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The Ties that Bind: One family’s celebration of Native Omaha Days

June 11, 2011 41 comments

One of  my favorite events to write about is something called Native Omaha Days, which is really a bunch of events over the course of a week or two in mid to late summer, held every two years and in essence serving as a great big celebration of Omaha‘s African American culture and heritage. There’s a public parade and picnic and a whole string of concerts, dances, and other activities, but at the root of it all is the dozens, perhaps hundreds of family and school reunions and various get togethers, large and small, that happen all over the city, but most especially in the traditional heart of the black community here – North Omaha. I’ve done a number of stories over the years about the Native Omaha Days itself or riffing off it to explore different aspects of Omaha’s black community.   The story below for The Reader (www.thereader.comI is from a few years ago and focuses on one extended family’s celebration of The Days. as I like to refer to the event, via a reunion party they throw.

As the 2011 Native Omaha Days approaches (July 27-August 1) I am posting my stories about The Days over the past decade or so.  You’ll also find on this blog a great array of other stories related to African American life in Omaha, past and present. Hope you enjoy.

 

Native Omaha Days
The Ties that Bind: One family’s celebration of Native Omaha Days

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The warm, communal homecoming known as Native Omaha Days expresses the deep ties that bind the city’s African-American community. It’s a time when natives long moved away return to roll with family and friends.

Beyond the cultural activities marking the festival, which officially concluded this week with the traditional “Blue Monday” farewells at northside watering holes, it’s an occasion when many families and high schools hold reunions. Whether visiting or residing here, it’s not unusual for someone to attend multiple public and private gatherings in the space of a week. The reunions embody the theme of reconnecting folks, separated by miles and years, that permeates The Days, whose activities began well before the prescribed Aug. 3 start and end well past the Aug. 8 close.

No singular experience can fully capture the flavor of this biennial love-in, but the Evergreen Family Reunion — a rendezvous of many families in one — comes close. Evergreen’s not the name of a people, but of the rural Alabama hamlet where families sharing a common origin/lineage, including the Nareds, Likelys, Olivers, Unions, Holts, Butlers, Turners and Ammons, can trace their roots.

For older kin reared there, Evergreen holds bitter memories as an inhospitable place for blacks. Those who got out, said Evergreen-born and Omaha-raised Richard Nared, were forced to leave. “Most of us came here because we had to,” he said. “A lot of my relatives had to leave the South in the middle of the night. I was little, but I did see some of the things we were confronted with, like the Ku Klux Klan.” The Nareds migrated north, as countless others did, to escape oppression and to find, as New York-raised Clinton Nared said, “a new freedom” and “a better life.”

Celebrating a fresh start and keeping track of an ever-expanding legacy is what compelled the family to start the reunion in the first place, said Rev. Robert Holt, who came in for the affair from California. The reunion can be traced to Moses Union and Georgia Ewing, who, in around 1928, “decided they would bring the family together so there would be no intermarriage. It started out with about 10 people and it grew. We’ve had as many as 2,000 attend. I don’t care where it is, I go.”

As Rev. Frank Likely of Gethsemane Church of God in Christ said in his invocation before the family fish fry on Friday, the reunion is, in part, a forum for discovering “family members we didn’t even know we had.” Then there’s “the chance to meet people I haven’t seen in 40 or 50 years,” said Rev. E.C. Oliver, pastor of Eden Baptist Church. “That’s what it means to me. A lot of them, I’ve wondered, ‘Were they still alive? What were they doing?’ It’s a good time for catching up and for fellowship,” said Oliver, who arrived from Evergreen without “a dime in my pocket.”

Clinton Nared‘s taken it upon himself to chart the family tree. Reunions, he said, reveal much. “Each year I come, I get more information and I meet people I never met before,” he said. “There’s so much history here.” Niece and fellow New Yorker Heather Nared said, “Every year I find out something different about the family.”

Of Richard Nared’s three daughters — Debra, Dina and Dawn — Dina’s been inspired to delve into the family’s past. “I needed to meet my people and to know our history,” she said. “I’ve been to more reunions than the rest of them. I even went to Evergreen. I thought it was beautiful. I loved the South. Before my oldest relatives died off, I got to sit and talk to them. It was fun. We had a good time.”

Over generations the family line spread, and offshoots can be found today across the U.S. and the world. But in the South, where some relatives remain, the multi-branched tree first sprouted in America. “We live all over. Now and then we come back together,” Richard Nared said. “But Evegreen’s where it all began. They used to call it Big Meeting.”

Gabrielle Union Is Teaching Dwyane Wade Basic Life Skills

Gabrielle Union

 

 

Held variously in Detroit, Nashville, Evergreen and other locales, the reunion enjoys a run nearly rivaling that of the Bryant-Fisher clan, an old, noted area black family related by marriage to an Evergreen branch, the Unions, whose profile has increased due to the fame of one of its own, film/TV actress Gabrielle Union. A native Omahan hot off The Honeymooners remake and an Ebony cover and co-star of the upcoming ABC drama Night Stalker, she made the rounds at The Days and reunion, causing a stir wherever she went — “You seen Gabrielle? Is she here yet? We’re so proud of her.”

A display of how interconnected Omaha’s black community remains were the hundreds that greeted the star at Adams Park on Friday afternoon, when a public ceremony naming the park pond after her turned into — what else? — a reunion. Her mother, Theresa Union, said of the appreciative throng, “Most of these people, believe it or not, are her relatives, either on my side or on her father’s side. We are a very big part of North Omaha’s population.” Gabrielle’s father, Sylvester Union, said his famous daughter comes to the family galas for the same reason everyone does: “It’s a legacy we’re trying to keep going,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to communicate and share and stay in touch. To me, that’s what it’s about — bonding and rebonding.”

The actress wasn’t the only celebrity around, either. Pro football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers and Radio One founder Catherine Liggins Hughes were out and about, meeting and greeting, giving props to their hometown, family and fellow natives. This tight black community is small enough that Sayers and Hughes grew up with the Unions, the Nareds and many other families taking part. They were among a mix of current and former Omahans who gave it up for the good vibes and careers of 40 musicians inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame at an Aug. 4 banquet. The Days is all about paying homage to Omaha’s great black heritage. As Sayers said, “People in Chicago and different places I go ask me where I’m from and when I say, ‘Omaha, Neb.,’ they look at me like I’m crazy. ‘You mean there’s blacks in Omaha?’ I explain how there’s a very rich tradition of African-Americans here, how we helped develop the city, how there’s a lot of talent that’s come out of here, and how proud of the fact I am to be from Omaha, Neb.”

 

 

Gale Sayers

 

 

This outpouring of pride and affection links not only individual families, but an entire community. “Family ties is one of the most powerful things in black history. It runs deep with us,” Richard Nared said. During The Days, everyone is a brother and a sister. “We’re all one big family,” Omahan John Butler said.

Helping host the 2005 Evergreen affair were the Nareds, whose sprawling Pee Wee’s Palace daycare at 3650 Crown Point Avenue served as the reunion registration center and fish-fry/social-mixer site. Born in Evergreen with his two brothers, William and John, Richard Nared is patriarch of a family that’s a pillar in the local black community. The Nareds were instrumental in starting the Bryant Center, once Omaha’s premier outdoor basketball facility now enjoying a revival. Richard helped form and run the Midwest Striders track club. William was a cop. John, a rec center director. Richard’s sister-in-law, Bernice Nared, is Northwest High’s principal. Daughter-in-law Sherrie Nared is Douglas County’s HIV Prevention Specialist.

The Friday fry event broke the ice with help from the jamming funk band R-Style. Some 300 souls boogied the night away. “More than we expected,” Debra Nared said. About 50 folks were still living it up on the edge of dawn. As adults conversed, danced and played cards, kids tumbled on the playground.

The family made its presence known in the Native O parade the next morning with a mini-caravan consisting of a bus and two caddies, adorned with banners flying the family colors. T-shirts proclaimed the family’s Evergreen roots. A soul-food picnic that afternoon at Fontenelle Park offered more chances for fellowship. Gabrielle and her entourage showed up to press the flesh and partake in ribs, beans, potato salad and peach cobbler. She posed for pictures with aunties, uncles, cousins. A weekend limo tour showed out-of-towners the sights. A coterie of relatives strutted their stuff at the big dance at Omaha’s Qwest Center that night. A Sunday church service and dinner at Pilgrim’s Baptist, whose founders were family members from Evergreen, brought the story full circle.

Heard repeatedly during the reunion: “Hey, cuz, how ya’ doin’?” and “You my cuz, too?” and “Is that my cuz over there?”

Annette Nared said, “There’s a lot of people here I don’t know, but by the time the night’s over, I’ll meet a whole lot of new relatives.” Looking around at all the family surrounding her, wide-eyed Dawn Nared said, “I didn’t know I had this many cousins. It’s interesting.” Omahan Sharon Turner, who married into the family, summed up the weekend by saying, it’s “lots of camaraderie. It’s a real good time to reconnect and find out what other folks are doing.”

For Richard Nared, it’s all about continuity. “Young people don’t know the family tree. They don’t know their family history unless someone old enlightens them,” he said. “Kids need to know about their history. If they don’t know their history, they’re lost anyway.”

