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Orsi’s: Historic Italian bakery-pizzeria reaches 100


Image result for orsi's omaha
Orsi’s
Historic Italian bakery-pizzeria reaches 100
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the July 2019 edition of The Reader (thereader.com)
Jim Hall appreciates what a touchtone Little Italy landmark he owns in Orsi’s Italian Bakery & Pizzeria. Though not Italian, the 60-year-old is a paisan in every other sense. He started there at 8 and became a close friend and trusted worker of the namesake Orsi clan.
Markng 100 years in 2019. Orsi’s is a last vestige of a neighborhood whose gentrification trades on rich ethnic history. With all but one traditional Little Italy restaurant gone and no Italian market nearby, Orsi’s enjoys the sweet spot as purveyor of authentic, old-world fare.
“We’re the only one left. We’re Omaha’s original Italian bakery,” Hall said.
The city’s other major Italian bakery, Rotella’s, long competed with Orsi’s for patronage. Folks grew up loyal to one brand or the other. Since Rotella’s left Little Italy for the suburbs and went commercial mass-production, Orsi’s has had the local artisan field to itself
“Ours is an all hand-made (tossed) product,” said Hall. “Some people don’t look at quality a much as price, but there are always stalwarts who want the quality.”
That quality is all in the dough. The ingredients are simple enough: yeast, salt, water and high gluten wheat flour. But it’s the small batch, time tested- care and craft that gives the classic Italian twist its signature chew.
“I know the bread’s an outstanding bread,” Hall said. “People come from all over to buy it. People that grew up around here and now live far away make the drive down because it’s something special they can’t get anywhere else. The same with the pizza, the garlic bread and the garlic cheese bread.”
Dave Lassek makes the pilgrimage from 168th and Blondo. “Their pizza and bread dough is the best,” said Lassek, who stopped to get dough for a homemade pizza his wife was making for Father’s Day.
Pat Smith’s been a devoted customer since the 1950s. Why? “Because they’ve got the best bread in town.”
“The bread’s like our calling card,” Hall said, “but more and more people are finding out about the pizza. Pizza pays the bills.”
Orsi’s is No.1 on Trip Advisor for pizza places in Omaha. Small wonder given its distinctive Romano-Mozzarella cheese mix and slow-cooked, homemade Sicilian sauce thick with tomato paste, olive oil and fresh garlic.
Unlike some fresh foods with a long history, Orsi’s has remained constant despite ownership changes.
“The quality stays the same,” said Smith.
“They still use the original recipes,” fan Mary Thompson said admiringly.
The familiar smell, taste, texture provide instant sensory triggers for legacy customers and artisans alike.
“It takes you home,” said lifetime Little Italy resident Nancy D’Agosta Calinger.
“It’s the same ingredients we used when I was a kid back in the 1960s when I learned how to make it,” Hall said. “There’s no change in it. No preservatives. Preservatives will give you longer shelf life, but will change the flavor and the texture – and what people want is that texture. It’s crispy, crunchy on the outside and soft inside. It’s why it comes out so good for toast.”
The dough contains no sugar or milk either. That purity is why Orsi’s can’t be found in stores. Since its products don’t turn over fast enough to retain freshness, stores get credited for unsold loaves. There’s no margin niche-supplying far-flung grocers. Thus, pilgrims must come to mecca for their fix.
Fresh, sometimes still warm bread from the oven guarantees the unmistakable texture and aroma you can only get at Orsi’s.
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Between Hall and his mates, the bakers have hundreds of years on the line.
“Some of us have worked together since we were kids,” Hall said..”We all take pride in what we’re making because we want it to come out the way we remember.”
Hall learned the trade from co-founder Alfonzo Orsi’s sons Claudio and Olivio Orsi and from Claudio’s son Bobby Orsi Sr.
“I wasn’t the fastest, but I was good at everything I did because I made sure I learned it the right way,” Hall said. “I was taught it’s more about being consistent than fast because fast doesn’t always mean good.”
Hall cultivates customer stories that tell of Sunday mornings when folks come after church for fresh bread to go with their Sunday pasta dinner. There’s nothing like dipping a piece into nanna’s sauce. Some loaves don’t even make it home.
“People come down for a hot loaf of bread in the winter, stuff it up under their shirt, bring butter and a knife, pull it apart, butter it up, and eat it on the way home,” Hall said with satisfaction.
Until well into the 1970s, Orsi’s didn’t offer a sliced loaf. You can still get a whole by request.
Hall savors the memories and traditions.
“I try to be a good steward and keep the tradition going – and make it even better. That’s why i took it over (in 2010) because I didn’t want to see it end before the hundred years. Just in my time here, three to four generations have come through. I might not know all their names, but I know a lot of the faces.”
The lobby features photos that speak to the history.

“A lot of them are from guys that worked at the bakery as kids or that grew up with the Orisi or went to St. Frances Cabrini or St. Anne’s. This is where they can see themselves. It’s another thing they can count on that’s still here.”
It could have all ended in 1997 when fire gutted the place, but the community pitched in to bring it back.
“There were fundraisers. Some local smaller bakeries – Olsen’s, Emminger’s, Ferd’s –  let us use their production areas when they were in their down time so we could bake our products, still fill the grocery shelves and have revenue coming in,” Hall recalled. “The fire happened in February and we were back in August (in a new, updated, expanded structure).”
Area resident Mary Thompson wasn’t surprised the community “rallied around” the bakery.
“They’re good neighbors,” said Thompson, adding that current owner Jim Hall is known for his “generosity.”
She and others say the bakery couldn’t have fallen to a better caretaker.
“Yeah, I hear it a lot from people,” Hall ackowledged.
As an entrepreneur, he’s boosted the pizzeria side and added value with a deli of imported meats, cheeses, homemade italian sausage and gourmet olive oils and pastas. It’s filled the gap since Marino’s grocery closed.
Pat Smith echoes others in saying Orsi’s is “the best place to get Italian specialties.”
Long-in-the-works plans for a permanent dining section may finally come to fruition this fall.
“It will definitely help enhance things,” said Hall.
A makeshift option exists now with card tables and folding chairs.
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Hall, whose wife Kathy does all the books. is an ever-present fixture at Orsi’s.
“I do it all. I usually i average between 80 and 90 hours a week. It’s a lot of love, hard work and long hours.”
Even when employed at UPS and OPPD he worked evenings and weekends at Orsi’s. He and Bob Orsi Jr. had it together before he bought out his shares.
“I’ve been here my whole life. Basically the only time I was out was when I broke my knee in a car accident and I broke my neck in a fall.”
Even while wearing a halo drilled into his skull he worked 70 to 75 hours a week.
Finding good help is tough.
“It gets frustrating because the work ethnic and desire  is not as much with younger people today.”
It’s why he surrounds himself with trusted old cronies.
Hall’s seen a surge in business from the area’s redevelopment boom.
“It’s just introducing more and more people to Orsi’s. Once they taste it, they come back.”
No, the German-Austrian Hall isn’t Italian by blood, but if anyone’s earned honorary Italian status, he has.
“Yeah. I’ve earned it a lot. Over and over.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
Orsi’s Italian Bakery & Pizzeria
621 Pacific Street
402-345-3438
Tuesday-Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Sunday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Closed Mondays
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Jazz to the Future – The Revitalization of a Scene

July 3, 2019 2 comments

JAZZ to the Future illustration

 

Jazz to the Future – The Revitalization of a Scene

story by Leo Adam Biga

Illustration by Derek Joy

Originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Omaha Magazine (omahamagazine.com/articles/jazz-to-the-future)

 

Legacy Informs Revival

Veteran drummer Curly Martin came of age in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when North O brimmed with players and venues. Today, he’s a flashpoint for shedding light on the history and making jazz relevant again. He is adamant “you can’t be taught jazz or blues.”

