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Dundee Theater: Return engagement for the ages

October 28, 2017 2 comments

When the iconic Dundee Theater appeared in danger of being lost, perhaps to the scrap heap of history, along came a means to save it courtesy Susie Buffett. Her Sherwood Foundation purchased it and donated it to Omaha’s art cinema nonprofit Film Streams, which successfully raised millions of dollars for its renovation, led by Rachel Jacobson. Before the end of the year, the newly made-over movie and stage house that dates back to 1925 will reopen after being closed for more than four years and host the theatrical premiere of the latest major Hollywood motion picture by Omaha’s own Oscar-winning filmmaker, Alexander Payne, when his “Downsizing” plays there in December. This return engagement for the ages is a personal project for everyone involved. Buffett, Jacobson and Payne all grew up watching movies there. Payne’s first feature “Citizen Ruth” played the Dundee and now his seventh feature “Downsizing’ will play there, too. This time his movie will help usher in the theater’s new era. This is my November 2017 New Horizons cover story about the Dundee Theater – its past, present and future, The issue with my story should be hitting newstands and mailboxes this weekend and no later than October 31. The story includes comments about the Dundee from several people, including Payne, all of whom share a great love for the theater. On a personal note, I share that love, too. It’s where so many of us from here lost it at the movies. 

You can access a PDF of the New Horizons at:

https://www.facebook.com/newhorizonsnewspaper/

Here are some extra Alexander Payne reflections on the Dundee Theater:

“I spent a considerable amount of time in all of Omaha¹s movie theaters when I was growing up, from the old palaces downtown (Omaha, State, Cooper, and Orpheum) to the Admiral, Indian Hills, Fox, Six West and Cinema Center. But the one I probably spent the most time in was the Dundee, since I could walk to it, as soon as I could walk. I can¹t even say I was ‘proud’ of it – it was just always there.

“I saw ‘The Sound of Music’ there six times when I was 4 years old. It played there for many months, and you know how little kids like to see the same thing over and over again. My older brothers used to take me to the Saturday morning show for kids – usually monster movies, and they had giveaways.

“In the early ’70s, they showed revivals of W.C. Fields, Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy – those early comedies had something of a renaissance then. In more recent times, when the Morans had it, I used to love the midnight shows of ’70s movies. I caught ‘Midnight Cowboy’ there just a few years ago.”

On having “Citizen Ruth” play there:

Well, that was a big deal to me, to have my first feature play at my neighborhood movie house. I still have a framed photo of the marquee hanging in my house. It meant something to Laura Dern too – while shooting ‘Citizen Ruth,’ she, Jim Taylor and I had seen ‘The English Patient’ there and walked out halfway through.

On soon having “Downsizing” play there:

“I expect to have the same delight I had when ‘Citizen Ruth’ premiered there 20 years ago, but ever more-so because it now belongs to Film Streams. It will serve as a new anchor in the elegantly-blossoming Omaha and will exist as our neighborhood movie theater for the next 100 years.”

 

 

 

 

Dundee Theater: Return engagement for the ages

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the November 2017 issue of the New Horizons newspaper

The return this fall of the long dormant Dundee Theater under its new Film Streams brand is cause for celebration whether you’re a movie fanatic or not.

Once the theater closed in 2013 for renovations, then-owner Denny Moran assured the public the theater would reopen once renovations were completed. But the project kept getting delayed and by 2015 rumors spread he was looking to sell. The rumors were true. Moran fielded offers with no guarantee the theater would remain intact. Speculation grew. Neighbors and preservationists didn’t want an irreplaceable icon torn down for some generic new development.

With its future uncertain, many feared it might meet the same sad fate as the Cinerama palace Indian Hills that got razed for a parking lot in 2001.

Even before Moran called it quits, Rachel Jacobson and the board of her north downtown art cinema, Film Streams, eyed acquiring the theater as a second venue should the Dundee ever falter.

“We knew that as a nonprofit organization with a really strong board and donor base and with a good reputation in the community that we would be in the best position to take it on if it was threatened,” she said.

Once Jacobson learned the Dundee was indeed on the market and its fate in question, she contacted Moran and philanthropist Susie Buffett, a major Film Streams donor, and a deal was struck.

When news broke Buffett bought the Dundee and donated it to Film Streams, this two-reeler cliffhanger got a happy ending.

New life for theater gets thumbs-up 

From 2013 to now, it’s been the most closely followed local movie theater saga since the Indian Hills debacle. Why so much interest? In one fell swoop, Omaha’s regained a rare neighborhood theater that’s catered to audiences for nine decades and preserved an historic building that’s served as cultural touchstone, landmark and neighborhood fixture.

“The Dundee Theater has not only brought art and culture to central Omaha, it has also served to let people driving by know where they are for nearly a century,” said longtime Dundee resident and theater patron Thomas Gouttiere.

The 2016 announcement this historic building would be saved, undergo millions of dollars in renovations and have new life as a millennial art cinema center, was met with relief and gratitude by area movie fans and Dundee neighborhood residents.

That appreciation extended to $7.5 million raised in a public campaign to support the theater’s makeover.

“That kind of support does not grow on trees. It has to be earned the hard way – through vision, a lot of hard work and a high quality program. And Rachel Jacobson and her staff have them all.” said Film Streams booster Sam Walker.

“I don’t think we could have ever hoped for a better outcome for the theater than to have Film Streams renovate it and to be able to have the kind of programming they’re going to offer there,” said Vic Gutman. “It’s going to be a huge anchor for what’s already a very vibrant neighborhood,”

David Corbin and Josie Metal-Corbin shared similar sentiments in an email:

“It is nice to see the Dundee Theater returning to the neighborhood. We enjoyed walking to the theater together and seeing great films. Dundee may have lost our grocery store, hardware store and bookstore, but the renovation of the Dundee Theater helps the city and the neighborhood rebuild a sense of community.”

 

 

 

 

 

Dundee Theater found its niche

A sleek new marquee and main entrance pay homage to a rich film heritage while signaling a fresh new start.

“It’s honoring that whole history of moviegoing in our community that’s enriched so many lives,” said Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson.

“Film is arguably the most engaging and innovative art form of the 20th century. How wonderful that art form will be shown in Dundee well into the 21st century in such a charming, hospitable and attractive venue,” Gouttierre said.

Though it grew rough around the edges by the early 2000s and faced increasingly stiff competition from cineplexes and streaming, the Dundee outlasted all the other independent locally owned and operated single-screen theaters. The fact it was the last of Omaha’s still active neighborhood theaters added to its nostalgia and luster.

When the sell was complete, an auction of its old theater seats drew many buyers.

The theater was the main attraction but it once also connected to a video store and bar owned by Moran.

The Dundee set itself apart with its niche for projecting independent, foreign and midnight movies. For a long time, it had the metro art film market nearly to itself. Other than an occasional art film showing up at a chain, it’s only competition for that fare were university (UNO), museum (Joslyn) and film society (New Cinema Coop) series. They eventually disbanded. A short-lived Bellevue operation didn’t last.

“Before Film Streams, the Dundee was the only spot in town if you wanted to see the cool films coming out. As a high schooler, the midnight movies were a big thing to look forward to,” said Nik Fackler, among an impressive group of Dundee devotees who became filmmakers.

