Nebraska Screen Heritage Project
Nebraska Screen Heritage Project
For such a small population state Nebraska has a surprisingly rich film heritage. This is particularly true in terms of the number of native sons and daughters or transplants who have made significant contributions to and/or established major careers in the film and television industry. Both behind the camera or in front of the camera, Nebraskans have made their mark and continue to make their mark in virtually every aspect of the industry. They have been honored by the industry with many Oscars. Some figures from here are acknowledged for having been leaders or innovators or trailblazers.
In my ongoing research for what I call the Nebraska Screen Heritage Project, I keep coming across new names of individuals, some past, some present, who boast serious screen credits. My desire and interest is to compile a curated list of these figures and eventually create a website and a book, perhaps a documentary, as well as a lecture series and curriculum devoted to their contributions. Admittedly, my main focus is on film figures, but many of these individuals also have notable TV credits and so that aspect of screen work will get some attention, too.
Beyond the film artists Nebraska has produced the state has been a location for films shot here. While the number of distinctive films made entirely or principally in Nebraska is admittedly few these films represent an interesting collection of features. The state has also hosted an equally small but arresting number of premieres. Many major film figures have visited here either to make films or to participate in programs and events here.
The state’s film culture has evolved to the point there are several art cinemas and venues devoted to film as an art form and there are several Nebraskans, natives and transplants alike, making films or celebrating film heritage or writing about film.
If my Nebraska Screen Heritage project resonates with you and you would like to see it realized through the platforms I envision, then be sure to follow updates about it here. If you would like to support or participate in the project, then contact me firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can link to a presentation I made on the subject of Nebraska’s Screen Heritage at the Durham Museum by clicking on-
Now, let me devote some space to highlighting a select list of Nebraskans who’ve made notable contributions to or achieved major careers in the film industry either behind the screen or in front of the camera.
The Johnson Bros. and their Lincoln Motion Picture Company
In 1916 Omaha, brothers George and Noble Johnson formed what’s considered the first African-American owned and operated movie production outfit, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, or Lincoln Film Company.
The Johnsons were not originally from Nebraska. They grew up in an entrepreneurial family and pursued opportunities where they found them. That spirit led them to Omaha, where they were living when D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” came out. Apparently, its highly negative depiction of African-Americans motivated the brothers to offer a counter narrative on screen through films they produced themselves. The Johnsons soon relocated to Los Angeles, where the so-called “race” films they produced portrayed African-Americans in a positive light. It’s unlikely the brothers made any of their films in Nebraska before they moved west. Their first film was released in 1916 and like their subsequent efforts it showed at black churches, schools and theaters.
Although their company had a short run, the Johnsons more than qualify as black cinema pioneers for taking the filmmaking apparatus in their own hands in order to create positive black images.
Harold Lloyd was a Burchard, Nebraska native who worked his way into silent movies by 1919. His career took off under Hal Roach but Lloyd eventually produced the films he starred in. During the height of the silent comedy period he was part of the great triumvirate along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Reportedly, his films outgrossed theirs. He was a major box office draw and one of the era’s highest paid stars.
Lloyd was one of the first filmmakers to preview his comedies to a test audience, reshooting and editing based on the feedback. Before unions, he paid his crew year-round, even when inactive. His transition to talkies initially succeeded but by the end of the ’30s he was left behind by changing times and tastes. He’s been rediscovered in recent years and appreciation for his work is at an all-time high.
Darryl F. Zanuck
Wahoo, Nebraska native Darryl Zanuck rode his calculated ambition, raw nerve, incisive vision and modest writing talent into a Hollywood career that saw him move from Mack Sennett gag writer to Warner Brothers staff writer overseeing the Rin-Tin-Tin series, then production chief, all by age 27. He ushered in the sound era in Hollywood by supervising “The Jazz Singer.” He helped craft the Warners’ brand during its 1930s talkies heyday when the studio famously capitalized on Depression-era social themes and issues through hard-hitting gangster and musical pictures.