“We had mentors. Preston Love was one of my biggest mentors. I was a junior in high school, 16 years old, when I got the gig with his band. I got permission to go on the road and said bye to Tech High.”

He insists the only way to learn is to “just hang out and play, man.”

“My whole thing is about the music and passing on the knowledge,” says Martin, who’s forming a foundation to mentor youth, The Martin Mentoring Lab. He’s presented jazz labs at Hi-Fi House in the Blackstone District and is doing the same at The Jewell in the Capitol District.

“I believe the audience is in Omaha—they just don’t know what they’ve been missing because it’s been gone for so long,” says Kate Dussault, formerly of Hi-Fi House. “Omaha has this really unique opportunity right now, which is why we’re creating this foundation as a place where people can come and learn by osmosis.”

In Martin, Dussault found a kindred spirit.

“He reveres jazz like I do—as black classical music. Curly’s determined to bring jazz back to Omaha and [Hi-Fi House is] doing everything we can to help him.”

His son Terrace Martin, a noted musician and producer in Los Angeles, is leading a similar charge on the coast. 

“It’s a whole new clique going on,” Curly says. “All these young musicians catching hold and putting all this together—passing the work and knowledge around.”

The Grammy-nominated album Velvet Portraits, featuring Curly and Terace, was recorded at producer Rick Carson’s Omaha-based Make Believe Studios. Carson says Terrace, with artists like Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper, are leading “a jazz resurgence,” adding, “The jazz they’re playing isn’t straight-ahead jazz, it’s this jazz mix-up of hip hop, funk, R&B, and soul.”

“Terrace is sitting right at the nexus of hip hop and jazz,” Dussault says. “He’s a sought-after producer who works with Kendrick Lamar and Herbie Hancock. He’s part of that whole crew bringing this new sort of jazz and making playing jazz cool again to young people.”

That synergy travels to Omaha in work Terrace, Curly, and others do at Hi-Fi, Make Believe, Holland Performing Arts Center, and The Jewell. None of this new activity may have happened, Dussault notes, if Martin hadn’t asked Hi-Fi “to help him bring back jazz at the club level.”

“At the time, in my estimation, jazz truly was dead in Omaha,” she says. “Love’s Jazz was doing a little smooth jazz and you had great shows at the Holland, but you can’t develop a jazz audience at $35 and $65 a ticket. So we came up with a concept of doing shows where Curly and company perform jazz and tackle history he thought otherwise would never be told. He’s really a big believer if kids don’t see it, they can’t aspire to play it—and then we’ll never turn this around.”

Dussault committed “to celebrate the history with Curly and guys he grew up with that had a pretty important impact on the canon of jazz, blues, R&B, even rock. We brought back his friends. We underwrote the shows and we were full almost every time.”

Make Believe captures interviews and performances of Martin and guest musicians. The result is an archive of artists who lived North O’s jazz and blues past.

Filling the Void

Recent standing-room-only Holland performances confirm what Martin and Dussault already knew. “There’s an audience for this music—but you have to reintroduce it,” she says. “Omaha has to work on audience development.” She adds that there has been serious neglect of the scene, not just in Omaha but around the country. “It needs to be respected, coddled, and brought back.”

Omaha Performing Arts executive director Joan Squires saw the same void. Filling that gap became the mission of its Holland Jazz Series and 1200 Club.

“Nobody was presenting, in any real consistent way, the major touring jazz artists and ensembles here, and we felt it was important we do it,” Squires recalls. “Jazz is an important art form and something we’re very committed to. We do it not just for what’s on the stage but also for the education components the artists bring to our community.”

OPA’s jazz program launched in 2007. The main stage concert hall series features “a mix of very established jazz masters and renowned artists along with up-and-coming talent,” she says.

Jazz on the Green fell under OPA’s domain when Joslyn Art Museum sought someone to take it over.

“We jumped at the chance, because it’s certainly a big part of our mission and it’s a beloved series,” Squires says. “Midtown Crossing’s opening made for a perfect location. All the pieces came together to take that series to a whole new level. We’ll regularly get 8,000 to 10,000 people at a performance. It’s extraordinary.”

Omaha saxophonist Matt Wallace, who toured with Maynard Ferguson and played the prestigious Blue Note and Birdland, likes the city’s new jazz landscape.

“In general, I think the scene is very healthy right now between the players we’re producing and the available venues. The whole scene depends on schools doing well and having places to play. It’s very systemic. If one part is missing, there’s an issue. I’m very encouraged by what’s happening.”

He’s impressed by The Jewell, which opened last fall.

“What happens with most clubs is they get one of two things right—either it sounds great or it looks great. This club actually got all of it right. Another thing I like is that when you walk in you get a history of artists who played at the Dreamland—Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington.”

Jewell owner Brian McKenna’s club is a conduit to Omaha’s jazz past.

“There are two stories here,” McKenna says. “There’s the generation of Curly Martin and the previous generation of Preston Love. Each became enchanted with the sounds and players of their eras. They met the artists who came through and ended up playing with them.”

Back in the Day

Martin and his buddies learned to play jazz on the North Side, jamming alongside big-time touring artists. They became respected industry journeymen. Martin has brought some—Stemsy Hunter, Calvin Keys, Ron Beck, and Wali Ali—back to gig with him in Omaha.

North 24th Street landmark Allen’s Showcase, Martin says, “was a musicians’ hangout. It was just about music, period. You went to the Showcase for one reason only—to hear the best of the best. That’s what black music was about. That was the place for the players. The Sunday jam session was notorious. It went from 10 in the morning till 1 the next morning. You had time to play, go home, change clothes, eat, come back.”

The Dreamland Ballroom was where people went to see the major artists at the time. “We knew it as a blues place—Little Richard, Etta James, BB King…You never could dance in the damn ballroom because it was packed tight,” Martin says. “You know where us young musicians were at—right up to the stage looking up.”

“That’s how we met ‘em all. We had a chance to sit-in and play with them.…Later on, when we got 20, 21, they remembered us. That’s how we got gigs.”

Once musicians sufficiently honed their craft here, they left to back big-name artists on major concert tours and hit records. They found success as sidemen, session players, composers, producers, and music directors. Some, like Buddy Miles, became headliners.

The same scenario unfolded a generation earlier at the Dreamland, Club Harlem, Carnation Ballroom, and McGill’s Blue Room. Anna Mae Winburn, Preston Love, and Wynonie Harris broke out that way.

On the North O scene, mostly black talent played in front of integrated audiences on the strip dubbed The Deuce. Driving riffs, hot licks, and soulful voices filled myriad live music spots.

“Everybody was coming north,” Martin says.

“When I came up, we were not leaving Omaha for New York or Los Angeles. There was that much work. There were that many great musicians and venues. Then there were all the cats coming back and forth through Omaha. We were seeing the best in the world…why go anywhere?”

An infrastructure supported the scene in terms of black hotels, rooming houses, and restaurants. A&A Records was “a kick-ass music store with eight listening booths.”

“We had all that going on,” Martin says. “I’d come out of my house every morning and hear music on every corner. It was a fairytale, man. At night, you had to dress up—suit and tie, shoes shined. It was classy. Twenty-fourth and Lake was like being on Broadway. It was like that back in the day.”