It’s why he called out a challenge to the young bloods to keep it going. “This is a family affair,” he said. “I want the young people here to carry things on. Let’s come together. Let’s make this something special from now on.”

The Gabrielle Union chronicles

August 21, 2010 1 comment

Gabrielle Union at the San Francisco Blackberr...

Image via Wikipedia

My first couple  interviews with Gabrielle Union were by phone.  She was smart, funny, gracious, and generous with her time. My last couple interviews have been in person, and I found her exactly the same. She’s a sweet person.  Yes, her beauty leaves you breathless and is a bit distracting at first, but she’s completely down to earth and after awhile you don’t focus on her looks, you focus on what she’s saying and what she’s about.  This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared about five years ago, and in it she speaks extensively about some things she’s passionate about, including the difficulties that actresses of color have in finding suitable subject matter and her efforts to try and change that.  More recently, the formation of her new production company, Stew U, with Nzingha Stewart, finds her really taking matters into her own hands.

In the last couple years, she’s made as much news off the screen as on it due to her relationship with NBA superstar Dwyane Wade.  The couple have been to Omaha, where Gabrielle’s from, and they caused quite a stir here as you might imagine.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they become regular fixtures her before too long, at least during Native Omaha Days.  I hope to catch up with Gabrielle again in the near future.

 

The Gabrielle Union chronicles

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Let’s face it, the girl can’t help it. With a to-die-for combo of beauty and attitude, Omaha-born and bred actress Gabrielle Monique Union embodies what it means to be fabulous. The It Girl’s parlayed early television-film roles as the sharp-tongued foil and love interest babe into a regal-like, real-piece-of-work brimming with confidence, intelligence and class. This enticing package of goodies makes her a presence in the Hollywood glam machine. Despite The Honeymooners fizzle, her profile is about to explode owing to her work in a handful of new feature films awaiting release that show her in a new light and a starring role in the new ABC series Night Stalker that premieres September 29.

“I’ve been trying to branch out and do different kinds of projects people wouldn’t necessarily expect me to do, and I’m very proud of the work coming out” she said, while in town for Native Omaha Days, looking absolutely fabulous despite no sleep after wrapping Night Stalker that same morning and catching a red eye to O.

Yes, the many sides of Gabrielle are showcased these days. She recently shared the cover of Ebony with Honeymooners’ co-star Cedric the Entertainer, doing her best Alice Kramden domestic next to his Ralph Kramden bombastic. Depending on the gig, she’s whatever she wants to be. But no matter how much she appears all-together, she confided to The Reader some of the anxieties attending stardom and some of the frustrations that go with being black in a white-dominated field. Partly to determine her own fate and image, she’s about to start producing her own projects. Meanwhile, she plays the game, transforming herself into our fantasies.

When on the red carpet-runway circuit, she’s the preening diva in designer wear, perfect makeup and flawless hair who flashes I-love-my-public smiles and blows kisses in classic movie star fashion. In those Nutrogena TV spots, she’s the oh-so-fresh-and-so-clean girl-next-door of our dreams. For magazine spreads, she projects the epitome of style and elegance. She plays it sultry-urban-cool guesting on shows like BET’s Rap City: Tha Bassment, or turns on the charm chatting it up with Jay or David or Jimmy or Regis. She turns serious young artist at events like the NAACP Image Awards. On the big screen, she’s the hottie object of desire of LL Cool J, Jamie Foxx and Will Smith. Lately, she’s taking parts that don’t so much exploit her head-turning attributes and sex symbol defying smarts as display her acting depth.

 

 

 

In the drama Neo Ned, fresh off rave reviews at the 2005 TriBeca Film Festival, her disturbed character gets involved with a fellow patient at a mental health hospital. She’s a victim of abuse somehow under the delusion she’s Hitler. He’s a neo-Nazi hater of blacks and Jews. Upon recovery and release, this odd pair still try forging a life together. InConstellation, which beat out both Hustle and Flow and Crash for the Audience Prize at the Urbanworld film fest’, she’s the matriarch of a troubled Southern family whose secret legacy leads back to her own private crucible. In Running with Scissors, the much-awaited adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ tell-all book, she’s the possessive lover of Annette Bening, whose messy life she makes messier. In Night Stalker, an update of a 1970s show, she’s part of an investigative reporting team examining unexplained homicide cases. With a creative staff from The X-Files, it’s not surprising Stalker casts Union as Perrie, a skeptic trying to rein-in her overly curious partner Kolchak (Stuart Townsend), who suspects the supernatural, paranormal or extraterrestrial in every unsolved murder. Sound familiar? Union was sold on the show, despite “not being a fan of the genre,” by the quality of the scripts and the chance it offered “to grow with my character.”

All this comes on the heels of her small but weighty appearance in the Emmy Award-winning HBO drama, Something the Lord Made, her first period piece.

Ten years after breaking through, she’s sufficiently got-it-going-on to be in the  select company of such single name Star Sistas as Halle, Queen, Beyonce, Angela, Oprah and Vivica — adding flava to an otherwise bland look-alike white girl scene.

But a rising career for a black or Latina actress, no matter how talented or lovely she is, is not the same as it is for a white actress. Union bristles at the inequity that gives a Reese Witherspoon or Cameron Diaz carte blanch when she’s restricted from certain roles due to her race.

“It’s the option of doing different kinds of things,” she said. “They have the option of doing any kind of movies they want. Anything that could possibly pop into their head, that kind of script is there for them. Whereas with me, I’m offered the same exact things over and over and over again.”

This relative lack of choices, she said, not only means a more limited artistic palette to pick from, but a smaller financial reward, too. “There is a financial reality in what we do. Those bills, darn it, pop up every month. That dang mortgage has to be paid. You can pass, pass, pass, pass pass and hope for better material, but when it’s just not coming, at a certain point you end up doing the same sort of material. As actors of color we don’t have the same luxury and we’re certainly not paid anywhere close to what they (majority actors) get paid,” Union said.

Then there’s industry-wide casting practices that unfairly limit actors of color. Producers often can’t or won’t hire blacks and Hispanics for non-race specific roles because the suits’ experience/perception of the world doesn’t include racial-ethnic minorities in certain guises, especially opposite whites.

“That just happened last spring. I was told, ‘Gabrielle, you gave the best read. If we decide to go ‘black,’ you’re at the top of the list.’ It’s still a big fight to get people to think someone like me could be the friend or colleague of a white character, male or female. I’m not even talking about trying to convince somebody I could be Angelina Jolie’s sister or something like that. I’m talking about being her friend or associate or whatever. It’s the nature of the business” to stereotype us, she said.

But as her slate of new projects attests, Union’s not backing down or giving up. She’s a fighter and a survivor, instincts that helped her run-off the armed man who raped her in the early 1990s and cope with the trauma of that attack. A former competitive athlete, Union’s lately redirected her fire to her career, where she aggressively pursues the kinds of parts traditionally reserved for her white counterparts. She’s landing some of these jobs, but she wants more.

“You have these little victories and you hope to spin these little victories into a bigger victory,” she said, “and that’s just kind of been the basis of my career. I’m still waiting to sort of win the battle. But I’ve had a lot of fun on the path. Some of the battles I have lost have taught me so much about myself and about my inner resolve and who I am, and the fact that I don’t lay down and just die when I don’t get what I want. I learn to kind of regroup and fight harder. There’s nothing else I can do but stay prepared and stay ready for that opportunity. And I am prepared.”

 

 

 

 

Far from passively sitting by waiting for that breakthrough role to plop in her lap, she’s actively looking to develop properties and projects via a talent/marketing consulting agency now expanding into film production, Prominent Enterprises. The company is in the family, so to speak. It’s owned and managed by Union’s husband, Chris Howard, an ex-NFL player, in partnership with her former publicist, Alejandra Cristina. Although a new player in Hollywood, Prominent’s raising a sizable film fund to finance productions for Gabrielle to produce and/or star in.

“They’ve put together an investment group that’s put up $20 million to make anywhere from one to five films, so we’ve been poring over scripts. Nothing I’m going to star in yet, but I’m definitely going to produce,” she said. “The investment group has the capability of distributing and marketing a film, all in-house, so we don’t have to go pander our films to a studio to get distribution. I’d rather learn producing through my husband’s company than out there alone. We’ll definitely be putting our friends to work and you’ll be seeing people in roles that you would never anticipate them in. I’m excited about getting to work with my friends. It’s all happening very quickly. A lot quicker than we anticipated.”

Taking charge of her career is nothing new for Union, who’s taken pains in recent years to control her image by virtue of the parts she chooses and the type of pub she does. For her, not doing nude scenes, for example, is not so much about protecting her good-girl persona in the industry as it is honoring her family.

“I think it’s the respect I have for my parents and the respect I have for my husband. It’s also been a learning process. I’ve taken jobs and I’ve done photo spreads in the past I wouldn’t necessarily do now — understanding the reaction and aftermath that follows. My parents are alive and a part of my life and I’m not estranged from anybody. My husband has to go to work and face people. It’s just not worth it to me to do things that are going to embarrass them. My folks raised me to be a certain kind of person and I want my roles to be reflective of that and I want the kind of press I do to be reflective of that. Sometimes I stray, but it’s all a learning curve, and I’m learning I have the power to say no and the world’s not going to end and my career’s not going to stop.”