Then he formed his own production company and allied it with the old Fox studio and by the end of the 1930s Twentieth Century Fox became a major player and Zanuck embodied everything we associate with a movie mogul – good and bad. Under his czardom many iconic movies got made – so did a lot of forgettable ones. He brought his 1944 pet project “Wilson” to his hometown of Wahoo for a world premiere. The movie didn’t go over well here or anywhere else. A later pet project, “The Longest Day,” was a triumph. His last years in Hollywood, in the 1960s, were uneasy ones as he tried adjusting to a radically changing industry and culture.
The singing and dancing talents of siblings Fred and Adele Astaire emerged as young children in Omaha, where their father worked for Storz Brewing Co.. Art Storz Jr. told me that as kids the Astaires danced in the ballroom of the Storz mansion on Farnam St. Fred and Adele became a successful vaudeville team and they took their act to Broadway and London, where they became major stars. Fred was brought out to Hollywood for a screen test that legend has was a disaster. But from the very start Fred proved to be pure magic on screen. His pairings with Ginger Rogers proved especially popular and became instant classics. He later proved himself a fine dramatic actor. But he’s best remembered as the screen’s most graceful dancer and one of popular music’s best song interpreters.
Omaha native and Central High grad Ann Ronell’s songwriting skills made her a Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood name in the male-dominated field of composing. Her collaborators and friends included such legends as George Gershwin, Lotte Lenye, Kurt Weill and Leonard Bernstein. She worked with the Walt Disney studio. She married Hollywood producer Lester Cowan and contributed music to several of his pictures.
She was the first woman to: compose scores for Hollywood feature films (“Algiers” and “One Touch of Venus”); write both words and music for a Broadway musical (“Count Me In”); and earn Oscar nominations for best song (“Linda”) and best score (The Story of G.I. Joe”). She wrote songs for films as diverse as Jean Renoir’s “The River” and the John Wayne Western “Hondo.” She’s best known for the bluesy standard “Willow Weep for Me” and the novelty “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”
For all the fame Henry Fonda gained on stage and screen, he never forgot his ties to Grand Island and Omaha and he always maintained a close relationship with the place he got his acting start at, the Omaha Community Playhouse. The Central High and Playhouse grad came back twice to act at the theater, once to star opposite promising newcomer Dorothy McGuire in 1930 in “A Kiss for Cinderella” and 25 years later to star with her again in “The Country Girl” for a 1955 benefit production that co-starred Henry’s ingenue daughter, Jane.
His indelible performances in classic films are part of cinema history. In 1981 this actor’s-actor came back a final time for a Playhouse tribute program in his honor. In 1982 Jane appeared at an Omaha Orpheum Theater premiere of “On Golden Pond,” the only film she made with her father and the role that won him an Oscar.
What are the odds the same community theater would in the space of a few years produce two major stage and screen stars? First there was Henry Fonda, then Dorothy McGuire, a name often obscured by her Hollywood contemporaries but her work from the early 1940s through the early 1960s compares with any of theirs. She held her own with some of the strongest male stars of her era: Gregory Peck, Lloyd Nolan, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, Robert Preston. Her work in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” under Elia Kazan is timeless. If you’ve never seen “Claudia” and its sequel, “Claudia and David,” I highly recommend them. She shows serious dramatic depth in “Dark at the Top of the Stairs.”
Like Fonda, she maintained great loyalty to her Omaha and Playhouse roots.
In Marlon Brando, Nebraska can claim an artist who changed the face of screen acting. The Omaha native, whose mother Dottie was active at the Playhouse and in fact encouraged young Henry Fonda’s start there, brought Method acting into the mainstream with his sense memory-driven performances. His work in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront” remain to many tastes unsurpassed.
Forever a rebel, Brando fell out of disfavor with the studios. Even though there’s a school of thought he frittered away his talent, I argue he did some of his best work his last 30 years, including “One-Eyed Jacks,” which he also directed, “Reflections in a Golden Eye” and “Burn.” Of course, his “comeback” in “The Godfather” was much lauded, as was his performance in “Last Tango,” But some fans and critics can’t seem to look past his personal problems and obesity to see the brilliance of his work in “Apocalypse Now,” “The Freshman” and “Don Juan DeMarco.”
