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As screen veteran Yolonda Ross from Omaha enjoys today’s black renaissance, she gears for next big career move

December 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Yolanda Ross

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As screen veteran Yolonda Ross from Omaha enjoys today’s black renaissance, she gears for next big career move

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

In her two decades as a working screen actress Omaha native Yolonda Ross has seen Black Cinema explode and women filmmakers assert themselves. She’s “making it happen” herself as a recurring character in Showtime’s The Chi after recurring parts in How to Murder Your Wife, The Get Down and Treme. She’s in HBO’s latest hit Random Acts of Flyness. She plays opposite Patricia Clarkson, James Caan and Toby Jones in the new indie feature Out of Blue.

Next spring, she breakouts behind the camera for her feature writing-directing debut, Scenes from Our Marriage. It shoots in her adopted hometown New York City with the same production team from the 2012 short Breaking Night she wrote-directed. She’s also executive producing and starring in Scenes. She and Clarke Peters are husband and wife theater artists dealing with professional challenges, jealousy, infidelity and race.

Omaha native Tim Christian’s Nightfox Entertainment is co-producing.

Ross left Omaha for NYC to pursue a fashion career. The multitalented artist (she also sings and paints) is glad for more opportunities today than ever.

“Yeah, this is a great time to be a black creative in our industry,” Ross said.

The emergence of Shonda Lynn Rhimes, Lena Waithe, Ryan Coogler, Jordan Peele, Terence Nance and other black TV-film players marks a wave if not sea change.

“Things have improved some,” Ross said. “I think it’s great there’s more people of color telling their own stories and not having pretty much the white race telling everybody else’s story. It makes for more specific voices for people to really see themselves on screen. It’s from a more authentic place because it’s coming from the people that live it.

“There’s still a lot of change that can happen though. There needs to be more people of color on the other side as far as green-lighting and distributing because you can produce things, but that still doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to get picked up.”

Ross has also seen her industry change in terms of how talent and content get discovered.

“Now having the Internet very much planted in the middle of everything, because you can stream everything, definitely has broadened the industry and made it smaller at the same time. There’s a whole crop of people that are stars now for not really doing anything but talking to a camera telling you about something, which is not actually acting.

“They’re just very different things.”

She sees a content glut.

“I feel it’s all very saturated right now. There’s an overload of material out there. You have to really look for the quality stuff. As far as acting, I feel if you are at the top of what you do in your work, the cream of the crop still rises no matter the clutter. You just have a lot more to get around than before because everybody’s jumbled up into one big industry.”

Concurrent with these trends are new funding, production, distribution mechanisms to help women get their work seen and supported.

“It’s wonderful,” said Ross, who’s worked with many women directors (Cheryl Dunye, Reed Morano, Carol Morley).

Her upcoming feature is getting love from Level Forward, a female-run production company supporting women’s stories and women of color.

Her project is also nurtured by Film Independent and its Fiscal Sponsorship Program, which opens the door to nonprofit funding for independent filmmakers and media artists. The Friends of Mary Riepma Ross (no relation) Media Arts Center in Lincoln, Nebraska made a grant to her project through the program.

“My film is also going to be in Film Independent Fast Track,” Ross said. The film financing market held during the LA Film Festival helps producers-directors “fast track” their projects via intensive meetings with executives, financiers, agents, managers, distributors, granting organizations and production companies.

Meanwhile, Ross, who’s worked with Denzel Washington, John Sayles, David Mamet and Baz Luhrmann, continues keeping good company. Being part of Terence Nance’s Flyness is the latest example.

“I think Terence is one of those voices we need to see. We need his Afropunk voice. We need voices like his. We need Lena Waithe’s voice. We need my voice. We need these different kinds of voices with black skin to show that we are not all the same. We don’t all think the same, we don’t all process things the same.”

Ross has prepared to make her own feature for years.

“I’m really psyched about it. We have a lot of things to say. I’m so ready. All the directors I’ve worked with, all the Sundance labs I’ve done, all the different mediums I’ve worked in – it all helps with making my own first feature film. Also, I feel I understand how to deal with other actors to get emotion without over-talking, overdoing things – but just letting people do their work.

