Old Hollywood hand living in Omaha comes out of the shadows; Screenwriter John Kaye scripted ‘American Hot Wax’ and more
You never who you might meet in your hometown. Veteran Hollywood screenwriter and literary novelist John Kaye has lived under the radar in Omaha since late 2014 working on a new novel but he’s coming out of the shadows for a celebration of one of the movies he wrote, “American Hot Wax” (1978). It’s the story of rock ‘n’ roll’s crossover from fringe race music to mainstream popularity courtesy DJ Alan Freed. Kaye’s appearing at a Feb. 7 Film Stream screening. Here is my short profile of Kaye in the February 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Old Hollywood hand living in Omaha comes out of the shadows
Screenwriter John Kaye scripted ‘American Hot Wax’ and more
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the February 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha is the adopted home of veteran Hollywood screenwriter and literary novelist John Kaye, 74, whose memoirs are published by the Los Angeles Review of Books.
The mercurial Kaye came 17-months ago from northern California to work on a new novel (his third) and immerse himself “deep” in a fictional Omaha subplot.
“I wanted to take a risk with what I was doing. The best decision I made,” he said from his writing-reading perch at Wohlner’s in Mid-town.
It’s not the first time he’s used Omaha as workplace and muse. In the early 1990s he researched here for an Omaha character in his first novel. Decades earlier he passed through hitching cross country on a personal Beat adventure. That drop-out, tune-in odyssey led him to Jamaica until Uncle Sam called.
On Feb. 7 Film Streams will present a 1978 film he wrote, American Hot Wax, that tells the story of DJ Alan Freed, who introduced white audiences to rock ‘n’ roll. Until now Kaye’s kept a low profile here, but that changes when he does a Q&A after the 7 p.m. show.
Kaye grew up in a West Los Angeles malaise of stale Hollywood dreams. He entered the ferment of 1960s social rebellion as a UC Berkeley and University of Wisconsin (Madison) student. He served in the Marine Corps Reserves, where his Jewish, college-educated background made him a target.
This child of Old Hollywood and New Journalism, “inspired by the galvanizing youth culture thing,” indulged in the era’s excesses. He was a researcher for David Wolper Productions, where colleagues included William Friedkin and Walon Green. He was an underground journalist, a CBS censor and a producer-writer for the KNBC late night sketch comedy show Lohman and Barkley. Anticipating Saturday Night Live, the show sped the careers of Barry Levinson, Craig T. Nelson and John Amos.
“It was a fascinating moment.”
Then Kaye got fired. Hedging that “disappointment” was the mentoring he received from Mission Impossible and Mannix creator Bruce Geller. Then Geller died in a plane crash.
Kaye’s ex-wife and first love was institutionalized, leaving him to raise their son. She later committed suicide.
“It was a very chaotic time,” he recalls.
All the while he wrote scripts but sold none.
“I was really struggling.”
One day he picked up two young women thumbing rides in L.A. He ditched them after realizing they were Manson girls – post-Charlie’s conviction. The incident sparked the idea for his first industry feature, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975). This nihilistic screwball comedy is a shambling, anarchic take on three broken people hooking up for a road and head trip. Sally Kellerman and Mackenzie Phillips teamed with Alan Arkin. Dick Richards directed.
“It was a time when you could write a road movie,” Kaye says of its meandering, seriocomic style. The approach became his niche and hit its peak with Hot Wax. His friend Floyd Mutrux directed. Tim McIntyre, Fran Drescher, Jay Leno, Laraine Newman, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis star.
Kaye’s own counterculture leanings drew him to Gonzo hipster Hunter S. Thompson, whom he made the basis for his Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) script. Bill Murray plays Thompson. Kaye’s then-producing partner Art Linson directed. The serious take Kaye envisioned was hijacked by “a make it funny” decree from studio suits. Hanging out with Thompson in New Orleans, an old Kaye stomping ground, while placating moneymen hell-bent on laughs “turned out to be fun but really insane,” said Kaye.
Unkind reviews “singled out” Kaye’s writing. “It was a blood letting. Very painful.”
The experience, he said, gave him “thick skin” and taught him “not to be too invested in something.” Still he said, “It definitely set my career back.” He takes small consolation the movie has a cult following, even admitting, “I’m not sure it holds up as well as Hot Wax.”
Kaye’s last screen credit came as writer-director of Forever Lulu, a 2000 film starring Melanie Griffith and Patrick Swayze.
“I decided I wanted to write sort of a valentine to my ex-wife.”
The lead characters have a college affair and years later she escapes a mental hospital to find her old beau, now married, to inform him he fathered a child she bore and was forced to give up for adoption. The pair set out to visit the son who doesn’t know they exist.
A negative trade review cost the film a theatrical release.
The producers, he said, “kind of left me alone,” adding, “It was a great experience for me because I really felt I had stepped out and done something.”
It’s the same feeling he had writing his first novel, Stars Screaming.
“Spending eight years writing this book and getting it done, I realized I would not quit on something and that I had it in me to write it. Even though I wrote myself into complete poverty doing it, I finished it. I stepped through enormous amounts of fear to work to my potential.”
Then came his second novel The Dead Circus. Even with his new novel nearly complete, he says he may linger on in Omaha awhile.
“I’ve fallen in love with this town.”
For tickets to the Feb. 7 screening, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.
Coming Attraction for 2016…
The new edition of my Alexander Payne book featuring a major redesign, more images and substantial new content that looks back at “Nebraska’ and that looks ahead to “Downsizing.”
Considering Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’
Excerpt from an essay to appear in an upcoming new edition of my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
Even though Alexander Payne demonstrates time and again that commercial considerations mean very little to him, following the breakaway success of The Descendants (2011) there was every reasonable expectation he might lean a bit more again in the direction of mainstream with his next film. I say again because I count The Descendants as a conventional, even mainstream work even though its protagonist rails against his comatose wife and sets out to wreck the life of the man she was cheating with, all the while trying not to lose it with his two grieving daughters in tow.
Payne soon quashed any notion of playing it safe when he announced the small, insular back roads comedy-drama Nebraska (2013) as his new feature project. It did not help its bottom line chances that the film is set in rural Nebraska, which for most filmgoers may as well be the dark side of the moon for its unfamiliarity, remoteness, and perceived barrenness. Indeed, if Nebraska conjures any image at all it is of endless cornfields, cows, and monotonously flat, uninspired scenery. When the story laid over such a setting features a confused, depressed old cuss alienated from family and friends and wandering around in a bleak wasteland made even bleaker by black and white photography and desolate late fall, post-harvest locations, it does not exactly engender excitement. The prospect of a dour, feel-bad experience devoid of life and color does not get tongues a-wagging to generate the all important buzz that sells tickets.
Of course, anyone who has seen Nebraska knows the film is not the downer it may appear to be from glimpsing a thirty-second trailer or hearing a fifteen-second sound bite, but that it is ultimately a sweet, deeply affecting film filled with familiar truths amid its very Nebraskaesque yet also quite universal archetypes.
Payne’s insistence on shooting in black and white was a completely legitimate aesthetic choice given the storyline and tone of this stark, autumnal mood piece about an old man having his last hurrah. But it also meant a definite disadvantage in appealing to average or general movie fans, many of whom automatically pass on any non-color film. Compounding the aversion that many moviegoers have with black and white is the fact that most studio executives, distributors, and theater bookers share this aversion, not on aesthetic grounds, but based on the long-held. much repeated argument that black and white films fare poorly at the box office. Of course, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here that starts with studio resistance and reluctance to greenlight black and white features and even when a studio does approve the rare black and white entry executives seem to half-heartedly market and release these pics. It is almost as if the bean counters are out to perversely prove a point, even at the risk of injuring the chances of one of their own pictures at finding a sizable audience. Then when the picture lags, it gives the powerbrokers the platform to say, I told you so. No wonder then – and this is assuming the argument is true – most black and white flicks don’t perform well compared with their color counterparts. Except, how does one arrive at anything like a fair comparison of films based on color versus black and white? Even if the films under review are of the same genre and released in the same period, each is individually, intrinsically its own experience and any comparison inevitably ends up being a futile apples and oranges debate. Besides, there are exceptions to the supposed rule that all black and white films struggle. From the 1970s on The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Young Frankenstein,Manhattan, Raging Bull, Schindler’s List, Ed Wood and The Artist are among the black and white films to have found wide success. It is admittedly a short list but it does prove black and white need not be a death sentence.