Another Method proponent from Omaha, Montgomery Clift, was a very different screen presence than Brando but every bit as sensitive and intuitive. His relatively small body of work is impressive and it’s a testament to his talent that the best filmmakers of that era collaborated with him, including Howard Hawks, William Wyler, Fred Zinneman, George Stevens, Alfred Hitchcock, Vittorio De Sica, Joseph Mankiewicz, Elia Kazan and John Huston. Clift was the embodiment of the tragic anti-hero and I will put his nuanced performance in “Wild River” up with anyone’s. If he hadn’t died at 45 there’s no telling how much more he would have given us.
One of Hollywood’s greatest casting directors, Lynn Stalmaster, is from a prominent Omaha family. Now retired, Stalmaster helped discover many stars and did lead casting on many iconic films by top directors. Just a few of his credits: “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming,” “The Fortune Cookie,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Harold and Maude,” “The Cowboys,” “Deliverance,” :Jeremiah Johnson,” “Coming Home.” I hope to interview him soon.
Laurel, Nebraska native James Coburn was a rebel figure in a long line of Hollywood bad boys and cool cats. Though never a mega-star on par with contemporaries Paul Newman and Steve MQueen, he was every bit their equal as an actor. He’s a charismatic, scene-stealing character player you can’t take your eyes off regardless of who he’s sharing the screen with. Coburn got a few starring turns during his career but he’s best remembered as a riveting supporting player in the tradition of Thomas Mitchell or Walter Brennan. In one of his last roles he teamed with fellow Neb. native and rebel figure Nick Nolte in the searing drama, “Afflicted.” Both were nominated for Oscars. Coburn won in the supporting category.
Sandy Dennis was born in Hastings, Nebraska. She grew up there, in Kennesaw and in Lincoln, Nebraska, where her family moved when she was 9. She graduated from Lincoln High, where her classmates included Dick Cavett and Roger Welsch. She briefly attended the University of Nebraska before heading East. Within a decade she was a star of Broadway, winning back to back Tony Awards, and film, winning an Oscar. She later won a Golden Globe. She often went back and forth between the stage and screen. She’s one of the few Neb. film artists of note who ever returned here to make a film, Sean Penn’s “The Indian Runner” in 1990.
Omaha native Paul Williams has acted, composed and sung for movies and television in a career that’s a half-century in the making. He won a Grammy and an Oscar for writing the lyrics to the monster hit song “Evergreen” and he was nominated for an Oscar for his score to “Phantom of the Paradise.” He’s won two more Grammys, two Golden Globes and earned induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. His songs “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “You and Me Against the World,” “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” “Let Me Be the One” and “The Rainbow Connection” are standards. He’s President and Chairman of the Board of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
Joan Micklin Silver
This next Nebraskan in Film, Joan Micklin Silver, is who I most often use as an example of cinema greats from here who are sadly unknown and unappreciated in their home state. The Central High grad worked in theater and public television in Cleveland before selling her first screenplay to Hollywood. She didn’t like what Mark Robson did with her script, which was made into the feature “Limbo,” but she learned about filmmaking on the set. Her debut feature as writer-director, “Hester Street,” was an indie hit and earned star Carol Kane a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Silver followed that with “Between the Lines” and “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” along the way becoming one of only a handful of American women feature directors. Her best known work, “Crossing Delancey,” is a romantic comedy gem.
The longtime New York resident directed many movies for cable networks and lately has been working on a documentary about the bagel as an immigrant story. As someone who helped break the glass ceiling for women directors in Hollywood, she’s arguably been the most influential Nebraskan in Film.
Bad boy Nick Nolte was born and raised in Omaha, went to Benson and Westside, got in trouble with the law, and left here to do his on-the-road thing. He earned his acting chops in regional theater before being discovered by television and film producers. He fit perfectly the anti-hero leading man movement of the 1970s and 1980s and quickly became one of cinema’s most powerful personas. He’s an interesting combination of Fonda and Brando, with a touch of Coburn thrown in. He’s never won a competitive Oscar but I predict he’ll at least receive an honorary Academy Award for his stellar body of work before all is said and done.
The Omaha native has been a force on stage, TV and film for 40 years. She’s been nominated for numerous Tony Awards, winning two, and for multiple Prime Time Emmy Awards. She’s one of those actresses who can go effortlessly from comedy to drama and back again, sometimes in the same scene. She’s one of those rare Nebraska in Film performers who came back to act in a project here – Alexander Payne’s feature debut, “Citizen Ruth.”