“My experience working with so many people allows me to get the best actors, and they’re willing to do favors, which is great. In terms of production, I understand how to get things in an efficient way because I’ve dealt with so many different types of situations. I’m able to look at things from the outside in and from the inside out, where sometimes directors kind of get stuck in the writing or the set. I also have a strong team around me to keep me on track so that I can lock down and streamline what I want to get in a moment, in a scene.”

Doing Breaking Night was “extremely important,” she said. “I needed to learn every step in making a film – from writing it to getting it out to festivals. Not only did I learn everybody’s job, I dealt with everything from insurance to licensing music. I needed to understand the business side. It’s helped me preparing to make this feature. I can talk to my producers about different elements and guide the project in a way that will be bes as far as time, money, creatively, everything.

“I like the producing aspects of filmmaking.”

Her screen journey began in earnest with her breakthrough in the 2001 HBO movie Stranger Inside.

“When you’re in it, sometimes you don’t look back on it because everything is about the next job. You’re always striving for more. Whatever you did in the past is great, but it’s also the past. But I’m very thankful to be here and to be able to have touched people in various ways. I’m thankful to continue to work on great projects and to be able to support myself by doing my passion, my art.”

She’s never forgotten her roots.

“I’m always down to do things in Omaha. I was just there (May) at the Dundee Theater for a panel on women in television. Supporting artists there is totally my thing. I feel seeing people who grew up in the same setting as you living their dream is a really powerful thing.”

Visit yolondaross.com.

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

 

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

December 8, 2018 Leave a comment

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

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

Amber Ruffin: A consideration

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

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

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

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

 

Putting it on the Line

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Replicating improv on TV is elusive.

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

Playing off a live audience is crucial.

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

Working in a corporate culture is still an adjustment.

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

She’s learned to work within network TV boundaries.

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

Going out on a limb is a Ruffin trait.

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

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

Growing up, Ruffin used humor as escape.

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

That experience still informs her.

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

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

“I just love musicals.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She believes she provides a good change-up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming of age here, she craved diversity.

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Amber on Facebook and Twitter.

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

Chip Davis: The man behind the Steamroller machine

November 26, 2018 3 comments

 

The man behind the Steamroller machine

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of New Horizons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking the mold

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

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

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

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

Influences

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

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

“It broke my heart.”

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

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

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

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

He was invited to sing with the Vienna Boys Choir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t even notice that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploration

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

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

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

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

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

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

His Ambience series records terrestrial sounds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He also has a series on seasons.

Nature

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

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

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

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

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

From classical to country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The show proved a smash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

People knew the commercials.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nashville came calling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Finding his niche with Mannheim Steamroller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even Davis wasn’t sure what he had.

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

Do it yourself

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

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

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

He suddenly found himself both a musician and a businessman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fringe benefits

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

“I’ve been all over the place/”

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

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

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

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

His celebrity isn’t something he dwells on.

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

Davis is grateful his music resonates with so many.

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

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

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

 

 

 

Ties that bind

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

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

“And my musicians are just intensely loyal.”

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

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

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

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

The music connections are everywhere.

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

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

“These relationships have lasted,” he said.

A gift shared

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

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

“Sometimes it comes to me in my sleep.”

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

The framework for his music is always classically based.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gregarious Davis is surprisingly shy.

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

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

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

Davis himself is still exploring new ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit http://www.mannheimsteamroller.com.

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

Cathy Hughes: Forging a Media Empire by 
Disrupting the Status Quo

November 25, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Cathy Hughes has forged media empire by disrupting the status quo 

photo by Bill Sitzmann

story by Leo Adam Biga and Daisy Hutzell-Rodman

Originally published in B2B Omaha Magazine (omahamagazine.com/articles/cathyhughes)

Disruptors don’t ask permission. They refuse accepting no for an answer. Neither do they cow to tradition for tradition’s sake, nor let barriers deny realizing their goal.