To no one’s surprise Paramount did what practically any studio would have done in the same situation, which was to fight Payne on the black and white decision. In no uncertain terms Payne wanted to make Nebraska in black and white and just as adamantly the studio wanted no part of it. He pushed and they pushed back. He would not compromise his vision because from the moment he first read Bob Nelson’s screenplay he clearly saw in his mind’s eye the world of this story play out in in shades of black and white. It just fit. It fit the characters and the settings and the emotions and as far as he was concerned that was that. No questions asked. No concessions made.
I do not claim to know all the details of this protracted dispute or should I say discussion but I do know from what Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have told me that the issue became a point of some contention. I do not know if it ever reached an impasse where Payne more or less indicated by word or action he was prepared to walk and take the project with him (his own Ad Hominem production company brought the property to Paramount). It certainly wouldn’t surprise me that he let it be known, subtly or not, that he was willing to make the project with another studio if it came to that. It is a moot point now since Paramount eventually acceded to his wishes, though not insignificantly the studio did cut some of the picture’s already small budget as a kind of hedge I suppose against the small business they expected the film to do. The smaller the budget, and in this case it was $12 million, the smaller the risk of not recouping its cost.
Given Payne’s even temperament and gentility, I doubt if things reached the level of shouting or angry exchanges, though he undoubtedly expressed displeasure with their interference and pettiness. I have to think he wore the execs down with his patience and persistence to win the black and white battle but at the end of the day he was willing to give up a couple million dollars in exchange for realizing his vision. I know he says that losing a million dollars is a huge loss when it comes to small-budgeted films like this one and I understand that in order to get the film made within those constraints he and others worked for scale in return for some points on the back end, but I have to believe those “sacrifices” were completely worth it in the long run. I would even argue that having to work on a bare bones budget and a tight schedule worked in favor of getting this simple story right. It required cast and crew to live frugally like the characters and the frugal shoot placed a premium on efficiency, ingenuity, and everyone pulling together to make the most of what they had to work with. In truth this esprit de corps is evident on all of Payne’s projects anyway because of the tight, loyal stock company he works with from film to film to film. They are a family and a team dedicated to one purpose: getting the film made to his specifications.
I asked Payne if it ever seems like a studio plays this game in order to gauge just how strongly the filmmaker is invested in a choice or preference as well as to what extent the filmmaker can be manipulated. He seems to believe there is some truth in that. Perhaps it really is the studio’s way of testing how firm the filmmaker’s convictions are and how much the filmmaker is willing to give up or to stand fast in terms of creative control. As Paramount surely knew going in and if they somehow didn’t know they surely soon discovered in the process of setting up the film, Payne is no push over and he brooks no fools. That is true at every juncture in the process, from making the deal to pre-production to the shoot and on through post-production. It is his film and he will not be budged from any creative choices he feels are necessary, which is to say he will not be pressured into doing something for the sake of added commercial appeal.
Because Payne is not about burning bridges, except for his public displeasure over the way his first two films (Citizen Ruth and Election) were handled by the studios and releasing companies behind them, he is not saying on the record what he thinks about the way Paramount handled Nebraska. I have to think he is not pleased with the extremely limited release they gave it. At no time during its release did the film ever play more than 968 theaters according to the website Boxoffice Mojo. That is anywhere from two-thirds to a half to a third the number of theaters its main awards competitors played at during their runs. It is hard to understand why the film was not given more opportunities to find a wider audience given the outstanding reception it received from critics (making most Top Ten lists), the foreign press (five Golden Globe nominations) and the Academy (six nominations).
Hampered as it was by the limited release, Nebraska still pulled in more than $18 million domestically by this edition’s summer 2014 printing and I am sure when all the figures are added up from North America and overseas, where I predict the film will fare well, especially in Europe, its total gross will be in excess of $20 million. By the time all the home viewing rentals and purchases are taken into account a year from now, I wager the film will have done some $25 million in business, which would approximately double its production costs. That is quite a return on a small film that did not get much studio support beyond the bare basics.
Payne could have made things easier for himself and the studio by filming in color and securing a superstar. Nebraska marked quite a departure from the lush, color-filled canvas of Hawaii he captured in The Descendants and the equally verdant California wine country he committed to celluloid in Sideways. Never mind the fact the stories of those earlier films, despite the radical differences of their physical locations, actually share much in common tonally and thematically withNebraska. The dark comic tone and theme of Payne’s films can threaten to be overshadowed when a star the magnitude of Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) or George Clooney (The Descendants) attaches himself to one of his projects. But as anyone who is familiar with the subdued star turns of those two actors in those particular films will tell you, Nicholson departed far from his trademark insouciance and braggadocio to totally inhabit his repressed, depressive title character in Schmidtjust as Clooney left behind much of his breezy, cocksure charm to essay his neurotic somewhat desperate character in Descendants. Each star was eager to shed his well-practiced, bigger-than-life persona in service of scripts and parts that called for them to play against type. Instead of their usual live-out-loud, testosterone-high roles, they play quiet, wounded, vulnerable men in trouble. For that matter, the men-children Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church play in Sideways are seemingly complete opposites but in actuality are emotionally-stunted, damaged souls using oblivion, alcohol, and sex to medicate their pain and avoid reality. The beauty of the California and Hawaii locales work as contrast and counterpoint to the chaotic lives of these lost figures careening toward catharsis. In Schmidt Omaha is the perfect washed-out backdrop for a man undergoing a full-scale identity and spiritual crisis once he retires and his domineering wife dies.
That brings us to Woody Grant, the crotchety so-and-so at the center of Nebraska. When we meet him he is near the end of a largely misspent life. Facing his inevitable and nearing mortality he doesn’t much like what he sees when he reviews his life and where he has landed. He is dealing with many deficits in his old age. His body is falling apart. He walks stiffly, haltingly. His alcoholism has been unaddressed and it contributes to his foggy mind, mood swings, propensity to fall and hurt himself, and to utter hurtful things. He seems to derive no joy or satisfaction from his wife of many years and his two adult sons. He almost regards them as inconvenient reminders of his own failings as a husband and father. On top of all this, he is poor and in no position to leave his family anything like a tangible legacy.
This miserable wretch has seized upon what he believes to be his last chance at assuaging a deep well of shame, guilt, bitterness, and resentment. His mistaken belief there is a sweepstakes prize for him to redeem becomes a search for his own personal redemption or salvation. He desperately wants something, namely a truck, to leave his boys. The true meaning of the road trip he embarks on with his son David is only revealed to us and to his boy along the way and that gradual discovery adds layers of poignancy to the story.
When Woody arrives back in his hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska word spreads he is on his way to collect a $i million sweepstakes prize. For a few moments he becomes a person of substance in the eyes of his extended family and the town’s other residents. Some family members and one old friend turn vultures and demand they get a share of his windfall as compensation for favors they did or loans they made that were never returned. But there is another side to that story. We find out Woody has a kind heart beneath his gruff exterior, so much so that he’s been known to do favors and to give money away without ever expecting repayment. That has led him to be taken advantage of over the years. Then when the truth gets out Woody has not won anything but has misinterpreted a marketing piece for a confirmation letter of his supposed million in winnings, he is publicly humiliated and made out to be a fool.
For Nebraska I Payne went one step further in distancing himself from commercial considerations by casting as his two leads Bruce Dern and Will Forte, who at first glance form an unlikely combination but in fact play wonderfully off each other. Dern’s acclaimed performance as Woody Grant earned him a Best Actor prize at Cannes and nominations from the Golden Globes and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Saturday Night Live alumnus Forte is triumphant in his first dramatic role as the sympathetic son David. The next largest part belongs to June Squibb, who until this film was a somewhat familiar face if not a household name (she played Nicholson’s wife in Schmidt). Her stellar work in a colorful role as Woody’s piss-and-vinegar wife Kate has brought her the most attention she’s received in a very long and productive career. Arguably, the biggest name in the picture belongs to Stacy Keach, a veteran of film, television, and stage who has little screen time in the picture but makes the most of it in a powerfully indelible turn as the story’s heavy, Ed Pegram. As strong as these performances are Payne did not do his film any box office favors by choosing actors so far off the radar of moviegoers. That is not a criticism, it is simply a fact. At least a dozen more speaking parts are filled by no-name actors, nonprofessional actors, and nonactors, all of whom add great authenticity to the film but whose obscurity hurts rather than helps the marketing cause.