Further making the scene special were clubs such as Backstreet, Apex Lounge, The Black Orchid, and The Green Light. At Off Beat Supper Club emcees introduced Cotton Club-like revues and floor shows. “It was killing,” Martin says. “It was the most popular black club in North Omaha.”

After-hours joints added another choice for late nights out. High stakes games unfolded at the Tuxedo Pool Hall. The Ritz and Lothrop movie theaters and social halls provided more entertainment options.

“North Omaha was a one-stop shop when it came to music. There was more to it than just jazz. That was just part of it. The history of North Omaha is not simple at all, especially about the music. There was just tons of music.”

And transcendent talent.

From Gene McDaniels hitting gold with “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” to Lalomie Washburn writing Chaka Khan’s mega-hit “I’m Every Woman,” it’s clear the talent was there.

“Cats getting record deals with Chess Records in Chicago. I can go on and on,” Martin says. “They were hometown stars in the ‘hood—and we all grew up together.”

Restoring What Was Lost

In the ensuing decades, clubs closed and the economy dwindled.

As the North O scene waned, new metro artists emerged—Dave Stryker, Jorge Nila, Dereck Higgins, Steve Raybine, and the Potash Twins.

There were still veterans around for up-and-comers to learn from.

Matt Wallace learned under Luigi Waites. “Playing with older, more experienced guys your game has to come up—there’s just no way around it,” Wallace says. “I try carrying that on.”

Drummer Gary Foster is grateful to his mentors. “I had so many experiences of people taking their time with me, from Bobby Griffo to Charles Gamble to Luigi to Preston, and Preston’s sons Norman and Richie. They were very open.”

Bobby Griffo, aka Shabaka, “was just a prime mover in the North Omaha modern jazz scene. Anybody that was anybody played with him,” Foster says.

Griffo ran the Omaha Music School and led the big band Arkestra that included prime players Timmy Renfro, Mark Luebbe, Gamble, and Foster.

Omaha’s Jazz Scene Hung On

“The Showcase was still going. The Howard Street Tavern had Tuesday night jam sessions. Luigi normally had a night there (and at Mr. Toad’s). A lot of people came in to play,” Foster recalls. “Jack DeJohnette’s band. The Johnny Otis Revue. Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Hines came to town and did a jam session at Howard Street.”

“That stuff went on all the time. The big one was at Kilgore’s. Chick Corea was in town to play the Music Hall. He wanted to know if there was anything going on and we took him to Kilgore’s. He sat in all night playing drums. He didn’t even touch the keyboard.”

Foster says jazz could also be heard at places like The Gaslight and Julio’s.

“And there were still all kinds of little after-hours clubs. I remember one down by the stockyards. I walked in there with my drums—this young white boy with all these black musicians in an all-black club. When the guys sitting at the bar turned around, their coats opened and they were all carrying pistols. They were like, ‘Don’t worry, you’re with the band, you’re cool, you don’t have to worry about anything here.’”

But things slowed to a crawl from the 1990s on.

“Clubs stopped hiring the caliber of jazz artists they once did,” he says. “There were always good local players playing, but it was just a niche thing. Nobody was really making any money at it. We turned to other music to keep gigging. You had to do what you had to do to make it. We played jazz because we loved it.”

The same 10 jazz players played all the gigs. “That’s why I moved to New York,” Foster says. Stryker, Nila, and Karrin Allyson preceded him there.

Climbing Back

Foster is glad the jazz scene has picked up.

Mark’s Bistro owner Mark Pluhacek helped feed the resurgence with a regular jazz program at Jambo Cat beneath his eatery. Though it gained a following, that wasn’t enough to prevent its closing.

Chuck Kilgore, a musician and former club owner, played at and booked Jambo Cat, which he called “the perfect venue.” Even perfect wasn’t good enough.

The truth, Kilgore says, is that few entrepreneurs are willing to risk an investment when there’s “almost certain” small returns.

“Jazz is mostly subsidized these days the way symphonic music is,” Pluhacek says. “It’s underwritten for it to survive. It’s not what people are listening to in huge volumes, so it has to be supported in other ways.”

Pluhacek enjoyed Jambo’s run while it lasted.

“It all came together. It was wonderful. We realize the importance of it. We hope the energy for jazz just grows and gets better.”

Hope for the Future

Besides the Holland and Jewell, other outlets for jazz include the Ozone Lounge, Omaha Lounge, Havana Garage, Harney Street Tavern, and Mr. Toad’s.

Education is also key to engaging an audience.

LJAC hopes to have artists at The Jewell work with elementary school students, and OPA is introducing the genre to pre-schoolers through Jazz at Lincoln Center’s WeBop program. Another facet of cultivating audiences is radio jazz programming. Artists still depend on air play.

“What’s changed is musicians’ ability to get their music out there,” KIOS-FM jazz host Mike Jacobs says. “We get a lot of music produced and marketed by musicians themselves. The major labels have gotten away from doing straight-ahead jazz. A lot of artists produce a hybrid jazz-pop sound. They’re like gateway artists to the classic stuff.”

Jacobs’ KIOS colleague Christopher Cooke is cautiously optimistic The Jewell and other jazz spaces will re-energize things here. He hopes to one day see a “real summer jazz festival in Omaha.”

Meanwhile, Martin helps to build appreciation for the past and a foothold for the future. “It’s about the music coming first. I’ve been blessed and I have to pass it on,” he says.

“Curly was around for a scene that doesn’t exist anymore,” Carson says, “and he’s still connected to the people who made that music…No one is putting him and those dudes on the pedestal. But they’re world-class musicians. They’re clearly exceptional talents.”

Martin wants North O’s renaissance to be informed by what went before.

“How you going to know what we need, when you don’t know what we had?”


This article was printed in the July/August 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

On cusp of stardom, Omaha singer-songwriter Jocelyn follows to thine own self be true path


Image result for jocelyn darius rucker

 

On cusp of stardom, Omaha singer-songwriter Jocelyn follows to thine own self be true path

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the June 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Beloved Omaha singer-songwriter Jocelyn, who’s just turning 22, has been a star-in-the-making since playing street corners and open mics as an old-soul teen prophet. Her winsome presence, yearning voice, melodic guitar licks and heartfelt lyrics about personal empowerment can move even jaded listeners.

In early 2018 she won over the suits of major record label BMG with an intimate acoustic set in their L.A, offices. Guided by her management, Omaha-based Midlands Music Group,, she signed with BMG and joined an artist roster that includes Bruno Mars. Armed with creative control, Jocelyn’s worked with producers and session players in L.A. and Nashville studios for her debut feature album releasing this summer.

A tour is in the works.

“I genuinely just want to have a good time making this music,” Jocelyn said, “and that’s really who BMG is.  That’s why we went with them. I could have chosen different record labels, but I didn’t. I went with BMG because the vibe was right.”

She doesn’t worry about losing her authentic self in the grip of a corporate music machine.

“The overall look and sound and feel is all coming from me,” she said. “and the people at the label are all nurturing it and helping me grow into the best version of myself. I’ve always had say in everything. Always. It’s been a great ride.

“I’m just hanging out with these people and telling them my life story. I’ve always been an open person and it’s really just about connecting. I’ve made a lot of connections and good friends. Everybody’s just pushing each other to do better, giving out suggestions, ideas. That’s really the process.”

 

Image result for jocelyn music

 

The single tracks “Speak Up” and “Never Change” from the album feature Jocelyn in full affirmation mode. The recurring theme in her work is “positivity.”