Make no mistake, Omaha native media mogul Cathy Hughes built the first leg of her Urban One empire by being a disruptor. Doing it in the nation’s capital gave her a national platform. After running radio station WHUR at Howard University, where her innovative programming made waves, she made her move in ownership at WOL, which became the flagship for her Radio One broadcast network.

She developed a reputation as a sharp entrepreneur and tough negotiator. Her intuitive grasp of what the public wanted and her ability to provide it as both a programmer and an on-air host built a brand and a following. In 1999 she became the first African-American woman to chair a publicly traded company. This media magnate added a television network to her holdings when her son Alfred Liggins III launched TV One. Though Alfred now runs things on a day by day basis for a diverse portfolio of companies, including online and gaming divisions, she’s still very much involved and remains Urban One’s public face.

Hughes recently added movie producer to her credits.  She is second only to Oprah when it comes to individual black women wealth. None of it would have been possible, she says, without what she learned in her hometown of Omaha, where Alfred also grew up.

Mentors included civil rights champion priest John Markoe, Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown and advocate journalist Charles B. Washington. Her activist parents resisted racial inequality as members of the social action group the De Porres Club, Her mother Helen Jones Woods was a professional musician turned licensed practical nurse and social worker. Her father William Woods was an accountant. Her maternal grandfather, Lawrence C. Jones, was founder of Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi.

“My mother, father and grandfather were very committed to trying to improve the plight of our people, and I inherited that,” says Hughes.

Another influence informing her own independent spirit was a group of prominent African-Americans who bought local radio station KOWH.

“Their example inspired me to become a broadcast owner of what ultimately became the largest black media company in the world.”

Her sense of self-determination and aspiration as a single mother in North Omaha, where she worked at both the Star and KOWH and participated in demonstrations, carried her far.

Instead of making her single mother status a negative or barrier, she embraced it and used it as motivation to achieve. Her son was there for her entire struggle and ascent. She sometimes brought him to classes and to work.

National journalist Tony Brown was so impressed upon meeting the vivacious Hughes when he appeared in Omaha that he invited her to be a lecturer at Howard despite the fact she was not a college graduate herself.

“He saw that I was so hungry for the opportunity and that this was a passion for me.”

Brown was one of a string of illustrious mentors who saw her potential. Others included Susan Thompson Buffett, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and Johnson Publishing founded John H. Johnson.

Hughes parlayed the Howard opportunity to become D.C.’s first female general manager of a radio station when asked to take the reins at WHUR in 1973. She grew ad revenues and helped WHUR go national after creating the urban format “Quiet Storm,” which hundreds of stations across the country adopted.

Realizing she still had a lot to learn, Hughes studied psychographic programming at Harvard and took a programming seminar at the University of Chicago.

In 1980, she and then-husband Dewey Hughes purchased struggling WOL. She reversed the station’s fortunes by transforming it from R&B to a 24-hour-a-day news-talk format she dubbed “Information is Power.” She hosted an on-air morning show for 11 years, thus becoming the voice and face of black urban radio.

Hughes took cues from her Omaha mentors in remaining connected to her community while finding commercial success.

Years before in Omaha, she said Mildred Brown and Charles Washington “understood that information is power.” She learned from them and the folks who ran KOWH that black media isn’t just about a business, it’s about a community service.” That realization has informed everything she’s done with Urban One.

“Our commitment to our community is what has built brand loyalty. Investors and bankers respect that.  They’re interested in numbers and they understand the numbers will be there because the community responds positively to that loyalty.”

Building a radio network was her vision and ambition.

“I always wanted more than one station,” she says.

She sees opportunity where others don’t.

“We have been turnaround experts. That’s what our whole corporate strategy has been. We take under-performing stations and turn them around. Under-performing stations have practically called our name. That’s how we’ve approached broadcasting.

“We built Radio One with numerous formats, including some mainstream white formats.”

Hughes put together most of the funds for her initial purchase of WOL.

“I had $100,000 of my own personal money. That’s why when Dewey and I split there wasn’t a big hassle because it was his opportunity and my money.