Donald E. Thorin
I’ll bet no one reading this, outside perhaps a few Hollywood indusrty veterans has heard of Donald E. Thorin. Yet this Omaha native who lived here into his 20s was one of American cinema’s leading camera operators and directors of photography from the early 1970s through the 1990s. He worked his way up in Hollywood the classic way, in the mailroom at 20th Century Fox, then moved to the camera department. He went from camera loader to camera assistant, to camera operator to director of photography. As camera operator he worked with such directors as Cassavetes, Scorsese, Ashby. Allen and Pakula and cinematographers Haskell Wexler and Gordon Willis. The films he lit include Michael Mann’s “Thief,” Taylor Hackford’s “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Against All Odds,” “Purple Rain,” Midnight Run” and “Scent of a Woman.” He’s retired now. I will be interviewing him this spring about his remarkable career.
Mike Hill got his start editing in Omaha television before he went to Calif. and fell into an apprentice job at Paramount. Like Thorin he worked his way up from the bottom, delivering film, then helping cut TV series, before landing with two major film directors, Elia Kazan and Hal Ashby, who mentored him. He assisted Kazan in cutting “The Last Tycoon” and Ashby on “Bound for Glory.” That experience propelled him into a career as a film editor, eventually working with Dan Hanley on all of Ron Howard’s features. Hill and Hanley shared an Oscar for “Apollo 13.” Mike recently announced his retirement after completing the edit on Howard’s new film “In the Heart of the Sea.” Mike’s always maintained an Omaha residence.
Spike Lee’s right-hand man for the first 20 years of his career was a native Omahan, Monty Ross, a North High grad who went all the way back to Lee’s college filmmaking days. Through most of Lee’s breakthrough films Ross served a variety of collaborative functions, mostly on the producing end, before the two parted ways a decade ago or so.
I’ve said it before, but as good as Alexander Payne’s first 20 years as a feature filmmaker have been, I believe the best is yet to come. The Omaha native is firmly established as one of world cinema’s leading artists after only six films. I believe his “Nebraska” was his best work yet and I fully expect we’ll see him continue stretch and grow his visual and storytelling palette. Outside of Darryl Zanuck, Payne’s probably the most significant behind-the-scenes film artist to come from Neb. in terms of the sheer reach of his work. In the tradition of Henry Fonda, he’s one of the only major film artists from Neb. who’s retained ongoing close ties to his hometown and home state. He’s actually taken things further than Fonda did by repeatedly bringing the Hollywood industry to Neb. via the films he makes here and the peers he invitees here for Film Streams fundraisers.
Though she’s never acted in a film or TV project in her home state, Marg Helgenberger, who was born in Fremont and grew up in North Bend, has often come back here. She became one of TV’s leading ladies with her co-starring roles in “China Beach” and “CSI” and she’s proved her mettle on the big screen, particularly in Steven Soderbergh’s “Erin Brockovich.”
One of Black Hollywood’s biggest stars is Omaha native Gabrielle Union, who’s also found crossover success in mainstream film, television and advertising. She’s the star of BET’s hit drama “Being Mary Jane” and she recently produced her first movie, “With This Ring,” for Lifetime. She was introduced to a new audience when she served as one of the celebrity advocates for the acclaimed PBS documentary “Half the Sky,” which followed her travels to Vietnam to meet with young women facing hardships. Union’s work as an actress and beauty spokesperson has expanded the definition of beauty-glamour to include African-American women.
Another African-American actress from Omaha who’s made waves in film and television is Yolonda Ross, whose work veers from indie art films to the most recent John Sayles indie triumph, “Go for Sisters” to the 2015 Lifetime biopic “Whitney.” Yolonda’s also a talent behind the camera as she wrote, directed, produced and starred in a short film, “Breaking Night.” She often gets back to Omaha and would one day like to make a film here.
While still in his 20s Omaha native Nik Fackler directed a series of compelling short films and videos and wrote and directed a feature film, “Lovely, Still,” starring Oscar-winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn that he made in his hometown. He followed that up with a documentary he made in Africa and he started production on a second documentary that saw him travel to Nepal. He’s also a musician. He’s recently completed a new experimental short film and is writing a science fiction feature script. He has other projects in the works as well.