An example of her emancipation came during her recent Omaha visit, when she refused agent-publicist entreaties to fly her out of town for an ABC affiliate appearance. Instead, she opted to party-on-down with family and friends at the Native Omaha Days festival, where befitting her status, everywhere she and her small entourage went caused a stir. Just the rumor she might show some place got joints jumping and crowds buzzing. Hundreds attended a ceremony naming the Adams Park pond after her. The fans, many of them relatives from her large extended family on both sides, crowded inside the rec center for an autograph or some piece of their “Nikki.” Her appearance marked the first time “when everybody sort of came together since my wedding. They’re all here. More than I expected. People I didn’t even know came back. It’s exciting,” she said.

With such “a big family” and her “time always so limited” when in town, there’s added pressure to please everyone, so they don’t feel “cheated.” It’s also a reality check, not that her parents or sisters would let her get away with a big head. Her folks, Theresa and Sylvester Union, who are divorced, both said their star daughter is amazingly “grounded.”

Besides being selective in how she represents herself, there are the meatier roles Union’s been holding out for. Where she can coast playing brassy characters “cut from the same cloth that I’ve been cut from,” she has to stretch when cast in roles far from herself. “It’s a lot easier to play when the part’s close to who you are.” she said. “I take pride in bringing strong depictions of women to the screen.” With more substantial roles come more challenges.

Although she’s used to playing characters who are hell-on-wheels, Union’s part in Running with Scissors is a departure in that she portrays a drugged-out gay woman. “She’s a lesbian, a speed freak and a psychologically touched young woman who falls in love with Annette Bening’s character and disrupts her life. It’s a great kind of crazy character that’s really challenged me in new ways, and I just had a ball doing it. I think my mom is still getting used to the idea of me being a lesbian, but as long as Annette Bening is my girl friend, she’s OK with it,” Union said, laughing.

“To tackle” the role of an abused woman in Neo Ned, Union reopened the wounds of her own rape by going “back through my journals and to times when I was in therapy and to times when I was completely out of sorts and out of control. I was able to convey certain aspects of my own experience into the character’s, but at the time I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it without going nuts.” She made it through OK, but she said far from being cathartic, reliving her own trauma was harrowing.

“It was only afterwards I found it therapeutic, when at the Q & A that followed the film’s opening, people were saying — and it always happens — ‘Me too, me too.’ It’s always comforting for me and others to know — I’m not alone in my experience. I’m not alone in my surviving and in being able to still lead a decent, functional life. That these obstacles are surmountable.”

Union has long used her celebrity to openly discuss her rape and recovery and to advocate for victims’ rights and the importance of counseling, which she received.

As much as she enjoys educating people about empowering themselves, she realizes she’s still learning both her craft and this whole business of being a star. Therefore she seeks out mentors to school her in acting and in managing fame. Diva soul singer Patti LaBelle is among those who’ve taken Union under their wing, teaching her how to stay “who she is” and keep “what she stands for” amid the hoopla. The more high profile projects Union does, the more seasoned veterans she calls on.

“It’s the only way you’re going to get better. Unfortunately, a lot of young people in our industry lack humility. That whole idea of wanting to be the biggest fish in the pond doesn’t appeal to me. You can learn so much more if you just shut up and watch, which is what I do. I don’t know enough to keep talking. I watch the masters work and try to absorb as much as I can about how they work and how they handle different situations. That’s been the biggest help to me and my career — being able to watch what to do and what not to do.”

Asked if working with a Bening in Scissors, Alan Rickman in Something the Lord Made or Billy Dee Williams in Constellation obliges her to raise her own level, she answered emphatically, “Oh, hell, yes. They make you step up your game. And especially as I’m not formally trained, I don’t have that wealth of knowledge to fall back on. I have to learn from my co-workers.”

To help prep for difficult parts, she works with acting coach Dennis Lavelle, an actor/director who gets her to “fine tune stuff,” like nailing a Nashville accent for Something, and “on point” for portraying characters undergoing emotional crisis.

 

 

 

 

She’s still insecure and starstruck enough that she gets tongue-tied around her idols, such as Diahann Carroll, whom she “chickened out” meeting. On the set of Constellation, she lost her composure working alongside icons Williams and Rae Dawn Chong. “I got intimidated. I didn’t know where to begin the scene — to not be buried,” she said, “because they were all bringing it.” She uses the work ethic of fellow pros to motivate herself. “When I see them doing their homework, running lines or doing theater, I’m like, I need to go home and study more. The people I look up to never stop growing…never stop working. So, I need to step it up.”

To her surprise, serious theater offers have come her way. Thus far, she’s passed, admitting she feels out-of-her-depth there.

“I’ve been offered things I have no business being offered. I mean Broadway productions — all off the strength of something like Bring It On. But I have too much respect for the craft and for the theater to take a job I’m not ready for and to bring down a whole production. I have too much respect for the amazing talent that’s underemployed to take a job I don’t deserve and I haven’t earned — just because I can. I don’t want that on my shoulders.”

The props, the perks, the offers, the adoring crowds, the intrusive fans and the unwanted stares are all part of the bargain, good and bad.

“It’s weird. I don’t feel worthy of that sort of adoration. Ultimately, it’s nice that people appreciate what you do and to know your work is not in vain,” she said.

Negotiating fame is a-work-in-progress for her and husband Chris Howard. “It’s been a long path to kind of figuring that out,” she said. “When we want a fun, cool time, either with him and I or with our friends, we don’t do it at premieres or parties. We do it at our homes. We keep it private. So that whatever we’re doing or talking about or wearing or not wearing, no one’s going to know about it except for us. That’s how we stay strong.”

Careerwise, she has her thing and he has his. Even with the overlap from Prominent Enterprises, she’s the one out front. He’s in the background, where he prefers it. It’s their way of maintaining separate identities. “When I do travel for work and go to premieres or parties, he doesn’t always come,” she said. “He’s like, ‘That’s your life. I don’t want to stand around and hold your purse. I have my own career and a whole life outside yours.’ And that’s made it a lot easier.”

Being the center of attention, she said, “sometimes is a drag.” Having to look gorgeous, smile, press the flesh, sign the stills, pose for pics, answer questions. Her well-known penchant for slumming at Target has even gotten problematical, with shoppers and clerks wanting to stop and talk. “There’s times you just don’t feel like it. You’re tired. You just want a quiet evening with family. You just want to be. But when they don’t fuss over you, that’s when you go, What happened?”

The spotlight will only get hotter once her new films break and Night Stalker, airing Thursdays at 9 p.m. (CST) on ABC, debuts. There’s also two more features, Donut Hole andSay Uncle, in the can and still another, 32 and Single, in development.

Inking the deal for Night Stalker, which she wanted against the advice of her management, was done partly to get more “alone time with my husband,” she said. “Now that I’m home in L.A. shooting the series, even though the hours are crazy, we have a little bit more time together. It almost feels like we’re starting over because I’m home now.” Starting a family is not a priority yet. “I don’t want to be jealous of a child for taking me away from my man. Once we get enough alone time and we travel and we do all the things we want to do, than we’ll expand.”

Gabrielle Union: A Star is Born

August 21, 2010 2 comments

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

I have to believe that some folks are surprised to discover that the stunning actress Gabrielle Union is from Omaha, Neb. That’s because a large chunk of America either draws a blank when the city and state are mentioned or else conjure up images of corn fields and small towns devoid of black people.  Well, it is true that most of Nebraska is crop and range land. This is a Great Plains agricultural state after all, and agriculture is what drives the state’s  economy.  It is also true that most of the communities dotting the state’s wide expanse are small towns that generally do have few residents of color, particularly African-Americans, although some  have large Latino populations. But Nebraska also has two large cities in Lincoln and especially Omaha, and while the black population in Omaha has never been huge, its always been significant, in the tens of thousands, and African-Americans here own a long and rich heritage of cultural and intellectual achievement. She belongs to a large and prominent extended family whose annual reunion is more than a hundred years old and draws hundreds from all over the region and the nation.  Gabrielle is proud of her roots and she usually makes it back for that reunion, particularly when it coincides with the biennial Native Omaha Days, a week-long black heritage celebration.

So, when you know the facts, you realize Gabrielle hails from an urban African-American environment here not so dissimilar from those in cities with major black populations, and through all her success she’s remained fiercely loyal to this place and the old haunts in the inner city.  The following is the first of two cover stories I did on her for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  This piece appeared just as she was breaking big on the national scene.  Just as she’s done with other journalists, she spoke thoughtfully and candidly with me about a whole range of subjects, including her family, her growing up here, her surviving an assault, and her forging a career.  Although she’s enjoyed a nice long run in film and television, I’m not sure she’s quite reached the heights that she or others saw ahead.  But she’s still young, still fabulous, and still working hard to develop projects that provide positive images of African-Americans and that put her and other African-Americans in control of those images.  To that end, she and director Nzingha Stewart have formed their own production company, Stew U.  Good luck with it, Gabrielle, you are a face of poise, beauty, and strength for many females who see you as a role model.  You also give America and the world a whole other idea of who lives in Omaha.