“I raised an additional $100,000 from 10 investors – each putting in $10,000 a piece, and then I borrowed the rest. I needed a million dollars from a senior lender. I was turned down by 32 different banks. The 33rd presentation was to a Puerto Rican woman banker – and she said yes. She was the one that made the difference. I put together another $600,000 from black venture capitalists.”

Part of persevering and being resilient meant having to prove to skeptics that she could go it alone.

“The most perilous time in the history of my company was when I decided to divorce my husband. He was not making a contribution to the business. He was a drain. But that’s not how it was seen by my advertisers, by my lenders, by my creditors, by my listeners. They saw it from the perspective that I wouldn’t be able to survive with Dewey no longer in the picture.”

Survive and thrive she did by leaning into the example set by Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, whose “dogged determination” she admired.

“When somebody told Mildred no, she saw it as an opportunity to change their mind, she never saw it as a rejection. She didn’t take no seriously. No to her meant Oh, they must not have enough information to come to the right conclusion.”

Like that earlier media matriarch, the charismatic Hughes brings “activism with marketing and salesmanship” to her personal art of persuasion.

Early in her Radio One ownership, when loans were hard to come by, she openly expressed doubts. She credits a male investor-advisor with getting her to speak into action her successful acquisition of capital, stations, listeners and advertisers.

“He told me to change my terminology, which changed my thinking, because I was the first person to hear it.

And guess what, one day it was no longer a lie, it became my truth.”

Even after her multi-billion dollar company went public, the ever-driven Hughes was anything but complacent.

“I don’t see it as success yet, I still see it as a work in progress.”

Being a woman in a male-centric industry hasn’t fazed her, she said, because “I never put woman first. I am black first and a woman second. Plus, I had my eyes on a prize. I didn’t see it as proving something to the old boys network. I was not intimidated by the fact I was the only female. I really thought because I was the first woman general manager there would be a whole proliferation of black women owning and managing radio stations. But women have made more progress in sports than they have in media.”

Her business rise took some aback as it didn’t follow expectations. For instance, when she found herself a single mother again after putting together the WOL deal, she and her son Alfred slept at the station until things improved. A black single mom with a penchant for telling it like it is disrupted the prototypical corporate culture.

“It’s not a role white women have enjoyed for too long and so it’s definitely still brand new for African-American women, especially for someone outspoken like me.”

Along the way, she says, she’s had to educate some folks that it was she who actually built Radio One and made it a success, not her ex-husband or her business partner son. Perhaps a sign of progress is that she now gets credit for forming TV One and taking the parent company public when it was her son Alfred’s doing.

She’s grateful that her son, a Wharton School of Business graduate, came to not only embrace her media vision and passion but to expand it to across platforms.

Things came full circle for the pair last May when Hughes was honored in Omaha for her achievements and Liggins joined others in singing her praises.

“I could always recognize and appreciate her drive, tenacity and lessons,” he says. “First and foremost, I respect her as a human being and as my mother. In terms of our business partnership, we don’t let any of the mother-son-family potential squabbles disintegrate that partnership. I guess we’ve always been a team since the day I was born.”

Hughes now has a boulevard named after her in North Omaha and she is a Face on the Barroom Floor at the Omaha Press Club.

“It doesn’t get any better than that,” she says.

Visit https://urban1.com.

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

This article was printed in the December 2018/January 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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

November 25, 2018 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

These talents include:

Noble and George Johnson

Lloyd Hunter

Preston Love Sr.

Wynonie Harris

Anna Mae Winburn

Mildred Brown

Helen Jones Woods

Ruth Norman

Buddy Miles

Arno Lucas

Calvin Keys

Victor Lewis

Cathy Hughes

Carol Rogers

Nole Jeanpierre

Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris

John Beasley

Monty Ross

Kevyn Morrow

Randy Goodwin

Camille Steed

Sandra Organ

Alfred Liggins Jr.

Jade Jenise Dixon

Gabrielle Union

Yolonda Ross

Q Smith

Carleen Brice

Kim Louise

Victoria Benning

Omowale Akintunde

Michael Beasley

Lafayette Reed Jr.