“Growing up in the neighborhood, Dundee Theater was always a haven for independent cinema as well as an Omaha landmark,” Quinn Corbin said. “The midnight movies were a wonderful feature of the nightlife scene and the video store provided the movie posters with which I plastered my childhood walls.”

 

 

Changing times, moving on, handing it off

Later, two new players arrived on the scene: Film Streams in 2007 and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in 2015. In between, the quirky Dundee held on. Then, after 88 years of nearly continuous operation, it closed for renovations that proved too much for Denny Moran and wife Janet. They owned other theater properties as well. The retirement age couple wanted out and sought and found a buyer for it and contiguous properties.

“I didn’t want to run anything anymore,” Moran said. “I’m tired, I don’t want anything. The kids are grown now. Jan and I just want to enjoy ourselves and travel a little bit.”

The Dundee holds many memories for the Morans.  While it was their baby, it was also a burden. Denny Moran is just glad it’s in good hands so it can generate memories for new generations of moviegoers.

“I’m glad its being saved,” he said. “It came down to two other buyers and one other buyer wanted to save it, too. We came close to selling it to them but the wife had little kids and Jan said, ‘I don’t want it to ruin her life like it did mine down there with all the time being spent on theater stuff while the kids are in day care.’ So we went with Susie’s offer. This other couple would have taken care of it, too, but it’s not many times when a Buffett calls.

She’s got the money to put in it for the new infrastructure and to secure its future.”

Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture in collaboration with Lund Ross Construction have kept the old world charm while modernizing it, too. They uncluttered the roofline. They reconfigured the main entrance off Dodge Street on the south side to a new promenade on the north. They added a patio. They folded in a Kitchen Table cafe that leads right into an expanded theater lobby with its original terrazzo floor intact. They added a conference room, a bookstore and a micro auditorium, thus giving Dundee a second screen for the first time.

“It is going to be a neighborhood theater,” Jacobson said, “but we see the audience for the cinema being the entire community. I like to think of it as Omaha’s neighborhood cinema. It still has that feel, that history.”

“It’ll be more than just a movie theater,” Vic Gutman said. “It’s going to be a place for great conversations, for learning about film, being exposed to films you wouldn’t normally see and then having Kitchen Table there. So, I see it as a true social and educational space. And I love the fact that I can walk to it from my home.”

“The purpose of it is to be a real true community space,” Jacobson confirmed. “There are multiple spots throughout that facilitate people coming together and talking either before a film or after a film. It has that design intention of this is what a neighborhood theater can be in the 21st century. We tried to be really thoughtful about that by incorporating the bookstore, by having the micro cinema, which also has the potential to do not only ticketed shows but hosting new adult education ‘Courses’ program there,.

“Kitchen Table will give people another reason to go there, to hang out, without even going to see a movie, and so that creates all these opportunities for interaction, and that’s a big part of what we’re about.

We’re trying to create learning about film by osmosis.”

Jacobson said great care was taken balancing renovation versus restoration “to make what we know will be a sustainable place versus what we maintain for people’s memories and the history of the Dundee.”

Progress on the transformed theater, which sat idle four years, has been closely watched

None of this might have happened if Moran hadn’t hung in there for 30-plus years and waited for the right offer. The theater could easily have been history by now.

“I want to give a shout-out to Denny Moran, who kept it going for so long,” Gutman said. “I don’t think it was a money-maker for him. I think it was a labor of love and a commitment to the neighborhood. It could have been torn down or repurposed for something different a long time ago and he kept that property intact.

“So I think we owe him a thank you for doing that.”

 


Memories

Sentiments about the theater run deep. It’s meant so much to so many.

It’s not hard to imagine a pair of Hollywood legends who grew up in Dundee, the late Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, may have frequented the theater. Though it was still a stage venue when he left Omaha to pursue his acting dreams, he twice did extended play runs here and it’s nice to think he might have caught a picture show or two at Dundee during his down time.

Future late night TV king Johnny Carson may have indulged in some movies at the Dundee when he was starting out at WOW in Omaha.

Other celebs who’ve known it as their neighborhood theater include billionaire investment guru Warren Buffett. His daughter Susie Buffett, who’s also seen her share of pictures there, is responsible for reactivating the theater through her Sherwood Foundation.

Some fans who cut their cinema teeth there have gone on to be feature filmmakers, including Dan Mirvish (Omaha, the Movie) and Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still).

Mirvish grew up near the theater. Besides the Dundee being a neighborhood staple, he echoes others in saying how supportive Moran was of the then-nascent local cinema community in letting emerging filmmakers like himself show their work there.

“I. of course, remember going to movies at the Dundee growing up in the neighborhood and then later renting tapes at the video-store,” Mirvish said. “But my most distinct memory is when we were shooting Omaha, the Movie in fall of 1993. We screened some of our dailies there. We were shooting 35mm film and the footage had to be sent to a lab in L.A. for processing and sent back to Omaha for us to watch. The Dundee was the best place to watch the footage once a week. Okay, so instead of ‘dailies.’ they were really ‘weeklies.

“Denny was great about letting us in there. The whole cast and crew came. It was a huge relief to see our footage.”

A few years earlier Moran set a precedent working with filmmakers when he allowed Sean Penn to screen dailies of the actor’s directorial debut, The Indian Runner (1991), which shot in and around Plattsmouth.

When local filmmaker Dana Altman, who produced Omaha, the Movie, needed a space to premiere his locally-made feature directorial debut, The Private Public, Moran agreed to play it at the theater. Altman protege Nik Fackler was a teenager making short films then with friend Tony Bonacci and the aspiring filmmakers got their shorts screened the same night. Fackler, who went on direct Oscar-winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, recalls the opportunity fondly.

“Like total nerds, we made tickets in photoshop and sent them out to our friends and family, we rented suits and a limo, got dates. We were like, ‘Here’s our one chance we could probably get dates.’ But, yeah, we got our short films shown at Dundee.”

An earlier “graduate” of the Dundee, the late Gail Levin, went on to make acclaimed documentaries about film (Making the Misfits, James Dean: Sense Memory). She remembered seeing Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 as a teenager and what an impression that film and others by international artists made on her.

Jacobson appreciates the memories the Dundee holds for so many because it does for her, too. She said, “I grew up nearby, so we went to Dundee plenty. My dad tells the story that my very first movie was at Dundee. A 31-year old dad took his 18-month old daughter to The Empire Strikes Back, He said whenever Darth Vader came on, he would take me into the lobby. So, my first memory is not my own, it’s more my dad’s,” she said.

“In high school, I remember seeing Citizen Ruth there, which was huge, and Clerks – that was definitely a big one. I remember going to a full house and me and my girlfriends being the only girls opening night of Showgirls. We were just so interested because it had so much press and we really wanted to check it out.”

Memories just like these from movie lovers have been shared with Jacobson and her Film Streams staff ever since the nonprofit took over the Dundee.

 

 

Silver screen stirrings 

Two cinephiles who became famous filmmakers. Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Crossing Delancey) and Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, The Descendants, Nebraska), go way back with the Dundee.

Payne’s childhood home was within a couple blocks of the theater. It’s where he fell in love with 1970s cinema. Whenever back home from college in the ’80s, he’d return to whet his cinema appetite at the Dundee. Even after finding success with his filmmaking career in the ’90s and beyond, winning two Academy Awards and nominated for several others, he made the Dundee his go-to Omaha sanctuary for feeding his celluloid hunger.