I could highlight many more Nebraskans in Film with distinguished credits – there are in fact hundreds – but this should be enough of a starter to give you the idea of how big this story is.
Now let me turn to some intriguing feature films made here.
Made in Nebraska Films
Boys Town Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan was a public relations genius and his role in getting Hollywood’s biggest studio, MGM, to make a feature film about his boys home says a lot. That film was partly shot in and around Boys Town and in downtown Omaha and its success, including Spencer Tracy winning the Oscar for Best Actor, helped make the already famous institution a household name that will live on in cinema history. The making of the film here drew lots of attention but the film’s world premiere at the Omaha Theater truly was a huge event that drew upwards of 30,000 people to see Tracy, Mickey Rooney, MGM brass, Father Flanagan and a bevy of local and state officials. The festivities were captured via print and newsreel as well as a live national radio broadcast from the red carpet.
A Time for Burning
One of the most powerful and enduring films about race relations in America was made in Omaha in 1965 by Bill Jersey and Barbara Connell. “A Time for Burning” charts the upheaval that results when a progressive pastor at Augustana Lutheran Church puts in motion fellowship between his white congregation and neighboring black congregations. A young Ernie Chambers is the provocateur who challenges the assumptions of Pastor Bill Youngdahl and Augusttana parishioner Ray Christensen is the conflicted conscience of the film.
The Rain People, We’re Not the Jet Set
In 1968 a remarkable confluence of Hollywood talent descended on Ogallala, Nebraska of all places. Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Bill Butler, Shirley Knight, James Caan and Robert Duvall were making a small art film, the relationship-road picture “The Rain People” that wended its way from the East Coast and the South to Middle America. Its last three weeks of shooting was in Ogallala and surrounding communities. including Brule, Nebraska. Coppola wrote and directed the pic. Lucas, his then-protege, was an assistant who also shot a documentary about the making of the movie. Knight starred as a pregnant wife fleeing her suburban life. Caan and Duvall co-star as the men she meets along the way. While in Ogallala Duvall became fascinated with a local ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons, he ended up coming back to make a documentary about, the superb “We’re Not the Jet Set.” Soon after making “The Rain People” Coppola and Lucas formed Zoetrope studio and helped usher in the New Hollywood.
Coppola produced Lucas’s first feature, “THX-1138,” which starred Duvall, and Lucas’s second feature, “American Graffiti.” Duvall and Caan had career-making roles in Coppola’s “The Godfather”and both actors appeared in later Coppola films. Duvall remained close to the Petersons, several of whom wound up as horse trainers and animal wranglers on Hollywood movies. None of this may have happened without their experience on “The Rain People,” where film history intersected with Nebraska.
I’ve interviewed everyone involved for what I call Film Connections, which I envision as a story project and as a program.
Terms of Endearment
One of the best films of the 1980s, “Terms of Endearment,” was partially shot in Lincoln, Nebraska Writer-director James L. Brooks did a masterful job balancing this part soap opera, part comedy with a powerhouse cast featuring Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jeff Daniels, John Lithgow, Danny DeVito and Omaha’s own Tom Wees. The making of the film made big news in Neb. and a byproduct of the production being here was then Governor Bob Kerrey, a dashing bachelor, dating Debra Winger.
The TV mini-series “Amerikah” was an epic production partially shot in and around Tecumseh, Nebraska in the mid-1980s and its story very much reflected the era’s Cold War tensions and fears. It starred several big names: Kris Kristofferson, Robert Urich, Sam Neill, Dorian Harewood, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ivan Dixon, Mariel Hemingway, Christine Lahti, But it was pretty much a big dud.
The Indian Runner
For his directorial debut, “The Indian Runner,” Sean Penn chose Plattsmouth, Nebraska and environs as the primary location for an indie art film that brought together a cast of unknowns and veterans, including David Morse, Viggo Mortensen, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Charles Bronson and Neb.’s own Sandy Dennis.
Omaha, the Movie
Omahans Dan Mirvish and Dana Altman along with a local cast made the thoroughly delightful screwball comedy “Omaha, the Movie,” which thanks to Mirvish’s genius for promotion got seen far more widely than the average micro-budget feature.