As you will read in the articles that follow Payne is most proud of the casting and locations inNebraska. These are elements he always takes great care with in any of his films but with this particular film he went the extra mile yet in order to realize the very specific world of the story. Many of the small speaking parts are filled by regular folks – retired farmers and such – who populate the very towns or ones just like them where he shot. He and casting director John Jackson searched long and hard for just the right faces and voices. Similarly, the weatherbeaten, seen-better-times found locations look and feel so right as the homes and pit-stops of the characters that these real locations rather than constructed sets add another layer of verisimilitude.
The choice to populate the film with zero star power ultimately is not the reason the film failed to pull in more of an audience because there are plenty of films that do well with little known, non A-list names, and nonactor finds. No, the real problem with how Nebraska fared had more to do with the perception the marketing campaign for the film imposed on it. The film’s trailers did not communicate the heart and soul of the picture. None of the warmth or depth or populist appeal at its core registered in those clips. Instead, the film was represented as a cold, mean, depressive, rather flimsy sketch concept blown up to fill two hours. Anyone who has seen and appreciatedNebraska will tell you it is far more than that. It is a work replete with deep currents of regret, disappointment, melancholia, rage, nostalgia. and love. Alongside that run streams of humor, sweetness, irony, and slapstick. Then there is the sheer poetic evocation of hauntingly beautiful visuals that turn the wide open flyover terrain, roadside stops, and played-out small towns of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska into haunting fields of dreams and symbols of neglect. Not to mention centers of quirky, silly, sometimes surreal goings-on.
Plenty of small indie films about similarly unglamorous subject matter have struck a responsive chord with the masses. So what kept Nebraska from resonating the way, say, Juno did or Little Miss Sunshine? No one really knows. If the creatives who make the films and the suits who finance and sell them did, if there was some sure-fire magic formula at their disposal, then every film would be packaged into a box office winner. The truth is some films catch the wave and most don’t and there doesn’t seem to be any reliable rhyme or reason for why some hit and others miss that elusive, always moving wave everyone is after.
It may take a while, but I am quite confident Nebraska will eventually find the large audience it deserves. In my opinion it will be a much viewed and discussed stand-the-test of-time film for its many cinema art merits. As good as Payne’s earlier films have been I believe this to be his finest work to date because it is in my view the fullest expression of his filmmaking talents. Visually, it is a tone poem of the first order and on that basis alone it is a film to be reckoned with. Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have achieved an expressive black and white palette whose hues perfectly articulate the heavy heart of the story. But Payne also found unobtrusive ways to position the camera and, with editor Kevin Tent, to cut scenes so as to amplify its many moments of humor without ever detracting from its elegiac, soulful mood. Mark Orton’s original music, plus the incidental music used here and there, add more nuances of mood. Payne artfully composed images for the wide screen format he shot in to glean added depth and meaning from the action. Within the same frame he intentionally juxtaposed characters with the stark landscapes, townscapes, and homes they inhabit. Many of these scenes emphasize sadness, stillness and desolation. Irony infuses it all. The result is an ongoing dialogue between people and their environments. Each informs the other and by consequence us.
The filmmaker’s economy of style has never been more evident. He has reached the point of communicating so much with simple brush strokes. Take for instance the way Woody’s harsh childhood experience is encapsulated when the old man and his family visit the abandoned farm house he grew up in. Payne has the camera fluidly glide over the detritus of this once proud home turned wreck and to peak into rooms that carry so much psychic-emotional pain for Woody, who was beaten as a boy. Payne clearly indicates this is a private, anguished, cathartic return for Woody, who has avoided this place and its memories for years.
Or consider that gathering of taciturn men in Woody’s family at his brother’s home in town. Payne arranges the uncles, brothers, sons, nephews, cousins in an American Gothic pose around the TV set, where the men engage in the almost wordless ritualistic viewing of a football game. It is at once a funny and powerful expression of their tribal, tight-lipped bond. A bond more about association by blood than affinity.
Then there are the almost incidental shots of boarded up buildings in town that symbolize and speak to the economic hard times to have befallen so many small towns like the fictional Hawthorne. In a short scene Payne conveys an important way in which the times have changed there and in towns like it when he has Woody visit the auto service station he used to own and he finds the new owners are Spanish-speaking Hispanics. Woody thus personally encounters a demographic shift that has altered the face of his hometown and much of rural Nebraska. No more is made of it then that simple reality and the brief exchange between Woody and the “newcomers,” but it is enough to say that times have moved on and the Hawthorne he knew has evolved in some ways and remained unchanged in others.
Perhaps the best example of Payne distilling things down to their simplest, purest, most elemental form is the end sequence when David and Woody are in the truck David has purchased and registered in his father’s name. David, who is at the wheel with Woody beside him, stops the truck on the edge of town and invites Woody to take the wheel and drive down main street in his new rig. What follows is one of the most moving denouements in contemporary American cinema. Woody is granted a rare gift when he accepts the invitation to take a celebratory ride down main street. As the truck slowly passes through town he wins more than any prize money could provide when four people from his past catch sight of him and look at him with a combination of awe, admiration, and surprise. It is a perfect moment in the sun vindication for a beleaguered, bedraggled man who suddenly brims with a sense of confidence and purpose. Woody leaves town on his own terms, his dignity and pride intact, at least for this short interval of time.
What makes that valedictory ride so special is that his sympathetic son David is there to grant him it and to bask in it with him. These two who began the road trip not really knowing each other and often at odds with each other have traveled a journey together that has brought them a measure of acceptance, healing, and peace. David has finally come to understand why his father is the way he is. His fondest desire is realized when he gives Woody that movie-movie opportunity to prove he is not the loser or fool this day. As Woody sits high in the cab of the truck, with David lovingly looking on from the floor, and drives past the artifacts of his past and the denizens of that town, he may as well be a cowboy sitting tall in the saddle of his horse riding into the sunset. He graciously accepts the congratulations of town chatterbox Bernie Bowen. He stares down his former friend Ed Pegram, who now looks the shamed fool. Woody’s heart stirs again for old flame Peg Nagy, whose wistful expression wonders might have been. As he heads out of town Woody says a fond goodbye to Albert, the Grant brother whose favorite pastime is siting beside the road waving at the occupants of passing cars.
Outside of town the truck stops at the bottom of a hill and Woody and David once again exchange places. Doing this out of the view of onlookers preserves Woody’s glorious farewell and signals Woody now accepts his limitations and David’s love for him. With David back behind the wheel and Woody beside him father and son drive off to meet an uncertain future together. Consistent with the way Payne ends all his films, Woody’s last ride reverie does not promise any great turnaround in his life. His problems are still his problems. The fact that that sequence plays out wordlessly and still conveys so much meaning is a testament to the work of Payne and his collaborators in extracting the essence of these scenes through beautifully executed shots that give full weight to glances gestures, postures, and backdrops.
NOTE: To read the rest you’ll have to wait for my new edition to come out.
Just finished reading the script for Alexander Payne’s new film “Downsizing.” He penned it with his old writing partner Jim Taylor. I can report that it is by-turns a hilarious and heartbreaking exploration of the human condition under extremis. It is also a very brave embrace of both kitsch and visionary science fiction conventions that we all recognize from that well worn genre. It is a kind of mashup of “Dr. Strangelove,” “Fantastic Voyage,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” “The Truman Show,” and “Children of Men.” If Billy Wilder had ever made a sci satire, this would have been yet. Like all Payne stories, it revels in the mundanity and banality of life even amidst extraordinary circumstances. Based on the way the character is developed on the page, I can tell you that Matt Damon is the perfect choice as the Everyman protagonist. The miniaturization or downsizing hook allows Payne to deal with all kinds of issues related to the environment – diminishing resources, diversity, discrimination, politics, et cetera. It is at once relevant and revelatory about things that communities and states and nations are grappling with today. Much more to come from me about this film after I interview Payne, Taylor and others involved in the project. But for now just know that “Downsizing” will be worth waiting for as it shoots in the spring of 2016, then gets its specials effects all synched up and undergoes a long editing process. All of that, plus scoring and mixing, will take the project through 2016 into 2017. We won’t actually see the film until weli into 2017. All of that bodes well for a story whose social themes and concerns will likely only grow more urgent, not less, in the interim.