Look for my followup story about Gabrielle on this same site.

 

Gabrielle Union wedding beauty

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The next Halle Berry?

If, as some predict, Gabrielle Union, co-star of the new action sequel Bad Boys II, is poised to be the next ebony screen idol, then don’t expect the rising young actress with the suave sultriness of a classic Hollywood siren to do any cartwheels in anticipation of It happening. Not that the hard-bodied ex-athlete — she competed in track, soccer and basketball while growing up in Omaha and Pleasanton, Calif. — couldn’t do a flip if she wanted. It’s just that this sophisticated lady, who first made an impression playing smart, sassy babes in the teen comedies Bring It On and She’s All That and who more recently revealed a deeper dramatic range as a hard-boiled seductress in Welcome to Collinwoodand as a meddling man-hater tamed by Mr. Right in Deliver Us From Eva, remains firmly grounded. After all, she well recalls the vagaries of her unexpected cinema ascent, which soared despite no formal acting training. Unlike some stars to whom success comes early on, she’s savvy enough to seek advice and hungry enough to hone the craft that first chose her. Sweet.

“I have no problem humbling myself and asking a lot of stupid questions of veteran actors and of people who’ve been there-done that. I’m not into taking myself so seriously that I can’t go, I’m in a little over my head — can you help me out here? Yeah, I think a director would rather have you ask questions than waste takes. Luckily, people have taken me under their wing and helped me along the way. I’ve found really great mentors the last couple of years who’ve helped me sort of deal with my insecurity and say, Obviously you’re doing something right — you’re working, so whatever it is you’re doing don’t stop that, but also don’t stop asking questions,” she explained by phone from the Los Angeles area home she shares with husband Chris Howard, a former University of Michigan and NFL football player.

One reason Union doesn’t think she’s all that is because she views her film career as a kind of fluke. Not so long ago she still held out the possibility of falling back on her sociology degree if this movie thing didn’t work out (Her mother and two aunts have worked as social workers.). You see, the UCLA grad stumbled into acting only when her striking good looks and poised manners got her mistaken for a model at an agency where she interned. Before she knew it she found herself going up for and landing parts in ads and then television shows, debuting on Moesha, doing guest spots on ER and Steve Harvey and nabbing recurring roles on Sister Sister7th Heaven and City Of Angels. A year ago she was just another fetching supporting player in a string of moderately successful films, but was still best known as the first African-American love interest on the hit NBC series Friends. It was really the buzz behind her Friends guest shots, combined with her scene-stealing turn as a diva head cheerleader in 2000’s Bring It On and her portrayal of a tough yet tender sista in 2001’s The Brothers that added steam to the career she never intended.

2003 is shaping up as a breakout year for Union between her performances in the already released  AbandonCradle 2 the Grave and Eva and her featured appearance opposite Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys II. In the expected summer blockbuster she plays the vexing Syd, a woman raising the heat and danger for Miami police detectives Mike Lowrey (Smith), who falls for her, and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence), her half-brother. She may really turn heads with her on-the-limb portrayal of a disturbed mother in the now-under-production Neo Ned, a gritty project by indie director Van Fischer (Blink of An EyeUrban Jungle). Her persona as a beautiful, brainy, brassy black woman coincides with the growing crossover appeal of women-of-color artists — from Jennifer Lopez to Beyonce Knowles to Halle Berry — whose urban, hip-hop vibe is redefining the image of female sex symbols. Where, only a few years before, Union doubted if she even belonged, she’s paid her dues and now finds herself on the verge of A-list status. Not coincidentally, she’s since fallen in love with acting.

 

 

 

 

“I have, actually. Certainly after working on Welcome to Collinwood with Joe and Anthony Russo — who are very much actors’ directors — they really made it a different kind of experience. It wasn’t just about coming to work and knowing your lines. It was — How can we elevate this material? How can we make this better? How can we make this completely organic? We’d be doing exercises on set. We’d be doing tons of rehearsals. And through that process there was so much more discovery about the character and about the text that I really became enamored with what they did. It’s definitely experiences like that that make me really enjoy what I do now. It’s not so much a means to an end.”

Challenges are something Union, a fierce competitor at Scrabble or anything she competes in, welcomes. Her never-say-die-attitude, which surfaced when she fought back against a rapist that attacked her at 19, was instilled by her old-school ex-Army and ex-jock father, Sylvester, who pushed her, like a drill instructor, to excel in sports and academics from the time she was a child. She feels this boot-camp rearing gives her an edge in swimming with the sharks. “I’ve learned how to navigate tough waters, whereas a lot of actors are used to being coddled. I have a very thick skin. Screaming directors or difficult actors or whatever…it’s not a big deal. I mean, after you’ve dealt with my father, it’s all easy.”

The mettle that comes from a trial-by-fire background is why Theresa Union is “not surprised” by her daughter’s success. “She’s very disciplined. She’s self-reliant. She’s a natural-born competitor. She takes advantage of things that come her way. Her confidence and ability to pick up things fast give her an edge,” she said.

After playing largely decorative roles early in her career, Union, who can now afford to be choosy, is embracing more ambitious parts. “With certain kinds of things I was doing it wasn’t that hard to figure out and you sort fell into a lull,” she said of the stock best friend and girl friend characters she played. “But as the projects got a little bit more complex and a little bit more challenging it became a lot more fun for me because I had to push myself to see what I could do better than the day before. For me, it’s like when I played up an age group in basketball or in soccer, where the players were bigger, faster, stronger, better and you had to kind of raise your level of ability to meet that challenge. It’s the same with acting. As the projects get a little bit more in-depth and complex you have to raise your game to work with the William H. Macys and the George Clooneys. You can’t just sort of rest on, Well, I did a few sitcoms for UPN. So, I work with a coach (acting) now to make sure I’m sharp and ready to compete.”

Of the tests posed by her latest films, Union said: “For Eva, the challenge was how to make this really difficult woman likable. For Bad Boys, it was how to do action and not make it seem like you’re just a cardboard cutout in this high-concept movie. This movie I’m shooting now — Neo Ned — will probably be my most challenging to date. I play this woman who was molested as a child. She’s a bed-wetter. She’s trying to deal with the shame that comes with these experiences. She keeps checking herself into mental institutions. She’s not necessarily crazy, she’s just very overwhelmed. She develops this character, if you will, of this girl who feels like she’s got the soul of Hitler trapped inside her. She goes as far as to learn German and she ends up falling for this neo-Nazi, Ned. So, it’s incredibly challenging on a lot of different levels.”

Making the role even more demanding for the actress is that it requires her to be more emotionally raw on screen than ever before. “Usually, I’m cast as someone strong — with bolder-type qualities. But with this, she’s damaged and sort of on the path of trying to put herself back together. I kind of wanted to challenge myself in that sense in being able to convey the vulnerability and the trust issues that victims have and some of the things that go along with being violated.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Union is careful not to take on roles too close to the real-life trauma she endured, saying she accepted Neo Ned because it deals with the aftermath of the attack rather than its depiction. “I’ve turned down other projects where the character was brutally raped on-screen,” she said. “It’s not a problem talking about it or expressing it or conveying the emotions of what it feels like to have all control taken away from you, but to have someone physically simulate raping me, that would be above and beyond what I’m emotionally able to do. So, I know my limitations.” Her fear of having to relive her horror during a City of Angels shoot whose storyline concerned a serial rapist first led Union to divulge her own story. “I had so much anxiety that my character would be next that I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t go through that again. You see, I never talked about it. No one ever knew to not write my character to be raped. That, combined with the very cavalier attitude a lot of people on the set were taking about the storyline, made me come out to a magazine reporter I was doing an interview with in the midst of all this. I just felt it was my duty to come out and use my voice for something worthwhile. Reporters ask you a lot of stupid questions, like who’s cuter — Freddie Prinze. Jr. or Paul Walker? Well, who cares? How about what I’ve experienced and what I’ve overcome. I still finished college and I still got a pretty cool career for myself in spite of all this. Why don’t we talk about that and help people?”

She said it’s only after “years and years of therapy” that she’s able to be “normal again and somewhat sane.” Although once the victim of a brutal crime, Union is no victim for life. Her defiant attitude then and now stems from the way she was brought-up. “My parents always said, Don’t ever start a fight, but you damn well better finish it. You know, it was like — Don’t bring your ass home defeated. I certainly never solicited to have that (rape) happen to me, but when I saw an opening to sort of take back control of the situation I gave it my all. I put up a really valiant fight and have the scars to prove it.” As first related to Vibe Magazine, she wrestled the armed perpetrator to the ground, flailing at him with her fists, and managed to grab his gun and fire. “But in the end I wasn’t successful. He went on to rape another girl and ultimately turned himself in. A part of me was disappointed I didn’t kill him or didn’t at least wing him, so he could be apprehended sooner. I wanted to be the one that put an end to it.” She is proud, however, for having “the tenacity and courage…to make sure he was prosecuted and served his time and got a little dose of good old-fashioned prison justice,” she said. “All of that definitely goes back to how I was raised.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where her father has been the driving disciplinarian in her life, her mother, Theresa, a former dancer, has been the nurturing, artistic influence. Her mother’s family, the Bryant-Fishers, is one of the oldest and largest black families in Nebraska. So entrenched are they that as part of their annual weekend-long August reunion — 85 years and running — the family stages their own parade down 24th Street. Union recalls that after her family moved from Omaha, where her father was an AT&T manager and her mother a social worker, her mom would take her and her two sisters to such Bay Area cultural events as poetry slams, ethnic festivals and gay pride parades. Union, a tomboy at heart, was 8 when she left Omaha but her ties led her to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, whose women’s soccer team she competed on and whose football team she still madly cheers. Homesickness soon led her back to the coast, where she attended Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo before entering UCLA. After getting her B.A. she  considered law school before being “discovered” at the Fontaine Modeling Agency.