Moran said, “Alexander would come in. His mom would come to movies here all the time, They’re both big Dundee fans .” Moran has a handwritten note by Payne thanking him for all he did in keeping the theater going.

In movie-movie fashion, Payne shot much of his first three feature films in Omaha, including scenes in and around various Dundee haunts, and his debut film Citizen Ruth starring Laura Dern played at the theatre.

“I’ve got a Citizen Ruth poster signed by Laura Dern

‘to my friends at the Dundee Theatre’ that I left in there for Film Streams,” said Moran, who collected other film memorabilia signed by visiting film artists.

“I had them framed in glass. It’s part of the theater and so I left it with the theater.”

Payne’s latest film Downsizing will make its national premiere at the new Dundee on December 22.

Given his personal history with the Dundee, he’s felt a sense of proprietorship in it. As a Film Streams board member, that ownership’s no longer symbolic but real.

“The reopening of the Dundee Theater is the realization of a dream – a dream we’ve had for a long time, first of all for preserving it in any form. That in the current incarnation of Omaha it belong to Film Streams is perfect. When the Morans closed the theater a few years ago, my hope was that if it was going to reopen that it become part of Film Streams, and now the dream is a reality and I couldn’t be more excited.”

His warm feelings run for its deep because as a second home the Dundee helped form his cinema sensibilities.

“I spent a huge amount of time in that theater watching movies.”

Payne also has a soft spot for vintage theaters. He’s supported the restored Midwest Theater in Scottsbluff and the World Theatre in Kearney. He speaks longingly of the time when neighborhood theaters dotted the urban landscape and he’s enthused about efforts to preserve and revive those theaters.

He said the Dundee, which once sat 470 people, stood out from some other cinemas.

“Few of these neighborhood theaters were as large as the Dundee. The Dundee had a more regal presence, so I’m extra glad it has survived.”

A generation before he cultivated his cinema passion there, Joan Micklin Silver attended movies at the Dundee. Her family, who owned Micklin Lumber, lived nearby and she saw standard post-World War II Hollywood fare growing up in the 1940s before moving East and becoming enamored with world cinema. By contrast, a decade later Gail Levin got turned onto world cinema at the Dundee. The difference in what the women saw at the Omaha theater is explained by the fact that during various eras and ownership regimes, it played very different slates of films.

Rich history

The Dundee’s shown motion pictures since the early 1930s, but it opened years before that, in 1925, as a vaudeville house. Harry Houdini once performed his escape artist act there. The locally owned Goldberg Circuit converted it from stage to film just as talking pictures became all the rage as a cheap escape from the hardships of the Great Depression.

The noted Omaha father-son architect team of John and Alan McDonald designed the historical revivalist venue that was Omaha’s then-westernmost theater. It opened to much fanfare in the Roaring Twenties. An ad touted it as a modern community asset to be proud of:

“The opening of the new Dundee Theater at 50th and Dodge is another example of the growth and development of this enterprising community. Only a personal visit can possibly give you an idea of the beauty of the lobby and interior of this beautiful showplace. All the latest developments in theater construction have been included in the building of the Dundee. All the new ideas for the comfort and entertainment of patrons will be found even in a greater extent than other houses … built just a few years ago.”

The ad went on to play up the beauty and comfort angle, referring to the “steel and concrete fireproof construction, finest ventilation and extra large upholstered seats with plenty of aisle space.”

The promotion continued: “Our policy is to bring to this theater the best pictures obtainable anywhere, and to present them as finely as possible.”

Finally, the ad played off the names of its McDonald designers. The elder John earlier designed the George A. Joslyn home, now known as Joslyn Castle, and First Unitarian Church of Omaha. The McDonalds later designed Joslyn Art Museum.

During the 1950s the Dundee was still part of the circuit owned by Ralph and Hermine Goldberg, who operated it as a first-run commercial house screening Hollywood studio releases. By 1958, Ralph Goldberg was dead and his widow sold the Dundee and State Theaters to the Cooper Foundation in Lincoln, Neb. That organization acquired the Dundee for its Cooper Theaters chain that later included the Indian Hills. Under Cooper management, the Dundee switched to showing art films from the U.S. and abroad.

“We have noted around the country a growing interest in the motion picture as an art form,” a Cooper rep told the Omaha World-Herald. “We hope to encourage this.”

Cashiers de Cinema critics in France led the film as art movement. Some became leading filmmakers (Jean Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut) themselves in the French New Wave. Great centers of international cinema and directors emerged in Italy (Federico Fellini, Luciano Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Leone), Sweden (Ingmar Bergman), Great Britain (Tony Richardson, Joseph Losey), (Mexico-Spain (Luis Bunuel), Japan (Akira Kurosawa), India (Satyajit Ray) and behind the Iron Curtain – Roman Polanski in Poland and Milos Forman in Czechoslovakia.

Dundee’s artsy foray was interrupted when it exclusively booked The Sound of Music and ended up playing the mega-musical hit for more than two years on its solo-screen. The 20th Century Fox picture from Robert Wise began a reserved-seat, roadshow run in April 1965. In August 1966, Cooper Theaters reported that in its 69th week the film set records for the longest run and highest gross in Omaha. The previous records were held by South Pacific at the Cooper Theatre (64 weeks), grossing $430,000. Sound of Music passed those marks and added to them the next 49 weeks for a total of 118 weeks. It was the second longest run in the world, exceeded only in London, England, according to Art Thompson with the Cooper Foundation.

“The story around the Cooper Foundation was that a notation scribbled on the wall of the projection booth recorded the record run of The Sound of Music,” Thompson said.

The Omaha theater went on to host other long runs in its Cooper era. Funny Girl (1968) ran 55 weeks and Hello Dolly (1969) played 36 weeks.

Under Moran’s ownership, the Dundee enjoyed overwhelming receptions to very different kinds of movies. The South African comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy and the spare American drama Tender Mercies, featuring Robert Duvall in a Best Actor Oscar performance, each played several months.

After Sound of Music’s exceptional showing, the art emphasis resumed. When business waned, the theater was purchased by Omahans Edward Cohen and David Frank. They tried a family-friendly slate but eventually settled for second-run features. Nothing worked.

By the early 1980s, the Dundee struggled turning a dollar. It was already among the last single-screen commercial neighborhood theaters still in operation here. Virtually all the rest – in Benson, North Omaha, South Omaha – were closed and repurposed. All the downtown movie palaces were defunct or converted for new uses. Theaters moved west with the suburbs and independent locally owned and operated single-screen movie houses gave way to chains and multiplexes.

Cop who narrowly escaped death turned theater mogul

Then-Omaha police officer Denny Moran bought the Dundee in 1980 as a real estate investment. He was already buying and flipping houses in the area. His interest was the prime property the Dundee occupied, not the movie business. He already owned two adjacent lots and wanted to tie up all the land on that half-block. He initially planned to only keep the theater running until he found a national franchise, perhaps McDonald’s, to build on the site. But then a funny thing happened: He fell in love with it and the movie exhibition business.

Though Moran, an Omaha native, was a casual movie fan and frequented many local theaters growing up, he was a most unlikely candidate to carry on the Dundee’s legacy. For starters, he was not a film buff and he had zero prior experience in the film exhibition game.

