmy Bowen and TV music composer Mike Post, whose engineer John Boyd went to work for Davis.

“I played a couple tracks off of ‘Fresh Aire I’ and they said, ‘That’s what you should be doing. This McCall thing is great, you’ll make a bunch of money on it, your ship’s coming in, but this unique blend of classical and rock is worth exploring.'”

The first market inroad came when Sound Recorders owner Don Sears “got placement for the first ‘Fresh Aire’ album in hi-fi stores,” said Davis. “Then we started going to the Consumer Electronics Show, renting a booth and passing out these albums as demo material.”

Davis and Fries found a formula in McCall that worked in the country category, “but this was a completely different animal,” since no one had ever heard anything quite like ‘Fresh Aire’ before.

“I wanted to call it eclectic because it’s eclectic music. The retailers all thought I said electric,” Davis recalled.

Even Davis wasn’t sure what he had.

“I was so classical that when writing the first ‘Fresh Aire’ album I thought I was writing rock ‘n’ roll. I had no idea it was still sounding like classical music to a lot of people. I didn’t realize what I was doing and that this hybrid mix was coming out as a combination. Just because I put bass and drums with it didn’t make it rock. I kind of forgot I still had harpsichord and string orchestras in it.”

Do it yourself

Being an independent music creator and record producer may have been his greatest stroke of genius.

“The really fortunate thing for me is that the RCAs and industry guys I pitched it too did not take it. If they had taken it and if it didn’t work right away, I would have been dead in the water and never would have recovered. By distributing it ourselves, showing up with a trunk-full of records at Homer’s and other places around town, we got a good jumpstart right here in Omaha. That taught me how to go on with it.”

Besides, “he said, “I had more passion for it I’m sure than they did in New York or Los Angeles because it was my creation. And I had more control.”

He suddenly found himself both a musician and a businessman.

“The music part, I certainly was prepared for, but I had no business training at all. I was really flying seat of the pants trying to figure out how to run a company and how to promote and how to advertise and sell and do distribution and all that.”

What explains the appeal of his music and it selling something like 50 million units to date?

“Honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s different and it has a sound of its own.”

Mannheim Steamroller merchandising not only includes food lines but casual clothing, holiday books and personal comfort items like lotions and candles. Davis calls it “connect-the-dots marketing.”

For him, it’s all part of the same creative urge.

“it comes from the same place the music comes from. It’s just another way to do what I do and create. I mean, I love all of it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

His family enjoyed the ride as Steamroller gained momentum and found unexpected mega success.

“When I first started touring with my own band my parents went went me. My dad was part of the crew as the piano tuner. Mom went along, too. They went all over the place with us. They were really proud.”

When Davis needed a harpsichord with a distinct sound, his father built him one.

Fringe benefits

Travels for his music have brought him to Great Britain to record with the London Symphony Orchestra, St. Petersburg, Russia to score the Goodwill Games, the Czech Republic to record with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the namesake of his group’s name, Mannheim, as part of a nine-city tour in Germany.

“I’ve been all over the place/”

He’s recorded with notable guest artists such as popular pop singer Johnny Mathis and he produced an album with the late superstar John Denver. Denver went morel mushroom hunting on Davis’ farm.

Davis’ wide-ranging interests have given him access to NASA space subtle launches. He provided the technology to make hyper-accurate film-sound recordings of Discovery and Atlantis launches. He’s met several astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin.

Mannheim Steamroller has performed at the Lighting of the National Christmas Tree ceremony during the Clinton, George W. Bush and Trump administrations.

“I’m around a lot of cool people and get to see a lot of cool things.”

His celebrity isn’t something he dwells on.

“You don’t think about fame when you are concentrating on composing and producing music and building your own record label-company and planning for the future.”

Davis is grateful his music resonates with so many.

“I couldn’t do this without my fans obviously.”

He’s also wise enough to know he’s often been in the right place at the right time.

“I feel very fortunate I’ve had the retail breaks I’ve had. People gave me a shot with my 1984 Christmas album (the first of many Xmas recordings). With their help, we got it out there. I’m really fortunate to have run across these people and to be given those opportunities.”

 

 

 

Ties that bind

There there’s the artists he’s gathered around him for studio sessions and concerts. He credits concertmaster and violinist Arnie Roth with landing stellar classical musicians.

“We’re talking real big-deal players from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra I could never have gotten to myself. French Horn superstar Dale Clevenger played all my sessions. We had just monster players in the studio. I couldn’t have done it without Arnie.

“And my musicians are just intensely loyal.”

For the Steamroller tours, contract musicians are hired at each stop to join the touring players to create a great big sound machine on stage.

The first violin player Davis hired to play, Steve Shipps, is associate dean at UM’s School of Music and he sits in as lead violinist whenever Steamroller plays in that area.