Tim Christian

Beaufield Berry

Symone Sanders

Chanelle Elaine

Funny, yet serious, to the core: 

The Amber Ruffin story

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That experience still informs her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just love musicals,” she said.

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

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

Going out on a limb is a Ruffin trait.

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

Her sisters are also published writers.

The movie The Wiz made a big impression on Amber.

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

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

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

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

Writing musicals has become a new niche.

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

Performing in a musical may be another matter.

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Her parents encouraged her through the tough times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

it doesn’t carry the same weight.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Amber on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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

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

Cheryl Logan settles into role as new Omaha Public Schools superintendent

November 21, 2018 Leave a comment

 

 

Logan settles into role as new OPS superintendent

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

New Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Cheryl Logan, 55, is the first woman to hold the position full-time and the first African-American filling it, period. That’s not what this East Coast native, mother of one and daughter of a career educator mother and law enforcement father wants the community focusing on.

“I hope when people in the district see me or visit with me they see themselves as being able to sit in this seat. I’m as ordinary as you can be. I did take advantage of some opportunities that allowed me to be in this chair,”

she said. “I think if you’re a person of color or a person raised by two middle-class parents or a woman or a parent, you can identify with me.

“I think any of those things are points of common ground. I always find when I meet people there’s a touch point. While my social identity can be very exciting to some folks, it is something probably less remarkable when we relate and just share our common humanity.”

More important to her then being the district’s first double-minority top leader is that her parents met at historically black Philander Smith College and made aspirational lives for themselves and their five children. Logan and her siblings have all achieved highly in their respective careers.

She’s part of a three-generational lineage of educators. Her daughter Cassie is a teacher just as Logan and her mother were before her.

“It is something that brings me great joy. It is very meaningful to me,” Logan said of this legacy.

Her 30-year journey from high school Spanish teacher to principal to assistant superintendent to chief academic officer – earning Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leader Award recognition – expresses her deep commitment to the education field.

“I just fundamentally believe in public education. It changes lives every day. There are children who come through our doors who will change the whole trajectory of their family based on the fact they became well educated. That’s what happened to me.”

In a recent tweet she referred to education as “the profession that makes all others possible.”

“Growing up in the Jim Crow South, my parents could have had a very different outcome,” she said.

Instead, education was a pathway to career success. They raised a family in a Maryland suburb outside Washington D.C., where they set high expectations for their children to do well in school.

“I know that that happened for me and it happens to children every day. Hopefully it happened to children I taught along the way. I know it’s happening every day in Omaha and in schools around the country.”

Logan vied for superintendencies across the country. Once this job came into view, she felt Omaha offered a desired slower pace and OPS mirrored the diverse urban district she came from in Philadelphia.

Being a superintendent appeals to her, she said, because “you have the opportunity to make impact across an entire community and be a role model.”

On visits here prior to starting her OPS post in July, she found a district and community brimming with humility, generosity, forward-thinking and caring.

“The district has very smart people working here,” she said. “All up and down the line I feel the staff’s committed. Arts are thriving, sports are thriving, academics are thriving, career-technical education is thriving. All of those things you think about wanting to lead are in place here.”

Budget and finance are priorities moving forward in a district that made cuts before her arrival.

“The fiscal challenges are part of the landscape of education no matter which district you go to,” she said.

A recently passed second bond issue secured OPS bricks and mortar needs for the next 15 years.

She likes Omahans’ buy-in with in the district.

“The community is deeply committed to OPS. Philanthropic, faith, community groups really believe OPS needs to thrive if Omaha’s going to thrive. I hear this from every person that I meet – OPS must do well.”

She’s grateful for the support she’s received.

“I think part of the support I’ve been given is that people want me to do well because they want OPS to do well. Part of it is having a well-educated community that understands schools are really an important barometer of the health of a city – and they support accordingly.”

A measure of people’s buy-in is the record 10,000-plus  respondents to a district survey.