Despite lacking a prestigious acting school pedigree, Union said, “I feel confident about what I bring to the table.” In a sense, she’s been in training from the start by being a keen observer. “I’ve always been the kind of person, even as a young kid, who would just sit somewhere and watch people. I’ve always been fascinated by human nature and by what motivates people to do certain things…and that’s kind of a big chunk of acting. That, coupled with the fact I was a sociology major and wrote tons of term papers on inter-group conflict and on what makes people tick…which is a lot of what goes into theater studies.”

Then, she said, there’s the side of the profession no drama school can simulate. “Nothing prepares you for Hollywood. There’s no class on how to deal with a psycho director or a co-star on cocaine or on how to get along with people. Those are just sort of common sense things and a lot of that goes into who works and why. A lot of it is just like manners. Being on time. Working well with others. Literally being one of those people that others like to spend three or four months out of a year with. Part of that is definitely being professional, but part of it too is not taking yourself so seriously that you don’t have a good time. I mean, if I’m going to work in Miami I’m taking a very professional attitude, which means I’m going to be at work on time, I’m going to know my lines, I’m going to hit my marks and you’re not going to have to wait for me. But I’m also going to have a good time while I’m there. No one’s ever going to accuse me of being a fuddy-duddy.”

The vivacious Union is also no shrinking violet. Having grown up in the suburbs, she’s used to being “the black girl” in classes, on teams and, more recently, on sets, which means taking on “the responsibility of sort of educating people, correcting people and letting people know…little different nuances of race and class. It can be a little tiresome. It’s so much different on the set of a predominantly minority cast and crew, when you can free yourself up to just work and not have to worry about somebody saying something offensive or not understanding why I need a black hair stylist or why pink lipstick doesn’t look so great on a black person. It’s nice not to have those little struggles.”

Union is riding a wave that is seeing a more inclusive American cinema than, say, 10 years ago. But, as she can attest, Hollywood is still no where near to being as diverse as the society it purports to mirror. “There’s so much more that needs to be done for minorities, period, just to make films reflective of a multicultural America. Unfortunately, most of the writers employed come from privileged, homogeneous backgrounds not representative of the changing face of America, especially among younger people who, with the infusion of hip-hop, have a completely different mind-set,” she said. “For the younger generation, it’s not a big deal to have a black person kissing a white person or to have a Latino and an Asian as a couple. If those are the dollars Hollywood’s trying to get, then the projects need to be reflective of those attitudes, which are much more open.”

 

 

does she age at all? wth?

 

Casting, she said, is still replete with racism. While Berry broke down barriers playing a Bond girl, the buzz behind that “goes away and it’s back to fighting to play certain roles not written race specific. Why does the star’s secretary have to be blond? Why does Tom Cruise’s love interest have to be white? What’s the problem?” More insidious, she said, is the practice of casting light-skinned minorities in positive roles and dark-skinned minorities in negative roles. “When I was auditioning to play the pretty girl friend or the well-educated snob, the other girls in the room were either very fair or biracial and it was like, OK, clearly we have a mind set about what’s attractive, what’s well-to-do and what those faces look like. But a single mother crack-head who just lost her baby’s daddy to a gangland shooting, oh yeah, those girls are going to be dark. It’s just what people feel comfortable with I guess. It’s weird. But hopefully we’re slowly changing that.”

Along with her counterparts, Union hopes to open doors for more actors-of-color. “People in Hollywood always say, It’s not a black thing or a white thing, it’s a green thing, and in a sense that’s true. I’ve been lucky enough that some of my films have made money. Deliver Us From Eva made triple its budget, which you can’t say about many other movies, and that means something to Hollywood, which says, Here’s a movie about four sisters who all have jobs, who all have relationships and it made made money — Hmmm, let’s have more of this.”

Black or white, part of being a starlet in Hollywood is glamming it up, something Union, who can otherwise be found kicking it at home in sweats or shorts, enjoys doing for occasional magazine spreads and industry bashes, when she looks as cool and posh and fabulous as anyone. “It’s an escape from reality and a nice release to be a part of that whole Hollywood glamour machine,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun, but it’s not something I could keep up every day, certainly.”

She still gets back to Omaha, most recently for the January funeral of her great-grandmother, Ora Glass, who was 110. And she keeps tabs on other native Omaha film artists, such as actress Yolonda Ross (Antwone Fisher). An admirer of Alexander Payne, who’s a fan of hers, she said if he ever shoots in town again she’s “willing to be a P.A. or grip to help him around north Omaha,” adding with her typical sauciness, “I love his work, but you don’t see all of Omaha reflected.” Hint, hint.

 

Cool Cat Billy Melton and the Sportin’ Life

July 1, 2010 2 comments

Cropped screenshot of Count Basie and his band...

Image via Wikipedia

The late Billy Melton began as a source for my writing-reporting on aspects of African-American culture in Omaha and he ended up being a friend.   Like my late father, Billy was a World War II veteran.  Some 35 years my senior.  As a black man from an earlier generation Billy lived a very different life than I had as a white Baby Boomer, yet he never made those differences a barrier in our relationship.  Rather, he used his life experience as an instructional point of departure for sharing lessons he’d learned. There were many.

I quoted Billy in several stories I wrote over the years.  One of these stories, Omaha’s Sweet Sixteen, focused on the Quartermaster battalion he served in during the war.  You can find that article on this blog site under the Military and African American categories or by doing a search with the key words, “Sweet Sixteen” or “Billy Melton.”  The site also contains a piece, Puttin’ on the Ritz, that tells the story of the black owned and operated cab company Billy drove for, Ritz Cab. Search for the article by its title or in the African-American and Entrepreneurial categories.

The article presented here, Sportin’ Life, explores Billy’s passion and one might say magnificent obsession with music, and more specifically, with collecting it.  Through his friendship with the late jazz musician Preston Love, Billy got to meet several jazz legends, which resulted in signed photos of these icons.  He was in his early 80s when I did tise piece and he was much concerned about what would happen to his massive collection of records, tapes, and memorabilia when he was gone.  He tried finding an institution that would accept the many thousands of items meticulously shelved and displayed in his basement.  Though there was much interest, he could never secure a deal because he wanted compensation in return for the collection, and the museum officials he talked with didn’t have an acquisitions budget that could accommodate his demands.  He also wanted assurance his collection would be kept on view and made accessible for the the general public, which was another condition officials found hard to make any promises about given the size of Billy’s collection.

Billy passed before anything was done with his collection.  It still occupies the basement of the home he and his widow shared.  Martha would like nothing more than to carry out Billy’s wishes and find a permanent repository for the collection. I’ve also has the distinct pleasure of getting to know his granddaughter, Carleen Brice, a fine novelist you’ll find my blog posts about on this site.

photo

Dreamland Ballroom

 

Cool Cat Billy Melton and the Sportin’ Life

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The sportin’ life is what Billy Melton’s lived the better part of his 82 years. This party animal has haunted the best night clubs and after hours spots from here to Philadelphia. He’s seen the great entertainers perform. Wherever he’s gone, he’s hobnobbed with friends and stars. And, always, music — the subject of a lifetime collecting hobby — has been part of the action.

“I loved the social life. I had so many great friends out there. I was out roaming around the country, drinking, gambling, enjoying the single man’s life. All the time, adding to my collection and getting enjoyment out of music,” he said.

Even after settling down as a family man, music remained his overriding interest. But it’s more than that for this gregarious man. “Music’s a passion of mine. I love it. I love it all. And I’ve collected it all,” said Billy. No where is his ardor expressed more than in the distinctive musical notes detailing on his silver Chevy Caprice and in the showplace and archive he’s made his home. His modest Omaha residence houses a music collection of staggering size and breadth. He hopes it goes to a museum.

The music room in his basement is a glittering, overstuffed assemblage of music collectibles, novelties, instruments, records, tapes, eight-tracks, photos, posters, album covers and books. One of his two prized juke boxes sits there. Every inch of the floor, wall and ceiling is adorned with a musical motif, whether tiles decorated by music symbols or CDs hanging like Christmas ornaments. Another juke box shares space in an adjoining room with the washer and dryer. The bulk of the collection rests in a specially-built room just off the attached garage. Here, a maze of stacks, bins, trees and shelves hold tens of thousands of LPs, 45s, discs and tapes that encompass a world of musical styles, periods and performers, but with a special emphasis on jazz, blues, soul and Motown.

