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


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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for paul serrato

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Life can take a toll.

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

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

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

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

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

Visit http://www.paulserrato.com.

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Venerable jazzman Paul Serrato has his say

March 25, 2019 Leave a comment

Venerable jazzman Paul Serrato has his say

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the April 2019 New Horizons

 

Paul Serrato

 

Journeyman jazz pianist, composer, arranger and recording artist Paul Serrato has packed much living into 83 years. The accouterments of that long, well-lived life fill to overbrimming the textured South Omaha house he resides in.

The humble dwelling is in the shadow of Vinton Street’s mural-adorned grain silos. They are distant echoes of the skyscrapers of New York, where for decades he plied his trade gigging in clubs and cabarets and writing-performing musical theater shows.

After all that time in Manhattan, plus spending bohemian summers in Europe, he returned to Omaha eight years ago upon the death of his mother. He inherited her snug bungalow and it’s there he displays his lifetime passion for arts and culture. Books, magazines, albums, DVDs, VHS tapes and CDs fill shelves and tables. Photos, prints, posters and artworks occupy walls.

Each nook and cranny is crammed with expressions of his eclectic interests, There’s just enough space to beat a measured path through the house and yet everything is neat and tidy under the fastidious eye of Serrato.

“This is how we live in New York in our cluttered, small apartments,” he said.

In a music room is the Yamaha keyboard he composes on and gigs with as well as manuscripts of completed and in-progress instrumental works. Though he’s recorded many CDs released on his own record labels, many of his tunes have never been made  public.

“I couldn’t bring it all out. That’s how it is for any artist.”

His latest release “Gotham Nights” on his Graffiti Productions label has charted nationally since January.

Some of his catalogue is licensed for television. He finds it “exciting” to hear his music on TV or radio. Tracks from “Gotham Nights” have aired on the nationally syndicated “Latin Perspective” public radio program.

Serrato has made provisions for his archives to go to his alma mater, Adelphi University, when he dies.

“They’ve been very supportive, very receptive about accepting my archives,” he said.

His home contains reminders of his second career teaching English as a Second Language to international students, including photos and letters from former students with whom he corresponds. All these years teaching immigrants and refugees, combined with his many travels, gives Serrato friends in faraway places.

“It’s really wonderful,” he said. “I’m very fortunate. We keep in touch. We send each other gifts . I have more close friends around the world than I do in Omaha.”

A friendship with a former student from Japan led to Serrato making two concert tours of the Asian nation.

He began working as an ESL instructor long ago in New York. He earned a master’s degree in Urban Education from Adelphi. He now teaches ESL for Metropolitan Community College in Omaha.

 

Paul Serrato

 

 

Coming of age

Serrato’s always shown an aptitude for learning. Growing up, he was drawn to the big upright piano his aunt played in church. It wasn’t long before he gained proficiency on it.

“I can remember myself so distinctly fascinated by the piano, wanting to play it, going over and pounding on the keys. That’s how I got to playing the piano as a toddler. From an educational point of view, it’s interesting how children can gravitate to an environment or a stimulus when they see adults doing things.”

Not being good at sports and not having advantages more well-off kids enjoyed, he said, “Music gave me the confidence I could do something. My early childhood was rather deprived. We moved around a lot. It wasn’t until I was 9 we got settled. My mother bought a piano and paid for classical lessons. She was a pretty remarkable woman considering what she had to go through raising a kid on her own.”

Music gave him his identity at Omaha Creighton Prep.

“I could start to come out as a musician and I found people liked what I did. They applauded. I was like, Hey, man, I’m good, I can do this. That’s how I got started on the track.”

All it took for him to shine was affirmation.

“That’s how it is, that’s how it always is.”

iHe was starved for encouragement, too, coming from a broken family of meager meansHe performed classical recitals and competed in talent shows at school and community centers, even on radio. “I won a couple of first prizes on KOIL” He played on a WOW show hosted by Lyle DeMoss. All of it made him hungry for more.