“It’s incredible that many people wanted to give me their feedback to a survey specifically designed to baseline where we are as a district. It was sent to students,

parents, staff, community stakeholders. They were        overwhelmingly very positive about the district.”

Once the honeymoon of her hire ends, she’ll have a better gauge for how her “business-like, firm-and-fair, hard-on-the-problem-and-not-on-the-person, hands-on and distributive” leadership style’s going over.

“I think one of the things you have to do is delegate but not abdicate your responsibility. You have to have some sort of continuous or regular feedback group so that as people understand the vision or what needs to happen, you are mostly co-creating that and folks can see that their ideas are a part of it.

“I may go into a meeting with my head going in one way and be very convinced by a compelling argument or case that it should go in another direction. I think there’s a certain degree of openness that’s needed.”

Her job is keeping a big picture view while ensuring kids get the education they need.

“I do think having a bird’s eye view is helpful. You can be more objective, less defensive about things, and give critical feedback that will help us move forward. I’m always going to be super interested in anything curriculum or academics related. That’s the old chief academic officer in me.

“Because I was a principal for so long time I’m always real interested in all things about the principalship and building leadership. I know principals have a lot of influence and ability to make schools really special for kids. You see and feel when you walk in their schools their impact.”

An OPS value-add for her its many immigrant families.

“With deep appreciation I’ve enjoyed serving those communities knowing I was making a difference.”

She believes her Spanish fluency “removes a barrier and allows me to experience the world through eyes different from my own.”

“Resource deployment” can make delivering education “difficult” amid state budget constraints and teacher shortages, she said. “I really want to position the district well in all aspects of talent pool in ensuring we are going to have enough teachers and those teachers can meet the needs of our students. I hope that’s something I will have a long-term impact on. I’m deeply interested in it.”

“This job is really a lot about policy and what we’re going to do, but when it comes to implementation the devil is in the details. Implementation is typically going to be done by folks who don’t have regular contact with you. I stay connected in a lot of ways. First, by making myself accessible, open, listening to feedback and understanding from the perspective of others how they might be experiencing something.”

She likes the community’s-district’s sensible approach.

“There are places where people want to make policy and there are places where people want to make sense, and I think Omaha is a place where people want to make sense.””

Representing an entire district is new.

“This job is very different,” she said. “There’s a lot of public facing.”

She wants her constituencies to see her “urgency around the work” as well as her “commitment, compassion, strategic-thinking and longterm vision.”

“Those are the things I hope I convey.”

Perhaps the most vital relationship she get right is with the school board. Informed by the experience of recent district leaders coming under fire for opaque leadership and contentious relations, her 90-day entry plan emphasized transparency and communication.

“Our vision and mission have to be clear to everyone. Dealing with a board elected by the voting public is a careful balance, especially for a new superintendent. I think the board has been open. They want to understand my leadership style. I’m trying to get into that groove but it’s something that will take time. It is a work in progress.”

Making connections extends to students and parents. She held a town hall meeting with them in September.

She views public education as a compact with people who expect a return on investment.

“Just like any investment you’ve made, when people send their children to the school district, they’re making an investment. It’s property taxes, it’s time, it’s devotion and support for the school. At the end of the child’s K-12 experience they ought to be able to point to exactly the things they got as a result of that experience. If every one of them can fully articulate something that really prepared them for the next chapter or phase of their life, then we will have done a really good job.”

In another tweet, she revealed a philosophy for getting the most out of kids: “Positive relationships with students will yield amazing outcomes that intellect, technical skill and positional authority cannot.”

In addition to mentoring educators on the job, she’s taught graduate level courses to aspiring ed leaders.

The end of September marked the end of her first 90 days on the job.

“It’s actually been a smooth first 90 days. There’s been some bumps and hiccups and I’ve gotten a couple of surprises – and I do not like surprises.”

As she learns the nuances of leading a district in a new community and culture, she knows there will be missteps, and that’s hard for this perfectionist.