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My newest cover story appears in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) and it explores dimensions of race in America through the prism of a 1970 book whose events and themes still have relevance and resonance with today. Lois Mark Stalvey’s book The Education of a WASP largely grew out of her experience learning the architecture and construction of racism from black friends in Omaha and Philadelphia whose lives were, by necessity, built around barriers constricting their lives. The inequality and discrimination blacks faced came as a revelation to the White Anglo Saxon Protestant Stalvey, whose education into social awareness and consciousness changed the arc of her life. Two of her primary educators in Omaha were Ernie Chambers and the late Dr. Claude Organ. By the time the book came out Chambers had won election to the Nebraska Legislature and Organ enjoyed a noted career as a surgeon educator at Creighton University. Along the way, Chambers played a prominent role in a famous race documentary shot in Omaha, A Time for Burning, and the Organs, whom Stalvey tried to get to integrate her neighborhood, built a new home in a neighborhood and parish that didn’t appreicate their presence. They stayed anyway.
Two families suffer Omaha’s segregation and waken the conscience of a nation
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
A WASP’s racial tightrope resulted in enduring book
©by Leo Adam Biga
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
When a liberal, white middle-class couple with young kids moved to Omaha from Chicago in the late 1950s they entered this city’s weirdly segregated reality, not uncommon in almost every American city. It was not as public or overtly violent as the segregation in the former Confederate states of the South, but it was no less impactful on the African-American communities in Northern states. Homemaker Lois Mark Stalvey was a former advertising copywriter who once owned her own agency. Her husband Bennett Stalvey was a Fairmont Foods Mad Man.
The Omaha they settled into abided by a de facto segregation that saw blacks confined to two delineated areas. The largest sector, the Near North Side, was bounded by Cuming on the south and Ames on the north and 16th on the east and 40th on the west. Large public housing projects were home to thousands of families. In South Omaha blacks were concentrated in and around projects near the packing plants. Blacks here could generally enter any public place – a glaring exception being the outdoor pool at Peony Park until protestors forced ownership’s hand – but were sometimes required to sit in separate sections or limited to drive-thru service and they most definitely faced closed housing opportunities and discriminatory hiring practices.
This now deceased couple encountered a country club racist culture that upheld a system designed to keep whites and blacks apart. Neither was good at taking things lying down or letting injustices pass unnoticed. But she was the more assertive and opinionated of the two. Indeed, son Ben Stalvey recalls her as “a force of nature” who “rarely takes no for an answer.”
“She was stubborn to accept the accepted norm in those days and that piqued her curiosity and she took it from there,” he says. “She had grown up in her own little bubble (in Milwaukee) and I think when she discovered racial prejudice and injustice her attitude was more like, What do you mean I can’t do that or what do you mean I have to think that way? It was more just a matter of, “Hell, no.”
Though only in Omaha a few years, Stalvey made her mark on the struggle for equality then raging in the civil rights movement.
The well-intentioned wife and mother entered the fray naive about her own white privilege and prejudice and the lengths to which the establishment would go to oppose desegregation and parity. Her headstrong efforts to do the right thing led to rude awakenings and harsh consequences. Intolerance, she learned here and in Philadelphia, where the Stalveys moved after her husband lost his job due to her activism, is insidious. All of which she wrote about in her much discussed 1970 book, The Education of a WASP.
The title refers to the self-discovery journey she made going from ignorance to enlightenment. Blacks who befriended her in Omaha and in Philadelphia schooled her on the discrimination they faced and on what was realistic for changing the status quo.
Among her primary instructors was the late black civic leader and noted physician Dr. Claude Organ and his wife Elizabeth “Betty” Organ and a young Ernie Chambers before his state senator career. In WASP Stalvey only sparingly used actual names. The Organs became the Bensons and Chambers became Marcus Garvey Moses.
A Marshall, Texas native and graduate of Xavier University in New Orleans, Claude Organ was accepted by the University of Texas Medical School but refused admittance when officials discovered he was black. The state of Texas paid the tuition difference between UT and any school a denied black attended. Organ ended up at Creighton University and the state of Texas paid the extra $2,000 to $3,000 a year the private Jesuit school cost, recalls Betty Organ.
His civil rights work here began with the interracial social action group the De Porres Club led by Father John Markoe. Organ became Urban League of Nebraska president and later advised the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (4CL). He was on the Catholic Interracial Council board and Mayor’s Biracial Committee.
“He built a lot of bridges,” son Paul Organ says.
Betty Organ got involved, too, supporting “any group that had something to do with making Omaha a better place to live,” she says.
So when Stalvey was introduced to the Organs by a black friend and determined to made them her guides in navigating the troubled racial waters, she couldn’t have found a better pair.
Stalvey met Chambers through Claude Organ.
Chambers says “This woman detected I was somebody who might have some things to offer that would help give her what she called her education. And when I became convinced she was genuine I was very open with her in terms of what I would talk to her about.”
Though it may not seem so now, Chambers says the book’s title was provocative for the time. WASP stands for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, which defined Stalvey’s background, but racism was rampant across ethnic and religious lines in White America.
“WASP was a term that not everybody to whom it applied embraced. So by using that title she caught people’s attention.”
But he admired the “substance” behind the sensation. He admired, too, that the vitally curious Stalvey asked lots of questions.
“I never got the impression as used to happen when I was interviewed by white people that she was ‘studying’ me like a scientist in a lab would study insects. She genuinely was trying to make herself a better person and I think she succeeded.”
This ever apt pupil threw herself into The Cause. Her son Noah Stalvey says, “I can remember meetings at the house. She had a lot of the movers and shakers of the day meeting there. Her goal was to raise us in an environment of tolerance.”
“At times it was lively,” says Ben Stalvey. “There wasn’t much disagreement. We knew what was going on, we heard about things. We met a lot of people and we’d play with their kids.”
All par for the course at the family home in Omaha’s Rockbrook neighborhood. “It wasn’t until well into my teen years I realized my parents were fighting the battle,” Noah says. “I just thought that’s what all parents do.”
His mother headed the progressive Omaha Panel for American Women that advocated racial-religious understanding. The diverse panelists were all moms and the Organ and Stalvey kids sometimes accompanied their mothers to these community forums. Paul Organ believes the panelists wielded their greatest influence at home.
“On the surface all the men in the business community were against it.
Behind the scenes women were having these luncheons and meetings and I think in many homes around Omaha attitudes were changed over dinner after women came back from these events and shared the issues with their husbands. To me it was very interesting the women and the moms kind of bonded together because they all realized how it was affecting their children.”
Betty Organ agrees. “I don’t think the men were really impressed with what we were doing until they found out its repercussions concerning their children and the attitudes their children developed as they grew.”
Stalvey’s efforts were not only public but private. She personally tried opening doors for the aspirational Organs and their seven children to integrate her white bread suburban neighborhood. She felt the northeast Omaha bungalow the Organs occupied inadequate for a family of nine and certainly not befitting the family of a surgeon.
Racial segregation denied the successful professional and Creighton University instructor the opportunity for living anywhere outside what was widely accepted as Black Omaha – the area in North Omaha defined by realtors and other interests as the Near North Side ghetto.
“She had seen us when we lived in that small house on Paxton Boulevard,” Betty Organ says. “She had thought that was appalling that we should be living that many people in a small house like that.”
Despite the initial reluctance of the Organs, Stalvey’s efforts to find them a home in her neighborhood put her self-educating journey on a collision course with Omaha’s segregation and is central to the books’s storyline. Organ appreciated Stalvey going out on a limb.
Stalvey and others were also behind efforts to open doors for black educators at white schools, for employers to practice fair hiring and for realtors to abide by open housing laws. Stalvey found like-minded advocates in social worker-early childhood development champion Evie Zysman and the late social cause maven Susie Buffett. They were intent on getting the Organs accepted into mainstream circles.