There are collections within the larger collection, including extensive, if not complete, sets of recorded works by such artists as Count Basie, his No. 1 idol.

Where It All Began
The Omaha Technical High School graduate traces the spark of his passion to the Kansas Vocational School he attended two years in Topeka, Kansas. There, in the late 1930s, he first listened to the seductive sounds of great musical artists, black and white alike. In fact, his original collection began with a Bing Crosby platter. Back in Omaha, where Billy was born and raised, his family was too poor to afford a radio. In Topeka, he scrounged up enough scratch to buy himself, first, a crystal set and, then, a Philco radio, which he listened to late at night in his dorm room. Picking up broadcasts from as far away as Chicago and New York that featured the great swing, jazz and blues bands of the day, he was hooked. “We listened to that music every night,” he said. “It just sounded so good.”

The Metropolitan Hall in Topeka is where he first saw Basie. The experience made him a fan for life. “I loved his music and his dynamic personality. He just lit up the house. He took it to another level. If you don’t like his music…” Well, then, let’s just say you’re not copacetic in Billy’s eyes.

As a young hep cat, Billy immersed himself in the music of the day. He fell for Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Lunceford, Gene Ammons, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Jackie Wilson, Billy Eckstein, The Inkspots and others. “So many great talents. After I set to collecting these artists, I made it a point to go see them,” he said.” That early taste of Basie whet his appetite for more. He caught Basie, Ellington, Calloway, Hampton, Cole, Charles, et all, performing live on Omaha’s then-jumping live music strip on North 24th Street and at its many downtown theaters.

“As far as the big bands,” he said, “we didn’t have to go to Kansas City. They were right here in Omaha. Twenty fourth and Lake was nothing but music. Did you hear what I said? This was a fun-loving, musical town. We knew how to party.”

In Omaha, Jimmy Jewell’s Dreamland Ballroom was the mecca. “Oh, you had to go to the Dreamland.” Ask who he saw there, and he retorts, “Who didn’t I see there?” In a scrapbook, he has ticket stubs from some of the countless nights he let his hair down there in the ‘50s. The names read: Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Johnny Otis, Wynonie Harris, the Orioles and the Nat Towles territory band. “Sometimes, I’d stand there with my mouth wide open watching those guys perform.”

Jewell, Billy said, “knew music,” and had connections to book whistlestop gigs by touring performers traveling between K.C. and Chicago. As often noted by the late jazz musician and author Preston Love, who was a close friend of Billy’s, Omaha was ideally situated to attract top entertainers due to its central location, the presence of five major booking agencies and a happening live music scene.

The music wasn’t just confined to the Dreamland, either. “Musicians got together and jammed…every night. Local musicians and out of town musicians. Even the big names — Lionel Hampton and all those guys. After they’d get done playing, they’d come out north to the bars and after hours places and jam,” Billy said. Those informal improv sessions unfolded at juke joints named the Apex, the Blue Room, the M & M, Bob and Mary’s Chicken Hut, the Showcase and the Backstreet. “The whites used to come out here and enjoy that,” he said.

Big Fat Swingin’ Fun
When not hitting night spots, Billy hosted them. He and the late Nate Mills ran a gambling emporium out of different North O sites. His partner had the bar and Billy the dice and card games. The illicit thing finally grew old. Too many raids. Too many knives and guns pulled on him. “I ran into some ticklish situations where it was life and death. Finally, it got to the point where I said, ‘I’m going to have to roll away. It’s not worth it.’ And I pulled out.” Besides, he’d married “a church lady,” the former Martha Hall, who only tolerated his hijinks so much. Together now 52 years, the couple entertained like nobody’s business. It was always open house at their place for the steady stream friends and relatives passing through town.

Native Omaha Days found the couple throwing an epic bash. Jukeboxes played outside, where partygoers danced, liquor flowed and laughter resounded. Stories grew embellished with each round. Martha’s home made soul food fed the throng.

“It was a music thing,” he said. “Everybody just wanted to hear music.”

His memories of these high times always include “the people we shared them with” and the music they digged together. Music is associated with virtually all the fun in Billy’s life. By the time he and Martha were hitched, they began traveling the country, by car, for vacations that lasted three to six weeks at a time. Their itinerary might include such hot spots as Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Wherever they went, they had friends, and whenever they could, they caught music acts at swank clubs or partied the nights away at after hours joints.

Sports, another spectator’s-collector’s passion of Billy’s, was usually part of the mix, as the couple took in a pro baseball or football game here. Billy saw play, in their prime, such major league baseball greats as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Willie McCovey. He saw National Football League legend Johnny Unitas quarterback the Baltimore Colts versus the Detroit Lions. In his own expansive backyard, where a hoop was set up, athletic prodigies — from Gale Sayers to Marlin Briscoe to Johnny Rodgers — strutted their stuff in pick up games. Bob Boozer and Oscar Robertson visited.

But Billy wasn’t home long. When not working two jobs, as a Union Station janitor by day and Ritz cabbie by night, he prowled the night — indulging in games of chance. He was also a shoe shiner, messenger, mail handler, waiter and bell hop. The extra dough supported his wife and three kids and underwrote his fun. “You can’t smoke cigars, drink, gamble, travel, raise three kids and help grandkids through college on an ordinary salary. Working two jobs still wasn’t enough for the life I wanted to live,” said Billy, whose gambling earnings made up the difference. “I could always hustle some money. God gave me that energy to fulfill my dreams.”

He was also fortunate to have a friend, John Goodwin, and brother-in-law, Charles Hall, whose Fair Deal Cafe was a fixture on North 24th, he could go to for loans.

Doin’ the Town
Traveling’s no luxury, but a lifestyle component for Billy, who “just can’t sit at home.” He and Martha drove old Highway 6, en route to Chicago, via Des Moines, where they got down with friends. In ChiTown, they hooked up for a ball game at Wrigley Field before a night on the town. “They knew when we got there we were ready to have fun. That’s what it was all about,” he said. One north side spot they hit was the Archway Lounge, owned by “Killer” Johnson. “We’d almost spend all our money in Chicago before we got to Detroit.”

Doin’ it up right, he, Martha and Co. dressed to the nines for pricey outings. “Once, we went to the most exclusive place in Chicago — the Blue Note. Lionel Hampton was playing. By the time we paid the cover, ordered a round of drinks and had our pictures taken, we’d spent $80. It takes money to live.” At his irrepressible best, Billy sauntered over to Hampton to request a favorite tune, “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” During a break in his set, Hampton joined the Meltons’ table, which Billy has a picture of, before returning to the band stand. After recognizing the Omaha party, he proceeded to play a jumpin’ rendition of the song.

Ebullient Billy has never been shy approaching celebrities. After shows, Basie  (“regular”), Calloway (“jovial”) and Hampton (“nice”) joined Billy and his bunch into the wee hours. Comedian turned-activist Dick Gregory “stayed up all night” with Billy’s crew. Billy cozied up to boxing legends Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Frazier. He’s got autographs of countless stars from the worlds of entertainment and athletics, with most of the signatures scrawled on $1 bills.

Native Omaha Club, photo by Lachance (Andrew Lachance)

 

Once, at a surprise birthday bash for his wife, he got comedian Red Foxx, then appearing in Omaha, to stop by. “He was the life of the party,” Billy said. “Down and dirty.” Billy’s penchant for music gained him entree into some privileged ranks. Preston Love arranged for Billy and Martha to attend private parties headlined by Count Basie and Fats Domino on the same night. “That was the most exhilirating night.” On one occasion, Love, a sideman with Basie in the ‘40s, brought Basie over Billy’s house. A photograph recording the visit hangs in Billy’s music room. Another time, Love had Billy join he and the Count on stage at the Orpheum Theater.

“Everybody knew I loved music,” Billy said, “and it led to lots of connections.” He even carried some of his music along with him on road trips in response to friends asking that he bring certain recordings they liked.

A Collector’s Dream
His collecting began in 1939. By the time he went off to serve in the all-black 530th Quartermaster Battalion in World War II, his holdings were significant. After tours of duty in North Africa, Italy — where he and his GI buddies enjoyed operas — and the Pacific, he returned home, only to find his albums warped from lying flat. Undaunted, he began collecting anew. “I really got serious after the war. I started buying records 90 miles a minute. Forty or fifty at a time,” said Billy, who spent a third of his $7 a week salary on music.

He purchased so many records at one music store, Lyon and Healey, that shop owner Bill McKenzie advised him to invest in a reel-to-reel recorder and tape player. It set him back $600 and took him five years to pay off. Then, from one music lover to another, McKenzie told Billy he could have his pick of any records in the store to transfer over to tape — for free. Over six or seven years, Billy estimates he brought home thousands of records that he put on tape. He “knows what’s on every tape” and cartridge, too, thanks to a catalog he’s prepared.