“I can be really hard on myself, I can internalize things. One of my friends used to say, ‘Okay, Cheryl, you’re in analysis paralysis.’ I also know I’m fallible. There are mistakes I’m going to make. I’m the first person who will admit if I’ve made a mistake and move on from there.”

As the face of the district, she said, “I am also somewhat hyper-aware I’m modeling behavior for others. Sometimes at board meetings I watch people looking at me because they see how I’m going to react in a stressful situation and it’s an opportunity for me to teach because I think a lot of this job is temperament.

“I do not like to go up and down. If I can be a steadying force, it helps my team. I’m like, we’re going to stay right here in the middle.”

For Logan, “the best days are when I know I made a difference.”

“My final school-based assignment was at Parkdale High School. It’s where I began and ended my career. I was a student teacher there and 23 years later I became its principal. It was so meaningful to start and end my career in that building in a community I grew up in. That was the most difficult job I have had, bar none, because the school needed to be turned around. But it was awesome serving those kids.”

At the end of the day, it’s all about the kids.

“Kids are delightful and delicious wherever you go, and they are here.”

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

Soccer Brings Bob Warming Home: Once a Bluejay, Now a Maverick

November 13, 2018 Leave a comment


Soccer Brings Bob Warming Home

Once a Bluejay, Now a Maverick

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in the Nov-Dec 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine

(http://omahamagazine.com/articles/soccer-brings-bob-warming-home/)

Bob Warming’s unexpected return to Omaha in 2018—this time to head the men’s soccer program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha—is the latest turn in a lifelong love affair with coaching.

Warming, 64, twice helmed the Creighton University program in town. He’s known as the architect of a Bluejay program he took from nothing to national prominence. During his first CU run (1990-1994), Omaha became home to him, his wife Cindy, and their four children. During his second CU tenure (2001-2009), his kids finished school and came of age.

His passion for the game is such that even though he’s one of collegiate soccer’s all-time winningest coaches at an age when most folks retire, he’s still hungry to lead young people. After eight highly successful seasons at his last stop, Penn State, he did retire, albeit for less than two months, before taking the UNO post in April.

Love for family changed best-laid plans. It started when he and Cindy visited Omaha in November to meet their new granddaughter. Their intense desire to see her grow up caused Warming to step down at Penn State and move to Omaha.

When then-UNO soccer coach Jason Mims decided to pursue new horizons (Mims had played and coached for Warming at Saint Louis University, and traveled with him to Creighton and Penn State before kickstarting the UNO program in 2011), Warming couldn’t resist continuing to build what his former assistant had started.

“I have come back with even more energy. There’s a lot of younger guys I’m running into the ground,” Warming says.

He also brought knowledge gained from legendary peers and best friends at Penn State: women’s volleyball coach Russ Rose, wrestling coach Cael Sanderson, and women’s soccer coach Erica Dambach.

“I learned more coaching at Penn State than I had in all my previous years,” he says. “It’s not even close. I grew tremendously. I got a lot of new ideas about things. I derive tremendous energy from being a continual learner. Even in the 59 days I retired, I continued to research better ways to teach and train people.”

His son, Grant, played for him in Happy Valley and now assists at UNO. Grant’s twin sister, Audrey, died in a 2012 auto accident. The family honors her legacy with Audrey’s Shoes for Kids, an annual event that gives away soccer shoes, shin guards, jerseys, and balls to disadvantaged children in Omaha. About 300 youths received gear in this summer’s giveback.

Warming first fell in love with coaching at age 14 in his native Berea, Kentucky. The multi-sport athlete was a tennis prodigy on the United States Lawn Tennis Association’s junior circuit when his coach taught him a lesson in humility by having him coach 9-year-olds. In the process, Warming found his life’s calling.

“I had been very into myself only,” he admits. “I was a selfish little brat. Then all of a sudden I realized it’s about helping other people. It’s a great lesson my coach taught me. He knew if I was ever going to go any place with my life, I had to give something to others.”

Warming’s outlook on life gradually shifted. “I derive the most pleasure out of watching young people improve,” he says.