“It’s like a gigantic family of musicians stationed in different places,” Davis said.

Some of Omaha’s best known musicians have collaborated with Steamroller: Jackson and Almeda Berkey, Joey Gulizia, Ron Cooley, Becky Kia, Chuck Penington.

The music connections are everywhere.

Omaha native Jonathan Swoboda plays keyboards in the Universal Studios orchestra Davis conducts. Swoboda’s father was the attorney who trademarked American Gramophone for Davis.

Davis has had the same business partner and the same agent for decades. He became-remains friends with the head buyer who got his work in Target.

“These relationships have lasted,” he said.

A gift shared

Most of all Davis is grateful for the gift of music and the ability to share it. He feels obligated to.

“This music comes into me from somewhere. I don’t know where. I feel like it comes from above or from God or the ultimate creator. I feel its pouring into me and it just kind of leaks out.

“Sometimes it comes to me in my sleep.”

He may awaken in the middle of the night with an idea and stay up all night to write it. He keeps a voice recorder handy to whistle or hum notes that appear.

The framework for his music is always classically based.

“There are very distinct forms like a Rondo form, a Saraband form. I follow those forms but I plug my own notes into them. It’s a super structure.”

Making a difference with his music is icing on the cake.

“Doing things for people like the Ambience project makes me feel I’m repurposing different things I have  been given a shot at doing. To not take advantage of it would be a sin.”

He’s made sizable donations of CDs to U.S. troops, military hospitals, the VFW and military support groups.

For the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum’s 20th anniversary gala on October 19 he conducted Mannheim Steamroller in concert and led the audience in singing the national anthem.

He’s far more comfortable in the studio than on the stage, where there are no do-overs.

“You’re only as good as your last performance. You can make mistakes out there in front of a bunch of people.”

The gregarious Davis is surprisingly shy.

“The thing that bothers me the most is talking to the audience.”

Doing press is another thing he’d rather not do, though he does a lot of it. He’s employed a high-priced interview coach to help him hone his message.

The family musical line hasn’t stopped with Davis. He said his two daughters are “really good singers.” He wrote an album for his youngest, Elyse. She’s yet to commit to music as a career. “I wish she’d pursue music,” he said. “Maybe she will later. It has to be on her own terms.”

Davis himself is still exploring new ground.

He and Mark Valenti co-wrote a boxed-set audio book, The Wolf and the Warlander, inspired by the friendship between a horse and a wolf who’ve grown up together on Chip’s farm.

The two men wrote the book in the Tiki-style hut Davis keeps in Florida.

“When we got done with the last chapter it was sad – we were having such a good time creating,” Davis said.

He could live and work anywhere but Omaha continues being his permanent home. Why leave where it all happened for him?

“The hand of God put me down here in this town and said, ‘You will create,” he said, laughing. Seriously, he added, “I wouldn’t want to be in any other place. There’s a lot of freedom here. A lot of memories.”

Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller will perform Christmas concerts at the Orpheum Theater on December 22 and 23.

Visit http://www.mannheimsteamroller.com.

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

Funny, yet serious, to the core: The Amber Ruffin story

November 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Add Amber Ruffin to the roster of folks with Omaha roots to find success beyond here in stage-screen-media. The writer-performer got her start in theater and improvisation in her native Omaha. After years honing her craft with major improv troupes around he U.S. and abroad, she broke onto the national scene by joining the writing staff and cast of “Late Night with Seth Meyers” in 2014. She also has a presence on Comedy Central. She’s working on developing her own TV show and she recently co-wrote a new stage adaptation of “The Wiz.”

For the second year in a row Ruffin has come home to headline the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving event (this year’s iteration is today from Noon to 2 p.m. at Slowdown).

There’s little doubt we will be hearing and seeing a lot more from this smart, engaging writer-performer who often skewers wrongdoers and haters with her subversive, silly, serious takes. Her humor, especially when it deals with race and other social justice issues, resonates strongly because it’s grounded in reality and truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if she proves herself a fine dramatic actress as well.

She’s part of an impressive contingent of black creatives from here to make their mark variously in music, theater, film, television, literature and media.

These talents include:

Noble and George Johnson

Lloyd Hunter

Preston Love Sr.

Wynonie Harris

Anna Mae Winburn

Mildred Brown

Helen Jones Woods

Ruth Norman

Buddy Miles

Arno Lucas

Calvin Keys

Victor Lewis

Cathy Hughes

Carol Rogers

Nole Jeanpierre

Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris

John Beasley

Monty Ross

Kevyn Morrow

Randy Goodwin

Camille Steed

Sandra Organ

Alfred Liggins Jr.

Jade Jenise Dixon

Gabrielle Union

Yolonda Ross

Q Smith

Carleen Brice

Kim Louise

Victoria Benning

Omowale Akintunde

Michael Beasley

Lafayette Reed Jr.