“I didn’t know diddly squat about the movie business,” he told a reporter in 2012.

Besides, he was lucky to even be alive. A decade before buying the theater, he was a young cop in town when he intersected with a tragic incident that remains one of the darkest days in local law enforcement history.

On August 17, 1970, an anonymous 911 call of a woman being assaulted in a house at 2867 Ohio Street resulted in several police officers being dispatched. Moran and partner Larry Minard Sr. were first on the scene. They found two vacant houses. Minard and other officers entered the back of the 2867 dwelling while Moran investigated the other. Moran made his way outside when a tremendous explosion went off in the first house. Though protected by a tree, the concussive force sent him flying. Minard, a husband and father of five, died and several officers suffered injuries.

The call had been a ruse to lure the cops into a trap and when Minard opened the front door to exit the house a powerful homemade bomb detonated.

Two local Black Panthers were arrested, charged and convicted of the crime. They denied any involvement and never changed their stories. Controversy arose when documents revealed the federal government engaged in illegal measures to discredit and disrupt the Panthers. Many inconsistencies and irregularities were found in the prosecution of the suspects. Attempts to have the two men pardoned or their convictions overturned failed. One recently died in prison.

Asked about the incident, Moran confirmed the facts of that fateful night, his eyes watering at the memory of the trauma still with him. He became an undercover narcotics officer and a bodyguard-driver for the mayor.

Once he had the Dundee and celluloid got in his blood, he wanted to make it work as a going concern again.

“I said, ‘We’ve got to figure this out, this ain’t going to go.”

He finally hit upon returning to its recent past but this time going all in in making it an art cinema. The timing was right because the ’80s saw the end of the New Hollywood and the emergence of the Independent or Indie craze. Smart early bookings helped reestablish Dundee as a must-see cinema venue:

The Elephant Man

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Das Boot

Fitzcarraldo

Koyaanisqatsi

Tender Mercies

Local Hero

Then, Moran scored a real coup by getting Universal Studios’ rerelease of five classic Alfred Hitchcock films long unavailable and unseen:

Rear Window

Vertigo

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Rope

The Trouble with Harry

By the mid-’80s on, the Dundee was THE place to catch the latest Woody Allen film. By the ’90s. it was where you went to see works by breakout new talents such as Terry Gilliam (Brazil), the Coen Brothers (Miller’s Crossing), Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) and Omaha’s own Alexander Payne.

The midnight movie screenings with their party-like atmosphere of fans reciting lines aloud, yelling and throwing popcorn, became a signature thing. The sound system was another attraction point.

“I was always a big sound guy,” Moran said. “We had the best sound of any theater in the area. It was clean sound, not loud sound. I was the first one in town with Dolby digital. It was expensive.”

Once, its high fidelity sound secured a coveted picture.

“We were talking about playing U2: Rattle and Hum and I had a guy come in from Paramount Pictures

because he wanted to check out the theater before he would give it to us. We screened Colors for him – the picture where Robert Duvall and Sean Penn play cops.

The guy’s sitting there when the digital sound comes in during an outdoor night scene and he starts complaining about ‘the freaking crickets chirping in back of the screen’ and I said, ‘They’re in the soundtrack.’ He goes, ‘What?’ ‘It’s in the soundtrack.’ He says, ‘You got the movie.’ After we started playing that movie, a local radio station said, ‘You can go see the movie, but if you want to hear that movie, go to the Dundee Theatre.”

Stephanie Kurtzuba, a busy film-TV actress (The Wolf of Wall Street) from Omaha, recalled seeing the movie “with a big group of friends and being enthralled by the experience.” “I think that was more about Bono than the theater,” she added, “but I sure was grateful Omaha had a movie house that showed things like concert films.”

 

Passing the torch

Dundee continued enjoying its art niche but once Film Streams came on the scene and on-demand services like Netflix, Hulu and Red Box appeared, margins got smaller. It became more grind-house than art house.

Moran said he and Film Streams enjoyed a friendly relationship.

“We always had a good rapport. Even when I was open here, I’d help them out with stuff, like spare parts when their projector broke down.”

“We had a pretty complementary relationship,” Rachel

Jacobson said. “It felt more collaborative than competitive.”

But industry changes took the fun out of running a theater for Moran. He enjoyed it when it was a more personal business. He learned the ropes from exhibition  veterans he met at theater owner conventions. He got to know distribution reps, too. But as small companies gave way to conglomerates, it became more corporate.

Moran held on as long as he could.

“We planned on keeping it,” he said.

But aft it got to be too much, he found the best deal for himself, the theater and the community.

“There’s a lot of people we need to thank for what’s happening there. Denny Moran. The Sherwood Foundation, which does so much for this city. Rachel (Jacobson) and her vision for Film Streams. All the donors,” Vic Gutman said. “We are fortunate to have so many visionaries and philanthropists who are helping to shape those visions and make them a reality.”

The Dundee’s back to projecting our collective dreams and nightmares, whimsies and follies, on the big screen.

Film buffs Sam and Mary Ann Walker can’t wait.

“Mary Ann and I practically live at Film Streams. And we live only a block and a half away from their new Dundee venue,” Sam Walker said. “I have had the thrill of seeing all my favorites from my college years, and finally a chance to see the great international films I never saw.”

Jacobson appreciates what good stewards the Morans were in keeping the theater viable for so long. She said she and her staff realize the “huge responsibility” Film Streams is taking on, but the fit seems so right.

“It’s seen so much film history and in that respect it’s so intricately tied to our mission and what we’re about. In one sense, it’s a big leap for us, and in another sense    something about it feels natural-next-step about it, too.”

She reassures people the theater will “continue to be the Dundee” but for a new age.

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In Their Own Words – The Greatest Generation on World War II


Omaha Magazine remembers World War II in its May-June 2017 issue. This is the second of two stories I wrote for that issue that I’m posting on my social media. Omahans Shawn Schmidt and Jill Anderson are putting aside their divergent political beliefs to collaborate on a documentary, “48 Stars,” that tells personal stories of World War II through the words and eyes of veterans and others who lived through that epoch. 

 

In Their Own Words

The Greatest Generation on World War II

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com

Members of the Greatest Generation tell their own stories in a locally produced documentary, 48 Stars. The in-progress film features personal testimonies from World War II veterans.

War buff Shawn Schmidt conceived the project. His co-director is Jill Anderson. The Omaha filmmakers are unlikely collaborators. He’s a holistic health care provider and former race car owner-driver. She’s a singer-actress. He’s unabashedly patriotic. She’s not. But they’re both committed to telling authentic stories of resilience.

They met while she was a patient under his care. After sharing CDs of her Celtic music, he was taken by her rendition of “Fare Thee Well.”

“It was not just the music, but Jill’s voice. That song fits everything this film has to say about that generation,” Schmidt says. “They’re disappearing, and the interviews we did are like their final swan song. It gave them a final chance to have their say about their country, their life, where America is today, where America is going.”

Originally hired as music director, Anderson’s role expanded. Filmmaker Aaron Zavitz joined the team as editor and creative consultant.