“We were entertained by Lois’ friends and the Zysmans and these others that were around. We went to a lot of places that we would not have ordinarily gone because these people were determined they were going to get us into something,” Betty Organ says. “It was very revealing and heartwarming that she wanted to do something. She wanted to change things and it did happen.”
Only the change happened either more gradually than Stalvey wanted or in ways she didn’t expect.
Despite her liberal leanings Claude Organ remained wary of Stalvey.
“He felt she was as committed as she could be,” his widow says, “but he just didn’t think she knew what the implications of her involvement would be. He wasn’t exactly sure about how sincere Lois was. He thought she was trying to find her way and I think she more or less did find her way. It was a very difficult time for all of us, that’s all I can say.”
Ernie Chambers says Stalvey’s willingness to examine and question things most white Americans accepted or avoided was rare.
“At the time she wrote this book it was not a popular thing. There were not a lot of white people willing to step forward, identify themselves and not come with the traditional either very paternalistic my-best-friend-is-a-Negro type of thing or out-and-out racist attitude.”
The two forged a deep connection borne of mutual respect.
“She was surprised I knew what I knew, had read as widely as I had, and as we talked she realized it was not just a book kind of knowledge. In Omaha for a black man to stand up was considered remarkable.
“We exchanged a large number of letters about all kinds of issues.”
Chambers still fights the good fight here. Though he and Claude Organ had different approaches, they became close allies.
Betty Organ says “nobody else was like” Chambers back then. “He was really a moving power to get people to do things they didn’t want to do. My husband used to go to him as a barber and then they got to be very good friends. Ernie really worked with my husband and anything he wanted to accomplish he was ready to be there at bat for him. He was wonderful to us.”
Stalvey’s attempts to infiltrate the Organs into Rockbrook were rebuffed by realtors and residents – exactly what Claude Organ warned would happen. He also warned her family might face reprisals.
Betty Organ says, “My husband told her, ‘You know this can have great repercussions because they don’t want us and you can be sure that because they don’t want us they’re going to red line us wherever we go in Omaha trying to get a place that they know of.'”
Bennett Stalvey was demoted by Fairmont, who disliked his wife’s activities, and sent to a dead-end job in Philadelphia. The Organs regretted it came to that.
“It was not exactly the thing we wanted to happen with Ben,” Betty Organ says. “That was just the most ugly, un-Godly, un-Christian thing anybody could have done.”
While that drama played out, Claude Organ secretly bought property and secured a loan through white doctor friends so he could build a home where he wanted without interference. The family broke ground on their home on Good Friday in 1964. The kids started school that fall at St. Philip Neri and the brick house was completed that same fall.
“We had the house built before they (opponents) knew it,” Betty Organ says.
Their spacious new home was in Florence, where blacks were scarce. Sure enough, they encountered push-back. A hate crime occurred one evening when Betty was home alone with the kids.
“Somebody came knocking on my door. This man was frantically saying, ‘Lady, lady, you know your house is one fire?’ and I opened the door and I said, ‘What?’ and he went, ‘Look,’ and pointed to something burning near the house. I looked out there, and it was a cross burning right in front of the house next to the garage. When the man saw what it was, too, he said, ‘Oh, lady, I’m so sorry.’ It later turned out somebody had too much to drink at a bar called the Alpine Inn about a mile down the road from us and did this thing.
“I just couldn’t believe it. It left a scorch there on the front of the house.”
Paul Organ was 9 or 10 then.
“I have memories of a fire and the fire truck coming up,” he says. “I remember something burning on the yard and my mom being upset. I remember when my dad got home from the hospital he was very upset but it wasn’t until years later I came to appreciate how serious it was. That was probably the most dramatic, powerful incident.”
But not the last.
As the only black family in St. Philip Neri Catholic parish the Organs seriously tested boundaries.
“Some of the kids there were very ugly at first,” Betty Organ recalls. “They bullied our kids. It was a real tough time for all of us because they just didn’t want to accept the fact we were doing this Catholic thing.”
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
Daughter Sandra Organ says, “There were some tensions there. Dad would talk about how to handle these kind of things and to take the high road. But if they used the ‘n’ word we had an opportunity to retaliate because you defend your honor as a black person.
“An older neighbor man didn’t particularly like black people. But his grandson was thrilled to have these five boys to play with, so he became like an extra person in the family. The boy’s family was very kind to us and they kind of brought the grandfather around.”
Betty Organ says things improved with parishioners, too. “It got to the point where they got to know the family and they got to know us and they kind of came around after a few years.”
Sandra says when her brother David suffered severe burns in an accident and sat-out school “the neighborhood really rallied around my mom and provided help for her and tutoring for David.”
Stalvey came from Philadelphia to visit the Organs at their new home.
“When she saw the house we built she was just thrilled to death to see it,” Betty Organ says.
In Philadelphia the Stalveys lived in the racially mixed West Mount Airy neighborhood and enrolled their kids in predominantly African-American inner city public schools.
Ben Stalvey says, “I think it was a conscious effort on my parents part to expose us to multiple ways of living.”
His mother began writing pieces for the Philadelphia Bulletin that she expanded into WASP.
“Mom always had her writing time,” Ben Stalvey notes. “She had her library and that was her writing room and when she in the writing room we were not to disturb her and so yes I remember her spending hours and hours in there. She’d always come out at the end of the school day to greet us and often times she’d go back in there until dinner.”
In the wake of WASP she became a prominent face and voice of white guilt – interviewed by national news outlets, appearing on national talk shows and doing signings and readings. Meanwhile, her husband played a key role developing and implementing affirmative action plans.
Noah Stalvey says any negative feedback he felt from his parents’ activism was confined to name-calling.
“I can remember vaguely being called an ‘n’ lover and that was mostly in grade school. My mother would be on TV or something and one of the kids who didn’t feel the way we did – their parents probably used the word – used it on us at school.”
He says the work his parents did came into focus after reading WASP.
“I first read it when I was in early high school. It kind of put together pieces for me. I began to understand what they were doing and why they were doing it and it made total sense to me. You know, why wouldn’t you fight for people who were being mistreated. Why wouldn’t you go out of your way to try and rectify a wrong? It just made sense they were doing what they could to fix problems prevalent in society.”
Betty Organ thought WASP did a “pretty good” job laying out “what it was all about” and was relieved their real identities were not used.
“That was probably a good thing at the time because my husband didn’t want our names involved as the persons who educated the WASP.”
After all, she says, he had a career and family to think about. Dr. Claude Organ went on to chair Creighton’s surgery department by 1971, becoming the first African-American to do so at a predominately white medical school. He developed the school’s surgical residency program and later took positions at the University of Oklahoma and University of California–Davis, where he also served as the first African-American editor of Archives of Surgery, the largest surgical journal in the English-speaking world.
Sandra Organ says there was some queasiness about how Stalvey “tried to stand in our shoes because you can never really know what that’s like.” However, she adds, “At least she was pricking people’s awareness and that was a wise thing.”
Paul Organ appreciates how “brutally honest” Stalvey was about her own naivety and how embarrassed she was in numerous situations.” He says, “I think at the time that’s probably why the book had such an effect because Lois was very self-revealing.”
Stalvey followed WASP with the book Getting Ready, which chronicled her family’s experiences with urban black education inequities.
At the end of WASP she expresses both hope that progress is possible – she saw landmark civil rights legislation enacted – and despair over the slow pace of change. She implied the only real change happens in people’s hearts and minds, one person at a time. She equated the racial divide in America to walls whose millions of stones must be removed one by one. And she stated unequivocally that America would never realize its potential or promise until there was racial harmony.
Forty-five years since WASP came out Omaha no longer has an apparatus to restrict minorities in housing, education, employment and recreation – just hardened hearts and minds. Today, blacks live, work, attend school and play where they desire. Yet geographic-economic segregation persists and there are disproportionate numbers living in poverty. lacking upwardly mobile job skills, not finishing school, heading single-parent homes and having criminal histories in a justice system that effectively mass incarcerates black males. Many blacks have been denied the real estate boom that’s come to define wealth for most of white America. Thus, some of the same conditions Stalvey described still exist and similar efforts to promote equality continue.