Tim Christian

Beaufield Berry

Symone Sanders

Chanelle Elaine

Funny, yet serious, to the core: 

The Amber Ruffin story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Nov. 16, 2018 issue of The Omaha Star (https://theomahastar.com)

NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” gives more than lip service to diversity thanks to Omaha native Amber Ruffin, a writer-performer on the New York-based show.

She’s a singular presence for her strong Afro-centric takes on social issues. She became the first black female writer in U.S. late night network television when she joined the staff in 2014. It marked her national debut. But she’s no newcomer. She comes from a deep improv background that started here and took her to comedy capitals.

In the recurring “Late Night” segments “Amber Says What” and “Amber’s One-Minute of Fury” she calls out newsmakers for everything from their stupid attire to their ugly rhetoric to their heinous acts. Her subversive bits play like funny truth sessions by a righteous sister reporting from the trenches of Being Black in America.

“That’s my goal,” Ruffin said. “You’ll never be wrong when you say police should stop murdering children in the street. That (hate) being a lot of my subject matter just gives me tremendous confidence because it’s never been more right and it’s never been more important.”

The writer-actress headlines the Sunday, November 25 Inclusive Communities (IC) FriendsGiving at Slowdown.

Her high-energy performances sometimes find her flitting across stage as cameras try tracking her. While she can be serious when making a point, her default personality is sweet, silly, manic. She was voted Class Clown at Omaha Benson High School,

It seems this dynamo hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

“You think I’m a happy person, whoo-whee, my parents are really happy,” said Amber, whose mother was voted Class Clown at her high school in Savannah, Georgia.

As a kid, Amber used humor to deflect the hurtful things classmates said about her then-homely looks. Nobody thinks the vivacious Ruffin is homely anymore.

“Humor WAS my way to survive. When kids make fun of you, it’s nice to give them something else to laugh at.”

That experience still informs her.

“My day to day humor stems from a need to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable and happy, which stems from getting made fun of so badly. It’s assumed people use comedy to put up walls, but I think in many cases the opposite is true. I can say exactly how I feel no matter how uncomfortable it makes you – if there’s a joke attached.”

Her folks, Theresa and James Ruffin, are both from the South, They met at Offutt Air Fore Base while serving in the military. They later ran their own business, T and J Daycare Centers. Amber’s the youngest of their five children. She’ll be with family over the holiday when she comes home for the IC event. It’s her second year in a row doing it.

IC Executive Director Maggie Wood said Ruffin’s humor is appreciated by the organization.

“We know how heavy this work can be and the levity of laughter makes us a little more resilient to confront prejudice, bigotry and discrimination.”

Instead of a stand-up set or a speech, Ruffin will engage in conversation with the IC team on stage in response to some loosely scripted questions.

“Our donors, volunteers and supporters all know we need to face this work head on. That’s exactly what Amber does in her commentary. We’re so excited to have her back,” Wood said.

Growing up, Ruffin acutely felt Omaha’s lack of diversity.

“I remember just wanting there to be more me, and there wasn’t. I still don’t have a lot of me. I’ve seen how important it is to have a place where you feel like you can belong and I’m also quite jealous of it because I’ve never had just a place like that where you can be as you as you want to be.”

Theresa Ruffin said dealing with Omaha’s lack of diversity “was challenging to say the least.” When she worked at Peter Kiewit Corp. for a year, she said, “I was the only black person in the building.”

Though Amber didn’t have any immediate show business role models, she gravitated to performing. She played piano at Omaha Trinity Hope Foursquare Church. She also developed an early love of theater.

“I just love musicals,” she said.

She got the bug playing Princess Winnifred in a Benson High production of Once Upon a Mattress.

“I just spent so much time watching theater and doing a lot of theater that everything I love is theater-based.”

Going out on a limb is a Ruffin trait.

“We are a little adventurous,” Amber said. “My mom graduated high school at 16. Every summer she went to New York to find out what the world was about. My oldest sister lived in Panama. Another sister lived in Namibia. It’s just in our bones to see what’s out there.”

Her sisters are also published writers.

The movie The Wiz made a big impression on Amber.

“Many people believe The Wiz has the best music of any musical. I am one of those people. It was also rare to see a show with an all black cast that has nothing to be with being black. Often times, black people have to talk about their experience with being black to be valued. But these people didn’t. It was just a story of joy.”

She’s contributed to the book of a new stage version of The Wiz that premiered in June at the 11,000-seat Muny amphitheater in St. Louis.

“I rewrote the words with the original writer (William F. Brown) who is 91 in April. I have written a few musicals and my love of The Wiz is no secret. We’re going to take it on tour and see how close to Broadway we can get.

“One of the things that stands out to me about our version is that it is timeless. The original Wiz is very much of that era, like many rewrites since. I wanted our Wiz to never have to be rewritten again. It could be from this year, or 20 years ago or 20 years from now.”