His classical training then took a backseat to captivating new sounds he heard on jazz programs out of Chicago on the family’s old Philco radio set.

“That was an eye-opener, definitely because at that point I had only studied classical piano – Chopin, Debussy. I hadn’t been exposed to hearing guys like Oscar Peterson or Art Tatum and Erroll Garner. Hearing that stuff opened up a big door and window into other possibilities.”

He began composing riffs on popular song forms, mostly big band and Broadway show tunes.

“That’s what jazz players did and still do – take standard songs and interpret them. That’s the classic jazz repertoire. I still love Cole Porter. I still play his stuff. I have a whole Cole Porter portfolio.”

New York, New York

After high school Serarto’s awakening as an aspiring jazz artist pulled him east. After a stint at Boston University he went to New York. It became home.

Said Serrato, “There’s three kinds of New Yorkers: the native New Yorker who’s born there; the commuter who comes in from Long Island to work or play; then there are those like myself who go there for a purpose – to achieve a goal – and for personal fulfillment. New York draws in all these dynamic young people who go to feed themselves creatively/.”

The sheer diversity of people and abundance of opportunity is staggering.

“You meet people of all different persuasions, professions, everything.

Finding one’s kindred spirit circle or group, he said, “is so easy in New York.” “You don’t find it, it finds you. I made lots of friends. I’d meet somebody in a coffee shop and it would turn out they were producing a play and needed somebody to write music. I’d say, ‘I write music’. ‘Oh, why don’t you do it?’ they’d say.

“For example, I ended up collaborating on many projects with Jackie Curtis, who later became an Andy Warhol superstar. We met at a Greenwich Village bookstore I managed. Totally serendipitous. He was very young. We struck up a conversation. I said, ‘I write songs.’ He said, ‘Oh we could do a musical together.’ We did the first one, O Lucky Wonderful, as an off-off-Broadway production, on an absolute shoestring.”

Serrato worked with other Warhol personalities, including Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn.

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

He also teamed with comedian Craig Vandernberg, “who did a great spoof on Las Vegas crooners.”

Whatever work he could find, Serrato did.

“I had different kinds of jobs. I was a bartender, a bouncer, a waiter, an artist’s model. That’s how I supported myself. You have to hustle and do whatever it takes. That’s the driving force. That’s why you’re in New York. That’s why it’s competitive and  there’s that energy because you look around and you see what’s possible.

“You’re in the epicenter of the arts. All that stuff was my world – visual arts, performance arts. There’s all this collision of cultural forces and people all interested in those things.”

Serrato believes everyone needs to find their passion the way he found his in music.

“That just happens to be my domain. I tell my students, ‘Hopefully, you’ll find your domain – something you can feel passionate about or connected to that will drive you and give you the energy to pursue that.’ I love to guide young people.”

Everything he experienced in NYC fed him creatively.

“As an artist’s model I met all these wonderful artists and art teachers. That’s when my passion for visual art and painters really got implanted.

When it comes to artistic vocations, he said, “many are called, few are chosen.”

“If you are truly engaged as an artist, you have confidence – you know you’re connecting.”

He eventually did well enough that he “would take off for months in the summer and go to Europe to follow bullfights and go to Paris.” “Then I’d come back and just pick up where I left off.”

“In those days living in New York was not as prohibitive as it is now economically. The rents have since priced a lot of people out.”

On his summer idyls abroad he followed a guide book by author Arthur Frommer on how to see Europe on five dollars a day and, he found, “you could just about do it.”

“His book had all the cheap places you could stay and eat. It worked, man. It was fabulous.”

Always the adventurer, he smuggled back copies of banned books.

 

All that jazz

Jazz eventually became his main metier. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Jazz Studies and Latin American Music from Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts in East Harlem.

