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From the Archives: Warren Francke – A passion for journalism, teaching and life

June 11, 2012 3 comments

When I studied journalism at the University of Nebraska at Omaha there were three professors in my major area of concentration who stood out:  the late Bob Reilly for his warm personality and engaging storytelling; the late Todd Simon for his brilliant analytical mind; and Warren Francke for his passion in teaching us about the rich history of the Fourth Estate.  I was an odd bird of a student because my rampant insecurities kept me from really ever getting to know any of my fellow J students.  The only prof I got somewhat close to was Reilly, which was no great feat because he was welcoming to all.  Simon probably most stimulated my sensibilities, though his intellect intimidated me.  Francke is someone I wanted to know better and sought more affirmation from, but I don’t think I gave him much to work with.  After graduating college and pursuing my career I remained friendly with Reilly, who became a mentor of mine.  I doubt if I would have stuck it out as a freelancer those early years without his encouragement.  After college I never had any contact again with Simon, who just passed away in early 2012.  Francke is someone I likely would not have encountered again if not for the fact that he and I both became contributing writers to the same alternative news weekly, The Reader.  He’s a fine writer and human being and I am proud to call him a colleague.  Like his good departed friend and colleague Bob Reilly, he too has had encouraging words for him that I greatly appreciate.  When I did the following New Horizons profile on Francke about a dozen years ago he was just as I remembered him from UNO – a vital presence excited by his craft as teacher and journalist.  I can happily report that he is still that vital presence today.  I hope to have his energy and engagement 20 years from now.

 

Warren Francke, ©UNO Criss Library

 

From the Archives: Warren Francke – A passion for journalism, teaching and life

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

When University of Nebraska at Omaha communications professor Warren Francke gets a certain misty, far-off gaze in his eyes, chances are he’s lost in another Rocky Mountain reverie.  As a veteran Colorado summer dweller, he can’t help but daydream about hiking where the wild flowers bloom or waking to the warm golden glow of the morning sun glinting off snowy peaks or filling his lungs with the cool crisp ether of pure mountain air or sitting under a canopy of stars from atop a tall ridge at night.

Perhaps he even conjures his long-awaited rendezvous with a bear on some remote mountain trail.

He’s been hooked on Colorado’s high country life since the early 1970s, when summers first found him hauling his family out west, into the Estes Park region of the Rockies, where they grew enchanted by the languid pace and natural beauty of those rarefied heights and eventually extended their two-week vacations there into months-long visits.

Francke and his late wife of 31 years, Sue, adored life in those far upper reaches.  When she died of a heart attack in 1991 he, son Chris, and daughter Cara scattered her ashes in a place she loved.  Now, he shares the towering landscapes with his second wife, Carol, who suffered the loss of a longtime spouse.  After meeting and surviving what Francke calls “the human comedy that is dating after 30 years,” he and Carol married in 1994.              After years renting in the Estes Park area the Francke family finally have a cabin of their own — in the Tahosa Valley, a half-mile north of the town of Allenspark. Situated at 8,500 feet elevation, on a lot dotted with tall ponderosa pines and small aspens, the cabin looks out on Mt. Meeker to the west and the lush valley below.  The couple drive their jeep to secluded spots and make cross-country jaunts on foot to favorite hideaways.

When not sampling the great outdoors he reads books (preferring mystery novels), writes features for the Estes Park Trail-Gazette and pens articles for various professional journals and reference volumes.

Since joining the UNO faculty in 1966, he’s always remained a working journalist.  You may remember him best as a a reporter-columnist with the Omaha Sun Newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s and as that curmudgeon media critic Watching the Watchdogs on WOWT-TV in the 1980s.  These days you can find Francke-penned theater reviews in the Council Bluffs Nonpareil.   At UNO he teaches Literary Journalism and  History of Mass Communication courses as well as a graduate seminar.  He feels writing and teaching give him the best of both worlds.

“I love to write.  It helps my teaching and it helps fill some creative need I have.  For my entire 34 years of teaching I’ve had the good fortune to also do the kind of journalism I enjoy most.  I haven’t had to do the routine, mundane, grinding work of daily journalism.  I do stories I like to do and I teach classes I enjoy teaching,” he said from his modest Fairacres home, his two faithful old dogs (“the ancient ones”) lolling nearby on the floor.

“As I approach retirement it’s a source of great enjoyment to me to find that I enjoy writing as much or more than ever.  If I had had to give up writing to be a teacher I don’t know that I would have, but I didn’t have to.  There’s an enormous variety to teaching, especially if you mix it with journalism, and when you get good results it’s wonderful.”

A past Excellence in Teaching Award winner at UNO, he’s seen many former students achieve high success, including Omaha World-Herald executive editor Larry King and Merrill Lynch executive vice president for communications Paul Critchlow.  Among his most memorable years as an instructor came in 1975, when, as part of UNO’s Overseas Program, he taught seven months at Ramstein Air Force Base in West Germany.  His wife and children were there for the duration and together they toured the festive wine country and traveled to prime European getaways.  “We had a great time.  We bought a Volkswagon and ran all over Europe,” he said.

 

UNO Arts & Sciences building

 

 

Last fall Francke, 62, took a sabbatical from UNO to hole up in his cabin and begin writing the centennial history of Omaha’s Dundee Presbyterian Church, where he worships.  He will take a leave of absence next fall and head for his cabin to complete the project, one he’s excited about because it combines his thirst for history with his love for a good yarn.  It also means returning to his mountain retreat in time to hear the trumpeting echo of mating elk.

His research into old newspaper clippings, church bulletins and meeting notes is uncovering a rich tapestry of church history that coincides with Dundee’s growth and the founding of nearby Omaha University as well as early links with the Buffett and Fonda families.

“You’re talking about a church being formed at the turn-of-the-century in a little village called Dundee, fifteen years before it was annexed by Omaha. You read what you think might be dry records of meetings of church elders, trustees and ladies aid members, but as you learn to know these people you can’t help but have an enormous admiration for them,” he said.  “You become so immersed in the life of this church and of these people that when you turn a page and you find someone — who’s been a real pillar and force for good — has died, you feel a personal loss.

“You really come to share the experience of building a church with them.  These people become great heroes and heroines to you.  It’s very rewarding to bring the lives of these people back to life, so the people in the church now can know who came before them and what they did.  It provides a wonderful way to understand the story of a church and a neighborhood.”

Serving the greater good has been a sort of family inheritance.  His late father, Ted, hailed from a German Lutheran family that produced an unbroken line of ministers dating back to the 1600s.  His father studied for the ministry but was never ordained.  If his father hadn’t broken tradition, Francke himself might have been a preacher.  He thought about it.  As things turned out he’s followed a similar calling as a writer — giving voice to
people and their stories — and as a teacher — helping young people find their way.  “Sure, teaching is a form of ministry to me.  There’s a real common ground there,” he said.

His zeal for a finely-crafted story or well-turned phrase shines through whenever he reads aloud his students’ work.  Then, his eyes grow wide and voice gains inflection as if the Holy Spirit itself has moved him.  “My students turn in stories from life experiences that are so powerful.”

Estes Park

 

 

In that way things have of coming full circle, Francke led a church-centered life as a youth, then, in the contrary ‘60s, drifted away from organized religion — exploring Zen Buddhism — before eventually returning to the fold and even being ordained an elder.  Ancestral currents run deep.

Born and raised in Council Bluffs, Francke and his sister Rhoda grew up in a hilltop home above the Missouri River.      Their father was a study in contrasts.  The former top athlete was a physically-imposing man who worked as a manual laborer, even doing custodial work at the church the family attended, yet delighted in displaying his classical education by reciting Shakespeare.  A bound set of the Bard’s works (which the son inherited) was kept in the family’s home, along with antique ancestral bibles dating back to the 17th century.  During some hard times his parents sold the bibles to raise much-needed cash.

While Francke’s late mother Lydia, who hailed from hearty Iowa farm stock, never got past the 8th grade she was an avid reader who encouraged her children’s education.

“She was remarkably good at always taking us to the library and to Joslyn Art Museum,” Francke said.  “I had a library card as early as you could get one.  I read all the Paul Bunyan books.  I read every book by John R. Tunis, who wrote a wonderful series about sports.”