Forty-plus interviews were captured nationwide, mostly with veterans ranging across different military branches and racial-ethnic backgrounds. Some saw combat. Some didn’t. Civilians were also interviewed about their contributions and sacrifices, including women who lost spouses in the war. Even stories of conscientious objectors were cultivated. Subjects shared stories not only of the war, but of surviving the Great Depression that preceded World War II.

With principal photography completed, editing the many hours of footage is underway. The filmmakers are still seeking funding to finish the post-production process.

The film’s title refers to the number of stars—representing states—displayed on the American flag during World War II. Each interviewee is framed with or near a particular 48-starred flag that inspired the project. Schmidt rescued it from a junk store. On a visit to Pearl Harbor’s war memorials, he had the flag raised on the USS Arizona and USS Missouri.

He grew up respecting veterans like his late father, Richard W. Schmidt—a Navy Seabee in the Pacific theater. His father died without telling his story for posterity.

“It dawned on me I could interview other veterans and have them hold this flag, almost like a testimonial to what this piece of fabric is about,” Schmidt says.

He added that combat veterans’ accounts of warfare teem with emotion.

“There’s a distinct difference in energy, pain, and identification with their country and flag from the ones who did not have to kill. The ones who did kill are still hurting, and they’ll hurt till the day they die,” he says.

Whatever their job during the war, Anderson says, “There were discoveries with every new person we talked to. It’s humbling that people trust you with some of their most soulful experiences and memories.”

Schmidt says, “They opened up with stories sometimes they’d never shared with their family. I think, for a lot of them, it’s a catharsis.”

There are tales of love and loss, heroism and hate, improbable meetings, close calls, intersections with infamy, history, and fate.

Not all the attitudes expressed are sunny. Some folks became anti-war activists. Others returned home to endure Jim Crow bigotry.

Anderson says the film intentionally depoliticizes the flag: “It can’t be about God and country or honoring glory because that doesn’t match with the testimony.”

Schmidt feels an urgency to finish the project. “The generation that has the most to teach us is leaving,” he says.

He won’t rush it though.

“It’s a serious responsibility,” Schmidt says. “[The film] needs to honor these individuals who gave their time, and it’ll be done when it’s exactly right.”

Visit 48stars.org for more information.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition of Sixty-Plus, a periodical within Omaha Magazine.

 

The Tail-Gunner’s Grandson Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film


Omaha Magazine remembers World War II in its May-June 2017 issue. This is one of two stories I wrote for that issue. It tells the story of the late Wendell Fetters through the eyes of his grandson, Omaha filmmaker Ben Drickey, who accompanied his grandfather on a trip to Europe visiting the sites of some intense and bittersweet wartime experiences. The emotional trip gave Drickey, who was there to document it all, a new path for this life’s work. His footage of that experience brought things full circle for his grandfather and gave his family the precious gift of an intimate look back into the past.

 

 

The Tail-Gunner’s Grandson

Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com

Filmmaker Ben Drickey’s lifelong fascination with history turned personal in 2001. That’s when he documented his grandfather’s return to Germany, revisiting the sites where the U.S. Army Air Corps serviceman crashed and was captured during World War II.

Drickey’s video of the emotional trip has only been seen by family, but the project inspired him to make video production his career after years working with still photography and politics. Today, he creates documentaries and branded film content through his studio, Torchwerks.

Growing up, Drickey was spellbound by family patriarch Wendell Fetters’ stories of being a tail-gunner on a B-26 Marauder flying with the 9th Air Force, 391st bomb group.

On an ill-fated daylight bombing run during the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 23, 1944, his plane crossed the English Channel and delivered its payload over the Ahrweiler bridge. Enemy artillery and fighter flak killed the left engine, igniting a fire, but the crew bailed out before the plane went down.

Fetters’ chute pitched him into a tree. The impact broke an ankle, but he cut himself down. Alone, injured, and afraid, the 20-year-old Iowa native took a sun reading and hobbled west behind enemy lines in sub-zero cold and snow. Two days later, militia captured him. A family housed him over Christmas, and he spent the next four months in a POW camp before the war in Europe ended. After a stay-over in England, he came home to resume his life. He worked, married, and raised a family.

Ben Drickey of Torchwerks

Fast forward nearly six decades. Drickey was attending a family reunion, where he learned of his grandfather’s plans for returning to Germany to visit the plane’s crash site. German amateur historian Hermann Josef Stolz found its debris and used a piece stamped with identifying information to trace the plane’s manufacturer, bomber group, and crew. He invited Fetters to come pick through remnants.

“The rest of us were totally intrigued and we quickly realized this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Drickey, who, along with his mother, two aunts, and an uncle, joined his grandparents on the summer 2001 trip. Drickey went as a video documentarian even though he was strictly working as a still photographer at the time.

“I had no formal experience creating a moving image. I borrowed a friend’s camera and pirated a copy of Final Cut Pro. But I just knew I had to go do it,” he says.

With Stolz as guide, the Americans traveled to the site, where a cross memorializes the remains of the pilot, Jack Haynes, who died in the crash.

Even all this time later, Drickey says, “pieces of fiberglass, aluminum, and rubber” are strewn about. “I was picking up things to take home.” He displays one piece on his desk in the Mastercraft Building.

He says his “ecstatic” grandfather “was like a little kid being reunited with something from his past.”

The Americans next went to the nearby two-story wood and stucco farmhouse of Josef Hayer, the man who—at age 14—first arrived on the scene of the 1944 crash. Hayer had salvaged things from the smoldering debris. Among his finds was a tailpiece with a yellow triangle on a canvas peak.

“It was the first time on our trip where my grandfather was presented with the past in such a dramatic way,” Drickey says. “You could see on his face the memories just flooding back.”

Fetters then wanted to return to Eisenschmitt, the village his captors paraded him through to the home he was billeted in. He recalled a tannenbaum atop a table and framed photos of two German Army conscripts hanging on a wall. He was fed dinner and slept in the barn, then he was taken to the rail depot for transport to the POW camp.

After nearly giving up the search for the home all those years later, Fetters noticed a familiar landmark. Sure enough, just beyond the hill sat the house. Through translation, the elderly woman occupant said she remembered that war-torn Christmas when an American airman was brought to the house. She was 9 years old then. She recognized Fetters standing before her 56 years later.

She explained that the uniformed men in the photos were her brothers, and the pictures still hung in the same spot. She invited Fetters to see for himself. He refused.

“My grandfather said, ‘No, no, no, let’s go,’” Drickey says. “He went to the car and wouldn’t come out. He was visibly shaken. We didn’t know what to do, but we were standing there in awe reliving this history with him.”

As the visitors drove off, the woman hurried behind clutching oranges as a gesture of friendship. She handed them to Fetters. A family meeting ensued. Fetters held firm. Drickey explained he’d come too far not to go back, so he did.

“In my business, I would rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission most of the time,” Drickey says.

He filmed inside the house and interviewed the woman, one of many interviews he conducted for the project.

The experience gave him a career path and archived a precious family legacy.

“I’m so glad I did it. It was such a learning experience for me about myself, my eye, and my ability to capture an image,” he says.

“So many things happened on this trip,” and Drickey says he can only appreciate them all by re-watching the footage.

His grandfather lived to see the video. “He thanked me for taking the time to do it,” Drickey says. “He was very pleased it will live on past him.”

Drickey has gone on to produce slick corporate videos, commercials, and short films. He also worked as cinematographer on the feature film It Snows All the Time, but nothing compares to that first personal project.