To Wong Food, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar
Cast against type, the virile Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo portrayed drag queens in “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar,” which was partially shot in Loma, Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska I love the fact that this unlikely but undeniably charismatic trio, along with a great supporting cast, made such an in-your-face transgender film in a state that’s often less than progressive about such things.
Outside perhaps “The Descendants” Alexander Payne’s first feature, “Citizen Ruth,” represents the most impressive cast of name actors and recognizable faces he’s assembled for any of his films: Laura Dern, Mary Kay Place, Swoosie Kurtz, Kelly Preston, Kurtwood Smith, Kenneth Mars, Tippi Hedren, Burt Reynolds. Some of the locations in Dundee, where he grew up, became favorite filming spots for his subsequent Omaha-made movies.
Payne’s next Omaha movie, “Election,” gave Matthew Broderick one of his best screen roles and helped make the career of co-star Reese Witherspoon. In prepping that film Payne and casting director John Jackson discovered two locals, Nicholas D’Agosto and Chris Klein, who ended up with speaking parts, well in fact Klein is the third lead in that movie. D’Agosto and Klein have both enjoyed successful Hollywood careers.
“Where’s Jack?” sightings became commonplace during the filming of Payne’s “About Schmidt” starring Jack Nicholson, It was the director’s third film here and he felt he finally captured the essence of Omaha on screen with this picture.
After “About Schmidt” Payne made his next two films far from his home state but when he finally came back to shoot here again he made his most Nebraskaesque film to date with “Nebraska.” Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, June Squibb and Stacy Keach led a very strong ensemble cast and for my tastes anyway it stands as one of the most visually arresting and affecting American movies of the last 40 years.
With “Full Ride” Omahans Mark Hoeger and Andy Anderson made a high school sports-themed coming-of-age movie here that stands up well with bigger budgeted films of that type.
For Love of Amy
Vincent Alston wrote and starred in “For Love of Amy,” an indie film that touches on issues of face and family. Lavar Burton directed the picture in Omaha. It includes a small but telling turn by Omaha’s own John Beasley.
The Omaha-made movie that’s most impressed me is one you’ve likely never heard of, “Wigger.” Written-directed by UNO professor Omowale Akintunde it may be the only dramatic feature film that deals with Omaha’s contemporary African-American culture and the hold it has on some white youths.
Though it received a fair amount of attention at the time, I think the fact that then-20-something-year-old Nik Fackler managed to attract two Oscar-winning actors in the lead roles for a script he wrote and directed, “Lovely, Still”, that he filmed entirely in his hometown is a remarkable feat. After all, Payne was in his mid-30s before he made his first feature. Unlike Payne, who went to film school and got a development deal off his widely shown student thesis film, Fackler never went to film school and directed little-seen shorts and videos.
Many more films, for theaters and television, including some major pictures partially shot here, will surprise you, such as “Airport” and “Paper Moon,” as well as movies that got a lot of attention when they did film here such as “Sarah Plain and Tall” and “My Antonia” (An-ton-eah).
If Nebraska offered more film incentives, more films would undoubtedly be made here.
In addition to “Boys Town,” there’s “been some interesting premieres of major films held here. Some of these genuinely were “world” premieres and others, like the premieres of Payne’s films here, saw the films open the same night or weekend as they did in New York and L.A. after they’d already premiered at major festivals.
In 1939 a bona fide world premiere for “Union Pacific” coincided with a city-wide celebration of “Golden Spike Days.” The movie’s stars, Barbara Stanwyck, George Raft, Lloyd Nolan, Robert Preston and Anthony Quinn, were all there along with the director Cecil B. DeMille and Paramount Studio head Barney Balaban. The film premiered at three downtown theaters simultaneously: the Omaha, the Orpheum and the Paramount. Then-New York columnist Ed Sullivan covered the festivities, which drew a crowd of 50,000-plus for the premieres, and hundreds of thousands more for the week-long Golden Spike Days Celebration.
Other major Hollywood films from the Golden Era that had their premieres here include:
“Cheers for Miss Bishop,” “Wilson,” “The Sea of Grass” and “Cattle Empire.”