Hard-pressed to choose any aspect of his collection over another, he’s proudest of “the magnitude of it” and the fact it’s “not just one kind of music.” Despite not playing an instrument,he professes “an ear for music.” He even calls the best of rap “genius,” though it’s not his idea of music. Wife Martha Melton can attest to Billy’s wide-ranging tastes. “There is no form of music he does not love. He just loves music, period.” Indeed, his collection encompasses big band, jazz, blues, soul, gospel, spiritual, pop, rock, funk, classical, opera, international. She says he’s well-deserving of his self-proclaimed Doctor of Music degree. Eclecticism aside, it’s still “the black music” he “turns to” for personal pleasure. He favors “the old timers,” by which he means the big bands and vocalists of his youth. “They could do it all. Their charisma made them stand out above the rest.” And, for Billy, Basie’s in a league of his own. “If you feel down, his music will lift you up. Just that rhythm and beat in unison.” Play Basie’s “One O’clock Jump,” and he’s in heaven.

Like many music devotees, he prefers old wax records to CDs. “It’s the real thing. It takes you back. I like the scratches and the noise. You can almost see the guys.”

Billy wishes he could properly display his wares. “The only disappointment I have is I don’t have enough space to have everything in the same room, where I could appreciate it.” He’s looking for the right venue to preserve his treasures and use them as educational resources for the public. Dealers have tendered offers. He hopes a local museum, preferrably one with a black emphasis, makes him a deal. So far, he’s had preliminary talks with officials from one center about it being the home for his stuff. A potential hangup is the matter of compensation. “My life is in here,” he said. “I just can’t give away my life.”

Like the music of his life, Billy’s a swingin’ cat with few regrets. “My wife and I have done everything. There’s nothing we haven’t enjoyed from the fruits of our labor. The only sad part is we’ve lost so many of our friends that enjoyed life, too.”

Billy, who fashions himself a homespun philosopher, has one more thing to say about music. “If people could get along and blend together in harmony like these musicians do, oh, man, would this be a great world to live in.”

Puttin’ On the Ritz, Billy Melton and the crew Rrcall the Ritz Cab Co.

June 18, 2010 3 comments

This is another of the many stories I’ve filed on aspects of Omaha‘s African-American culture, in this case a retrospective piece on a long defunct black owned and operated taxi company, Ritz Cab.  An old of age but young in spirit gentleman by the name of Billy Melton, who’s now gone, drove for Ritz, and one evening I interviewed Billy and some of his old Ritz cronies for the story.  I enjoyed the way they swapped tales in a mood of sweet nostalgia.  The story originally appeared in the New Horizons. Look for a related post in which I write about an Omaha theater company‘s production of August Wilson‘s play Jitney, which refers to the gypsy or illegal cabs that were and still are a presence in many inner cities.

Puttin’ On the Ritz, Billy Melton and the crew recall the Ritz Cab Co.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

With his snappy uniform cap, neatly pressed shirt, swank leather jacket and polished silver badge, Ritz Cab Company driver Billy O. Melton cut a jaunty figure behind the steering wheel of his gleaming new Chevrolet Bel Air sedan in the 1950s. Gliding down North 24th Street, he either raced to his next call or else coasted along knowing he could have his pick of fares from the throng of people shopping, strolling or spilling out of the district’s many night spots in search of a good time.

In an area teeming with activity, Ritz cabs always seemed to be where the action was and customers could always hail one with a wave, a whistle, a shout or a knock on the cab’s side window. Or, you could always call to order one. In what were heady times then, the North 24th strip jumped from dusk to dawn and Ritz Cab did a hopping business as the largest black owned and operated taxi line in Omaha.

Dedicated to providing speedy, polite service, Ritz cabbies carried themselves with a certain swagger. It had to do with their pride in being part of a brotherhood of black men (although some women and non-blacks were included among their ranks) banding together to forge a successful business on their own terms.

When Ritz Cab shut down in 1969 after 30 years of running hacks, it marked the end of an important but little known African-American enterprise in Nebraska. At the company’s peak in the 1950s, it was reputedly the largest black employer in north Omaha, boasting a crew of several dozen full and part-time drivers for a fleet of 30-plus taxis. Additionally, it employed a full-time mechanic and several operators and dispatchers. At a time when segregation still ruled, the company covered not only the north side but all parts of Omaha and the surrounding metro area as well.

Recently, some Ritz veterans, led by the irrepressible Melton, reunited to recall their days tearing up the streets around town as taxi men. Each spoke of a fierce devotion to his fellow drivers, to the job, to the company and to the brothers who started it all, the late Reuben and Chesley Pierce.

The Pierces, including a third brother named Claude, hailed from Jonesville, Texas. Facing hard times, they followed the great black migration up north around the time the Great Depression began. Reuben and Claude came first, followed by Chesley. It was Chesley who founded the family cab company in 1940 and, after serving in the U.S. Navy during the war, he continued as owner-operator of the business, which was located at 24th and Patrick, with his brothers. In Ritz’s final years, ownership passed to Chesley’s son, the late Chesley Pierce, Jr., under whose aegis it finally closed.

During Ritz’s heyday, Reuben and Chesley managed the business on a day to day basis and, like true entrepeneurs, “they put everything they had into it,” said Elgie Woods, one of Chesley’s daughters. “They were very dedicated to it. When they put their mind to something, they did it,” added Kathleen Pierce Greer, whose father was Reuben.

Those who knew them say the brothers were country folks with a penchant for wearing overalls and for abiding by down home principles. They possessed strong but opposite demeanors, with Reuben the loud, formidable enforcer and Chesley the quiet, mild-mannered appeaser. “Daddy had a rumbling, deep voice. It was a commanding voice,” said Pierce Greer. Freddie Judson, who began driving for Ritz in 1954, said, “Reuben would slap you down with a harsh word and Chesley would pick you up with a soft word.” Or, as longtime Ritz cabby John Butler put it, “Reuben would set you straight and then Chesley would make peace. There was a certain atmosphere set by those two that kept us all in line. Those two personalities made the system.”

Men being men, Ritz drivers needed some disciplining too. Judson tells of the time the cabbies disobeyed orders by breakfasting en mass at a local eatery where the coffee was hot, the food filling and the jukebox played all day long. While the men unwound inside, their cabs were parked around the joint — out of service, costing the Pierce brothers money. When Reuben found out where the men were holed-up, he taught the guys a lesson by going to the diner and driving, one-by-one, each cab back to the Ritz garage, forcing the embarrassed drivers to walk back to the garage to fetch their vehicles. The ringleaders behind the breakfast brigade were suspended for three days. Then, Judson said, there were those occasions when a cabby had celebrated too much the night before and was in no condition to drive, leaving Reuben to lay down the law with a simple but effective edict — “park it” — meaning you were off the streets until you sobered up.

The brothers were also known for being fair.

“They’d give anybody a job,” said Billy Melton, who drove for Ritz from 1948 until its demise. Melton said where Chesley was willing to tolerate the men dipping into the day’s take or collecting fares off the meter– as long as they eventually made good — Reuben was not so inclined. The way it was supposed to work was drivers got 40 cents out of every dollar, with the rest going to the brothers, but cabbies often helped themselves to more. “It was his (Chesley’s) money, but it was yours too because you had first count. Invariably, we’d check in short, but we tried to make it up before payday,” Melton said. But, when it came to Reuben, he added, “You didn’t mess with his money. He was looking for his money every morning. None of the guys would drive for him because they knew they had to turn in all their cash. But those brothers never fired anybody. They just took it out of your salary. A lot of times payday would come and a lot of drivers didn’t have anything coming.”

That’s because “they’d already got theirs,” said Stanley Pierce, whose father was Claude.

 

 

The lure of fast and easy bucks is why many of the men kept coming back year after year. “Fresh money every night. That was the bottom line. You came to work broke and you knew you’re going to make some money. On the first drive you’re going to make some money,” Melton said. Because most runs were short, fares usually ranged from as little as 35 to 55 cents. Therefore, men depended on tips to get by. Getting a dollar bill for a 35 cent fare and hearing the words “Keep the change” was music to their ears. “It all added up,” Melton said. “If you ran $20 (in tips) you had a spectacular day.” He and his cabby cohorts said the best tippers included packinghouse workers and railroaders. But there was a downside to handling all that loose change. As fast as it came in, it went out just as fast too. “It’s hard to save money when you’re making money every night,” Melton said.

For many years Ritz enjoyed a steady cash flow by nearly cornering the north Omaha taxi market. The big cab concerns — Yellow, Checker, Safeway — catered primarily to a white clientele. Ritz’s main competition on its home turf was United Cab Co., another black owned and operated firm, and the large number of unlicensed jitney or gypsy cab services then operating. According to Pierce family members and former Ritz drivers, it was the illegal jitneys, which operated off the books and outside state insurance, transportation and tax regulations, that eroded Ritz’s market share and eventually forced it out of business.

When it was still a thriving district, just the North 24th Street corridor alone provided Ritz with all the traffic it needed. “On Friday-Saturday nights we couldn’t handle the business right here in north Omaha. We had to run and hide from people. We were that busy,” Melton said. “Ninety-nine percent of our business was black.” Even Sundays brought a steady flow of customers. “On Sunday mornings, when we took people to church, we were booming,” said Butler, whose wife Juanita is one of Chesley Pierce’s daughters. “We were zip, zap, zip…I mean, we never stopped until church was over. You might carry 50 people.”