Soccer supplied his next life-changing experience. Berea College, a private college in his hometown, has a long history of inclusion. In the early 1970s, it recruited world-class footballers from Ghana and Nigeria. Warming was the squad’s goalkeeper (and also a varsity letter-winner on the tennis, swimming, and golf teams); he honed his knowledge of soccer from these foreign players and gleaned insights into diversity.

“I’m playing soccer and hanging out all the time with these black guys in the South—not the most popular thing to do in a town where on Sunday nights every summer the KKK burned a cross,” he recalls. “That was the dark ages in a lot of ways. But I was fascinated interacting with these guys from Africa and finding out how they live and what their culture is like.

“I was able to play with these incredible guys from a young age, and the game is the best teacher,” he says. “For me, it was a remarkable time in my life. I learned a lot about a lot of different things.”

Years later at Penn State, he brought more student-athletes of color into the soccer program than it had ever seen before. “That was a cool part of the whole deal,” he says.

He appreciates what a mentor did in giving him a progressive outlook. “The guy who eventually became my college coach was the leader of all this,” Warming says.

His own collegiate coach at Berea, Bob Pearson, succeeded his protégé a few years later when Warming left his coaching post at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia, for a coaching position at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in the 1980s. Four decades later, the veteran Warming succeeded his own protégé, Mims, at UNO.

“I have all these crazy circles in coaching,” he says.

The kind of bond Warming has with Pearson, he has with Mims.

“Loyalty, trust, and respect are the basis for all relationships, and we have all three of those,” Warming says.

Pearson got Warming his first head coaching gigs in his 20s at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky (where Warming spent one season before heading to Berry University); he also coached tennis at both schools.

Warming was still only in his mid-30s when Creighton hired him the first time in 1990, poaching him from his brief tenure as director of athletics at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. At Creighton, he revived a dormant program that began winning and drawing fans.

He enjoyed the challenge of “building something from its inception and doing missionary work for our sport.” In exchange for free coaching clinics, he got local soccer clubs to turn out in droves.

“Thus, Creighton soccer was born. It came out of giving back to the community and coaching education,” Warming says.

He left CU in 1994 for Old Dominion. From there he went to Saint Louis University. The Rev. John Schlegel, then-CU president, lured him back in 2001 with the promise he could design a state-of-the-art soccer facility.

“Father Schlegel said, ‘Build me a soccer stadium. We want an iconic building to define the new eastern borders of our campus. I’ll pick the facade because I want it to reflect how the rest of the campus will look,’” Warming recalls. “Think about that. Where else has a soccer stadium determined what the rest of the campus would look like?”

The result, Morrison Stadium, has become a jewel of north downtown.

Warming’s CU and Penn State teams contended for conference and national titles. Now that he’s back in Omaha, he looks to take fledgling UNO soccer to its first NCAA playoff berth and create a powerhouse like the one he did down the street.

Back in Omaha again, he organized “the largest free coaching clinic in the country” at UNO in August. Some 200 coaches from around the nation attended, including 150 from Nebraska. Tweets about the event surpassed two million impressions.

“The selfish reason I did it was I want to kick-start this program into something, and to take soccer in Nebraska to the next level,” he says. “We have to get better.”

His methods today are different than when he last coached in Omaha.

“If you really want to train people, you have to get them in the mood to train using all the different modalities—texting, tweeting, playlists, video—available to us now,” he says. “You cannot coach, you cannot lead, you cannot do anything the way people did it years ago. You won’t be successful. The why is so important in terms of explaining things and building consensus and getting people involved to where they say, yeah, we want to do this together.”

In the full circle way his life runs, he feels right at home at UNO, where hundreds of students, including international students, get a free education. “We are the school of the people,” he says.

Meanwhile, he’s busily stocking his roster with players from around the globe—including France, Spain, and Trinidad and Tobago—with many more players from Omaha and around the Midwest.

Wherever he’s landed as a coach, it’s the new challenge that motivates him. No different at UNO. “One hundred percent,” he says. “I love it.”

Visit omavs.com for more information.

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazineclick here to subscribe.

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