Stalvey went on to teach writing and diversity before passing away in 2004. She remained a staunch advocate of multiculturalism. When WASP was reissued in 1989 her new foreword expressed regret that racism was still prevalent. And just as she concluded her book the first time, she repeated the need for our individual and collective education to continue and her indebtedness to those who educated her.
Noah Stalvey says her enduring legacy may not be so much what she wrote but what she taught her children and how its been passed down.
“It does have a ripple effect and we now carry this message to our kids and our kids are raised to believe there is no difference regardless of sexual preference or heritage or skin color.”
Ben Stalvey says his mother firmly believed children are not born with prejudice and intolerance but learn these things.
“There’s a song my mother used to quote which I still like that’s about intolerance – ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught’ – from the musical South Pacific.
“The way we were raised we were purposely not taught,” Ben Stalvey says. “I wish my mother was still around to see my own grandchildren. My daughter has two kids and her partner is half African-American and half Filipino. I think back to the very end of WASP where she talks about her hopes and dreams for America of everyone being a blended heritage and that has actually come to pass in my grandchildren.”
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
Stalvey’s personal chronicle of social awareness a primer for racial studies
©by Leo Adam Biga
With America in the throes of the 1960s civil rights movement, few whites publicly conceded their own prejudice, much less tried seeing things from a black point of view. Lois Mark Stalvey was that exception as she shared her journey from naivety to social consciousness in her 1970 book The Education of a WASP.
Her intensely personal chronicle of becoming a socially aware being and engaged citizen has lived on as a resource in ethnic studies programs.
Stalvey’s odyssey was fueled by curiosity that turned to indignation and then activism as she discovered the extent to which blacks faced discrimination. Her education and evolution occurred in Omaha and Philadelphia. She got herself up to speed on the issues and conditions impacting blacks by joining organizations focused on equal rights and enlisting the insights of local black leaders. Her Omaha educators included Dr. Claude Organ and his wife Elizabeth “Betty” Organ (Paul and Joan Benson in the book) and Ernie Chambers (Marcus Garvey Moses).
She joined the local Urban League and led the Omaha chapter of the Panel of American Women. She didn’t stop at rhetoric either. She took unpopular stands in support of open housing and hiring practices. She attempted and failed to get the Organs integrated into her Rockbrook neighborhood. Pushing for diversity and inclusion got her blackballed and cost her husband Bennett Stalvey his job.
After leaving Omaha for Philly she and her husband could have sat out the fight for diversity and equality on the sidelines but they elected to be active participants. Instead of living in suburbia as they did here they moved into a mixed race neighborhood and sent their kids to predominantly black urban inner city schools. Stalvey surrounded herself with more black guides who opened her eyes to inequities in the public schools and to real estate maneuvers like block busting designed to keep certain neighborhoods white.
Behind the scenes, her husband helped implement some of the nation’s first affirmative action plans.
Trained as a writer, Stalvey used her gifts to chart her awakening amid the civil rights movement. Since WASP’s publication the book’s been a standard selection among works that about whites grappling with their own racism and with the challenges black Americans confront. It’s been used as reading material in multicultural, ethnic studies and history courses at many colleges and universities.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor of History and Ethnic Studies Patrick Jones has utilized it in two courses.
“In both courses students had a very positive response to the book,” he says. “The book’s local connections to Omaha literally bring the topic of racial identity formation and race relations ‘home’ to students. This local dynamic often means a more forceful impact on Neb. students, regardless of their own identity or background.
“In addition, the book effectively underscores the ways that white racial identity is socially constructed. Students come away with a much stronger understanding of what many call ‘whiteness’ and ‘white privilege” This is particularly important for white students, who often view race as something outside of themselves and only relating to black and brown people. Instead, this book challenges them to reckon with the various ways their own history, experience, socialization, acculturation and identity are racially constructed.”
Jones says the book’s account of “white racial identity formation” offers a useful perspective.
“As Dr. King, James Baldwin and others have long asserted, the real problem of race in America is not a problem with black people or other people of color, but rather a problem rooted in the reality of white supremacy, which is primarily a fiction of the white mind. If we are to combat and overcome the legacy and ongoing reality of white supremacy, then we need to better understand the creation and perpetuation of white supremacy, white racial identity and white privilege, and this book helps do that.
“What makes whiteness and white racial identity such an elusive subject for many to grasp is its invisibility – the way it is rendered normative in American society. Critical to a deeper understanding of how race works in the U.S. is rendering whiteness and white supremacy visible.”
Stalvey laid it all right out in the open through the prism of her experience. She continued delineating her ongoing education in subsequent books and articles she wrote and in courses she taught.
Interestingly, WASP was among several popular media examinations of Omaha’s race problem then. A 1963 Look magazine piece discussed racial divisions and remedies here. A 1964 Ebony profile focused on Don Benning breaking the faculty-coaching color barrier at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The 1966 film A Time for Burning featured Ernie Chambers serving a similar role as he did with Stalvey, only this time educating a white pastor and members of Augustana Lutheran Church struggling to do interracial fellowship. The documentary prompted a CBS News special.
Those reports were far from the only local race issues to make national news. Most recently, Omaha’s disproportionately high black poverty and gun violence rates have received wide attention.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
DUE TO ILLNESS FATHER VAVRINA WILL NOT BE SIGNING HIS BOOK AS PLANNED TODAY
Father Ken Vavrina signs his new memoir “Crossing Bridges” at The Bookworm – Sat. Nov. 7 from 1-4 pm
Support Father Ken Vavrina and his new memoir, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden,” at a book signing he’s doing this Saturday Nov. 7, from 1-4 pm, at The Bookworm. He’ll be there as part of a local author-book expo. I will be there, too, because I helped Father Ken with his memoir. Show love to this veteran social justice champion who has given so much to North Omaha, to the African-American community and to people around the world. His life of service to others is a calling to all of us.
Father Ken and I hope to see you there.
Leo Adam Biga
My Inside Stories
Father Ken has been one of North Omaha’s most dedicated servants, making great contributions at Sacred Heart, Holy Family, St. Richard’s and St. Benedict the Moor and through Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) and the Bryant Center. He has been a good and loyal friend to the African-American community. His book is an inspirational account of his vocation serving others and it is a call for us to do the same.
The much traveled shepherd has pastored flocks far beyond Omaha. He lived five years in a mud hut minus indoor plumbing and electricity tending to lepers in Yemen. He became well acquainted with the slums of Calcutta, India while working there. He spent nights in the African bush escorting supplies. He spent two nights in a trench under fire. The archdiocesan priest served Native Americans on reservations and African-Americans in Omaha’s poorest neighborhoods. He befriended members of the American Indian Movement, Black Panthers and various activists, organizers, elected officials and civic leaders.His work abroad put him on intimate terms with Blessed Mother Teresa, now in line for sainthood. and made him a friend of convenience of deposed Liberia, Africa dictator Charles Taylor, now imprisoned for war crimes. As a Catholic Relief Services program director he served earthquake victims in Italy, the poorest of the poor in India, Bangladesh and Nepal and refugees of civil war in Liberia.
Other authors in attendance and their books:
– Marilyn Coffey, Mail-Order Kid: An Orphan Train Rider’s Story and Thieves, Rascals & Sore Losers
– John D’Arcy, Magic Letters of the Alphabet
– Claire Flatowicz, Seeing the World Through Rose-Colored Trifocals
– Natalie Guenther and Kim Schenkelberg, It’s Really 10 Months and It’s Really 10 Months Special Delivery
– Marco LeRoc, Cash In With Your Money and Screw College Debt
– Mary Mahoney, The Thissen Tales
– Kirsten Meier, The Reindeer Tree
– Danica Patchen and Diane Murphy, Ribbit, Qualler, Quack
– Rita Rae Roxx, Once Upon a Rock Star
– Frances Ruh, The Schepp Family Chronicles, Risk Everything, and Question Everything
– Katharine Sires, Grandfather Big Elk
– Fred Tichauer, Real Estate Investors: Clients for Life
The Joslyn Castle Literary Festival gives Jill Anderson the opportunity each year to take the work of one or more of her beloved authors and let her imagination run wild with possibilities for programming events around their fiction. Having already previously gone through this exercise with the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bram Stoker, she’s made Charles Dickens the focus of her passion for the 2015 festival – “Dickens at the Castle.” The Dickens theme is getting expressed in multiple ways but perhaps the highlight is John Hardy’s one-man A Christmas Carol. The November-December fest includes lectures, concerts, and other events. My story about the fest for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) follows.