Writing musicals has become a new niche.

“I just always assumed because it’s the funnest thing to write, everybody was writing musicals. But it turns out not a lot of people are. So, yeah, I’ll do it.”

Performing in a musical may be another matter.

“I can sing just fine, but I don’t know that I’d ever be in a musical, unless I wrote one for myself.”

 

 

She honed her craft via Stages of Omaha at the Millennium Theatre. She did improv at the Shelterbelt and Blue Barn.

“We had the best time. It’s how I learned that I love improv. To be a good improviser, you just have to trust whoever you’re improvising with. If you treat them like a genius, you’ll both end up looking good.”

Encouraged to try it in Chi-Town, she caught on with Boom Chicago – where she worked with Jordan Peele, Matt Jones and Jessica Lowe – and then Second City. In between, she did a stint with Boom’s company in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

“Boom Chicago was terrifying and it was bad for awhile and there was nothing I could do. I just had to keep trying to survive. I didn’t have a college degree. I didn’t have a lot of money. So there were times when I wanted to go home so bad, But I just had to stay. Thank God I did because it turned out great.”

Her parents encouraged her through the tough times.

“Because they think I’m great because they’re my parents, they were like, ‘You’re excellent and soon        everyone will be able to see that.’ That was very sweet of them.”

Ironically, she met her Dutch husband, Jan, in America. The couple struggled in L.A. for a period. She feels it only made them stronger.

“I did a lot of my own projects. I wrote musicals, made a bunch of funny videos and really did what I wanted to do. Financially, I struggled, but I also had a great time.”

An unsuccessful “SNL” audition was soon followed by “SNL” and Boom alum Seth Meyers hiring her.

“Those two things happened within days of each other,” Theresa Ruffin recalled. “Amber was very down about ‘SNL’ and over the moon when Seth called.”

Going from improv to “Late Night” has been seamless for Amber. “I think it’s been a natural progression because I have always been writing my own black point of view. “I vastly prefer a live audience to just being in front of a camera alone. Improvisers make a thousand corrections a minute every performance until they figure out what the audience likes. You can do that with scripted material, too.”

Being the designated comic who outs racism, narcissism and mendacity, she said, is “this odd space to exist in.”

“I kind of feel like if I don’t say it people might feel desperate and insane. I have to be like, Okay, the president said that, and that’s cuckoo, and you do not have to accept it  It sounds silly but it feels so good to have an adult say you’re a human being and you shouldn’t be treated like this. Until you hear it from someone you do not know and have never met,

it doesn’t carry the same weight.”

Theresa Ruffin loves that her daughter echoes what many black Americans feel. “She says most of the things we are already thinking.”

Every time Amber outs someone’s misbehavior, her mother said it’s cause to shout, “THAT’S OUR GIRL.”

As brutally honest as Amber is on “Late Night,” she must deal with network censors, which is why she feels she was “rowdier and took more chances” doing improv.

On her way up, she met one of her biggest influences, Whoopi Goldberg. “She’s great,” Ruffin said.

Amber’s close friend since childhood, Kristina Haecke of Omaha, said watching her bestie’s breakthrough has been “awesome and great but mostly it has been completely expected..” Haecke insists fame hasn’t changed Ruffin, calling her “very down to earth” and “almost too calm about it.”

Grounded, too. “Her on-screen is her off-screen, just with a platform,” said Haecke.

Fame hasn’t changed Ruffin’s lifestyle. Yet. “Maybe someone recognizes me on the street once a week. No one cares. So when someone says, ‘Hey, Amber.’ I still think it’s pretty neat.”

Her celebrity may grow should a new TV show she’s trying to get off the ground escapes the development hell that befell her previous attempts as a producer.

“I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say it, but I’m going to because I don’t know what the rules are. I have a show called ‘Village Gazette,’ which is the third show I’ve sold to NBC. The premise of it is I am the editor of a small town newspaper in Benson, Nebraska. The owner’s nephew is a big shot reporter fallen from grace after making up a story that people find out is false. He gets fired and this is the only job he can get and he doesn’t want to be in this small town. But then he realizes we’re not so bad.”

Her “boatload of other projects” includes movie scripts she’s’ writing. She also pulls duty on Comedy Central’s “The Detroiters” and “Drunk History.”

By now, she’s mostly over having cracked the glass ceiling in late night, though she feels she did strike a blow for inclusion.

“What matters is knowing that we exist and being able to see us. What matters is that everyone knows there’s room for them because there is.”

Follow Amber on Facebook and Twitter.

Tickets to FriendsGiving with Amber Ruffin are $25 and include one drink and heavy hors d’oeuvres..The event is from Noon to 2 p.m.

Visit http://www.inclusive-communities.org for more details and to purchase tickets.