Jazz is a truly American art form. Though its following is shrinking, he said the music retains “plenty of vitality.”

“The fact that it’s not mainstream music is probably to its benefit because that means you can be individual, you don’t have a lot of hierarchy breathing down your neck saying do it this way, do it that way. So a jazz artist can sort of be what he or she wants to be.

“It’s a personal expression. It’s not a commodity the way corporately sanctioned music can be.”

A few jazz artists have managed to gain broad crossover appeal.

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

“There’s been such a tectonic shift in the jazz culture. Mid-20th century jazz artists – (Thelonious) Monk, (Dave) Brubeck – used to make the covers of national magazines. Who would put a jazz musician on the cover of a national magazine today? Do you ever see jazz musicians on the late night TV shows? You see rock, pop or hip-hop artists. In a lot of people’s minds, jazz is not that important because it doesn’t make much money and doesn’t get much media attention, so we work however we can. But it’s always been a struggle, even in the golden era.”

The Life can take a toll.

“I remember at the Village Gate in the ’60s. I was house manager and performed there sometimes. You’d have a 2 a.m. show. You had to make it through these gigs. It’s a tough life. No wonder there was alcohol and drugs and everything. It’s always been a tough life.”

 


 

 

Playing by his own rules

Making quality music, not fame, remains Serrato’s ambition. In New York he got tight with similarly-inclined musicians, particularly “master Latin percussionist” Julio Feliciano.

“He was Yorkirican – a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent. Just full of energy and vitality and ideas. He contributed his deep musicianship to my many recording sessions and New York gigs. We enjoyed that vibe that enables the most successful collaborations. That also includes Jack ‘Kako’ Sanchez. They were a percussion team. It’s evident on my record ‘More Than Red,’ which spent many weeks on the national jazz charts.

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

What Serrato misses most about New York is “the cultural network” he had there that he lacks here.

“Like I have an idea for a musical project right now. In New York I could just pick up the phone and tell these guys, ‘Come over.’ and they’d come over and we’d start working on it. I can’t do that here. I don’t have that kind of musical infrastructure here.

“My studio in New York was a place where we would try out things. It was wonderful for me as a composer. It taught me a lot of discipline in terms of being accurate and clear about what I write.”

Just as musician Preston Love Sr. found when he returned to Omaha after years away, Serrato’s found his hometown less than inviting when it comes to jazz and to the idea of him performing his music.

“I hear people say things like. ‘We love your music, but it’s very sophisticated. We never hear music like this around here. What do you call it?’ I scratch my head when they say those things. I never get this in New York.”

He turns down some offers because, in true New Yorker fashion, he doesn’t drive and public transportation here can’t easily get him to out-of-town gigs.

“I’m not the first New York creative who left the city and had to make an adjustment somewhere else.”

Some discerning listeners have supported his music, including KIOS-FM.

“They’ve been very good to me.”

He’s cultivated a local cadre of fellow arts nuts. He sees shows when he can at the Joslyn, Kaneko, Bemis, Holland and Orpheum. His best buddy in town is another New York transplant, David Johnson. Their shared sensibilities find them kvetching about things.

What Serrato won’t do is compromise his music. His website says it all: Urban Jazz – Not by the Rules. He’s put out CDs on his own terms since returning to Omaha.

“I’m a music producer – of jazz music in particular. So when I have enough music that I think I’m ready to record, I figure out a way to record it. I don’t really have the network here to feel confident enough to do a project like ‘Gotham Nights’ in Omaha. So I rely on my band members in New York. We’ve played together for years. I want to record with them.”

For “Gotham Nights” he booked two four-hour recording sessions in Manhattan.

“It was so successful because I had everything clearly written. I gave it to my guys and the caliber they are, they saw it, and they played it. I knew these guys so well that we didn’t have to rehearse. I gave them the charts and turned them loose and let them go. We all spoke the same musical language – that’s the most important thing. I had eight instrumental tunes. We went through it once, twice at most.”