His introduction to journalism came by way of a neighboring family, the Zimmermans, whose father, Reid, and oldest son, Earl, worked as aWorld-Herald  editor and reporter, respectively.  Francke often joined his boyhood chum, Ken Zimmerman, on weekend visits with the boy’s father to the Herald offices in downtown Omaha.

“While Ken’s dad was reading galley proofs or doing something else in his office, we’d run around the World-Herald, sliding down the brass pole in the press room or visiting different parts of that plant. Having newspaper people as neighbors did have great significance in my life.  I got the idea a newspaper was an interesting place to work.”

He succumbed to the reporting bug at Abraham Lincoln High School, parlaying his interest in athletics (He collected autographs of sports idols, including Iowa’s own fireball pitching phenom Bob Feller.) as sports editor for the school paper, Echoes.  Even as a novice newsman he got a kick out of being thrust into the action and reporting about it.

“I loved it.  That experience epitomized the enjoyment of journalism, which is being in the middle of things people are interested in and then writing about them and participating in them. It’s the fact that you have the opportunity to experience a rich array of life and then get to make use of that experience by articulating it.”

With his reporting appetite whetted, he applied and was hired as a copy boy (copy messenger) at the World-Herald  in the spring of 1954.

“It was an easy step from being sports editor in high school to going to work for the World-Herald within a couple weeks after I graduated.  By that next fall I was doing something I had already done  — covering prep sports.  All it really boiled down to at age 17 or 18 is somebody paying you to go to the games you went to all the time anyway.”

 

Dundee Presbyterian Church, ©The Bouncing Czech

 

 

The paper’s many strong personalities made an impression on him.  Quiet but firm Don Lee, the venerable sports editor, was “always after you to ‘trim it down, trim it down.’” He recalls Fred Ware, “the fire-breathing managing editor,” was always “railing against somebody like Lou Gerdes, the distinguished city editor, shouting, ‘That damn Gerdes,’ and as a copy boy I’d just say, ‘Yes, Mr. Ware,’ and stand there.  I can remember one morning it was pretty quiet in the newsroom when suddenly there was a horrendous clap of thunder outside and without even looking up Ralph Smith, who worked on the rewrite desk, said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Ware.’”

Despite his boss’s intimidating presence, Francke said, “There isn’t any question who the main influence on my writing was — it was Fred Ware.  He talked about making a story sing.  He wrote a style-book for the World-Herald and along with Strunk’s Elements of Style  with the introduction by E.B. White and its emphasis on strong verbs and all that kind of thing, Ware’s emphasis on making a story sing had a profound influence on me.  I took it seriously.  Some of the best things I’ve written are influenced by a real strong sense of the flow and rhythm of language.  If I could make a story a work of poetry I did.  I think Ware started that in me.”

A gentler influence was the late, beloved sports writer Wally Provost.

“The writer at the World-Herald who was my hero was Wally Provost.  Wally did everything I think a writer should do.  He was a wonderful, graceful writer, but he also had a conscience and a sense of justice.  Wally was the first person at the paper, as far as I know, to write seriously about racial injustice.  His was a very effective, quiet voice on issues that mattered.”

In 1958 Francke left the paper to be a full-time staffer at his hometown daily, the Nonpareil.  As a roving, Tom Allan-like reporter he covered all aspects of Southwest Iowa life.  By the time he joined the staff of Omaha’s weekly Sun Newspapers  in 1964, he was dabbling in the freer, livelier New Journalism, whose open literary narrative approach was a bold departure from the rigid, classic journalistic form.  Provost, a devotee of the old-school, ribbed him about the new style’s descriptive excesses.

“I can remember running into Wally and him teasing me by saying, ‘Well, are you going to write about what kind of tie I’m wearing?’”

But for Francke, whose work grew out of his deep love for and intensive study of literature and drama (he has a master’s degree in English from UNO), the new wave of writing was no laughing matter.

“There’s no question I tried to change journalism.  When Tom Wolfe and the New Journalists came along I was already doing the things they were talking about and I was enjoying doing that.  I had the freedom at the Sun  to do it.  That’s why working there was such a terrific experience.  I couldn’t have done that at the World-Herald, which traditionally has not been a place where a writer could work with creative freedom.  The Sun was a place where I could experiment.  My students every week write things better than I have written, but I attempted at least to be out on the edge.”

Even today he tries not settling for humdrum work.  “I’m very unsatisfied when I write what I consider a routine review.”

 Omaha Community Playhouse

 

 

He credits a friend, noted Omaha author and former UNO colleague Robert T. Reilly, for pushing him.  “There’s no question working alongside Bob Reilly was important to me.”  Another key figure for him was the late Ralph Wardle, former UNO English chairman.  “A great writer and teacher.”

Francke’s 1968 Sun profile on his celebrated Omaha U. classmate, Peter Fonda, displays how he pushed the envelope then. Fonda, who’d been banished to his famous father’s hometown by older sister Jane to get his head straight, had become a youth movie icon via his starring role in the Roger Corman exploitation biker flick, The Wild Angels (Easy Rider was yet to come).  Francke’s piece reflects on the unrebel-like Fonda he knew.  A
sweet awkward guy haunted by a messy childhood and distant father.  Smitten by first love (with Carol Robinson).  Desperate to find acceptance.

Francke cleverly frames Fonda’s college life in dramatic, playwright terms, an apt approach for describing someone whose life was an open book and who hailed from one of America’s preeminent acting families:  “Act I, Scene I — Freshman girl hears the son of Henry Fonda is a classmate.  She asks a circle of respected elders, fraternity men all…‘What’s Peter Fonda really like? ‘A real phony.’

“Scene II — A girl named Judy dates Peter and writes an English 112 composition about a boy who will always walk alone.

“Scene III — Peter and Carol walk together down Administration Building halls.  They’re going to class…they’re not holding hands.

“Act II, Scene I — Christmas 1958.  Peter takes Carol to New York.  Lauren Bacall throws a cocktail party.  Carol meets Jane and Henry.

“Scene II — Sorority leaders call Carol aside.  They’ve heard bad reports about her and Peter.

“Scene III — It’s spring…on the campus.  Peter’s there…Sad, grieving.  What’s wrong?  Carol did him wrong.  ‘Oh, well,’ he sighed.  ‘I guess it can’t be April forever.’”

Francke knew Fonda as a fellow contributor to the student paper, The Gateway, and to the literary publication Francke edited, The Grain of Sand.  They also shared a mutual interest in the burgeoning Cool Scene, with its rebellious Beat writers and anti-Establishment musical icons.  The pair weren’t above playing their affected rebel image to the hilt — like the time they convinced a KMTV news crew they were radical campus beatniks.

“We didn’t really cut it as bona fide beatniks.  We were both full-time students. I held a night reporting job at the Nonpareil.  But we’d both read Jack Kerouac.  We could talk the talk.  We ended up on the 10 p.m. news.”

Once Fonda left Omaha for eventual success on Broadway and in Hollywood, Francke lost touch with him.  He’s always had it in the back of his mind to “drive up to his ranch in Montana someday” to kick over old times.

Speaking of old times, Francke misses the vital alternative forum for ideas the Sun  offered under publisher Stan Lipsey, managing editor Paul Williams and owner Warren Buffett.  With the paper’s folding in 1983, he said Omaha lost “a second voice” it has yet to replace.

“Our constitution is based on the idea of letting truth and falsehood fight it out in the free marketplace of ideas.  The marketplace is not so free when you just have one major voice.  The Sun  took on the important, controversial issues that were being ignored and did a first-class, quality job that won them many national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on Boys Town’s finances.  None of the alternative publications that followed have had quite the strength of the Sun.”

The paper stopped publishing when, as Francke puts it, “it could no longer compete with certain advertising and business practices of the World-Herald,” which led to a lawsuit settled out of court.

Francke’s fervent but well-reasoned opinions on media and culture are the culmination of his many years as a journalism professional, student, teacher and observer.  He holds a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of Minnesota. His scholarly work on various facets of the media have earned him a national reputation.  He recently contributed a biographical overview on James Gordon Bennett, a key early journalist, to Oxford University Press for a mammoth reference work it is publishing.

Watchdogs was Francke’s last major public forum for wading in on media topics.  He credits then WOWT news director Steve Murphy with allowing him free reign.  “There was no one else in the country doing media coverage and media criticism on television like I was, where I was not only free to criticize the station I was reporting on but to praise people on the other stations.  I criticized the World-Herald more than any other entity, but I often said how much better it covered something than television.”