“I feel like the music I put out helps balance whatever is going on in people’s minds. That’s what I have to do in order to balance out my own mind. Hey, this is how I do therapy to get through my problems. I’m sharing with the rest of the world the love that I have and that I give myself.”

Her material counters “the negativity people want to push on you,” she said.

“Speak Up” is her anti-bullying anthem. “Never Change,” co-written with Nelly Joy Reeves and Eric Arjes, is her plea to “don’t change who you are.” Both songs come out of her own experiences being bullied and marginalized.

“There’s noise everywhere in how people think of you, how they judge you,” she said. “I’ve had so many people tell me that I’m doing things wrong in their eyes, and I’m like, you have no idea what I’m experiencing.

“There’s all these moments you have to stay positive –

and that’s what the record’s about.”

Her solid chops and loyal fans have earned her Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards recognition as Best Pop Artist and Artist of the Year. Her charisma carries far beyond these borders. Live or streaming, she captures people everywhere with her energy and sincerity. Even her tattoo that reads Unchain Me (the title of one of her original songs) fits her bohemian free spirit to a tee.

In 2016 an online video of Jocelyn performing her song “Just Like Everybody Else” went viral – one of many events giving her a national following.

“It was the first poppy song I’ve ever written. It was one of those breakthrough moments.”

Most importantly, she’s attracted music industry veterans who believe in her potential. Since entering the MMG mentoring program at 16 she’s scored several high-profile opportunities, including a 2017 “Celebrity Undercover Boss” episode at The Speakeasy in Austin, Texas. A disguised Darius Rucker, aka Jackie Middleton, praised her talent. Rucker also pledged his support.

“The show made Jocelyn look great,” her MMG manager, Jeff McClain, said..

Rucker continues serving as a mentor. At his invitation Jocelyn recently flew to South Carolina to co-write songs with him and his crew for a new project.

“It was really cool,” she said. “It was a little intimidating at first, but you learn to speak your mind. It’s a different process because you’re writing for Darius. It’s a lot of conversations among songwriters.”

She said Rucker is “someone I look up to,” adding, “I aspire to the goals he’s attained.”

In 2017 Jocelyn opened for Rucker at a Stir Cove concert before 5,000 hometown fans. It proved a defining moment. Prior to her set on that baking hot day she left her guitar out in the sun. On-stage, she tried tuning her warped instrument to no avail. She handled the frustration with an aplomb that belied her 19 years.

In the immediate aftermath, though, she felt a failure.

“I pouted on it, I cried about it. But it was a great learning experience. It’s like make sure that shit doesn’t happen again.”

Her manager gave her a different perspective.

“I was watching a star being born on that stage,” McClain said. “Even though it was all going wrong, what she did was amazing at her age. She was in front of a home crowd of 5,000 people and she kept it together. She was professional, she went through with the show. I told her you will never in your entire career be under more pressure than you just were there. If you can handle that, you can handle anything.”

Jocelyn came to appreciate her own resilience.

“I played that show, I kept going, I didn’t stop.”

 

Image result for jocelyn omaha singer

 

Her confidence shined through her 2018 “Showtime at the Apollo” appearance. Not only did she not get booed off stage by that notoriously tough crowd, she got a warm response with her righteous cover of Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney’s “Forty Five Seconds.”

“I blacked out. No, straight up, the emotions were so intense in my body that I couldn’t feel anything.”

Her poise and command is what Jocelyn champion Aly Peeler, saw in her at 15.

“She played for me and at that moment I was like, this girl’s a star,” said Peeler, an Omaha musician with her own following. “At such a young age she was so composed and expressed such complicated ideas. She knew who she was. That’s what I thought was so beautiful.”

As Jocelyn got more polished, Peeler said, she proved she could “own a room” – quieting even the most boisterous crowd with her musical poetry.

“She captivates an audience. She gets people to listen.”

Those qualities are what sold MMG on her in 2013.

“She was just absolutely wonderful to watch. She had so much raw talent. It was just obvious. You sensed it,” McClain said.

MMG shows promising young artists the ropes on the condition they do well in school. Only Jocelyn was failing. “Well, we’re not working with you, I told her,” McClain said. “I was like, ‘Aw, damn,” Jocelyn said.

“The exact same work ethic you use to get the As, you use to get the gold record,” McClain said. “If you want to be in this industry, as hard as it is, you have to do the work. She diid and she’s kept it going ever since.”

“I always loved learning, but I did not grow up with the discipline, the work ethic, so when Jeff gave me that challenge,” Jocelyn said, “I was like, I want to do that. It just felt right.”

“If you make it several months in the program things are probably going to happen for you,” McClain said. “Then we start to discuss actual management, which we did with her. We signed her in 2014. At that point we started making calls and opening doors.”

Nothing that’s happened since has been an accident,

“Jocelyn is where she’s at because of a lot of hard work, but also support and encouragement,” Peeler said. “I have nothing but love and respect for all she’s done.”

That’s not saying there weren’t bumps in the road.

“One time we had written a song and I didn’t want a certain lyric to be a certain way,” Jocelyn recalled. “Mind you, I’m 16 at the time and stubborn. If I didn’t get my way, I’d freak out. I said no to a lot of things in the beginning.

“Aly (Peeler) and I went on a walk  She was trying to cool down the fire within me. She said a song is like a child. It goes off into the world and it influences other people and it gets influenced. It is constantly growing. I liked that.”

“We’ve had some real conversations,” Peeler said.

 

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Of her journey, Jocelyn said, “Theres only growth, patience, teaching, learning going on in this process.”

She counts McClain and Peeler among “older friends who have been really there for me when I needed them

and that have affected my life in a positive way.”

Following her team’s advice, she puts herself out there. Connections she’s made at Fox and Paramount offer “great potential we’ll capitalize on later,” McClain said.

Even with mega fame a real possibility, Jocelyn’s committed to Omaha.

“Home is where the heart is and my heart is in a lot of people here. I’m at home anywhere I go in the city. I feel love. This is the stomping grounds.”

What’s come her way already could be a real head trip, but Jocelyn’s being chill. “It’s as simple as simple can be,” she said. Everyone around her feels she’s grounded enough to handle whatever comes next.

Meanwhile, she and McClain are leveraging her success to explore the creation of mentoring programs with the Millard Public Schools (she’s a Millard South grad) and Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. The goal is “teaching what it really takes to make it in whatever you want to do,” she said.

“The messaging of Jocelyn’s album,”is spot-on” with initiatives around young professionals and creatives reaching their dreams, McClain said.

Her self-love, anti-hate messages also plug into the MeToo, LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter Movements.

Jocelyn encourages fellow Generation Zers to realize their dreams right here.

“One of my friends said she didn’t like it here because it doesn’t have this and that, and I said, ‘Well, then, create it here. Be the first person to bring it here.’ Why leave? If you do, come back when you’re done. Help build.”

Should breakout success happen the way it’s expected, she hopes “Omaha’s the next city” everyone wants to be in.

Visit https://www.jocelynmusic.com.

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

 

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Omaha native Phil Kenny a player among Broadway co-producers and investors 


Omaha native Phil Kenny a player among Broadway co-producers and investors

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the June 2019 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Phil Kenny resembles the starstruck dentist with songwriting ambitions in the stage classic The Bells are Ringing. Growing up in Omaha, Kenny played the lead in a high school production of Oklahoma! and appeared in a Ralston Community Theater production of Fiddler on the Roof. Listening to the Les Miserables cast album became a ritual. He wrote plays through college with the ambition of penning a Broadway musical, The technology law attorney still pursues that dream today.