“Gotham Nights” marks a change for Serrato in moving from artsy to mainstream.

“In the past I’ve had good success, but sometimes I’ve heard, ‘Oh, your music is too avant garde,’ which is like poison. ‘Gotham Nights’ is not avant garde. It reflects my Brazilian influences. It’s Latin jazz filtered through my own musical personality. Very melodic. It’s why it’s so accessible.”

The album is the latest of many projects he’s done that celebrate his muse, New York, and its many notes.

He was there teaching only blocks from ground zero when the twin towers came down on 9/11.

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

He’s teaching a new ESL class this spring. As usual, he said, he’s trying “to make it comfortable” for recent arrivals “to adapt to a new culture and a new land.”

“Cultural transference or acculturation – that’s an ESL teacher’s job.”

But his class assignments always encourage students to celebrate their own culture, too.

The ever searching Serrato said, “I love other cultures and I love education. I’m a big believer in bilingual education. Teaching’s been a natural evolution for me. All musicians are educators at heart.”

Fellow hin at http://www.paulserrato.com.

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

“The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story” – Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman team up for new documentary

March 16, 2012 4 comments

A highly anticipated project long-in-the-making is Joan Micklin Silver’s documentary, The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story.  She’s best known as a feature filmmaker (Hester Street, Between the Lines, Chilly Scenes of Winter, Crossing Delancey). With this project she has a great take on a favorite and familiar food that’s too easily taken for granted. Like any food that has ethnic origins, the bagel didn’t just show up out of nowhere in the States, it was brought here, in this case from Europe, and then it experienced its own assimilation process that saw it go from obscure ethnic enclave staple to ubiquitous item found in most any grocery store or bakery or coffees shop or convenience store. It’s even in some vending machines. The bagel’s become Americanized to the point few people associate it anymore with its Jewish provenance. But the bagel has a very particular history and heritage and its journey to America and its experience in the America melting pot parallels that of the human immigrants who brought it here, complete with its own labor disputes.  Former Food Maven columnist and best-selling author (Jewish Food: The World at Table) Matthew Goodman is the documentary’s writer. I don’t know when the film will be completed and officially ready for screening, though you can find excerpts and rough cuts of it on the Web. My story below about the film actually appeared some years ago when Silver and Goodman were just launching the project and trying to find investors and sources for it. You’ll find several more stories by me about Joan Micklin Silver on this blog.

“The Bagel: An Immigrant‘s Story”
Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman team up for new documentary
 ©by Leo Adam Biga
 Originally published in The Jewish Press
Bagels occupy much of acclaimed feature filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver’s time these days. That’s because the Omaha native and Central High School graduate, best known for Hester Street (1975) and Crossing Delancey (1988), two films about the Jewish experience in America, is preparing to shoot a new documentary that tells the history of the bagel in the U.S. in terms of the classic immigrant success story.  The film is slated to be called, The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story.

Silver was turned onto this story by noted food writer Matthew Goodman, author of the book Jewish Food: The World at Table and the former Food Maven columnist for The Forward. Co-producers on the project, Silver will direct Goodman’s script.

The bagel film project arose from a meeting Silver arranged with Goodman for his insights into the food of the Catskills, the famous East Coast Jewish resort that is the subject of a second documentary Silver is prepping. In the course of their Catskills conversation he mentioned his findings on the bagel and suggested it might make an interesting film.

According to Goodman, long an admirer of Silver’s films, she said, “’Would you like to work together on it?’ Of course, I was delighted. I think she has a wonderful literary sensibility when it comes to her work.”

As research by these first-time collaborators reveals, the rise of the bagel has strong reverberations with the greater immigrant story in America and the assimilation and discrimination that is part of it. “It came from Poland, it struggled and strained and went through everything most other immigrants do before it prospered,” Silver said. “That caught my imagination so totally when we figured that out that we decided, Okay, let’s do this.”