His grandfather—the airman who also served in the Korean War—passed away July 31, 2015.

Visit torchwerks.com for more information.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition Sixty-Plus, a publication within Omaha Magazine.

Mural Man – Artist Mike Giron Captures the Heart of South Omaha


Murals are the great mash-up the art world. Their size and themes lend themselves to big, bold visions landing somewhere between paintings, posters and frozen film images characterized by dynamic swirls of figures, places, events and symobls. Mike Giron is one of Omaha’s busiest muralists and he’s the subject of an Omaha Magazine  (http://omahamagazine.comprofile I wrote that appears in the May-June 2017 issue. Giron’s work for the ongoing South Omaha Mural Project has taken him and his partner artists deep inside that district and its ethnic neighborhoods. But he does more than murals. He makes studio art and he also teaches art at Metropolitan Community College. And he helped design the exhibition spaces for the recently opened South Omaha Museum. 

 

 

Mural Man

Artist Mike Giron Captures the Heart of South Omaha

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine  (http://omahamagazine.com

Visual artist Mike Giron’s creative life spans studio practice, teaching, and working with A Midsummer’s Mural and South Omaha Mural Project teams.

“In my studio work, I have no idea what’s going to happen—I just go. I’m not forcing or insisting on anything. The work creates itself in some crazy way,” Giron says. “When it comes to murals, it’s a lot more deliberate. You have to propose a design before you begin. So, I live in these two different worlds, and I think it’s keeping me balanced.”

The New Orleans native came to Omaha in the early 1990s by way of Colorado, where he met his ex-wife, an Omaha native. After her father died, the couple moved here with the intent of restoring her family home, selling it, and returning to Colorado. But Omaha proved a good place to raise their two children, so they stayed.

Giron, 45, taught art at Bellevue University and ran the campus gallery. Today, he’s a Metropolitan Community College adjunct instructor.

Without knowing it, he prepared to be a muralist through his experience painting Mardi Gras floats in New Orleans. Walls are not so different from float structures—they’re big and imperfect. And just as he used cut-out panels on floats, he does the same with murals.

“The Polish mural is the clearest example,” he says. “There was a downspout, a chimney, and a fence around an air conditioning unit, and we used cut-outs to hide those things. It gave a 3D pop-up look effect. It also breaks the frame to extend beyond the box of the building.”

Patience is a virtue for a muralist.

“Murals take a long time—maybe two months,” he says. “Unless you really practice your Zen, you’ve got to make it enjoyable to keep on doing it every day.”

The social contract of public art and the collaborative nature of murals means you’d better like people. He does. You’d better like working big, too.

“Once you experience large-scale production, it’s hard to go back to small paintings,” he says. “Although I still consider myself a studio painter, there’s also something about doing large work. You can’t help but see a wall and go, ‘Oh, that would be perfect for this statement.’ And then the physicality of the work feels good. You’re carrying stuff all the time; you’re up and down ladders. The brush strokes are not just a flick of the wrist.”

But Giron says the real reason he and his fellow muralists do it is because “we’re channeling the voices of people who can’t do this, and we take pride in that.” He says, “We feel good about delivering something that people feel does express them.”

The process for the South Omaha murals involves deep community immersion.

“The more you immerse and personally connect with the people on a street level, the more you’re going to be trusted by that community, and the more they’ll open up and allow you in,” he says.

The South O murals feature diverse looks.

“Some fall into naturalism, and others go into some other place,” he says, “That’s interesting to me because it’s not the same. Rather than a signature style, I would prefer they look like they were done by different people.”

They are. Giron works with Richard Harrison, Rebecca Van Orman, and Hugo Zamorano. Neighbors contribute stories and ideas at community meetings. Residents and students participate in paint days and attend unveiling celebrations.

The works are an extension of the new South Omaha Museum, whose director, historian Gary Kastrick, conceived the murals project. Giron serves on the museum board. He enjoys digging through Kastrick’s artifact collection and preparing exhibits, including a replica of an Omaha Stockyards pen.

The idea is for the museum, the murals, and Kastrick’s history tours to spark a South O renaissance keying off the district’s rich heritage and culture. Muralists like Giron share a bigger goal to “make Omaha a destination for public art.” He says murals are a great way to enhance the city’s visual aesthetic and to engage the community. Besides, he says, murals “demonstrate to the public there is an arts community here” in a visible way galleries cannot.

Giron is impressed by the Omaha arts explosion. “There’s so much going on and so many young artists hitting the scene making a big impact,” he says.

Meanwhile, he continues to create studio art. His series On the Brighter Side of Post-Apocalyptic Minimalism employed fire-singed materials to make their satirical marks.

“With the process-oriented stuff I’m doing now, there’s a huge amount of variety, even though I’m just using grids,” he says, explaining that his personal artworks have moved away from rules of perspective and representational dictates of realism.

“When you don’t use any of that, all you have is the process and the visual reality of things—line, shape, value, color, texture, and space,” he says. “When you start playing in that area, where there’s no limits in terms of defining what things should be or should look like, you find it’s actually inexhaustible.”

He intends to follow “the course of my curiosity,” adding, “If you are really free as an artist, then you just follow whatever’s interesting to you.”

New murals keep beckoning, though. “I get pulled into all this work. You set yourself up for a fall, but the fall is where all the good stuff happens,” he says.

Having completed Czech, Lithuanian, Polish, Mexican, Metropolitan Community College, and Magic City murals for the South O project, Giron and company are now working on a Croatian mural. Irish, Italian, African-American, and Stockyards murals are still to come.

Visit amidsummersmural.com for more information.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

A melting pot magic city gets its own museum

April 13, 2017 Leave a comment

South Omaha’s history is a heady brew of industry, working class families, immigrants, refugees and migrants, tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods, high spirits and fierce pride and though it took more than a century to get one, it finally has its own museum to celebrate all that rich heritage. This is my recent El Perico story about the newly opened South Omaha Museum. It’s a true labor of love for the three men most responsbile for pulling it together: Gary Kastrick, Marcos Mora and Mike Giron. But the heart and soul of it, not to mention most of the collection it displays, comes from Mr. South Omaha, Gary Kastrick, a historian and educator whose dream this museum fufills.

 

A melting pot magic city gets its own museum

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Just like the community that forged him, the dreams of South Omaha native and historian Gary Kastrick don’t die easy. The educator developed the Project Omaha teaching museum at South High but when he retired the school didn’t want it anymore.

For years he stored his collection’s thousands of artifacts at his home while seeking a venue in which to display them. An attempt at securing a site fell through but a new one recently surfaced and has given birth to the South Omaha Museum. The nonprofit opened March 15 to much fanfare. Fittingly, it’s located in a building at 2314 M Street he helped his late father clean as a boy. It’s also where he found his first artifact.

Building owner Marcos Mora of the South Omaha Arts Institute wanted Kastrick’s font of history to have a permanent home.

“He’s got this knowledge and we need to share it with  everybody,” said Mora. “If we don’t preserve that history now, it’s going to go away.”

 

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A $10,000 City of Omaha historical grant helped but it still took 12-hour days, sweat equity and hustle to open it. Kastrick’s family, friends and former students pitched in. Artist Mike Giron designed the exhibit spaces.