He fears his Herald bashing caused a backlash in terms of lost opportunities for him and his students:  “Their top management deeply resented my criticism.  It created a lot of tension. There’s a certain price to pay for…taking on the biggest power in town.”  While Watchdogs ended its run in 1990, it was not due to any chilling effect.  Instead, he simply felt he’d said enough after more than 300 commentaries.

The ever feisty Francke has hardly kept silent.  He bemoans what he perceives to be the World-Herald editorial page’s move from “a moderate conservative position” to “The Right,” and categorizes its treatment of the President as “malice.”  He is still asked to comment on current media events, as when KFAB sought his appraisal of Barbara Walters’ Monica interview, which he said regrettably only “satisfied our low curiosity.”  He looked with dismay at “the sanctifying” of Joe DiMaggio upon his passing, noting the hype still paled next to how Princess Di’s legend grew “beyond all reasonable bounds.”

But where he used to crave always being “in the mix” of news events — putting his wry spin on things, he no longer minds “being away from the battle for months at a time” in that “other world” that is his mountain sanctuary.  Yes, it’s a sure sign his Colorado conversion is complete.

“We lead such a simple life out there.  When we go back in the summer for the first church service and the choir begins to sing, ‘There’s Something By the Mountain,’ I have a very hard time not getting teary-eyed because these things come to combine in a tapestry of meaning about the experiences you’ve had there and the way in the mountains you feel closer to the grandeur of creation.”

Despite the strong pull Colorado exerts, he has no intention of taking up year-round residence there. “No.  I like life in Omaha.  I don’t like missing the opening of the theater season in the fall.  I would miss not being here for UNO and Nebraska football.  I would miss my friends.”

From the Archives: Peony Park not just an amusement playground, but a multi-use events facility

April 8, 2012 8 comments

Here is a story from the dusty past about a fondly remembered, now long gone amusement park in my hometown of Omaha, Neb. called Peony Park.  This story was originally published more than 20 years ago and painted a bright picture of a still thriving place, but within a very short time (1994) the park closed, unable to fend off mounting competition for leisure-recreation dollars.  Growing up, my family didn’t much go in for amusement parks and thus I have only a couple dim memories of being there as a kid.  I was there maybe a few more times as a young adult.  So it’s not like the loss of Peony Park meant much to me, although I did like the idea of this charming relic of Americana.  It’s laudable that it hung on as long as it did and I suppose it’s a shame it finally went under, particularly since a generic strip mall anchored by a supermarket went in its place.  My piece doesn’t go into the history of Peony Park, which no doubt saw millions of visitors during its three quarters of a century life.  To be sure, most of that history would be  nostalgic good fun, but an ugly part of it would be the fact that African-Americans were denied access to its large pool and man-made beaches well into the 1960s until a series of civil rights protests compelled the owners to change a policy that was in clear violation of a Nebraska statute guaranteeing equal access to places of amusement.  The protests, which followed a court decision against the park that the owners and law enforcement ignored, finally forced enough financial and political pressure on the Malecs that they had no choice but to open the pool to all.  For more on that regrettable chapter, check out David Bristow’s story about it at www.davidbristow.com/peony.html.

 

 

From the Archives: Peony Park not just an amusement playground, but multi-use events facility 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Midlands Business Journal

 

What is 40 candy-coated acres of rides, games and variety-filled nights that are bright and shiny all over? Why, it’s one of Omaha’s landmark entertainment attractions – Peony Park, whose amusement center opened last week. Despite two rainouts, the May 10-13 opening drew 3,000 patrons.

Since the late Joseph Malec Sr. opened a dance spot and filling station in 1919 across the road from a huge peony garden (hence the name) the complex has grown into a multi-use events center serving hundreds of thousands of folk a year.

Long before Ak-Sar-Ben initiated a liberal open-door policy in the late 1980s, Peony welcomed the community to hold meetings, seminars, fund-raisers, picnics and all manner of special events at its friendly confines. For generations the Peony Ballroom was a mecca for couples dancing to big band sounds. Who knows how many romances got started or rekindled under the Ballroom’s gleaming stardust ceiling? Although Peony no longer sponsors a big band program of its own, music and dance events are still booked there by outside groups.

A $3 million facelift begun four years ago expanded the ballroom added the Plaza Theater, beautified the grounds and improved access to the park. Improvements continue today, as Peony updates its campus and expands its services to corporate and nonprofit clients alike. Much of the operation revolves around booming banquet and catering services.

Despite civic outreach efforts Peony is usually thought of this time of year as simply that charming little amusement park tucked north of tree-lined Cass Street. And that’s just fine with park officials, who expect more than 300,000 visitors through the amusement park turnstiles this year. For comparison’s sake, that’s about the same number of fans the Omaha Royals Triple AAA farm club drew to Rosenblatt Stadium in 1989.

 

 

The old amusement park opened last Thursday, the start of 110 whirling dervish days and nights when the roller coaster, Wave Swinger, Black Hole and other gravity-defying rides propel people through space for the thrill of it all.

There’s also the many arcade games that carry with them the chance to win stuffed aninals or trinkets, the swimming pool and its half-mile of sand beaches, water slides, a minature train that tours the park and a new addition, go-carts.

A different live family show is held each week at the Plaza Theater – from country singers to mimes and monkey acts.

Seventy-one years after old man Malec staked a claim for his dance and gas emporium in what was then countryside, Peony president and namesake Joseph Malec Jr., the founder’s son, invites youths to kick up their heels at Thursday night shindigs.

While Peony has felt the effect of local funplexes that have sprung up, it has weathered the competition by combining its nostalgic charm with state-of-the-art facilities.

“Several years ago that type of competition really didn’t exist and it has had an impact on our business over the years, ” said Peony general manager John Gilroy. “But we offer a variety of choices that those places aren’t able to provide. We have amusement park rides as well as the pool and the water slides. The renovation that took place a few yeara ago outside has given Peony a new look that people who visit the park find very attractive.

Peony has also withstood the pull of such regional attraction as AdventuredLand in Des Moines, Iowa and Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Mo., which draw many area residents, by offering a less-stressful recreational outing. Often, Peony’s parking lots are less crowded, lines shorter and prices lower than the mega-theme parks.

“We recognize a lot of people in Omaha go to Worlds of Fun and AdventureLand and, in a sense, we think that’s good for us because with the exception of their major theme rides we have a lot of the attractions that both of those parks have,” said Gilroy. “If people have a good time at those places maybe they’ll want to come to Peony Park for an afternoon or evening.”

That’s why Gilroy said “the destination theme parks are not our competition in the real sense of the word. We offer people who live in Omaha and within an hour’s drive of here someplace to go when they don’t want to load up the kids and be gone overnight or make a two or three day event out of their entertainment.”

Jim Hronek, Peony sales and marketing manager, said, “Only about three or four percent of our audience comes from more than 60 miles away. We basically draw from Omaha, Council Bluffs and Lincoln and the small towns in the area.”

Contrary to the perception that Peony attracts a mostly teen crowd, Hronek said more than 90 percent of its customers are families. “Everybody thinks of Peony as being a teenage facility but the number of teens who come without their parents is only about three or four percent.” Youth attendance peaks Thursdays when radio station Sweet 98 and Mountain Dew co-sponsor a non-alcoholic live rock music and dance night. Otherwise, Peony promotes itself as a family place. That’s one reason why it junked the slogan “The place to party.” It sounded more like an invitation to young singles and adults than parents with children. This year’s new slogan is “Omaha’s premiere family entertainment center.” Peony has kept the catchy jingle sung at the end of its radio and television commercials that goes, “You’re gonna really love the way you feel.”

Because surveys show moms and kids are the real powerbrokers when it comes to making family recreational decisions, Peony targets its radio and TV spots at them.

“That’s why we aim some of our marketing at children’s television,” Hronek noted. “The particular radio stations we try to buy and the particular TV shows that we purchase commercials on are very family-oriented. Ninety-five percent of our TV commercials are bought on Channel 42 (KPTM). They run a lot of cartoons for children and family entertainment shows that we purchase advertising on. KPTM’s base is Omaha and Lincoln and that’s another reason we buy so heavily with them because we’re getting into both markets at the same time.”