 

Joan Micklin Silver

 

Immigrant tales have long fascinated Silver, whose parents, the late Maurice and Doris Micklin, came here in the wake of the Russian revolution. Hester Street explores turn of the century life for newly arrived Jews on the Lower East Side and their struggles to blend in. Crossing Delancey eyes contemporary Jewish life in Manhattan and the conflict of traditional versus modern values.

The now ubiquitous bagel was brought here by Eastern European Jews, among whose members were artisan bakers steeped in the closely guarded tradition of Old World–read: handmade–bagel baking techniques.

“This was artisanal baking. These guys were the holders of the keys of the kingdom, as it were, when it came to bagels. This was the knowledge of the correct way to bake a bagel that had been passed down from generation to generation, going all the way back. The way to do it was a pretty tightly held secret,” Goodman said.

“They took great pride in their ability. It was not easy to do. The ovens were not easy to work. The dough unwieldy. It took a long time. You had to apprentice awhile before you became a member. So these guys really were craftsmen,” he said.

Unfortunately one of the things lost over time is that sense of artisanship, he added.  “They were masters at making bagels. There was an art to it,” Silver  said. “They were artists and they really cared about the quality of the product.”

Old-style bagels, much smaller than the modern variety, were distinctive for their hard crusts, chewy interiors and savory flavor. The International Bagel Bakers Union Local 338 formed to protect the recipes, methods and interests of the master bagel bakers. Only sons or nephews of current members could join. Every bagel in New York City came out of a union shop.

 With the advent of bagel-making machines that churned out bagels faster than any hands could, the oldways became obsolete and the bagel assimilated into the cultural melting pot, turning blander and fatter in the process.

“Part of the story we’re telling in this film is that the demise of the union really led to the demise of the bagel as well,” Goodman said. “The machine just couldn’t make as good a bagel as the men could, for a number of reasons. One reason being the traditional bagel dough was too stiff to go through the bagel machine. It kept breaking down the machines. So bakery owners started adding water to the dough so it would go through the machines better, but that ended up making the bagel softer. And bagels since that time have gone through all sorts of changes with the addition of dough conditioners, which most bakeries use now, to relax the gluten in the dough immediately so bagels don’t have to sit overnight. It’s a big money saver for the bakery owners, but it reduces the flavor of the bagel significantly.

“A lot of places don’t even boil their bagels anymore before baking them, which is the hallmark of the bagel — boiled before baked. They just sort of steam them because they don’t want that hard crust. They think people don’t want to chew that hard.”

Goodman said the bagel’s transformation from hand-crafted, ethnic food stuff to homogenized, mass-produced staple reflects “the American public’s taste. The American public likes big, soft, bland, white baked goods. But that’s part of the story, too — that as the bagel became less Jewish and more mainstream American it had to take on more of mainstream America’s tastes.” A similar thing happened with pizza and many other ethnic foods whose authentic characteristics were diluted or distorted on the path to Americanization.

The story of the bagel in America is also the story of the IBBU Local 338. Bagel bakers fought hard to improve the arduous conditions they worked in, using their union as leverage in negotiations with employers.

“The conditions were terrible. The heat of the bakery while they were baking got to be like 110 degrees. Bakers often slept on benches in the bakery. They went through a lot. After a great deal of effort, they built a strong union. It was a terrific thing,” said Silver, who is doing much of her studies at the famed Yivo Institute of Jewish Research in New York, where former Omaha resident Leo Greenbaum is associate archivist-acquisitions archivist.
Goodman “discovered” the IBBU while doing research for an essay on the history of the bagel published in the Harvard Review. He’d never heard of the union.

“I just thought it was a fantastic thing, you know, a union composed entirely of bagel bakers,” he said. “And the more I looked into it the more fascinated I became by the story of a union that for several decades controlled all of the bagel bakeries in New York City and then within a span of less than a decade had been wiped out. I thought this was a really poignant story. It’s a little-known story. And also a story that allowed the telling of a larger story about the way ethnic foods assimilate in the larger society and also the demise of the labor movement.”