Joslyn Castle Literary Festival makes it all about Dickens
Artistic director Jill Anderson and Co. devise Dickens of a time
John Hardy’s ome-man A Christmas Carol highlights fest
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the Nov-Dec-Jan Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
A leading light of Omaha stage, Jill Anderson, has brushed up her Dickens in preparation for the Joslyn Castle Literary Festival. The five year-old event Anderson formed and serves as artistic director for is celebrating the prolific Charles Dickens after previously highlighting the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bram Stoker.
“Dickens at the Castle” is the latest iteration of this new fixture on Omaha’s cultural calendar. Per tradition, the November 14-18 and December 12-13 festival offers a live theatrical production, panel discussion, lecture and concert. Anchoring it all this time is a one-man performance of A Christmas Carol by actor-director John Hardy.
That Dickens classic is the basis for the popular musical adaptation the Omaha Community Playhouse (OCP) has produced for 40 years. That connection compelled OCP and Joslyn Castle Trust (JCT) to partner for the 2015 fest. It’s not the first time they’ve conjoined. Earlier this year OCP held its 90th anniversary party at the Castle. George and Sarah Joslyn built the Scottish Baronial Revival Castle at 3902 Davenport that hosts the festival. These early Omaha philanthropists supported the Playhouse in its infancy. Sarah donated the land for the theater’s first home near the Castle. She later built the Joslyn Art Museum as a memorial to her husband and as a gift to Omaha.
None of this legacy is lost on the people who make the festival happen.
“We see every event at the Castle as an opportunity to honor the remarkable lives of George and Sarah Joslyn,” says JCT executive director Gina Primmer. “Like Dickens himself, both George and Sarah lacked extensive formal education but were very committed to lifelong learning through the arts and literature. Our festival guests will see first-hand how this magnificent home is designed in celebration of arts, literature and entertainment.”
A well-made match
Proceeds from the festival support the work of the Trust, which preserves and shares the Castle and its history through programs that enrich the community through the arts, culture and education.
The mansion includes a library, music room and ballroom. Hardy’s show will be in the library. Jill Anderson says “there’s something just kind of fun about presenting a literary classic in the library.” Celebrating great literature in a great home is her idea of paradise. “The Castle is a magical place. It sets your imagination going. This incredible building has been recognized as a treasure to our city. It’s a tremendous blessing to be able to take great literature into a gorgeous space like that with its beautiful architecture and the turrets. It’s enchanting.”
Anderson says the library is such an intimate space it will require ingenuity by Hardy to make it accommodate his vigorous performance.
“Doing theater within a private home you’ve got to be resourceful and figure out how to make that work. It’s going to be very challenging because he’s going to be adapting it to a much smaller space than he’s accustomed to working in, so that’s going to call upon all his creativity.”
She’s says even as JCT leadership has changed since launching the fest in 2011, “Consistently the executive director and the staff have recognized the Lit Fest is in line with the Castle’s mission, particularly the portion that deals with the Joslyns’ legacy of cultural enrichment.”
Hardy and his one-man Christmas Carol
She’s excited to have Hardy aboard. She previously brought him to Omaha to perform his original one-man show, Rattlesnake. He’s directed at the Rose Theatre and acted-directed for the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival. They met working at the Barter Theatre in Virginia.
“He’s just one of those artists who has a spark of genius I think. He’s always pushing for an edgier, very raw, committed style of theater. It has an extra energy that keeps it unpredictable and exciting. So when it came time to choose who the literary figure would be I knew he had this A Christmas Carol. So, why not do Dickens? It’s already a world-class drama and we just needed to build the festival around it.”
She says audiences should come prepared to be surprised by Hardy’s 40-character rendition.
“They can expect a completely unexpected reading of the story. They can expect humor where they least expect it. They can expect some pretty exciting tour-de-force character shifting. And they can expect him to get at the heart of the story. Getting down to what the story really is trying to say fascinates me.”
Hardy says, “I’ve seen one-man versions of this and it’s nothing like the one I do. The one I do is not storytelling, it’s theater, it’s characters involved in a world from moment to moment.”
Anderson says Hardy makes it all seem real. “He brings a startling honesty to his acting style that always takes me off-guard in a wonderful way. He will use very little in terms of set and costume but he will transform things and find every possible way to use the things he does have on stage with him. It’s not about huge production values, it’s about creative transformation.”
She says his Carol and the Playhouse’s couldn’t be more different.
“The Playhouse makes it a tremendous spectacle – so much color and beautiful effects and lavish costumes. Music is a major element of it. It’s this kind of confection of a production and it’s lasted all these years because people love it – they eat it right up like candy.”
By contrast, she says Hardy’s “theatrical style is really stripped down, really elemental.”
The panel and lecture programs (see side story) examine Dickens’ influences and motivations.
The Dickens formula
“Dickens had a powerful agenda with all his novels, It was usually to expose some sort of injustice,” she says. “That was his thing. He was a whistle blower but he didn’t do it in a humorless, dour way. He did it through social satire. What could just be an angry man stridently shouting out discontent with British society is instead clever, it tickles your funny bone, it has great pathos. You can’t miss the social commentary but it’s wrapped up in these episodic stories that are fun to follow. They were actually presented to the public in serial form through different publications, so they’re designed to keep you wanting more.
“They feel like they come to you in little delightful parcels and you fall in love with these crazy, amazing characters.”
“We see every event at the Castle as an opportunity to honor the remarkable lives of George and Sarah Joslyn. Like Dickens himself, both George and Sarah lacked extensive formal education but were very committed to lifelong learning through the arts and literature. Our festival guests will see first-hand how this magnificent home is designed in celebration of arts, literature and entertainment.”
“Dickens had a powerful agenda with all his novels, It was usually to expose some sort of injustice,” she says. “That was his thing. He was a whistle blower but he didn’t do it in a humorless, dour way. He did it through social satire. What could just be an angry man stridently shouting out discontent with British society is instead clever, it tickles your funny bone, it has great pathos. You can’t miss the social commentary but it’s wrapped up in these episodic stories that are fun to follow.”
“I’ve seen one-man versions of this and it’s nothing like the one I do. The one I do is not storytelling, it’s theater, it’s characters involved in a world from moment to moment.”
She admires Dickens’ facility for finding hooks to reel readers in and artfully keeping them engaged.
“He is a master of creating characters that are truly pitiful and struggling against poverty or disability. They’re up against tough odds and it all comes from his biographical background. His father and mother ended up in debtor’s prison, effectively making him an orphan at 10. He had to fend for himself working in a rat-infested factory that made boot black. He was thrust into the heart of the underclass in Industrial Revolution-era London. The filth, the misery – he lived it.
“His examination of class and the disparity between upper class and lower class is something he was very qualified to do.”
Hardy believes Dickens was ahead of his time in terms of insight into human psychology. He feels the power of the work also resides in how Dickens propels characters and thus readers through situations.
“You only really come to know a character when they’re engaged in doing something and therein lies the key I think to A Christmas Carol. It’s not an accident this story has been made into a play and a movie again and again because it’s so active, somebody’s always engaged in doing something. It’s on its way somewhere a hundred percent of the time. It’s never static, it’s not reflective. It moves past a moment into the next moment. Even as a book it really doesn’t take a breath.
“It’s a series of actions that characters do and that reveals them. So it reveals rather than describes.”
A literary love-in
Anderson is moved that area lit lovers reveal their passion for the classics by supporting the festival, whose audience keeps growing.
“It’s great there are people in this city who appreciate great literature and recognize it tells us something about the human condition. It’s fantastic we’ve lasted five years. I hope we last five more.”
With so much great lit out there, Anderson should never run out of illuminating, stimulating subjects.
“If there’s a literary figure that has sparked my passion or my imagination I know i can produce a good festival around that person, I just know it. You have to have the impetus to be able to create something that has energy behind it. The ideas usually hit me like a bolt of lightning out of the blue. I don’t sit around and chew on it a lot.