 

 

With more leisure choices than ever before people are highly discriminating in spending their recreational dollars these days. To give families more bang for their bucks Peony has slashed prices. In particular, it’s hoped more patrons will attend during the week, the traditional dog days at amusement parks when the gate slows to a trickle of it’s normal weekend flood of visitors. On its busiest days Peony has upwards of 10,000 fun seekers on a Saturday or Sunday while most weekdays average about 4,000 to 5,000.

“We have to do more discounts, especially during the week,” said Hronek. “Our prices this summer are for a lot of things actually lower than they were five or six years ago. And people don’t always have a full day to come, so they want a special where they can spend three or four hours here without paying full price.

“On Mondays and Wednesdays it’s two-for-the-price-of-one both days. Pepsi Cola is helping us sponsor that promotion. They’re putting a coupon on the side of 15 million Pepsi cans.

Baker’s Supermarkets is backing a two-for-one bargain on Tuesdays. Hronek said the promotion with Baker’s is a deal made in marketing heaven. “Baker’s is probably the most family-oriented grocery store in Omaha and for us to tie-in with them is hopefully good for both of us. They will bag stuffers in grocery sacks and also buy some advertising. In turn, we also buy advertising to promote, ‘Go to Baker’s and get your discount coupons.'”

Peony’s gste admission has been reduced to $1 per person. For those who enjoy being all wet the pool-water slides combo has been lowered from $6.95 to $4.95. An all-day rides pass is $9.95. The whole kit and caboodle is $11.95.

“And for the first time we’re running a twilight special,” Hronek said, “which encourages families to come after mom and dad get home from work. It’s only $5 for the entire family and that includes all the rides.”

Accounting for an increasingly large share of Peony’s summer trade are company picnics. Peony provides full catering services for the events held on the park’s designated picnic grounds.

“We have expanded our banquet-catering business significantly.” said Gilroy. “A big part of our business is related to company picnics, and I use the term company picnics generically. It’s not just corporations, it’s civic organizations, schools, churches, hospitals and many others. We have over 100,000 people visit Peony Park every year to attend a company picnic. Most of these people also take advantage of the amusement park, the rides or the pool or the water slides, or a combination of all of those opportunities.

“We’ve worked to maintain and increase our picnic business during the summer. A couple years ago we hired Denise Fackler, whose job is to call on companies and organizations, large and small, both for the company picnic business as well as our year-round banquet business. We felt there was a need to call on people in the community and remind them of what Peony Park can do because not everybody really understands what is offered here.”

Hronek said Peony can cater picnics for 50 to 5,000. About 10 companies and organizations have already booked picnics this year, including such familiar names as the Peter Kiewit Company, First Data Resources, FirsTier Bank, the Omaha World-Herald and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

“I figure we’ll do approximately 150 picnics this summer,” said Hronek, who feels the events have become as popular as office Christmas parties. Nebraska’s volatile weather poses real challenges, he said, when “trying to move a picnic to a covered area at the last minute before a storm hits.”

Peony uses the same kitchen facilities and crew to prepare picnic suppers as it does for formal banquets. Up to 1,700 people can be served in the ballroom.

“The banquet business has been growing and we certainly hope it is going to contine to grow,” Gilroy said. “We have an excellent reputation for our service and the quality of our food.”

Hronek estimates 65 percent of Peony’s business is generated from group sales for banquets, picnics and the like. Indeed, many annual events call Peony home, such as the Omaha Press Club show and the Debutante’s Ball. “During the winter some 30 percent of our business is with charities. The Heart Association and others do major fund raisers here and have for years,” Hronek said. “Peony’s always been a part of the community.”

It also plays host to the annual La Festa Italiana, a Labor Day weekend celebration of Italian food and heritage.

The Plaza Theater addition has allowed Peony to handle more events than in the past. “It was built as a multi-purpose building,” said Hronek. “Because of the sound system, the lighting and the stage we host a lot of corporate meetings and business seminars for 75 up to 400 people.” It’s also home to variety shows, wedding receptions and other activites.

To appeal to an increasingly upscale, professional clientele Peony is trying to change its image. “Instead of the bright orange-yellow-green logo we had in the past our new logo is a little more of a corporate design, and that probably has to do with the corporations we serve because while we do advertise ourselves as an amusement park we also do many social and business functions,” Gilroy said.

Running the diverse operation’s daily affairs are about 20 full-time staffers. The payroll swells to 450 in the summer when the wear-and-tear of visitors keeps an army of workers busy.

“During the summer we add 50 to 60 kids whose job is to do nothing but polish rides, sweep the grounds and now the grass,” Hronek said.

A permanent maintenance crew of six inspects every ride before the park opens each day. “A lot of the rides have routine maintenance, like oil changes,” Hronek said. “The bearings are automatically replaced after so many hours the ride is run. It’s all part of our ongoing safety program.”

Getting the park in shape for this summer’s onslaught was a month-long process. Among the first priorities were the 21 rides, many of which had to be put back together after being disassembled for winter storage, and undego normal maintenance work. Prior to the amusement park’s opening May 10 Hronek discussed some preparations under way: “We’ve been putting together the rides for weeks. Now it’s a matter of checking them, testing them and making sure everything is put together properly. Then they have to be safety-inspected by the state of Nebraska. Next, all the rides are washed, waxed and polished.”

The rides are a major investment valued, Hronek said, ata nywhere from $75,000 to $400,000 per machine. The biggest ride, the roller coaster, is also the most expensive with an estimated price tag of $1 million.

Aside from fine-tuning the rides, the park’s grass was cut, weeds pulled, flowers planted, buidlings freshly painted, food ordered and kitchens and concession stands stocked. “It’s quite a project,” he said.

Peony has its own greenhouse on-site to grow flowers for landscaping and table displays. Yes, rows of manicured peony bushes adorn the premises.

“We give a lot of attention to the aesthetics,” Hronek said. “When we expanded the park a few years ago we hired a company called Leisure and Recreation Concepts, who designs amusement parks, and one of their jobs here is planting and working on some landscaping ideas so that the look of the whole park ties together.”

As far as Peony’s featured attractions, the rides. Hronek said, “We get some of our ideas from other parks around the country. Many of the ideas we use come from our employees and visitors who will tell us they stopped at an amusement park on their vacation and saw something they really liked. Often, we’ll look into it to see whether it’s something feasible for Peony Park and a city the size of Omaha.”

What are the most popular rides? “Our roller coaster and bumper cars are the ones that traditionally do well,” he said. “You haven’t been to an amusement park unless you’ve ridden the roller coaster.”

For Hronek, who’s worked at Peony 15 years, satisfaction is “seeing everyone have a good time. It makes the job enjoyable.”

Peony’s provided seven decades of uniterrupted fun for the area, all under the Malecs’ ownership. “There’s a consistency to our business,” said Gilroy. “People come to depend on the product. Knowing the Omaha community is a real advantage and a big part of our success. We intend to contine providing quality family entertainment.”

From the Archives: Minister makes no concession to retirement, plans busy travel, filmmaking schedule


I have had the opportunity to meet and interview many men and women of God and most of them exhibit a humility, gratitude, and generosity that I can best understand and articulate as grace. They cultivate the attitudes and take the actions of mercy and love that all of us are called to do, no matter what our faith tradition or even if we do not claim a faith that has a name or creed.  The best ministers are open-minded and compassionate and committed to what they believe and do. They’re also unafraid to ask questions and to rattle the status quo now and then, even to challenge their own beliefs from time to time.  The retired Rev. Richard Linde is such a man.   I wrote this profile of him more than 20 years ago and in one way or another this piece has always stuck with me, not because of my writing, which is pedestrian at best, but because of the man and his unconditional embrace of life.  I liked the fact. too, he was both a minister and a filmmaker and while his work making travel films didn’t have anything to do with the church or religion or spirituality per se it was still another expression of his love for humanity and the wonders of creation.

I was also impressed by Linde having studied at Princeton and Harvard, where he earned a business degree of all things, and having earned a doctorate as well.  Again, like any good minister, he has always been a searcher and seeker in pursuit of knowledge.

NOTE: In preparing to post this I discovered that Rev. Linde now lives in Colorado and that he has authored a couple books: The Christ of Every Road, a fitting title for a man who has traversed so many paths: and Chaplain Richard Linde, We Also Fought, the chronicle of his own experience as a young navy chaplain during World War II counseling sailors readying for the planned invasion of Japan, casualties from the Pacific Theater, and submariners returned from torpedoing Japanese ships.   I have no doubt that he followed his plans after leaving Countryside to make the film about the United Church of Christ and to do more traveling. I also have no doubt he’s still as active and engaged as his physical abilities allow and that he’ll remain a seeker in some way, shape, or form until his final breath.