He and collaborator Reston Williams, formerly of The Blue Man group, hope one day to get their own four-years-in-the-making musical on its legs in New York.

Far from a frustrated wannabe, Kenny’s made himself a theater insider co-producing major musicals through his 42nd Club investors group. As unlikely as it sounds, this married, devout Mormon father of seven living in Utah has co-produced some of Broadway’s most successful musicals the past few years, including Anastasia and Sunset Boulevard.

In 2018 he even copped a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical with Once on This Island. On a side note, one of its stars, Merle Dandridge, shares a hometown connection: Both she and Kenny are Papillion LaVista High School graduates, though not classmates.

Odds are Kenny will take home another statuette at the June 7 Tonys since three of the five Best Musical nominees are 42nd Club co-produced shows: Hadestown, Tootsie and Beetlejuice. Kenny and Co. also co-produced King Kong – nominated for three Tonys and receiving a special Tony for puppetry.

 

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Phil Kenny and wife Clare

 

Meanwhile, the 42nd Club co-production Be More Chill enjoyed breakout off-Broadway success that’s transitioned into a Broadway run still going strong. The show led all nominees for the 2019 Broadway.com Audience Choice Awards nominations.

For Kenny, crashing the Broadway world as a producer never occurred to him as a thing until two people suggested he try it.

“A number of friends and I have been able to participate in Broadway musicals by investing in and co-producing, which we didn’t even know was an available option,” Kenny said.

The investing opportunity was first broached by Greg Franklin, a veteran investor and co-producer. Then again by Jay Kuo, himself an attorney who ended up co-writing the Broadway musical Allegiance.

“I told them both no initially,” Kenny said. “They didn’t pressure me at all. But after I called Greg (Franklin) to grab lunch and get answers to my questions, I decided to get into it. I found out Broadway investing is less like throwing money away and a donation, and more like a high risk investment where there actually is the potential to make money – and possibly a lot of money if you pick the right shows. That excited and interested me because I feel like I have my finger on the pulse of what people like in a Broadway show.

“My first investment was a play called Living on Love starring opera star Renee Fleming. It ended up closing early and didn’t return any of our investment.  We didn’t have nearly the same type of access to the best shows then as we do now.  We were just excited lead producers were talking to us.”

Then Kenny got more connected.

“When you invest in a Broadway show you frequently get opening night tickets and after-show party passes,” he said. “Those parties are filled with other people who invest $25,000 or more in shows. I made it my business to meet everybody I could.”

With Greg Franklin, he said, “I came up with the idea that if we all grouped together we could then co-produce a musical rather than just be an investor. By co-producing we get a bigger say and might be invited as the table when lead producers are talking about various marketing initiatives or having creative discussions.”

This let’s-put-on-a-show economic model has paid off well enough that the club’s grown to 100 members.

“Most of our investors tend to be outside of New York. The interesting thing about we do is that we have the opportunity to invest in the very best and highest level of commercial theater – shows like Waitress, Matilda and An American in Paris – where the buy-in to invest in big Hollywood projects is cost prohibitive.

“Our members are all accredited investors who’ve invested in Broadway shows in the past. We are very selective about the shows we invest in.”

Scripts are read. Staged readings and workshops viewed. At a minimum, Kenny said, there must be “a great story and memorable music.” “And this isn’t a hard and fast rule,” he added, “but I do like to have some sort of commercial hook in the plot or title.”

 

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Once On This Island

 

He often bets on proven track records, such as an adaptation of a popular movie or a project featuring music that already has a built-in following.

His metrics also include analyzing the slated budget and calculating how many seats must be filled weekly to turn a profit. He prefers shows play in smaller houses of about 1,000 seats where demand exceeds supply, thereby creating extra urgency and buzz.

“Because we’re now at the co-producer level,” he said, “a lot of opportunities now come to us rather than us having to seek them out. Hadestown is one one them, Tootsie is another. A co-producer credit means the lead producer shares producing billing with you if you help with a variety of things, chief among them fundraising by bringing in an investment amount of a certain level – perhaps a half-million or a million dollars.”

Among the perks that go with getting your name above the title is being eligible to win a Tony Award

“Our first nomination was when we co-produced a new musical called The Visit by (John) Kander and (Fred)Ebb – the same composers of Chicago and Cabaret – with a book by Terrence McNally. Our second nominated show was Waitress – a huge commercial success. It’s been the most profitable investment we’ve been a part of. That show was nominated in the same year as Hamilton, so we knew we had zero chance of winning.”

Then came Once on This Island’s upset win. The odds-on favorite was My Fair Lady, which swept all the pre-Tony awards shows.

“Our winning was really a surprise to a lot of people, including us producing partners. I was in the back of the house pacing back and forth with my wife when they read Once on This Island as the winner. That single moment was probably the most exciting of my life – and vie had some pretty exciting moments.I looked at my wife and took her by the hand and we ran down the aisle with our other partners and we got to be up on stage for something we have such great passion for.

“It was just a thrill beyond explanation.”

Another perk: “Each of us was able to bring home our own Tony statuette.”

Kenny’s already joined a select list of Tony winners from Nebraska in Henry Fonda, Sandy Dennis, Swoosie Kurtz and John Lloyd Young. A second win would put Kenny and Kurtz in select company as multiple winners.

Kenny shares the ride with wife Claire.

“We’re both huge musical theater fans,” he said. “Our whole family’s really into it.”

The couple met when he saw her in the chorus of a Utah community theater production of, you guessed it, a musical, and he complimented her backstage. Two weeks later he got her pone number and asked her out. Ten months later, they were married.

Even though Kenny’s met stars like Matthew Broderick and Lin-Manuel Miranda, he said, “A lot of the people I look up to in the Broadway world are people most folks haven’t heard of. They’re lead producers like Hunter Arnold and Tom Kirdahy, They’re bringing incredible art to the stage and taking huge risks. To me, they’re just as much heroes as the people dedicating their lives to the performance aspect of it.”

Kenny concedes he’s “not the normal, every day co-producer” but added, “I’ve found the Broadway community very accepting of me and my faith and our big family.”

He said he doesn’t currently aspire to be a lead producer. “Part of the reason I don’t have that on my bucket list is the fact that I live in Utah. It would be really difficult to launch a whole production from beginning to end not living in New York.”

Among the shows 42nd Club is backing next season is Jagged Little Pill. The musical opens on Broadway in December. It features music from Alanis Morissette’s best-selling album of the same name.

To date, only one show he’s co-produced has made it to Omaha on tour – Waitress – but Anastasia arrives in June 2020.

Visit 42nd.club.

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

Journeyman jazz artist indulges passions for music, education and all things creative  


Journeyman jazz artist indulges passions for music, education and all things creative  

©by Leo Adam Biga

Paul Serrato exudes a New York state of mind acquired from decades of Big Apple living.

From the time the classically-trained jmusician discovered jazz via radio during his Omaha youth, he was drawn to America’s arts center. Excelling on piano, he no sooner graduated Creighton Prep then went East, first to Boston, then New York. He arrived in the era of The Beats, Miles Davis and Andy Warhol. He was there for the British invasion, the bust of the 1970s, the boom of the ’90s and the terror of 9/11.

This journeyman jazz pianist gigged in clubs, recorded his original music and composed-performed for off-off-Broadway shows. He worked various jobs before becoming an English as Second Language instructor.

At 83 he makes no concessions to age. Since returning  to Omaha in 2011, he’s continued performing-creating and indulging his appetite for literature, art, film, theater and dance. He’s still releasing CDs on his own Graffiti Productions label. His latest, “Gotham Nights,” has charted nationally. He plans a new jazz project for 2020.