Two special screenings bear special mention because they only happened due to the presence of the Strategic Air Command here. Brewing mangate Arthur Storz Sr. was an influential friend of the United States Air Force and played a pivotal role in getting SAC headquartered here. He was a close personal friend of SAC’s founder, General Curtis LeMay. That relationship is why Omaha hosted the world premiere of “The Wild Blue Yonder” in 1951 and a trade screening of “Strategic Air Command” in 1955. “Blue Yonder’s” premiere included a parade and a crowd of 8,000 oustide the Orpheum Theater to see stars Forrest Tucker, Wendell Corey, Victor McLaglen, Phil Harris and Alice Faye, director Allan Dwan and Gen. LeMay. The Storz Mansion hosted a movie-themed gala party. The trade screening of “Strategic Air Command” was for a by-invitation-only guest list of local movers and shakers and national press, who got to meet stars Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson.
Another Cold War Hollywood drama, 1954’s “Night People” starring Gregory Peck and Broderick Crawford, also had an Omaha premiere.
On Golden Pond
Henry Fonda was too ill to attend the 1982 Midwest premiere of “On Golden Pond” at the Orpheum but his daughter and co-star Jane Fonda did attend and made a big splash. Not that many months later she accepted the Oscar he won for Best Actor and presented it to him at his home. He died not long after that.
Visiting Film Figures
As you can see, a number of film figures have come through Nebraska to make films and to premiere them. Film people come here for other reasons, too. One of the more peculiar pairings was when legendary Hollywood director Otto Preminger was featured at the same Creighton University film workshop as experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage.
The annual Film Streams Feature Events brings major cinema talents here courtesy of Alexander Payne:
Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
David O. Russell
Bruce Crawford, an Omaha-based film historian and impresario, brings Hollywood to Omaha as well:
More Film Currents
Several filmmakers and film artists make their homes in Nebraska, including three Oscar-winners in Alexander Payne, Mauro Fiore and Mike Hill, as well as casting director John Jackson, writer-directors Nik Fackler and Omowale Akintunde, producer-director Dana Altman, editor and director Tom Elkins, art director Sandy Veneziano and actor John Beasley.
In addition to these narrative film figures, several documentary filmmakers live and work in Nebraska, including several associated with Nebraska Educational Television and UNO Television. Omaha natives Dan Susman and Andrew Monboquette have a new documentary “Growing Cities” now appearing on PBS stations and Omaha resident Patty Dillon has a new doc, “There Will Be No Stay, “soon to play festivals and possibly to be broadcast on PBS.
The California-based Nebraska Coast Connection is a membership association of Nebraska natives or folks with strong Nebraska ties who are working professionals in the film and televison industry. The group’s monthly salon features a special guest talking about his/her Hollywood career path and current projects.
The film culture in Nebraska has evolved in recent years to feature more venues and events that celebrate film as an art form. Nebraska is home to two major art cinemas in the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln and Film Streams in Omaha as well as to historic, restored single-screen theaters devoted to art films: the Midwest Theater in Scottsbluff, the World Theater in Kearney and the Dundee Theater in Omaha. Additionally, the annual Omaha Film Festival and Jewish Film Festival offer strong slates of films and film guests. UNO’s Religious Studies Program and Journal of Film and Religion has hosted an international conference on film and religion.
I mentioned Bruce Crawford earlier, He’s also directed two acclaimed radio documentaries on major film composers – Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Herrmann.
Former network television executive and screenwriter Lew Hunter. whose Screenwriting 434 book is a bible for some, conducts a screenwriting colony twice a year in Superior, Neb. Omaha native Thomas Schatz is a noted film scholar and heads the University of Texas at Austin film studies program. Wheeler Winston Dixon is a University of Nebraska-Lincoln film studies professor who writes nationally on film history, theory and criticism.
Making the Case
For a state that’s given and gotten so much from cinema I find it odd there’s little recognition of this connection and legacy. I intend to create a book and a website, and perhaps a documentary, that attempt to pull all this together. Why? Well, it’s a little known heritage that has had and continues to have a cultural and economic impact on the state and well beyond. As time goes by, Nebraska’s Screen Heritage only continues to expand as more and more folks from here add their contributions to what’s already been done. The story of Nebraska’s Film Heritage is much larger than the dozen or so names we can all recite. It’s much larger than Alexander Payne. It’s hundreds of individuals and projects.