 

 

BEN_4794
Countryside Community Church altar, ©photo Ben Semisch

 

 

From the Archives: Minister makes no concession to retirement, plans busy travel, filmmaking schedule

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Metro Update

 

Retirement is a state of mind.

Take the Rev. Richard Linde for example. Although the 60-something Protestant minister is fast approaching his August 1 retirement date the veteran globe-trotter isn’t planning to slow down much. Sitting idle just isn’t his style.

Besides, Linde has better things to do, like chasing rainbows and memories half-way around the world.

Soon after stepping down from his 17-year post as senior minister at Countryside Community Church in west Omaha Linde will slip into his worn, but comfortable shoes as a traveling man and go off to meet old and new horizons.

Much of the United Church of Christ minister’s life has been a search to balance his fiercely independent and inquisitive nature with organized religion. His many travels mirror his quest to somehow square knowledge with faith. His guide, he said, has been God. “A lot of my life has been serving God as I feel God directs me, not as the church directs me to go.”

While long ago coming to peace with himself, he’s still a restless spirit and has many miles to go before retreating from life. “I’ve never been a person who hangs around the house and I don’t think I ever will be. I don’t want to be. I don’t want to play shuffleboard in Forida either,” he said. “I have some other things I want to do. I’m probably going to work nine months out of the year and my wife and I still like to travel.”

Linde concedes he may cut back his work schedule to 40 or 50 hours a week during “retirement.”

He will combine work and travel when he begins filming a documentary September 1 for the national United Church of Christ, a project that may take two years.

It may surprise some of Linde’s acquaintances that for 25 of his 45 years in the ministry he made travel films as both a hobby and second profession. Indulging his love for travel, he photographed the diverse cultures of the Middle East, Czechoslovakia, Jamaica, Iceland, Luxembourg, Monaco and other parts of the world. He lectured widely with his films and sold several to television.

While Linde hasn’t made a film for more than 10 years the United Church Board of Homeland Ministries knows they have a filmmaker in the fold. With his newly commissioned film they want him to retrace the church’s early Congregational roots in Europe and migration to America. The denomination is the result of a 1961 merger between the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Linde will document the historic route taken by church followers, including Pilgrims, by shooting overseas and in the States.

“We’re talking about staying in England, then in Switzerland, and coming to New England and Pennsylvania and later going across the Plains with the great migration to the West. And I’m hoping to end up in Hawaii because the Congregational story there is interesting. Author James Michener, in his story of Hawaii, downplays the part of the missionaries. I think his emphasis is wrong,” said Linde, who wishes to set the record straight as he sees it.

Hawaii has special meaning for Linde, who was stationed at Pearl Harbor while a Navy chaplian in the Second World War. At age 20 he was one of the youngest chaplains in the Pacific. Anxious to be part of the war effort before it ended, he left seminary college to enlist in the chaplain corps and was assigned to Pearl’s submarine base in 1945.

 
Pearl Harbor submarine base chapel

 

 

“The Royal Hawaiian Hotel was the rest and recuperation annex for the sub base and I became the chaplain of the hotel, holding my services in the Bamboo Room,” he said, laughing at the incongruity of it all. “It was neat duty. I had a lot of interesting counseling there. The officers and (enlisted) men were very, very tense. A lot of fighting would go on among themselves. There was blood and teeth through the Royal Hawaiian from sailors fighting.”

On a lighter note, he said big band leader Ray Anthony and his orchestra often gigged there. “Some of his instrumentalists would play for my service the next morning. They would be so tired from playing most of the night that I’d tell them, ‘Oh, c’mon guys, play a little faster,’ and they’s just go, ‘plunk, plunk, plunk,’ he recalled with glee.

Linde also traveled all over the Pacific on the sub fleet flagship tender, the USS Holland (AS-3), where he saw firsthand how superstitious sailors coped with fear. “The submariners were very individualistic. On most subs they had a Buddha (effigy) and before they would fire a torpedo they would rub the stomach of the Buddha for good luck. But the guys, surprisingly, were quite religious. At that time there was only one chaplain for every 1,000 sailors – there was a lot of counseling.”

royal-hawaiian-hotelPhoto: Royal Hawaiian Hotel

 

Although Linde never saw combat he said he was scared plenty of times.

The veteran returned to Hawaii with wife Randi three years ago. It was the first time he’d been back since the war. And at his wife’s urging they stayed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel he’d been “bragging about all these years.” To his dismay the place had changed and the Bamboo Room was only a distant memory. He realized how much time had passed when, after regaling the desk clerk with his stories, the young man said, ‘I wasn’t even thought of then.”

Linde, who never preached in the base chapel because he was too “young and junior an officer,” found he’d gained stature with time. “When I went back I asked to go onto the base and they asked me to preach. All the ranking officers of the fleet were there lined  up in front me,” he said proudly.

It’s doubtful whether Linde’s hoped-for return to another exotic port of call from his Pacific past – Shanghai, China – will prove as inviting given ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China. “I want to go back to Shanghai, live there a month or so and do some writing about the way it was then and the way it is now.” Then was 1946, when Linde was the only chaplain for 15,000 U.S. Navy personnel in Shanghai, which even then was a large cosmopolitan city and sea port.

“I loved Shanghai. The Bund (its waterfront), the Palace Hotel, the famous clubs. Like so many of the major cities in China it was built by western nations. I was on the edge of the Bund, where the ships were in the Whangpoo River. They would tie up there and the sailors would come ashore.

“I had my services in the Majestic Theater, which was very large, the size of the Orpheum (Theater in Omaha) I suppose. I would get written up in some Shanghain papers for things I would say. You see, there were some very conflicting things going on there,” he said, alluding to the city’s weird melding of sophistication and feudalism. “For example, they had just started to invoke the old Chinese custom of, when there is theft, cutting off the thief’s right hand, and thievery went way, way down.”

Crime, including a thriving black market, was rampant. So were anti-American feelings. Adding fury to the maelstrom were growing tensions between the country’s Nationalist and Communist factions.

“I remember one time I pulled up to the Park Hotel, where I lived, and ran up and ran right back down. In the little time I was up there all three of the locks of my jeep were stolen. I never did know whether they were thumbing their noses at the U.S. Navy or they just didn’t have time to steal the jeep. I was part of practically the last group to get out before the Communists took over.”

 

 

Seven V-boats with submarine tender Holland.

USS Holland (AS-3)

 

 

After his discharge Linde finished his theological training, which began at Princeton, by getting his degree from Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, New Jersey. He also worked as youth director at a Los Angeles church for a time.

Still unsure of the ministry as his life’s work, he applied to the Harvard Business School. “The amazing thing was that I got accepted. That was a great surprise to me and I thought it was too good to pass up. I used my GI Bill to go there.” His Harvard years marked a turning point in his personal and professional life and a crucible of faith.

“The people that went there worked so hard, and I knew I’d be just like the rest of them if I went into business. I wouldn’t have any time then for religion. I decided my real emphasis, my real interest in life was religous faith. I decided to go with the church rather than do religious work as a sideline, which I had been thinking of.”

He did earn an MBA degree. But more importantly it ws while his back East that he met his wife of 40 years now. She was a Wellesley girl.

“I met her the night she had signed a contract to teach school in Turkey. She was leaving in two months and when she left she was wearing my (engagement) ring. We had a furious correspondence writing to each other every day. After about 10 months we met in Geneva, Switzerland. I came from Boston and she came from Izmir, Turkey. We were married in the Cathedral of Saint Peter, where John Calvin, the famous Medieval reformer, preached.”

Linde and his wife led a tour group to Geneva four or five years ago. When informed of the cathedral’s significance to the couple some group members had the sextant open the closed chapel where the Lindes took their vows. “We stood at the altar where we had been married and all the women had tears and the flashbulbs popped.”

He has been leading tours for many years, including recent excursions to England and Holland. He’ll lead a Scandinavian trip this summer.

Summers have long been Linde’s time to travel. Taking advantage of the month off he had each summer he used his vacations to “moonlight” as a filmmaker. He began tinkering with movie cameras in the 1950s while preaching in his native Ohio. It wasn’t long before he turned his 16 millimeter Bolex on the international sights he visited each summer.