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

Paula Poundstone talks Dick Cavett, Donald Trump and getting comfortable in her own skin

August 17, 2018 Leave a comment

Paula Poundstone talks Dick Cavett, Donald Trump and getting comfortable in her own skin

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Standup comedian, panelist, commentator and author Paula Poundstone brings her wry humor to the Holland Performing Arts Center on Friday, August 24.

She owns history with two native Nebraska television comedy icons. She guested on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. At the 2012 Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk honoring his legacy, she was joined by fellow satirist Dick Cavett, whose own talk show she’d done. Last fall she did a Lincoln gig with the venerable host, author and New York Times columnist.

“I love Dick Cavett,” she said\ “In 2014 we did this series in Los Angeles where writers interview writers in front of an audience, and I interviewed Dick for that. Somehow from that came this thing of he and I working together in Nebraska. It was so much fun.”

“Oh my God, that was a dream night,” Cavett said of their latest collaboration. “We have a rapport somehow on stage together. We just like each other. We don’t interrupt. There’s no trace of competition. That’s rare with two performers both out there pulling for laughs. It’s a little theatrical miracle. We both get each other’s rhythm and it starts climbing and it just gets into a freewheeling situation you don’t want to end. It plays so well you’d almost think it’s a well-directed play.”

“He’s a wordsmith,” Poundstone said of Cavett, “so mostly I try to make sure he has some space to do his thing. You know he’s got so many great stories. I don’t know if he did this by design or if it’s just the way life worked out, but he became friends with legends – Stan Laurel, Groucho Marx …”

Cavett confirmed it was by design he befriended these towering comic figures, but he added he counts himself fortunate to know Poundstone, too.

“Paula is a genuine wit. So smart and so funny. Seeing Paula work an audience is one of the great experiences in performing arts. She’s an acknowledged genius at it.”

He recalls she was one of his few guests who ever hand-wrote him a thank-you note. Chalk it up to her New Englander-by-way-of-Southern-good-mannered-parents-bringing-up. Meanwhile, she defers any IQ edge to her erudite colleague.

“Dick has me there. He’s corrected my grammar before in emails. So he wins.”

It still blows her mind he was targeted by President Richard Nixon. As a pundit, Cavett criticized Nixon and tackled the still unfolding Watergate scandal on national TV when no one else in mainstream media would touch it (see Dick Cavett’s Watergate on YouTube).

“I’ll tell you what Dick has that I’m so jealous of, which is audio tape of Nixon saying, ‘Is there any way we can screw him?” What I wouldn’t give for (Donald) Trump to go down and for them to later find him cursing me along the way that he will somehow get me.”

A Trump-aimed barb she tweeted in the 2016 campaign did trigger a response, only not from the man Cavett’s called “the missing Fifth Marx Brother – Trumpo,” but from what she suspects were his minions.

“For the next maybe 48 hours my Tweeter feed was busting with vicious, cruel, horrible comments about me,” she said, “and then it went away. I’m fairly certain it was, A, Putin, B, bots, and, C, an army of people Trump has ready to do that. But why me, I don’t know, because I’ve tweeted many things since then not flattering to him and it never happened again.

“But an automated tweet is not nearly as good as Nixon saying how can we screw him.”

Even though Trump provides steady fodder, she said, “I would be happy to never come up with another joke again in exchange for justice being served in terms of Donald Trump. I’ll gladly make stuff up. I don’t need our lives to suck in order to think of jokes.”

She’s never thought her work as frivolous but “as the years go by,” she said, “I personally value my job more and more and more.”

“I consider myself a proud member of the endorphin production industry given the evidence of how important it is not just laughing but laughing with other people.”

“When people type LOL, generally speaking, it’s a lie. Looking at something on a screen when you’re by yourself you don’t laugh. You might acknowledge you think it’s funny, but you don’t laugh. The experience of laughing, even if you go by yourself to a theater or a movie or whatever, you have some connection to the rest of the audience. It’s important being in the room with other people.

“I don’t suggest people have to come see me, although wouldn’t that be nice, but it’s really important to go out and be with other people for a night of laughter. To me, the fact I get to do that and I get paid for it feels better and better every day that I live.”

Decades into her career, she feels freer being herself than ever before.

“There is something to be said for experience. The other thing is and I think this goes along with just life in general, I’m becoming more comfortable with who I am. What I endeavor to do on stage is actually to be the most me I can be, whereas when I was younger I don’t know if I was entirely comfortable with who I was in the way one becomes as time goes by.

“I went to my 40th high school reunion last fall and it was so damn much fun. I went to a couple of them before but none were as good as the 40th because you’re just old enough you don’t really feel the need to impress people, nor are you impressed by others who do feel that need. It just felt like everyone had taken a deep breath and exhaled.”