Funding is being sought. Donations are welcome.

The founders are pleased by the strong early response.

“People are overwhelmed,” said Kastrick.

“People come in with expectation and come out with gratitude,” Giron said.

Offers of artifacts are flooding in.

The free admission museum marks the third leg of Kastrick’s three-pronged campaign to spark interest in “a South Omaha renaissance.” Between the museum, historical walking tours he leads and the South Omaha Mural Project he consults, he aims to bring more people to this history-rich district.

“My main goal is to generate traffic.”

The museum’s opening exhibition, “The Smell of Money,” which runs through April 15, chronicles the stockyards and meatpacking plants that were South O’s lifeblood and largest employer.

Kastrick said, “There was a pride in this industry. The owners did everything first-rate. They put money into it. They made innovations. They created state-of-the-art sheep barns. They did everything right. It’s why Omaha’s stockyards kept growing. It wasn’t expected to be bigger than Chicago but in 1955 it became the world’s largest livestock market.”

He estimates it generated $1.7 million a day.

“It was an extremely wealthy area.”

Ancillary businesses and services sprung up: bars, cafes, hardware stores, feed stores, rendering plants, leather mills, a railway, a newspaper, a telegraph office, grocers, banks, brothels. South O’s red light district The Gully offered every vice. The Miller Hotel was notorious.

Fast growth earned South O the name Magic City.

Rural families taking livestock to market also came for provisions and diversions.

“This was their visit to the big city,” Kastrick said, “so they’d do their shopping, playing, gambling here. It was a treat to come into South Omaha.”

For laborers, the work was rigorous and dangerous.

“There was a comradeship of hard labor. It defined who we were and that definition gave us a color and a flavor other parts of the city don’t have,” Kastrick said. “We’ve always been tougher than those who have it easy.”

 

 

The packing plants drew European immigrants and African-American migrants. Then the antiquated plants grew obsolete and got razed. The loss of jobs and commerce triggered economic decline. The South 24th Street business district turned ghost town. New immigration sparked revival. New development replaced the yards and plants. Only the repurposed Livestock Exchange Building remains. Kastrick’s museum recalls what came before through a scale model layout of the yards, photos, signs, posters, narratives. He has hundreds of hours of interviews to draw on.

“It’s a fascinating history.”

He envisions hosting classes and special events, including a scavenger hunt and trivia night.

Future exhibits will range from bars, brothels and barber shops to Cinco de Mayo to ethnic groups.

Kastrick, Mora and Giron all identify with South O’s melting pot heritage as landing spot and gateway for newcomers.

“There’s that common gene in South Omaha of the immigrant,” said Kastrick, whose grandparents came from Poland. “Wherever people are from, they uprooted themselves from security to come here and start over. It takes a lot of guts. It’s a great place because you run into so many different nationalities. We’re such a compact area – it’s hard not to be with each other.”

Mora, whose grandparents came from Mexico, said

“South Omaha is in our heart.”

Giron, the son of Cuban emigre parents, said, “What I see and identify with here is the underdog. People willing to sacrifice, to work hard, to do what it takes but also knowing how to have a good time. It isn’t an area where everybody takes everything for granted.” Giron said the museum’s “not just about history and facts, it’s about people’s lives,” adding, “It’s like you’re touching or expressing their experience.”

Once a South Omahan, always a South Omaha, said

Mora. “People might have moved out, but they still have that connection. Those roots are still down here. It’s a neighborhood community and extended family network.”

Kastrick said, “We have our own unique identity. It’s       something special to be from here. We enjoy who we are. We have kind of a defiant pride because we’ve always been looked down as the working class, the working poor and everything else. We don’t care. We created our own nice little world with everything we need.”

Through changing times and new ethnic arrivals the one constant, he said, “is the South Omaha culture and concept of who we are – tough, good people” who “won’t be stopped.”

For hours, visit http://www.southomahamuseum.org.

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Holocaust stories


Holocaust Stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

In the late 1990s a man I never heard of before, the late Ben Nachman, called to encourage me to start interviewing and profiling Holocaust survivors living in and around Omaha. Ben was a retired Omaha dentist who lost his entire extended family to the Holocaust. He set about a life’s mission to record survivor stories and that journey led him to amass a large collection of books on the topic, to befriend researchers, to become an official Shoah Visual Archive interviewer and to enlist me to capture and publish individuals’ stories. I ended up telling some two dozen Holocaust stories, mostly about survivors but also about rescuers, educators and scholars. I also wrote about Ben’s passion for doing the work he did in bringing Holocaust stories to light. Ben introduced me to many remarkable individuals. Thanks to him I was privileged to share the testimonies of survivors,  the heroics of rescuers who saved others and the depths of experiences that shaped the Holocaust.

Several years ago the Institute for Holocaust Education in Omaha acquired some of these stories for visitors to read on its website. In this post are links to those stories and to other Holocaust stories I have written.

Founded in 2000, the Institute has a goal to ensure that the tragedy and history of the Holocaust is remembered. The nonprofit organization provides appropriate, fact-based instruction and materials to students, educators and the public to enhance Holocaust studies in the hope of inspiring communities to create a more just and equitable society.

The IHE has reached hundreds of teachers and more than 100,000 students in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas with its educational resources, workshops, survivor testimony and integrated arts programming. The Institute also supports Holocaust survivors in our community.

For more information about the Institute’s work, visit–

http://www.ihene.org/

 

 

North Omaha: Where for art thou?


North Omaha: Where for art thou?

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Our fair city has a curious case of tunnel vision when it comes to North Omaha.

What constitutes North Omaha is different depending on who you talk to. Officially or technically speaking, it is one of four geographic quadrants. North O itself is made up of a diverse number of neighborhoods, many of which are not generally considered part of it. For example. most of us don’t include the Dundee business district and surrounding neighborhood around Underwood Avenue as North O when in fact it is. The same for Happy Hollow, Country Club, Benson, Cathedral, Gold Coast, Florence and many others well north of Dodge that have their own stand-alone names, designations, associations and identities. When North O is referenced by many individuals and organizations, what they’re really referring to is Northeast Omaha. For many, North O has come to mean one narrow set of characteristics and conditions when in reality it is much more diverse geographically, socio-economically, racially and every other way than any tunnel vision prism does justice to. Why does this happen so persistently to North O? Well, there are many agendas at work when defining or designating North O as one thing or another. When viewed in a racialized way, North O is suddenly a black-centric district. When viewed as prime development territory. North O’s either a distressed area or a great investment opportunit. When viewed in historical terms, North O’s variously a military outpost, a Mormon encampment, a bustling Street of Dreams or the site of riots and urban renewal disruption and the downward spiral that followed. When measured statistically and comparatively, North O often comes out as the epicenter of poverty, underemployment, educational disparity, STDs, gang violence and other disproportionately occuring ills when in fact in totality, taking into account all its neighborhoods, North O is doing well. When viewed in redevelopment terms, North O is s collection of revitalized commercial and residential areas and of pockets still in need of redos. How you see it doing and where you see it going, what you count as part it or not, the amount of monies that flow in or out and the types of projects, initatives and developments that happen and dont have to do with what people are predisposed to think about it and expect from it. When it comes to North O, your perception of it and engagement with it conforms to your own ideas, attitudes, beliefs, visions, plans, experiences. For some, it represents an avenue of opportunity and for others a plaee of stagnation. Some see it and treat it as a social services mission district, while others see it as a wellspring of commerce, entrepreneurship and possibility. People living there surely have very different takes on it as a community, even on what makes North O, North O. Certainly, people living outside the area have very different takes on it than the people residing there. If there is an essential North O identity it is one of diversity and aspiration, hard work, no frills and pride. North O never has been and never will be just one thing or another. You can reduce to it a tag or a headline and to a segment or a section if you want but that will never reflect the large, complex mosaic of cultures and influences, assets and resources that comprise it. North O ha for too long been stereotyped and compartmentalized, stigmatized and marginalized. It has too long been misunderstood. Instead of only seeing it in its parts, what if we began looking at it as a whole? Maybe if we started thinking in terms of how everything that happens in one neighborhood affects everything else, then perhaps future quality of life development can be more organic and inclusive.