The self-taught filmmaker became serious about his hobby when he discovered his low-budget productions were not only engaging but marketable. He sold eight of his films to national syndicated television networks.

“I guess I have a good eye for what a good picture is and what good action is,” he said. “I was showing one of my films in New York City to the Jamaican Trade Board and their officials said, ‘That’s the best film that’s ever been made on Jamaica. If you ever want to go again and update Jamaica you see us.’ So one summer I didn’t have anything else to do and they gave Randi and me plane tickets, reservations at the best hotels and a car.”

He said sponsors, such as national trade boards or airlines, usually paid his and Randi’s ways overseas. While he sometimes used local cinematographers on location he mostly handled the camera himself. He also scripted the movies after compiling and editing the footage. “It usually takes me two summers to make a film.”

Linde retained an agent to book himself and his film on the national lecture- travel film circuit. There were enough engagements that he had written into his ministirial contracts permission to travel on the road as needed. He spoke and presented the travelogues at universities and art centers nationwide. In 25 years he missed only one engagement – due to a raging snowstorm.

“I never ended up with any profit. The money went right back into the next film. It was something fun for me to do.”

A lecture stop 20 years ago introduced him to Omaha. “Impresario Dick Walter brought me here to lecture at Joslyn Art Museum for one of his travel film series. That’s when I first saw this beautiful city and became interested in living here. Before Dick Walter brought me out here I was like other people who thought this was someplace you fly over on your way to someplace else.”

After taking the Countryside Community Church position in 1973 Linde continued making films and lecturing for a time. He quit filming because new, more expensive technology overtook his grassroots methods. He sounds a little wistful talking about those halcyon days when he and his films were featured attractions. Perhaps that’s why he jumped at the chance to lead this United Church in Christ faith community. He thrived on all the travel then (and still does) because it relieved stress. “From a health standpoint I think it was really the making of my job. I could go an airplane and fly to Denver or Miami or Los Angeles. I’ve been blessed with a lot of energy in my life, so I can fly someplace, give a lecture and come back on the red-eye express and still be at my office the next morning. I was able for years and years to do that. And I considered it fun. I liked the plane ride, the people applauding and the whole thing. For me, it was a lot more interesting than puttering around the house.”

He also credits his wife for helping smooth his comings and goings. “Fortunately I have a wife who understands the necessity of my being away from home a great deal. Usually I am at home for dinner but if I’m not some evening it’s not a crisis.”

Although he said his film career really didn’t “have much to do with the church, that’s one reason I’ve liked what I’ve been doing because I’ve been involved in a lot interesting, different things.” His openness to new, eclectic experiences is consistent with the liberal underpinnings of his church.

“One reason I’m in the United Church of Christ is that there’s an enormous freedom. We call it autonomy. You really don’t have a hiearchy over you telling you what to do. It’s mostly a relationship between the people here at Countryside and the staff. That’s very important to me because I didn’t want to be a churchman as much as I wanted to serve people. Counseling has been important to people over the years and I decided just before I came here to go back to school and get a doctorate in counseling (from Butler Univrsity) so I could be a professional rather than just a gifted amatuer.”

He said his search for knowledge has helped resolve personal crises of faith. “I’ve gone through two maybe three periods of intense questioning of everything I believed, and I think I’ve come out with a much stronger faith each time.”

Early on he chafed at his fundamentalist upbringing. “Pretty much what I grew up on was, ‘Well, you have to take it on faith. Just believe.’ I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to know why. That’s partly why I went to get a doctorate – I wanted to know why.”

Jamaica

 

 

Despite straying from the fundamentalist teachings he was reared on in Ohio Linde said his early years “did give me a strong impetus toward religious faith.” He added, “My mother particuarly was very religious. She read Bible stories to me.” Even as a child Linde challenged prevailing wisdom: “I always thought I knew more than the Sunday school teachers, which I probably did.”

When as a young man he told his mother of his plans to enter the ministry, he said, “she was disappointed,” adding, “She wanted me to be a good Christian boy but she wasn’t quite sure about my going into the ministry. I was surprised by that but I went anyhow.”

“I’ve really wrestled with my faith and I’ve come out with answers that, to me, are satisfactory. But they’re not the answers I had when I was a little boy in Sunday school.”

Linde feels many of Countryside’s 2,000 members are, like himself, questioners who demand answers. Others, he said, are from conservative backgrounds. He welcomes them all. Whie\le describing his church as liberal, he adds, “It doesn’t mean we don’t beleieve in anything. It means we will accept people of many different variations of faith. We don’t stuff people into one little box and say, ‘This is what you have to believe.’ This is one reason why people join Countryside. In our denomination we’re one of the largest and fastest growing churches in the U.S.”

To appeal to what he calles “a very young congregation on the sunny side of 40,” Linde has adapted his preaching style.

“I was brought up in the era when you weren’t supposed to use any personal references or illustrations and preaching was pretty stuffy. Years ago I rebelled against that. Using Jesus as a model I’ve used more illustrations and stories, trying to show what life is like and what it can be like and sometimes what it isn’t like. The fact is I’ve tried to preach like I make movies – a series of sequences and images, without trying to explain what it means.”

In general, he said “churches are learning what people really need. There is an ethical, a values and a religious hunger. Whether you want to admit it or not, there is something deep down inside of each person that does want values. People will come to a place where you don’t try to pound it into them but where it’s openly discussed.”

He said people are just as receptive to men of the cloth today as in years past. He feels his role is as vital as ever and perhaps more so not only because times are hard but because he views his vocation differently than before.

“My own perception has changed. When I first started out I was embarassed to be a minister. I’m not anymore. I think what I’m doing is very important. The reason, for instance, I’ve been in the church doing counseling is that I think what the church, what religious faith has to offer is more important than what a secular counselor has. Just adding the element of faith to psychological knowledge is a plus.”

A new building on Countryside’s campus will help the church further address people’s needs. He said the Family Life Center, set for an Easter completion, will offer “counseling, therapy and enrichment” to families.

Overall, Linde said the church’s mission is “essentially to improve the quality of life in our community and city and world.” An example of  its world outreach is Countryside aiding 18 children and their families in Amaititlan, Guatemala, where the Lindes visited recently. “My wife and I want to go back to Guatemala and go to language school. During our winter it’s their springtime and just beautiful down there.”

After all the trails he and his wife have followed, it’s not surpising then that the couple’s three grown sons have heeded their parents’ wanderlust ways and tranplanted themselves about the globe. One lives in Vail, Colo., another in New York City and the third in Taiwan.

Linde is not the type to dwell on his own many traveled roads because he’s always on the verge of some new journey. He confided, “I haven’t talked about myself this long in a long time.” But with his Countryside career about to draw to a close he thought the time right to reflect.

“We have an outstanding church here and I hope it will continue. I followed a good minister here (the Rev. Bob Alward) and we’ve continued to grow, the church has prospered in the 17 years I’ve been here, and I just hope the fella who follows me can continue what’s been done. Having the church prosper is very important to me.”

From the Archives: About Payne – Alexander Payne on “About Schmidt,” Jack Nicholson and the comedy of deep focus

December 20, 2011 9 comments

 

 

From the Archives:

About Payne – Alexander Payne on “About Schmidt,” Jack Nicholson and the comedy of deep focus 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Bolstered by rousing receptions at prestigious film festivals, critical kudos from leading reviewers, widespread predictions of Oscar nods and loads of studio marketing behind it, the momentum attending About Schmidt surpasses anything Alexander Payne saw for his previous features’ openings.

Where Citizen Ruth and Election were accorded the kind of lukewarm studio backing (from Miramax and Paramount/MTV Films, respectively) that idiosyncratic movies get when “the suits” don’t fully endorse or understand them, Schmidt is getting the type of red carpet treatment from New Line Cinema execs that signals they see a potential winner, read — moneymaker, here. And why not?

The film, making its Nebraska premiere December 10 at the new Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center (formerly the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater) in downtown Lincoln, appears to have everything going for it heading into Hollywood’s big ticket winter season, when prestige pictures are positioned at the cineplex for box-office leverage and Academy consideration.