Her new book The Totally Unscientific Study Of The Search For Human Happiness(Algonquin Books) “is a series of experiments doing things that either I or other people thought would make me happy,” she said.

“Every chapter is written as an experiment with the conditions, the hypothesis, the qualitative and quantitative observations, the variable, et cetera. The real question for me wasn’t what I would enjoy because I know what I enjoy, but what can I do that will leave me with a bounce so that when I return to my regular life I have some reserve. My regular life being raising a handful of kids and animals and being a standup comic and being stuck being me 24 hours a day.

“In the analysis part of each chapter I check in with my regular life to see how things are going. it’s the story of raising my kids and by the end of the book they’re all out of the house.”

It took her seven years to write.

“It’s number one job is to be funny and I think it achieves that, But mercifully any number of reviewers noted it was more than that and that’s certainly satisfying..The audio version was one of five nominees for audio book of the year at the Audis last year, although it didn’t win. But it was up against A Hand Maid’s Tale, so I didn’t feel that bad about not winning. It’s pretty good company. You could do a lot worse.

“Now it’s a semifinalist in the James Thurber Prize for American Humor (competition).”

Fame is a relative thing and Poundstone’s content where she falls on the spectrum.

“I’m not a household name except in my house – where I insist on it. Nobody has to close a store for me to go shopping.”

“Crazy-making” is what she calls the social media expectations placed on creatives these days. “Now when your agent sells you to a promoter or a theater they want to know how many followers you have and what social media you do. All of that’s considered part of the package, which is too bad.”

She’s recently discovered the bliss of going unplugged.

“I’ve started doing this thing where I sometimes don’t have any devices on so I can just think. It’s a scary leap.

I can’t say I always like it. But I do find myself being a little bit more productive.”

She prefers authentic human connections. As Dick Cavett notes, she’s adept at improvising with audiences.

“In the beginning I thought I shouldn’t be doing that. But fairly early on I realized the heart of the show was in these unique things that weren’t going to happen in the other show – it’s just unique to that night and to that audience. Sometimes I kind of put my line out there. I’ll start talking to somebody and then I leave it and come back to it later. You just sort of weigh in little pieces of information that eventually connect and fill the show.

“It took awhile to recognize it is a very valuable thing to be doing and to get pretty good at.”

Her Omaha show starts at 8 p.m. For tickets, visit, ticketomaha.com.

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

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FROM 2012

In 2012, I also interviewed Paula Poundstone and Dick Cavett – that time on the everof their appearing at the Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Nebraska. I refer to that event, which honors Johnny Carson, in the 2018 story featured above. Poundstone and Cavett both had Carson in common: she was a guest on the Tonight Show with the King of Late Night present and Cavett first wrote for Carson (before that, for Jack Paar) and then competed against him with his own talk-show, though they were always the friendliest of rivals.

 

One-liners and nonsequiturs will fly at the June 13-17 Viareo Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb., where the late comic great Johnny Carson grew up.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in a 2012 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

This annual celebration of the funny side is equal parts competition, workshop and roast.

Its home base is the Johnny Carson Theatre at Norfolk Senior High, where the legendary Tonight Show host graduated. The event welcomes professional stand-ups from around the nation vying for cash prizes. Paula Poundstone is the headliner. Jimmie “JJ” Walker is the “legend” recipient. Past Legend honoree Dick Cavett hosts a comedy magic show.

New this year is a June 14-15 Omaha showcase at the Holland Performing Arts Center featuring the fest’s standup contestants in 7:30 p.m. shows.

Poundstone and Cavett, long ago paid their comedy dues. They represent different generations in the craft but well identify with the vagaries of starting out.

She broke in during “the comedy renaissance” that saw clubs sprout in her native Boston and everywhere in the late 1970s-early 1980s. Open mic nights became her proving ground.

“They were just coming into being. I just lucked out in terms of time and place,” she says. “They had shows with guys who had no experience and they were awful but because there was no one else around nobody knew they were awful, and I got in on the awful train – when you could suck and it didn’t really matter. Now I think it’s a lot harder to get stage time.”

She was only 19 when she took the first of two cross-country Greyhound bus trips  on an Ameripass, stopping to perform at open mics in places like Denver, living out of a backpack and catching zs on the road between gigs.

“Odd but genius. It was pretty bold. I mean, I look back on it now and think, Whoa, boy, that could have gone bad. It was my nineteeness that saved me. You think you’re invincible…That helped a lot.”

She knew she belonged as a stand-up when she got to the west coast.

“I kept getting day jobs of necessity for a while. At one point on my second Greyhound bus trip I ended up in San Francisco. It was such a great place to be. It was perfect for my age and my personality and for the type of stand-up comic I am.

The audiences were willing to allow the comic to experiment in a way I found nowhere else in the country.

“It was there I gave up my day job.”