I wish for the inspiration to come.”
Several ideas for next year’s theme have already asserted themselves but nothing is definite yet. It’s a fair bet though that The Bard will be featured since Anderson’s a self-described “Shakespeare fanatic.”
Meanwhile, she’ll continue delving into all things Dickens, assured in the knowledge her infatuation will result in a well-rounded experience for attendees.
For details and tickets, visit http://joslyncastle.com or call 402-595-2199.
By now, anyone familiar with the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest knows that it is the epicurious and somewhat eccentric run off from whatever spills out of the overactive mind of founder-director Timothy Schaffert, who just happens to be one of America’s finest novelists. His intellect, imagination and interests run deep, as do that of his writer friends, and so every year he concocts a distinclty stimulating event that plays very much like his own personal salon. His 2015 Lit Fest on October 16-17 at the downtown W. Dale Clark Library features, as always, a diverse collection of national, regional and local authors who will participate in panels moderated by Schaffert himself. There are also exhibitions and other activities centered around literature. The theme for this fest is Nervosa: Science, Psyche & Body and that’s just both specfic and open-ended enough to give writers and readers alike a fertile field to play in.
Lit Fest delves into what we fear, how we relate in extremis
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appearde iin The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The 2015 downtown Omaha Lit Fest, whose theme is “Nervosa: Science, Psych & Story,” celebrates the reflective power of literature to explore human vulnerability.
Worry over terrorism, the economy, climate change, the singularity, genetic engineering and zombie apocalypse dread is backdrop for the free Oct. 16-17 fest at the W. Dale Clark Library.
The 6:30-9:30 Friday night opening party, Anxiety, features the Poetry Brothel by burntdistrict literary journal, paintings and drawings by Eric and Shari Post and wire and book sculptures by Jay Cochrane.
Starting at 1 p.m. on Saturday founder-director-novelist Timothy Schaffert (The Swan Gondola) moderates panel discussions and interviews with local and visiting authors.
The intimate annual fest plays like Schaffert’s personal salon.
“If you don’t like me you probably won’t like the show,” he quips .”I have the freedom to develop it the way I want and I do so with the support of the Omaha Public Library. They let me invite who I want to invite, they provide the space and they promote the event. It’s exciting to take on a project that isn’t mired in bureaucracy.”
He arrived at this year’s theme by noting what authors in his lit circle were writing about. He feels these times induce a collective high tension literature’s better prepared to reflect than social media.
“Literature is really competing with the social networks for that immediate connection people are seeking with each other and their desire to remain on top of every horrifying incident that occurs in the world. Ultimately there can be this overwhelming sense of everything is treacherous, that there’s terror waiting at every turn.”
He says where online communiques incite anxiety, literature brings analysis and rumination.
“We read books differently than we read most other text. We immerse ourselves in the world of the story. We’re looking for authoritative voice, for unique and useful perspective, and that requires a great deal of attention. A book calls for you to put everything else aside to spend time with it and to let the writer speak. I think that has historically been soothing to readers.”
For the panel “Diagnosis” two Omaha doctor-authors will discuss drawing on medical backgrounds in writing.
Retired transplant surgeon Bud Shaw says, “My essay ‘My Night with Ellen Hutchison’ is about a devastating personal and professional episode in my early career.”
“As I sat down to write about it, I discovered just how stubbornly I still held onto a version of that story that blamed others, that let me off the hook for the death of a patient during a liver transplant. I had to revisit that night over and over again for weeks to reconstruct a view that wasn’t about the cause of the failure so much as it was about the results. It wasn’t easy. I needed a fresh and far more human perspective, and that required a lot of processing I hadn’t done before. Now I don’t seem able to stop.”
His new book is Last Night in the OR: A Transplant Surgeon’s Odyssey.
Practicing physician Lydia Kang writes young adult sci-fi novels and scientific thrillers (Catalyst, Control).
“I find myself drawn to particular stories and struggles and often there is a medical-forensic-genetics aspect that happens along the way.”
Researching a congenital breathing disorder led Kang to cast the hero of Control with that condition.
Kang says wanting to “explain the details, whys and hows of things” in prose can result in “too much info-dumping.” “Curating the details for the sake of smooth reading and the storyline must work in concert with doing factual justice to the fictional patient and scenario.” Through her blog she consults writers dealing with health-science matters.
Schaffert is “fascinated by any effort to make science more readable and accessible.” At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln he teaches a Humanities in Medicine Minor course, “Illness and Health in Literature.”
“We look at everything from science journalism to personal essays.”
Another panel with Neb. writers will consider “Treachery” and outcasts. Novelist Douglas Otis Wesselman, aka radio host Otis Twelve, says, “Treachery is best understood by the old. We’ve had more practice at it – from both sides. We come to know we are betrayed and betrayers by nature. Our human lives seem to revolve around duplicity and it usually comes down to the ultimate deceit – our ability to lie to ourselves.”
In his new novel Tales of the Master a character deals with the anguish of undermining himself and others.
He says writers well fit the outcast bill – “at least if they write the truth.”
Ted Wheeler, author of the chapbook On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown and the related novel Kings of Broken Things, says, “So much of interesting literature is about social outcasts. I see that as the central duty of a writer – to tell the stories that shouldn’t be told, to make personal demons public, to dredge up buried history or explore the parts of society that have been pushed out to the margins. The literary writer’s job is to say what can’t be said in polite company.”
Schaffert says the work of Wheeler, Wesselman and fellow panelist Marilyn June Coffey has “a kind of mythology, whether folklore or historical incident or ancient mythology.”
Wheeler explores Will Brown’s 1919 lynching in Omaha.
“My main intention was to give it treatment in a way I hadn’t seen done in any history books. The trick wasn’t really in explaining why this horrible event happened here, but more about resisting the urge to rationalize a mass act of treachery by exploring what it was like to be at a race riot and get caught up it the swerve of violent extremism.
“What’s interesting to me and what’s unspeakable about it in a certain way is this point where mundane life intersects with a notorious crime.”
Coffey revisited Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in an Atlantic Monthly cover article. She broke ground with her 1973 novel Marcella for its exploration of female autoeroticism. Her new book is Thieves, Rascals & Sore Losers: The Unsettling History of the Dirty Deals that Helped Settle Nebraska.
The panel “Empathy” will examine the psychology of identification.
“Reading literature builds empathy,” Lincoln, Neb. author Joy Castro says. “It asks us to imagine the lives and perspectives of people very different from ourselves, faced with situations we’ve never encountered. Entering into their stories expands our hearts. My new book How Winter Began is a collection of 28 short stories which pivot on the challenge of empathy.”
Arizona-based writer Julie Iromuanya, raised in Neb. by her Igo Nigernian immigrant parents, says, “To write, one has to practice the central feature of empathy – one has to imagine. It’s a complicated business to move beyond one’s subject position in order to inhabit the body of another. To me, beauty is about seeing characters in their most unvarnished form. My way into my characters is through their truth, but it’s a risky endeavor. Veer a little too far left and writing is sterile. Veer a little too far to the right and we’re left with sentimentality. Hit the right spot and there is a backdoor elegance.”
For her debut novel Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, she says, “One of the ways I leveraged this was through through humor, albeit dark humor, I’m both inside my characters and outside them. They act, they live their lives on the page, but I don’t let them get away with anything.”
Seattle writer Jennie Shortridge’s novel Love Water Memory considers the limits of love, trust and knowing through the prism of amnesia.
Schaffert will ask Canada native and New York City resident Emily St. John Mandel about the human psychology examined in her post-apocalyptic best-seller Station Eleven.
“It occurred to me an interesting way to consider the modern world would be to contemplate its absence,” Mandel says. “I was less interested in writing a narrative of collapse and more interested in writing about what comes next. The question I’ve attempted to address is, What remains? What might we long for and try to recreate if all of the trappings of the modern world were to fall away?”
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden," "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film" (a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker) "Open Wide" a biography of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, Leo Adam Biga's My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com, is an online gallery of his work. The blog feeds into his Facebook page, My Inside Stories, as well as his Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Tumblr, About.Me and other social media platform pages.
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