 

St. Cecilia Cathedral - breath taking - 701 N. 40th St. - wonderful concerts held here including the annual Omaha Symphonic Chorus' Christmas in the Cathedral early to mid December.:

 

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"A Beauty Spot, Miller Park, Omaha, Neb."

 

North Omaha contains some of the metro’s oldest, most compelling history. Long established neighborhoods, parks, boulevards, buildings and other public spaces have roots in diverse peoples and events that helped shape the city. Despite this rich heritage, mass media depictions tend to emphasize a narrow, negative view of North O as a problematic place of despair and neglect.

Problems exist, but North O has been a place of great aspirations and successes. One of its historic main drags, North 24th Street, has inspired many names. Jews called it the Miracle Mile. African-Americans dubbed it the Street of Dreams. More informally, it went by the Deuce or the Deuce Four. Other districts within North O, such as Florence, Benson and Dundee, each have their own vibrant histories. These neighborhoods, along with the North 24th and North 30th Street corridors, are undergoing major revivals.

North O’s history extends way back:

A  Great Plains army installation, Fort Omaha, was the site of an historic ruling about the nature of man was rendered in the Trial of Chief Standing Bear. The fort’s grounds are now the main campus for Omaha’s fastest growing higher education institution, Metropolitan Community College, and for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. An annual pow wow is held there.

 

 

The Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition brought the nation and world to this once frontier outpost turned fledgling city. The Trans-Miss site is where Kountze Park and many stately homes stand.

Pioneering Mormon families trekked to and encamped in what is now North O. They later disembarked there for far western travels to the Great Salt Lake. Area Mormon artifacts and historic sites abound.

Diversity may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to North O, but it is a blend of many different peoples and places. A wide range of immigrants and migrants have settled there over time. Jews, Italians, Germans, Irish, Africa-Americans, Africans, Asians, Hispanics.

 

 

Its strong faith community includes a wide variety of Christian churches, Some of the churches have rich histories dating back to the early 20th century. Many older worship places have undergone restoration. Several buildings in North O own national historic preservation status, including the Webster Telephone Exchange that later saw use as a community center and the home of Greater Omaha Community Action until James and Bertha Calloway used grant money to convert it into the Great Plains Black History Museum.

Among the historic spots to visit in North O are Prospect Hill Cemetery where many city founders are buried, and the Malcolm X Memorial Birthsite where slain social activist Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little.

African-Americans built a strong community through their toil as railroad porters and packinghouse workers and through their education in all black schools. North O encompassed a leading vocational school, Technical High. The district continues to support quality public and private elementary schools and public secondary schools. It is home to one of the Midwest’s top post-secondary institutions in Creighton University and to a thriving community college in Metro.

 

 

 

North O is also home to some of the city’s oldest, most distinguished neighborhoods, including Dundee, Benson, Bemis, Gold Coast, Cathedral, Walnut Hill, Kountze Place, Minne Lusa and Florence. Blacks were denied the opportunity to live in many of those neighborhoods until discriminatory housing practices ended.

Bounded by the Missouri River on the east. 72nd Street on the west, Cuming-Dodge Streets on the south and Interstate 680 on the north, North O is a varied landscape of attractive flatlands, hills, woods, parks and tree-lined boulevards. There are promontories and overlooks with stunning views of the bluffs across the river and of downtown.

The area’s fertile soil has produced notables in film (Monty Ross), television (Gabrielle Union), theater (John Beasley), music (Buddy Miles), literature (Wallace Thurman, Tillie Olsen), media (Cathy Hughes), sports (Bob Gibson), finance (Warren Buffett), politics (George Wells Parker) and social activism (Malcolm X). It is where the interracial social action organization the De Porres Club made equality stands a decade before the civil rights movement. Black plaintiffs later forced school integration in the public schools.

North O hosts long-lived and proud chapters of the NAACP and the Urban League as well as dynamic local affiliates of the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, Campfire and Girl Inc.

The area does have high poverty pockets but it’s home to hard-working people, many with higher education and vocational training. It encompasses blue collar and white collar professionals, laborers, entrepreneurs and grassroots activists. It is a community of families, neighborhoods, small businesses and major manufacturers.

 

 

The ties that bind run deep there. For decades Native Omaha Days has brought together thousands from around the country for a week-long slate of events reuniting former and current residents who share North O as their birthplace and coming of age place.

The infrastructure of this inner city does have its challenges. There is still a disproportionate number of substandard houses, abandoned homes. vacant lots and food deserts. But an influx of projects is adding new residential units and commercial properties that are putting in place stable, sustainable improved quality of life features.

North O is the wellspring and nexus of strong community revitalization efforts such as those of the Empowerment Network, Omaha Economic Development Corporation, Family Housing Advisory Services and Omaha Small Business Network working to strengthen the community.

Redevelopment underway in northeast Omaha is in direct response to decades of economic inertia that set in after civil disturbances laid waste to the historic North 24th Street.hub. Urban renewal also severed the community, thus disrupting neighborhoods, creating isolated segments and diverting commercial development.

 

 

There was a time when North O possessed all the amenities it needed. Back in the day the dynamic entertainment scene acted as a launching pad for talented local musicians and a stopover for top touring artists. It was a destination place with its clubs, bars and restaurants featuring live music. Some of that same spirit and activity is being recaptured again. Harder to get back might be all the professional services that could be had within a few blocks but as more people move back to North O and set up shop, that could change, too.

Today’s revitalized North 24th mirrors similar community building endeavors on North 30th, North 16th, the Radial Highway, Ames Avenue, Hamilton Street, Lake Street, Maple Street and elsewhere. Business thoroughfares and residential blocks pockmarked by neglect are starting to sprout new roots and roofs.

An anchor through it all has been the Omaha Star. It continues a long legacy as a black woman owned and operated newspaper that gives African-Americans a platform for calling out wrongdoers in the face of injustice and celebrating positive events.

Decades before the Black Lives Matter movement, vital voices for self-determination were raised by North O leaders, including Mildred Brown, Whitney Young, Charlie Washington, Ray Metoyer, Dorothy Eure and Ernie Chambers. No one’s spoken out against injustice more than Chambers. He’s been a constant force in his role as a legislator and enduring watchdog for the underdog. His mantel is being taken up by dynamic new leaders such as Sharif Liwaru and Ean Mikale.

 

Fair Deal Village MarketPlace, N. 24th and Burdette Streets, North Omaha, Nebraska

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