“Age for me is mostly a number,” says Serrato. “I can’t spend time worrying about how I’m supposed to feel or what I should be doing at my age. My life has focus in music and education. I have degrees in both. In music I find excitement and energy as a pianist as well as composing, producing and promotion.

“Presently, I’m writing vocal music. particularly setting poetry to music. I’ve always composed and produced what I wrote. The pattern emerged in high school when I went into a studio and made my first single – a song with a fellow student on vocal.”

He teaches ESL for Metropolitan Community College. He tries “to make it comfortable” for recent arrivals “to adapt to a new culture and a new land.” “Cultural transference or acculturation – that’s an ESL teacher’s job.” His class assignments encourage students to celebrate their own heritage, too.

The bilingual Serrato stays in touch with former students from around the world.

In 2016 he combined his music and education passions  in a project commemorating 9/11. He was teaching that day near ground zero.

“We had to vacate our building. After we were allowed back in a few weeks later I had my international adult students write about their impressions of that day. They were from Taiwan, Japan, Turkey, Korea, Chile, all these different countries. They wrote eloquently about that and I saved their essays. Fast forward 15 years later and I asked some of my ESL students in Omaha to read these testimonials set to music I composed at a Gallery 72 event commemorating that tragic day. I was very proud of how that event turned out.”

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Years earlier, New York’s hothouse of creativity found Serrato working with Warhol Factory personalities Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn.

“Some of that material for these crazy talented trans performers and underground figures was rather risque.”

In jazz circles, Serrato got tight with “master Latin percussionist” Julio Feliciano, whom he recalls “as just full of energy and vitality and ideas.” “He contributed his deep musicianship to my many recording sessions and New York gigs. We enjoyed that vibe that enables the most successful collaborations. That also includes Jack ‘Kako’ Sanchez. They were a percussion team. It’s evident on my record ‘More Than Red.’ which made the national jazz charts.

“I’ll never find another like Julio. It was like (Duke) Ellington with (Billy) Strahorn – the two of us together. We had a tremendous collaboration. He was a Vietnam vet who OD’d on prescription pain killers. It was tragic. So young, so talented, so brilliant. We were like brothers musically and spiritually.”

Serrato still records all his music in New York, which serves as a muse for his work.

He enjoys traveling. He once used a guide book to see Europe on five dollars a day. He followed bull fights in Spain and smuggled back copies of banned books from Paris. A former ESL student from Japan twice arranged for him to do music tours there.

He accepts that few jazz artists ever really make it big.

“For every artist like that,” he says, “there’s a legion of others like myself that don’t have that kind of profile.”

He describes “a tectonic shift in the jazz culture” that’s turned this once popular music into a niche thing.

“In a lot of people’s minds, jazz is not that important because it doesn’t make much money and doesn’t get much media attention, so we work however we can. But it’s always been a struggle, even in the golden era.”

The Life can take a toll.

“I remember as house manager and sometime performer at the Village Gate in the ’60s you’d have to make it through 2 a.m. gigs. It’s a tough life. No wonder there was alcohol and drugs and everything.”

Gigs are hard to come by here. His music gets labeled “sophisticated” or even “avant-garde.” He insists “Gotham Nights” is accessible with its Latin melodies.

He enjoys encouraging his students to follow their dreams. Having patience in this age of instant gratification is tough but can be rewarding.

“We are living in a culture of fast celebrity and quick social ‘likes’ – and just as quickly forgotten. My advice to any young artist is to keep focused on long-term possibilities. In other words, stick it out for the long-haul. You never can predict when or how your work will pay off. I speak from experience. I got a big payoff a few years ago from HBO for a song I wrote in 1971 they used in ‘Cinema Verite’ with James Gandolfini.”

Until your ship comes, he advises to get busy living and creating.

Visit http://www.paulserrato.com.

Television, the Hamer Way: Father-son tandem of Dave Hamer and Roger Hamer own combined 76 years in the TV news industry 


Television, the Hamer Way

Father-son tandem of Dave Hamer and Roger Hamer own combined 76 years in the TV news industry 

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the June 2019 edition of the New Horizons

Outside of Mike and Chris Wallace, there may not be another father-son tandem in broadcast journalism history with the pedigree and longevity of Omaha’s own Dave and Roger Hamer.

Retired television newsman Dave Hamer. 89. enjoyed a 1953 to 1991 career distinguished by many firsts. He was the first journalist to work at all three major Omaha network affiliates. He was America’s first local TV journalist to file stories from Vietnam. He was the first civilian reporter to fly a mission with the U.S. Air Force’s airborne command and control center, Looking Glass.

He covered the horror and hysteria of the Starkweather murder spree. As a street reporter-photographer, he  covered storms, accidents, riots, political rallies and athletic events. He wrote-produced newscasts and documentaries, He captured the return to Omaha Beach of a Heartland veteran who survived D-Day. He gave back to his profession as president of the Omaha Press Club, the Nebraska News Photographers Association and the National Press Photographers Association. He taught TV news at UNO and co-chaired the annual News Video Workshop at the University of Oklahoma.

He’s been honored for his contributions to the field as an inductee in the Omaha Press Club’s Journalists of Excellence Hall of Fame and the Nebraska Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame.

Roger Hamer, 61, never intended following the family trade yet his 38-year TV news career now equals that of his father, Roger creates packages that see him do photography, reporting, editing. He also produces. He succeeded his father as a teacher at UNO. He, too..has earned much peer recognition for his work, including an Edward R. Murrow Award. He is well on his way to joining his father as a lifetime achievement honoree.

They have a combined 76 years in the business. Their professional paths formally intersected once, in 1991, when Roger, who began at KMTV, joined WOWT, where Dave worked his final decade. Roger is still there today.

“I kind of backed into the business. He never pressured me,” Roger said of his father.

“I don’t think I ever tried to talk you out of it either,” Dave told hm. “No, you never did,” Roger replied.

“i’ve been fortunate to always be surrounded by smart people very good at what they do. Of course, this guy,” Roger said, indicating his father, “helped me a lot when I was starting out. We would have lunch breaks in the edit booths at 3 (KMTV) and 6 (WOWT). I’d show him tapes and he’d critique them. We’d talk how to do stories. I learned a lot that way. He let me pick his brain. He was always generous in dealing with me.”

Then there came the workshop his father put on for newcomers and veterans.

“You don’t know how you’re going to act when your dad pops your videotape in and plays it in front of all these people and comments on it,” Roger recalled. “I hoped he was going to be as nice as he was when we were alone in the edit booths. But it was something along the lines of, ‘If this guy came in and wanted a job, I’d tell him to sell shoes,’ It was like the air in a balloon going out.

“But that was the best thing that could have happened because you need a kick in the pants now and then. The effort wasn’t there that he expected and that inspired me. It gave me a clue I could do better.”

 

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By the time Roger established himself, TV technology transitioned from film to video. It’s since gone to satellite uplinks and digital streaming.

“Now he’s shooting live shots alone with a tiny camera,” Dave marveled.

“No truck, no cables, no nothing,” Roger confirmed.

“As long as you’re in range of a cell tower, you can send a live picture anywhere,” Dave said, “It staggers my imagination.”

“There’s an app on my phone called TVU Anywhere,” Roger said. “All I have to do is to call into the station. They pull me up – and we’re on. It’s instantaneous.”

“I try to avoid saying, I wish we had that back when I was in TV,” Dave said, “but I do wish we had that. But what goes along with this is that you’re under more pressure.”