The Other Comedy Club near the Haight Ashbury District became her favorite venue.

“A bizarrely unassuming place. I found the best audiences there. Also, the people that ran the place liked me and gave me opportunities. One of the best things I ever did was host the weekly open mic night. Your job is to introduce people but also to kind of keep the crowd, so you’ve got to do a little bit in between. I would run out of material and I got to think on my feet and interact with the crowd and do all the stuff that’s really the good stuff.

“I had some raggedy nights where it just didn’t work or the crowd was horrible. I have better odds now.”

She describes the high that is stand-up as “addictive,” adding, “otherwise why would you?” (subject yourself to it).

Meeting fans after shows holds its own high, especially when this adoptive mother of three finds she’s struck a chord with parents over one of her favorite topics – the impossibility of child-rearing. “When those moments occur it really makes me feel worthwhile,” says Poundstone, whose concerts, HBO specials, books and recurring panelist role on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me keep her busy.

Not surprisingly, Cavett admires Poundstone, who guested on one of his shows. “She may be one of four-five guests in all the years I did those shows who sent a thank-you note. It was a lovely, nice, handwritten note and it gave me a softer spot for her even than I already had. I was on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me a couple weeks ago but I was sorry she wasn’t there that day so I could thank her again.”

Now he gets the chance to tell her in person. She may share her admiration for an impromptu bit he once did with Benny Goodman. Noticing the jazz great’s fly was down and sensing a rare chance to both prevent embarrassment and score laughs, Cavett instructed Goodman “to do exactly as I do.” As Cavett stood up with his back to the audience, Goodman did the same. The gestures that followed were unmistakable and funny, yet gracefully didn’t reveal whose fly was undone.

“I can’t imagine thinking of that,” says Poundstone. “It’s brilliant, just brilliant.”

Unlike Poundstone, Cavett made his bones in the business writing for others. After graduating Yale he worked as a New York Times copy boy when he audaciously wrote a monologue on spec for Jack Paar and personally delivered it to the Tonight Show host at the RCA building. He lived the dream of seeing some of his jokes used that very night on air. He soon became a staff writer for Jack, then Johnny. On the side he did stand-up in clubs. He doesn’t exactly miss it.

“Thank God I’m not doing that anymore. Some nights were awful, some were exhilarating and made you think this is what I’ve always wanted. When you would top a heckler you’d get a big thrill out of that.”

Once he got his own ABC talk show he delivered a monologue every night.

“It’s a horrible burden for anybody doing a talk show.”

The closest he’s come to stand-up in recent years is narrating the Broadway production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

“I treated it as a stand-up appearance, so I did stuff I had thought up that day or had worked the night before. I ad-libbed with the audience. I had a great time doing it. But those years at the Bitter End and the Village Gate and The Gaslight and Mr Kelly’s and The Hungry Eye all helped bring that about.”

His advice to aspiring comics is “get the best material you can, work as often as you can.”

Having Carson in his corner helped him survive the stand-up gauntlet.

“I would go back to work the next day for Johnny and he would ask me how it went the night before and we would laugh particularly hard when it went badly. He would be very helpful with joke wording. He’d say, ‘You’ve got a good premise there but you don’t go far enough with it.’ A lot of good advice.”

Cavett’s still touched by the affection Carson showed him and that he reciprocated.

They’re forever linked by their small town Nebraska roots (Cavett was born in Gibbon and raised in Grand Island and Lincoln) and similar career trajectories. They both performed magic as youths.

“We met over magic in the Westminster Church in Lincoln. As kids in junior high three of us went to see the magician and radio personality Johnny Carson from Omaha.”

That each went on to host his own network talk show still amazes Cavett. “Isn’t that funny – two magicians from Nebraska?” He promises to perform “my genius” rope trick at the comedy fest. Cavett, who pens a Times column and occasional books, regularly gets back here, He hopes to get in some time in his beloved Sand Hills.

Keenly aware he’ll be on Carson’s home turf, at an event paying homage to its most famous native son, his rope trick will be one more link in their shared legacy.

For schedule and ticket info, call 402-370-8004 or visit www2.greatamericancomedyfestival.com. Omaha Showcase details are at http://www.omahaperformingarts.org.

Up, Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon

August 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Up, Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine

 

No end of metaphors describe a hot air balloon suspended in the sky. To some, it’s a giant, free-floating lollipop, to others a floating bouquet of flowers. Even Christmas ornaments come to mind.

The sight of an inflatable riding the air currents brings out the kid in everyone.  Occupying the basket of a balloon, whether to sightsee or celebrate a milestone, offers a bird’s-eye experience. Most passenger flights last about an hour. Young, old or in-between, it’s an unforgettable joy ride.

The intrepid aeronauts who pilot these contraptions insist that hot air balloons truly are THE way to fly with the greatest of ease. Nebraska Balloon Club members are devotees of a time-honored pastime with its own rituals and traditions.