The timing of Schmidt’s release seems right. There’s the snob appeal that comes from boffo Cannes and New York Film Festival screenings of the film this past spring and summer. There’s the raves it received from Stephen Holden in the New York Times, Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times and a slew of other name critics for major media outlets. There’s also serious Oscar talk for Jack Nicholson’s celebrated turn as dour Omaha Everyman Warren Schmidt and for Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor’s sardonic take on middle American mores.

Then there’s the priceless mojo Nicholson’s mystique brings to the Nebraska-made project.

Of course, none of this guarantees Schmidt will do any business, especially in light of the fact Payne’s films have so far fared better in home-market release, where they have time to be discovered and appreciated, than in theaters. That his films appeal to a discriminating audience is logical given his wry, sagacious work, which is really in the realm of social commentary.

Film critic David Denby called Payne and Taylor “perhaps the only true social satirists now working in American movies.” But satire can be a hard pill for filmgoers to swallow. They may feel the sting hits too close to home or they may prefer something lighter to go with their concessions.

According to Dan Ladely, director of the Ross Media Arts Center, Schmidt is “a little bit of a departure from Alexander’s two previous films, which were known for their kind of biting satire. This film is a little bit more nostalgic.” While perhaps gentler, it is, like the others, a painfully honest and ironic examination of how good people lose their way and court despair even amidst the so-called Good Life.

In today’s spoon-fed movie culture, bleak is a hard sell unless accompanied by big action set pieces, and the only thing passing for action in Schmidt is Nicholson’s comic struggle atop a water bed. That scene closes a sequence in which the tight-assed, buttoned-down Schmidt is disgusted by the outrageous new family he  inherits via his daughter’s impending wedding.

The son-in-law’s mother, Roberta, is, as deliciously played by Kathy Bates, a brazen woman whom, Payne said, “is the type of person that will say anything to anyone.” At one point she tries seducing Schmidt in a hot tub by “telling him about how sexual she is and how she had her first orgasm in ballet class at age six,” said Payne, delighted with offending every propriety Schmidt holds dear. “Oh, it’s so fun to torture your characters.”

In this scene, as in much of the film, Nicholson’s performance rests more on his facial-physical reactions than words. Indeed, instead of explosions, verbal or otherwise, moviegoers get the implosion that Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt, a retired and widowed Woodmen of the World Life Insurance actuarial, undergoes.

Severed from the twin tethers of job and wife that defined him and held his orderly life together, he begins questioning everything about his existence, including the choices he made. He lets himself go.

The state of his disillusion is captured in the film’s ad campaign in which Schmidt appears as a shell-shocked, disheveled man shadowed by a dark cloud overhead in an otherwise clear blue sky.

In the throes of this mid-life crisis, he sets off, in a huge, unwieldy motor home that is an apt expression of his desperate inadequacy, on an existential road trip across Nebraska. His destination is Denver, where he heads ostensibly to heal his wounded relationship with his daughter and to save her, as he sees it, from the mistake she is about to make in marrying a frivolous man. Along the way, he conveys his troubles to an odd assortment of people he turns to or rails against in a kind of unfolding nervous breakdown. Unable to express his real feelings to those closest to him, he instead pours out his soul, in writing (and in voice-over), to an African orphan he sponsors, Ndugu, who can’t possibly understand his dilemma.

Regarding Nicholson’s portrayal of a man in crisis, Dan Ladely calls it “probably one of the most subdued performances he’s ever given and maybe one of his best. I’d be really surprised if he doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar. It’s a role where he really stretched himself, and I think probably a lot of the credit for that could be given to Alexander, because Alexander is a director who works well with actors.  He gets a lot out of them.”

Directing Nicholson allowed Payne to work with an actor he greatly admires and solidified his own status as a sought-after filmmaker. He found Nicholson to be a consummate professional and supreme artist.

“Nicholson does a lot of work on his character before shooting. Now, a lot of actors do that, but he REALLY does it. To the point where, as he describes it, he’s so in character and so relaxed that if he’s in the middle of a take and one of the movie lights falls or a train goes through or anything, he’ll react to it in character. He won’t break.” Payne said Nicholson doesn’t like a lot of rehearsal “because he believes in cinema as the meeting of the spontaneous and the moment. His attitude is, ‘What if something good happens and the camera wasn’t on?’”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

Kathy Bates in About Schmidt

Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt

Alexander Payne

From the Archives: Conquering Cannes – Alexander Payne’s triumphant Cannes Film Festival debut with “About Schmidt”

December 8, 2011 13 comments

Alexander Payne and Jack Nicholson at Cannes

 

 

From the Archives: Conquering Cannes, –Alexander Payne‘s triumphant Cannes Film Festival debut with “About Schmidt”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

Press accounts of Alexander Payne’s conquest of the Cannes Film Festival, where his new film About Schmidt created a buzz in the main competition, have largely focused on the film losing out on any awards or on the critical hosannas directed toward him and his star, Jack Nicholson.

But, as Payne noted during a recent Omaha visit, Cannes is a phantasmagorical orgy of the senses that cannot be reduced to mere prizes or plaudits. It is at once an adoring celebration of cinema, a crass commercial venue and a sophisticated cultural showcase. It is where the French bacchanal and bistro sensibilities converge in one grand gesture for that most democratic art form — the movies. Only a satirist like Payne can take the full, surreal measure of Cannes and expose it for all its profundity and profanity.

“I likened it to the body of super model Gisel (Bundchen),” he said, “which is extraordinarily beautiful and draped in the most elegant clothes on the planet, yet, also possesses…bile and all sorts of fetid humors inside of it. The festival is all of those things. I mean, one thing is the elegance — the red carpet, the beautiful tuxes and gowns, the fabulous beach parties and all that stuff. Another thing is the best filmmakers in the world showing work there.

“And still another side is the marketplace, which is like a bazaar, with people talking about how many videocassette units your film’s going to sell in Indonesia. It’s that kind of sordid marketplace that gives cinema its vitality. And you can’t have the cinema body without all of it. So, it’s really like a beautiful woman. It’s extraordinary to look at from the outside, but once you cut it and look inside, you could throw up.”

He said the confluence of glitz, glamour and garishness reminded him of Las Vegas. “It’s all kind of Vegasy. You see really elegant things and you see really tacky things, which I liked. I was in such a good mood, that I just loved everything.”

So, what do you do for an encore when your third feature film makes a splash at the mecca of world cinema? Well, if you’re riding a wave of success like Alexander Payne, your hot new film is next chosen to open the New York Film Festival (NYFF), September 27 through October 13, at Lincoln Center. “It’s an honor,” he said regarding Schmidt’s recently announced selection to open the Big Apple event. “That will keep the awareness of the film afloat. A lot of the New York press and international press and kind of the tastemaker-types will see it, I’m told.”

To be accepted as an opening night feature there, a film must be making its North American premiere, which forced New Line Cinema to decline invitations for Schmidt to play other major festivals on the continent, including those in Toronto and Telluride. No matter. The word-of-mouth momentum attached to Schmidt from its Cannes screenings is so strong that early industry patter is already positioning the film as an award-contending late fall release.

For the filmmaker, Cannes (May 15-26) marked a milestone in a still young career whose sky-is-the-limit ceiling has his work being compared to and his name being mentioned with the most celebrated cinema artists in the world today. An indication of his growing stature is the fact that during a recent Omaha visit he was shadowed by a New York Times reporter preparing a major profile on him. He fully recognizes, too, what Cannes means for his reputation, although the sardonic Payne points out the absurdity attending such puffery.

“It was a huge honor just to be there…and it’s a nice stepping-stone,” he said.. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s bigger than being nominated for an Oscar (he and writing partner Jim Taylor earned Best Adapted Screenplay nods for Election) because it’s international. It’s also really political and full of bullshit to some degree, but what isn’t? But given that reality of the world, it’s still about pure love of cinema, not Hollywood people slapping each other on the back and awarding movies like A Beautiful Mind. Ugh.”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne’s Journey in Film: A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.


Payne and Nicholson mugging for the Cannes paparazzi

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From the Archives: About “About Schmidt”: The shoot, editing, working with Jack and the film After the cutting room floor

December 6, 2011 14 comments

 

 

From the Archives: About “About Schmidt”: The shoot, editing, working with Jack and the film after the cutting room floor

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

Ever since Omaha native Alexander Payne wrapped shooting on About Schmidt, the hometown movie whose star, Jack Nicholson, caused a summer sensation, the filmmaker has been editing the New Line Cinema pic in obscurity back in Los Angeles.