“Yeah,” Roger said, “the technology is phenomenal, but it’s a blessing and a curse. The blessing is you can be live in a moment. The curse is the technology far exceeds our human capability of gathering information.”

Then there’s the rabbit hole of Google search results.

“With this avalanche of information you have access to, it can be overwhelming,” Roger said. “You have to determine when to stop because information overload can set in. There comes a point when you have to pull back and say, Okay, I know what I need to know.”

Roger’s grateful to have learned from a master like his father. “He’s a pioneer.”

A Wayne, Nebraska native, Dave Hamer segued from taking still photos in his hometown to stringing for KVTV in Sioux City. The eye he developed for composing portraits helped him transition to moving images.

A generation later his son Roger went from taking photos for the UNO Gateway and Papillion Times to breaking in at KMTV.

“The difficult part of going into motion (photography) was coming up with a closer,” Dave said. “You’ve told the story, but you have to have something at the end to cap it. You need the exclamation point.”

“Even now I struggle with closes.” Roger acknowledged.

They both love storytelling

“Every story’s got to have a beginning, middle and end. That’s utmost in television news,” Dave said. “You don’t just leave it hanging out there. I don’t think anybody ever told me how to do that. I just naturally fell into it.”

Both learned to cut in the camera.

Telling a story you pitched is preferred. “I had, and I think Roger has, the freedom to go to the front office and say, ‘Hey, this is a helluva story, We ought to do it.'”

Any excuse to get out of the newsroom.

“The daily routines never appealed that much to me,” Dave said. Same for Roger, who likes being “free from a desk” and “someone looking over my shoulder.”

Creativity and ineginuity come in handy on assignment.

“You run into situations you didn’t expect,” Dave said, “and you have to think on your feet, improvise and go with the flow. We always used to say, Have in mind where the story’s going to go but don’t be locked in because things will change. You’ll find better stuff than you imagined.”

When revisiting perennials, such as the winter’s first snowfall or spring flooding, Roger said, “the challenge is to make it  different from the story before or different from what your competition’s doing.”

“That’s the fun part of it.”

Then there’s following your instincts and, as Dave said, “making your own luck” by being where the action’s at and seeing-capturing what’s happening around you.

The year Roger was born, 1957, his father helped launch Omaha’s KETV on the air.

“I had been there only a week,” Dave said. “There were only four of us in the news department. Six days a week were the norm. Sometimes Sunday, too, It was a challenge and great responsibility, but also fun. You had to do everything – shoot it, write it, maybe voice it.”

He left KETV for KMTV, where he worked the bulk of his career and where his colleagues included future network stars Floyd Kalber and Tom Brokaw.

“What his generation did set the groundwork for what we do today,” Roger said admiringly. “The whole idea of visual storytelling – of stories that are concise, make sense, have impact, elicit emotion and are accurate.

“Today, I think we’ve lost a little bit of that desire to find out as much as we can and make it as accurate as possible. In the rush to get things on the air NOW, we don’t always have the information to back it up exactly.”

“That’s a helluva challenge.” said Dave.

Adding to it is an ever more competitive environment.

“Now,” Roger said, “it’s Channel 7 tweeted this or Channel 3 tweeted that. Personally, I don’t care because I live by what I learned from old pros Steve Murphy and Mark Gautier – ‘I don’t care about being first, I care about being right.’ That doesn’t seem to exist like it used to.

“It’s a matter of feeding the beast” – otherwise known as the 24/7 news cycle. “You have to do all this social media stuff my father’s generation didn’t have to worry about or deal with.”

When Dave Hamer started, there were just two newscasts per day. “and even with that and the technology being so much slower,” he recalled, “we were still pressed for time.” “I wrote for nine years the six and ten o’clock newscasts on Channel 3. You barely got six o’clock on the air before you started writing the ten o’clock. You were always up to the wire.”

Early news pioneers didn’t have access to the vast amounts of video-on-demand content Roger Hamer and his colleagues have at the ready on devices.

“It would take us three or four days,” Dave said.

Today’s constant content demands and deadlines can be exhausting.

“You just don’t have the longevity of people in the field   anymore,” Roger said. “People get burned out.”

Professionals with his equivalent experience in the biz, are “getting fewer and fewer,” he said, “and it bothers me because I don’t see the next wave of lifers coming up – and I wonder about that.”

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Oddities and happy accidents are bound to happen over careers as long as the Hamers. Once. Roger shot news footage of a pileup on an ice-covered section of Leavenworth Street south of downtown. “We sent it out to NBC,” he said. A couple weeks later the video showed up in an SNL skit.

“‘They pirated my video for entertainment purposes. It took a couple months, but I got 750 bucks out of them and gave them a tongue-lashing. How do you know people didn’t die in that crash? That blurring of the line between entertainment and news shouldn’t happen. Once you send video somewhere you don’t have any control over what happens to it. But even if i don’t send it, somebody else will. Many different people have access to my video than ever before.”

Standard protocol is for networks to ask local affiliates to provide video.

“Sometimes it was a bother because I’d be working on my piece for the six o’clock and they’d want something right now,” Dave said. “You would do everything you could to get it there.”

“It just may not be right now,” Roger said. “I’m not going to send it to them until we air it. My obligation is to my station first.”

Dave once fielded an NBC request for footage of a blizzard raging in Nebraska. They needed about a minute’s worth. He dutifully shot the storm.

“The network’s Huntley-Brinkley newscast switched to Omaha live. I was on the phone with the producer from New York. He told us when to roll the film. We’d built it logically to show the storm getting worse and worse. Well, the last shot came up and the film broke. We were on live coast-to-coast and I was like, Oh, my God. The producer comes on and says, ‘Great job, Omaha, Man. what a storm I couldn’t see anything in that last shot.’ We never told him.”

Memorably, Dave Hamer scooped the networks with his 1962 Vietnam reporting.

“The French had been kicked out in 1954. There was very little American involvement until about ’61 when we sent military advisers over. In April ’62 the first Nebraskan was killed in Vietnam – Army Special Forces Sergeant Wayne Marchand from Plattsmouth. He was wounded and captured in a firelight with the Viet Cong, then taken off and killed.

“We ran the wire story on the air. That was all we knew. Our general manager said, ‘What the hell was that all about? How come we’ve got people in – where is that place again? Within a month I was there because the front office said this is a story that should be told.”

Hamer and writer-producer Bob Fuller went as a two-man team.

“We did Marchand’s story, but while we were there we covered everything else we could find. We even did stories on Vietnam’s agricultural economy.”

The reporters stuck to a strategy.

“The first thing we did when we got in Saigon was check the overnight police reports for bombings, rocket fire at the airport and such to know what the hell was going on.

“We carried Department of Defense clearance paperwork that we never had to show. We had orders that allowed us to travel on military transport. If we couldn’t get military transport, we did what we could, even going by pedicab for God’s sake. Several times we hired a car with a driver. Sometimes we hired an interpreter. We could go anywhere we wanted. We checked in with the press office in Saigon when we got there and checked out when we left, They didn’t know where we were those three weeks. We were all over the country enmeshed in what was going on every day.”

Hamer and Fuller quickly learned U.S. involvement was larger than reported.

“There were 5,000 Americans in-country.. We went on helicopter support missions. Americans were flying planes and helicopters carrying South Vietnamese troops. The rule was fire only if fired upon,”

The entire western press corps in Vietnam then, he said, consisted of New York Times, AP and UPI correspondents, “and two guys from Omaha.”

“We had the whole story to ourselves. We did four half-hour documentary segments.”