But it was Friday-Saturday nights when things really exploded. The district’s sidewalks and streets overflowed with patrons of its many theaters, clubs, bars, restaurants, pool halls, gambling dens, rooming houses and more unmentionable hangouts. The traffic continued all through the night and, unlike today, pedestrians and drivers felt safe. “We’d sit and park with the window down  — with a pocketful of money — and go to sleep, and nobody would bother us,” Melton said.

Half the battle for any cabby, he said, is being well-acquainted with the city and its various virtues and vices. “To be a cab driver, you have to know the city. When a guy got in your cab and said, ‘I’m new in town, where can I get a good meal? or Where can I get a drink? or Where can I have some fun?’ — you had to know. As cab drivers you got around. You saw the whole town.” As Butler said, “We knew every place. There was nothing we didn’t know about. If you were a cab driver and they wanted to know where something was going on, we could tell you.”

Evenings brought out a special breed of merrymakers. “Some people just don’t want to go to bed. Those are night people. All they want to do is drink, eat, hang out and have fun. There were a lot of temptations out there,” Melton said. Whether it was wine or women or barbecue these night owls sought, Ritz cabs transported people back and forth to venues that stayed open all night long.

Then there were those occasional lusty passengers who could not resist giving into passion while the meter was still running. “A lot of cab drivers didn’t want that, but those people paid well. Sometimes you were in a position where you didn’t know it was happening. And then, when you did, what were you going to do? You couldn’t put ‘em out. They hadn’t paid yet. So, you pulled into an alley or somewhere to be discreet,” Melton said.

Sometimes, cabbies were put in the indelicate position of ferrying mates who, unbeknownst to the other, were stepping out for a night on the town with someone else.

“You’d be surprised how many times I took a man to a spot and his wife to the same spot, but with someone different. I’d have to rig it so I took one back and picked the other one up without them running into each other,” Freddie Judson recalled. Melton recalled that “the worst scenario you got into was when a good friend of yours would ask, ‘Hey Billy, I notice my wife called a cab — where did you take her?’ Right away I would say, ‘Look, you’re a friend of mine. Now, suppose your wife called me and said, ‘Where did you take my husband?’ You know, what’s good for the gander, is good for the goose.”

Like bartenders and barbers, cabbies are privy to people’s private intrigues. The Ritz drivers heard a litany of heartache tales from folks fighting the blues.

“They told you all their problems,” Judson said. “Sometimes, you’d pick up a man and he wouldn’t be goin’ no particular place. He just wanted to ride and somebody to talk to about his woman troubles. Nine times out of ten he had a bottle back there. ‘C’mon, take a drink with me,” he’d say. And I might take a little sip, just to satisfy him. He just wanted somebody to listen to him.” Melton said he sometimes had no choice but to imbibe if he wanted his money. “I had guys who wouldn’t pay me unless I drank with them. Hey, that was all right.”

 

 

 

 

 

Because a cabby is a kind of amateur counselor whom people let their hair down around and pour their souls out to, they are entrusted with secrets they are wise not to reveal.

“A cab driver has got to keep his mouth shut. He knows too much,” Melton said.

Butler credits Melton with taking “me under his wing” and showing “me the ropes” when it came to maintaining confidentiality.

“One of the important things Billy said was, ‘Now, if you want to make money in this business you’ve got to learn how to take care of your customers, and whatever they tell you — don’t repeat it to anyone else.’ I got more customers that way, too, because I would never repeat what I heard. I got customers personally calling for me because I kept my mouth shut. I never forgot that.”

In a business where service was and still is the name of the game, virtually every Ritz driver cultivated their own stable of customers who, when needing a cab ride, specifically requested them. The better service you provided, the more personal calls you got. “I had so much business that when I came to work in the morning I would have 10 personal calls I had to make before I even took a call from the dispatcher,” Butler said. “We’d have customers call back for us every time,” Stanley Pierce added.

Melton said enough trust developed between cabbies and their frequent fares that payment was often deferred until they scraped up enough cash. “We had regular fares we took to work every morning, and sometimes they’d be short of cash until the weekend. They paid us when they got paid,” he said.

Ritz drivers prided themselves on going the extra mile. “We gave good service. We knew how to treat the public,” said Butler. “It was just known we were going to get out of the cab and carry your groceries or your luggage for you. People would tip you when you did that.” Stanley Pierce said, “We’d even carry your groceries in the house and put ‘em on the counter too.”

In what Melton said was an often “thankless job” devoid of health insurance benefits and looked down on as a kind of last resort for undesirables, the men of the Ritz Cab Company never forgot they were, in fact, “public servants.” The dignity they felt for themselves and the job they performed was reflected in the slick appearance they came to be known for.

“The image you projected helped a lot,” Melton said, “and we were always clean and well-dressed. We had uniforms, but not all of us could afford them. You could wear your own clothes, as long as they were neat and clean, but we all wore the cap and our badge. One of our drivers, Bill Smith, would come to work every day with a white shirt and black tie. And I don’t care how many orders were waiting, he would take a rag and wipe his cab off and sweep it out.”

Besides their spiffy appearance and super service, Ritz cabbies were known for one more thing — their fast driving. This was particularly true before two-way radios were installed when, after completing each run, a cabby had to return to Ritz headquarters to get his next order, meaning he was racing the clock and his mates. “We had to drive fast to get back and get another order. We drove fast to make some bucks,” Butler said. Between their careening through town, overturning an occasional cab and causing some accidents, Ritz cabs came to be jokingly called “death wagons,” Butler said. “People got out of the way when we were coming.”

 

 

 

 

Outside their lead feet and their various high jinks, drivers were expected to follow a rigid code of conduct, which the more experienced hands imparted to newcomers. It was all part of the esprit de corps the men say they felt and this tight bond saw them through many rough spots.

“The cab drivers were together with one another, they helped one another, they taught one another and they looked after one another,” Butler said. “That was the bottom line — the unity we had together.”

For Melton, “it was a family thing…a brotherhood.” Judson described it this way: “If something happened to one of us, it happened to all of us. If one Ritz cab got in a problem, you would have every other Ritz cab there in 10 minutes.”

Butler can attest to that: “I remember one time in about 1956 I ran into a car at 24th and Clark and the other driver…a big guy…jumped on me,” he said. “I’ll bet we weren’t there 10 minutes fighting and fussing before half the cab stand was there. I don’t know how they knew it, because we didn’t have radios then, but they stopped the fight.”

Melton recalls how once two-way radios were installed many altercations were averted by drivers radioing their comrades for aid. “A lot of times people had been drinking and they gave you a bad time. They didn’t want to pay or they wanted to fight. And we’d just get on the horn and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem,’ and they’d all come. We were protective of each other. It was a family affair.”

The predominately black Ritz drivers say they were subjected to name calling and other slights because of the color of their skin. Although by law Ritz was constrained to operate on the north side, the company routinely ignored those boundaries to taxi fares all around town. It was a common practice and usually the authorities looked the other way. But sometimes drivers found themselves unwelcome outside some of Omaha’s posher hotels or restaurants, and police might show up “to bother us,” Butler said.

The Ritz men were also persona non grata with the major cab lines, which for a long time were segregated outfits. Where the Yellow, Checker and Safeway lines had reserved spaces in cab stands outside the train and bus stations and airport terminal, Ritz did not, but the enterprising Ritz men still found a way to snare their share of fares, which upset the competition. Ritz veterans say that as time wore on and attitudes changed, they finally got their due.

“Finally, the other cab companies gained respect for us,” Melton said, “because so many people gave us their business. They didn’t bother us anymore.” For Butler, it meant “the barriers started breaking down.”

Perhaps the biggest drawback to driving for Ritz was the long hours, as the men generally worked 12 hour shifts. “I think the worst part about driving a cab is you’re away from your family a lot,” Melton said. According to Butler, many relationships suffered under the strain, adding that he and Melton and Judson were lucky enough to have understanding wives. “The only reason any of us stayed married is we had a good woman who tolerated us.”

If there is one thing the men miss about their days behind the wheel it is the interaction they had with all kinds of people. As Melton said, “You never knew who was going to get in your cab.” Once, Butler said he found himself carting around Fats Domino. Judson said he gave Dean Martin a tour of Omaha during a stopover the crooner-actor had here. Celebrities aside, Butler said, “I liked the chance it gave me to meet new people all the time.” He used the contacts he made driving hacks to forge a career as an insurance agent. “I enjoyed meeting different people,” echoed Stanley Pierce. “We had fun.” Amen, the others chimed in.

Finally, the men feel it is important their story and the story of the Ritz Cab Co. be remembered. Why?

“Because it’s history,” Billy Melton said. “We laid the groundwork for young people today. We did a good job too. It’s a shame, but a lot of young people don’t even know what came before them.”

To put it in perspective, John Butler recalled a Pierce family reunion three years ago at which family members dressed-up a car to look like a Ritz cab and drove it in the Native Omaha Days parade along the very North 24th Street strip the taxi line served. “You  should have seen the response that got. When people learned about there having been a black cab company here, they were amazed.”

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