That’s the way Hollywood works. During production, a movie is a glitzy traveling circus causing heads to turn wherever its caravan of trailers and trucks go and its parade of headliners pitch their tents to perform their magic. It’s the Greatest Show on Earth. Then, once the show disbands, the performers pack up and the circus slips silently out of town. Meanwhile, the ringmaster, a.k.a. the director, holes himself up in an editing suite out of sight to begin the long, unglamorous process of piecing the film together from all the high wire moments captured on celluloid to try and create a dramatically coherent whole.

Whether Schmidt is the breakout film that elevates Payne into the upper echelon of American directors remains to be seen, but it is clearly a project with the requisite star power, studio backing and artistic pedigree to position him into the big time.

An indication of the prestige with which New Line execs regard the movie is their anticipated submission of it to the Cannes Film Festival. Coming fast-on-the-heels of Election, Payne’s critically acclaimed 1999 film that earned he and writing partner Jim Taylor Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Schmidt will be closely watched by Hollywood insiders to see how the director has fared with a bona fide superstar and a mid-major budget at his disposal.

Regardless of what happens, Payne’s unrepentant iconoclasm will probably keep him on the fringe of major studio moviemaking, where he feels more secure anyway. As editing continues on Schmidt, slated for a September 2002 release, Payne is nearing his final cut. The film has already been test previewed on the coast and now it’s just a matter of trimming for time and impact.

While in town over Thanksgiving Payne discussed what kind of film is emerging, his approach to cutting, the shooting process, working with Nicholson and other matters during a conversation at a mid-town coffeehouse, Caffeine Dreams. He arrived fashionably late, out of breath and damp after running eight blocks in a steady drizzle from the brownstone apartment he keeps year-round.

He and editor Kevin Tent, who has cut all of Payne’s features, have been editing since June. They and a small staff work out of a converted house in back of a dentist’s office on Larchmont Street in Los Angeles. Payne and Tent work 10 -hour days, six days a week.

“As with any good creative relationship we have a basic shared sensibility,” Payne said of the collaboration, “but we’re not afraid to disagree, and there’s no ego involved in a disagreement. We’re like partners in the editing phase. He’ll urge me to let go of stuff and to be disciplined.”

By now, Payne has gone over individual takes, scenes and sequences hundreds of times, making successive cuts along the way. What has emerged is essentially the film he set out to make, only with different tempos and tones than he first imagined.

“Rhythmically, it’s come out a little slower than I would have wanted it,” he said. “I think it’s been something hard for me and for those I work with to accept that because of it’s subject matter and for whatever ineffable reason this is a very different film in pacing and feel than the very kinetic and funny Election, which got so much praise. It has, I think, the same sensibility and humor as Election but it’s slower and it lets the drama and emotion play more often than going for the laugh. I think it just called for that. With this one, we don’t go for the snappy edit.”

Even before Schmidt, Payne eschewed the kind of MTV-style of extreme cutting that can detract from story, mood, performance.

“Things are over-covered and over-edited these days for my tastes. There’s many exceptions, of course, but the norm seems to be to cut even though you don’t need to. And, in fact, not only don’t filmmakers need to, their cuts are disruptive to watching performance and getting the story. I like watching performance. My stuff is about getting performance. I like holding within a take as long as possible until you have to cut.”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY FORTHCOMING BOOK-

Alexander Payne’s Journey in Film: A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Available this fall as an ebook and in select bookstores.

 

 

 

Alexander Payne, ©photo Jeff Beiermann, The World-Herald

 

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From the Archives: Alexander Payne discusses “About Schmidt” starring Jack Nicholson, working with the iconic actor, past projects and future plans

December 6, 2011 14 comments

 

 

From the Archives: Alexander Payne discusses “About Schmidt” starring Jack Nicholson

Working with the iconic actor, past projects and future plans

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

Citizen Ruth announced him as someone to watch on the independent film scene. Election netted him and his writing partner, Jim Taylor, an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. The commercial success of Meet the Parents, whose script he and Taylor contributed to, led to another high profile hired gun job — a rewrite of Jurassic Park III.

Now, with About Schmidt, which began filming in his hometown of Omaha this week, filmmaker Alexander Payne finds himself playing in a $30 million sandbox in his own backyard and sharing the fun with one of the biggest movie stars ever  — Jack Nicholson. It is the culmination of Payne’s steady climb up the Hollywood film ladder the past seven years. It has been quite a journey already for this amiable writer-director with the sharp wit and the killer good looks. And the best still appears ahead of him.

During an exclusive interview he granted to the Omaha Weekly at La Buvette one recent Sunday afternoon in the Old Market (fresh from seeing off his girlfriend at the airport) Payne discussed the genesis and the theme of his new film, his collaboration with Jack, his take on being a rising young filmmaker, his insider views on working in the American movie industry and his past and future projects.

Although About Schmidt gets its title from the 1997 Louis Begley novel, it turns out Payne’s film is only partly inspired by the book and is actually more closely  adapted from an earlier, unproduced Payne screenplay called The Coward.

As he explained, “When I first got out of film school 10 years ago I wrote a script for Universal that had the exact same themes as About Schmidt…a guy retiring from a professional career and facing a crisis of alienation and emptiness. Universal didn’t want to make it. I was going to rewrite it and come back to Omaha and try and get it made, and then Jim Taylor and I stumbled on the idea of Citizen Ruth, so I pursued that and put this on the back burner. Then, about three years ago, producers Harry Gittes and Michael Besman sent me the Begley book, which has similar themes, although set in a very different milieu.”

Nicholson, who had read the book, was already interested. Payne first commissioned another writer to adapt the novel but that didn’t pan out. “I didn’t relate very much ultimately to the adaptation and then I turned to Jim Taylor and said, ‘You know that thing I was writing 10 years ago? How would you like to rewrite that with me under the guise of an adaptation for this thing.’” Taylor agreed, and the film About Schmidt was set in motion, with Gittes and Besman as producers.

Taking elements from both the earlier script and the Begley book, the character of Schmidt is now a a retired Woodmen of the World actuary struggling to come to terms with the death of his longtime wife, the uneasy gulf between he and his daughter, his dislike of his daughter’s fiance and the sense that everything he’s built his life around is somehow false. Full of regret and disillusionment, he sees that perhaps life has passed him by. To try and get his head straight, he embarks on a road trip across Nebraska that becomes a funny, existential journey of self-discovery. A kind of Five Easy Pieces meets a geriatric Easy Rider.

“What interested me originally was the idea of taking all of the man’s institutions away from him,” Payne said. “Career. Marriage. Daughter. It’s about him realizing his mistakes and not being able to do anything about them and also seeing his structures stripped away. It’s about suddenly learning that everything you believe is wrong — everything. It asks, ‘Who is a man? Who are we, really?’”

Typical of Payne, he doesn’t offer easy resolutions to the dilemmas and questions he poses, but instead uses these devices (as he used abortion politics and improper student-teacher activities in his first two films) as springboards to thoughtfully and hopefully, humorously explore issues. “I don’t even have the answers to that stuff, nor does the film really, at least ostensibly. But, oh, it’s a total comedy. I hope…you know?”

For Payne, who derives much of his aesthetic from the gutsy, electric cinema of the 1970s, having Nicholson, whose work dominated that decade, anchor the film is priceless. “One thing I like about him appearing in this film is that part of his voice in the ‘70s kind of captured alienation in a way. And this is very much using that icon of alienation, but not as someone who is by nature a rebel, but rather now someone who has played by the rules and is now questioning whether he should have. So, for me, it’s using that iconography of alienation, which is really cool.”

Beyond the cantankerous image he brings, Nicholson bears a larger-than-life mystique born of his dominant position in American cinema these past 30-odd years. “He has done a body of film work,” Payne said. “Certainly, his work in the ‘70s is as cohesive a body of work as any film director’s. He’s been lucky enough to have been offered and been smart enough to have chosen roles that allow him to express his voice as a human being and as an artist. He’s always been attracted to risky parts where he has to expose certain vulnerabilities.”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY FORTHCOMING BOOK-

Alexander Payne’s Journey in Film: A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Available this fall as an ebook and in select bookstores.

 

 

 

Alexander Payne directing About Schmidt

 

Star and director working out a moment in the retirement party scene

 

 

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