The series was cited for special commendation by the Radio Television Council.

Fast forward three decades when Dave’s last major assignment took him to another war zone to cover Nebraska military personnel in Saudi Arabia.

Over time, he had offers to join the network in  Washington DC, New York and Paris, but he and his wife Verla deferred each time. They liked Omaha.

Roger Hamer “tested the waters” in other markets but stayed put.

Father and son “competed” when Dave was at WOWT and Roger at KMTV. They were briefly at WOWT at the same time but never covered a story together.

Roger said there’s much they share in common. “One thing we share is we’re not the story – the people are the story. Nobody wants to see us. They want to see the people living the experience.” They each derive satisfaction, he said, “just knowing that we did a good job and put a good story together.” “You get those four, five, six stories a year where you go, I nailed it. That’s what keeps you going.”

“We show up with a camera and people stop what they’re doing because they know you’re going to tell their story. It’s important to them,” Dave said.

“You have to be genuinely curious and caring and want to be involved in your community, and in telling the stories of its people,” said Roger, who, like his father, is grateful for the many fine collaborators he’s worked with. “It’s wonderful to work with people as passionate as you are and who are dedicated to their craft.”

A love for teaching is something else they share. “I found teaching very rewarding,” Dave said. “The satisfaction of sharing what you know and seeing the light bulb go off is a big part of it,” Roger said.

Not to be forgotten, Roger added, “We’ve both been blessed being married to very strong, supportive women that understood what we do and tolerated it.”

Dave and his late wife Verla were married 61 years. “Verla was interested in what we did and was our best promoter,” he said. The couple lost their other son, Dennis, to a coronary occlusion in 2002.

The quiet-spoken, TV news trailblazer gets choked up talking about family. “I’m very proud of this guy,” he said, clasping Roger’s knee. “Roger is his own man, has made his own reputation. and lives it every day on every story. He earned the Edward R. Murrow Award. I was never even close.”

Roger appreciates what his father’s given him – from leading Scouts canoe trips to being “a great mentor.” “He taught me that if I’m not trying, if I’m not pushing myself, if I’m not putting product out I’m happy with, then it’s time to walk away.”

There may not be a third-generation Hamer in the field  “Never say never,” cautioned Dave, a grandfather of two. Meanwhile, Dave writes a newsletter, Window on 53rd Street. he shares with family and friends. Like the man, it’s a warm, witty, sincere, humble take on a life         well-lived and a career well-earned.

Though louder and more outspoken than his father, Roger is a mensch among newsmen just like his old man. A passing of the torch has occurred in another way. Where Roger used to be asked, Are you any relation to Dave Hamer?, now Dave is asked, Are you related to Roger Hamer?

“Roger and me reversed roles.” Dave said. “I’m very proud to be asked if I’m related to Roger.”

“I’ve always been proud of my dad, ” Roger said. “He’s my hero.”

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

Abstract Mindz: Group gives artists a voice and showcase


Abstract Mindz: Group gives artists a voice and showcase

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico (el-perico.com)

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Abstract Mindz founder Jose Antonio “Tony” Barrales, 25, wants to give young artists what he didn’t have growing up.

The Omaha Central High School graduate started the artist collaborative in 2013, he said, to give underrepresented youth “an opportunity to showcase their talent.”

“There were tons of people in the South Omaha community whose work wasn’t being seen and who weren’t being offered the opportunities others were. I had this idea to create an arts group that would hopefully become a gallery in the future. No one would be rejected based off their art style, age, ethnicity.

“There’s a ten year build-up of passion behind this group. Growing up in traditional Mexican homes trying to pursue art as a career wasn’t something our parents deemed worth pursuing or spending money on.”

In addition to lack of support at home, he and others found inequity at school, where, he said “certain students got opportunities others didn’t,” such as mentoring. “That’s when my passion to create the group was really sparked because I was one of those overlooked kids. I was like, Hey, I’m doing artwork, too – why am I not getting a shot to show what I’ve got. I saw other people who deserved their shot and didn’t get it, and they gave up.”

Barrales wants to affirm others.

“There’s real talent out there, but people feel like they can’;t make it on their own or there’s no one to help them out. i just want people to have a free wall space where they can express who they are and show people what they do.”

Artist Ari Marquez, 28, helps run the collaborative.

“Art was like my escape for expressing my emotions. A lot of our members are the same,” she said. T”hey don’t like to verbalize what they’re feeling or going through. Instead of saying it, they draw or paint or photograph it.

“Sharing their work can help with the healing process from hardships and darkness they have. It’s hopefully an escape to express themselves in ways that maybe the adults in their lives wouldn’t accept. Some of the kids are expressing a scream for help or attention. We create a safe space for them to express without being judged.”

It’s a catalyst for work to be made and seen.

“We’ve learned there’s a whole bunch of kids who have this secret talent no one knows about,” Barrales said.

“They have that passion to do things, but they might be scared to try or don’t know who to talk to about creating opportunities for themselves.”

 

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Barrales knows from experience “it’s really hard establishing yourself in the art community.” You’re bound to be asked, what have you done? and where have you shown?

“Most of our artists do abstract art, graffiti art – things that are more urban. We want them to know that can be marketable. We have artists who’ve gone to local galleries with their portfolios only to be turned away because the professionals said their art style is not what they show in their spaces.

“That’s something we want to change. This urban art is really popping in other cities and we want it to be seen that same way here.”

He’s working on the organization becoming an LLC.

“We’re looking at getting our own dedicated gallery. We want to be based in South Omaha. Most art galleries around here are collectives, We’re shooting for the same thing. We want this to grow to where we have mentoring programs and can support locations in Fremont and Lincoln, so people can have showcases in their own communities.”

Without a space of its own, Abstract Mindz has thus far relied on partnerships to show work in loaned spaces.

“Luckily we’ve found a welcoming space in the Bancroft Street Market. Our first show in 2015 was there. We had 15 artists. Each sold one piece. That motivated us to continue.”

More shows there followed. A Day of the Dead exhibit included performance by the local band.Mariachi Patria Juvenil. The largest and longest running show displayed 50 pieces for a month at Hotel LR.

Bellevue Social Center hosted another exhibit.

South Omaha entrepreneur Macros Mora donated a booth space for the group at the Cinco de Mayo market.

Local playwright Ellen Struve has worked with the group in different ways..

“She’s been sending us to the right people to talk to. She’s been great in helping with our outreach,” Barrales said. “She also presented us a great opportunity to participate in her new play EPIC for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. We were one of the groups she did story circles with. We told our own personal stories to help create the backstory for her play.

“The high school-age kids really loved it. She did an activity to open them up to speak. It’s something they usually don’t do. They felt really comfortable in that circle. They are amazed knowing their story is implemented in this play.”

Abstract Mindz members range from high school and college students to college grads working full-time jobs. Their ranks include Shantee Zamora, Sergio Gomez, Salem Munoz and Gerado “Polo” Diaz.

Abstract Mindz presented a solo show of Diaz’s work.

“He was a little more mature in his craft and body of work,” Barrales said, “so we gave him an individual showcase. He’s one of the main artists we have who wants to make this his career.”

Members pay minimal dues and get help with framing, portfolios and marketing.

The group’s planned next show, Visual Sounds, is in need of a venue. Participating artists were asked to create a large piece based on a song of their choice.

“This collaboration of music and visual arts will be our first interactive gallery. As spectators view each artwork they can put on headphones to listen to the correlating song.”

A place and date is in the works.

Follow Abstract Mindz on Facebook.

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

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