Ballooning is a hobby, business and sport for Tom Peterson, Rich Jaworski and Steve Lacroix, three active balloonists, instructors and NBC officers. The club promotes the activity statewide. Peterson, its president, said the group numbers about 100 members, including 29 pilots. It organizes free balloon flights, tethered and non-tethered alike, for dozens of charity events each year.

The three men have their own commercial balloon companies whose flights for-hire cover any occasion. Jaworski also does competitive ballooning — attempting extreme duration flights. He owns several world records.

Balloonists are as varied as their balloons, which range from towering to tiny, but all feel the tug of the breeze-blown freedom soaring among the clouds presents.

“There is just so no other way to fly that makes you feel so intimately associated with the Earth,” said Peterson, who pilots Dreamtime. “It’s the closest thing to that dream of flying I had and many other people had as a child, where you lean forward into the wind, spread your arms wide and you lift-off effortlessly. To be able to fly at tree-top level and pick the leaves off the top of a cottonwood or to dip down and brush the tassels of the corn, to follow the contours of the hills and valleys…

“If we go off over the Elkhorn River there’s some spectacular bluffs that drop a couple hundred feet. We come right over the treetops and drop right down following that fall of the land and we set down on a sandbar in the middle of the river. Then, when we take off again, we just hang there like the cottonwood fluff in mid-air. There’s no other way you can fly that you could do that. It’s definitely my passion.”

He equates skimming the air in a balloon with gliding on water in a sailboat. In each case, he uses cues to gauge wind speed and direction: ripples on the water’s surface, smoke plumes, blowing leaves.

Rich Jaworski said his balloon’s name, Euphoria, is an apt description for the experience of flying in one.

“I think it is,” he said. “It’s a feeling of happiness and buoyancy. Each flight is a different adventure. Never knowing where you’re going to land is part of the fun. It’s the antithesis of the American tradition of going from point x to point y. We go from point x, but we don’t know where point y is going to be. We’re definitely not conformists. We want to do something different.”

 

 

Just don’t call them casual thrill-seekers or madcap adventurers. The activity is too unforgiving to tolerate show-offs.

“I would not characterize any of the pilots I know as daredevils,” said Peterson, “because you can’t be a good pilot and be a daredevil. A daredevil is someone who is always pushing the edge and to be a good pilot you need to understand what are the limitations of the balloon, what are your limitations as a pilot and what are the limitations of the information you have about the weather. Meteorology is an imperfect science — we know some things but we don’t know them perfectly. If you’re a daredevil and pushing the edge eventually the edge catches up to you.

“The pilots I know and that are members of the club respect that edge and stay a safe distance back from it by staying within the limits of their abilities and skills and the capabilities of the aircraft.”

For Jaworski and fellow aeronauts a successful flight is a safe one. At the end of a trip he said he feels “self-pride and a sense of accomplishment.” The engineer said his penchant for “figuring out how things work” turned him onto ballooning:  “The beauty of the balloon and the tranquility of its flight, coupled with the technical challenges and the meteorological phenomena one has to come to understand, it just connects a lot of dots for me. Also, the social aspects of working with crew and passengers, and giving back to charities, have been very satisfying and fulfilling.”

Whether launching aloft alone or in a group, balloonists comprise a fraternity dedicated to what Jaworski calls “sharing the joy.” Some gypsy across the country from rally to rally, others fly close to home or only go up for special events.

The Nebraska Balloon Club makes regular launches at Zorinsky Lake and plans a summer slate of rides at Mahoney State Park, John C. Fremont Days, Iowa’s wine country and many other locations and events.

Whatever the occasion, said Peterson, once hooked, you’re a balloonist for life. “They’re just so magnificent, the colors, the fact you’re rising on nothing more than just a bubble of hot air. It’s just magical.”

For a schedule of summer balloon rides, visit nebraskaballoonclub.org/.

MusicFest Omaha presents Jazz and R&B Festival – Saturday, August 18


MusicFest Omaha presents

Jazz and R&B Festival

Saturday, August 18

12:30 p.m. – 10 p.m.

Levi Carter Park Pavilion

4415 Carter Lake Drive W. Omaha, NE

Featuring national guest artists:

Walter Beasley

Brian Simpson

Jazz in Pink

Laurnae Wilkerson

Daniel D and Angelina Sherie

The Coleman-Hughes Project

Different Perspective

and

Omaha’s own Ed Archibald and Friends

Gates open at 11 a.m.

Full lineup of food, refreshment, craft vendors

Tickets now on sale

General admission $40, VIP $65

Tickets available at:

 Homer’s Music Old Market, Jesse’s Place, LeFlore’s New Fashions and Styles of Evolution

https://http://www.facebook.com/events/617896815222199

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