 Murray Lender helped speed along the bagel’s assimilation

 

 

The IBBU, whose exclusive ranks never exceeded 300-some members at any one time, reached beyond New York, although that’s where it was centered.

“My sense of it is if you were a bagel baker anywhere in the country you were a member…It happened that the vast majority of bagel bakers were in New York, but I believe there were members in places like Chicago and Boston,” Goodman said.

Long before bagel machines replaced them and broke their union, Local 338 brethren faced challenges from bakery owners, who, Goodman said, used “strikebreakers and scabs” to try and crush their solidarity. Resistance to the union included the emergence of “non-union shops,” said Goodman, “many heavily subsidized by organized crime. So, there was certainly a lot to deal with.”

By the mid ’70s the union was no more.

“The older guys retired. Some ended up working in non-union shops, working in much poorer conditions than they had been working in previously. Some joined the general bakers union and went to work in other union shops, not necessarily baking bagels. A lot of the guys left New York and took off around the country to open their own bagel shops. That’s how bagels really got introduced to different parts of the country that had never known bagels before. That’s the first time places like Albuquerque or Sacramento had seen fresh baked bagels,” he said.

Goodman and Silver say a fair number of IBBU bakers are still around, but no one’s quite sure exactly how many. The filmmakers’ plans call for on-camera interviews with many of these men, some quite aged now. There’s a sense of urgency to record and preserve the bakers’ stories before the legacy of their craftsmanship and union is irretrievably lost. For his Harvard Review essay on the bagel Goodman interviewed some of the men, tapping memories of long ago.

Memories of favorite foods, especially aromas, are known to be among the strongest our brains store. As the bagel is a food bound up in ritual, whether along family ethnic lines or urban lifestyle lines or breakfast staple lines, it is a food that serves as a nostalgic “touchstone,” Silver said.

“People think about it and it’s sort of like Proust’s (Marcel) madeleines. It has kind of ringing memories for people.” Her own remembrances of things past take her back to when she was a little girl and her father brought her to a downtown Omaha bakery for “the best rye bread you can imagine and wonderful bagels.” Goodman too recalls the traditional bagels of his childhood.

The filmmakers are counting on the public’s bagel nostalgia, including memorabilia, to help illustrate their story. In a letter recently emailed to Jewish newspapers nationwide, the filmmakers made an appeal: “As part of our research for the film, we are interested in obtaining all manner of visual material concerning the history of bagels in America: old photographs of bagel shops or bagel bakers, home movies that include bagels, newspaper or magazine advertisements for bagels, etc.”

Readers with materials are asked to respond to bagelmovie@hotmail.com. The filmmakers’ letter ends with, “We would be very grateful for any assistance you might provide. We look forward to hearing from you.”

The pair hope to start production in late fall. They must first secure funding.

In a new immigrant twist on the bagel’s evolution in America, the filmmakers say the rare bagel made today in the traditional manner is usually crafted by…Thais. Oy vey!

Q & A with theater director Marshall Mason, who discusses the process of creating life on stage

June 2, 2011 5 comments

Here’s another of my past Great Plains Theater Conference pieces, this time a Q & A with noted director Marshall Mason. In keeping with the theme and subject of several recent posts, I am repurposing theater stories and interviews I’ve done about that event and some of its guest artists as well as about other aspects of Omaha theater, all in celebration of the 2011 Great Plains Theatre Conference (through June 4) in Omaha.

 

 

Q & A with theater director Marshall Mason, who discusses the process of creating life on stage

Based on an interview Leo Adam Biga did with Marshall Mason for The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Though not a household name outside theater circles, director Marshall Mason owns the kind of credits that befit a luminary. He’s a five-time Tony nominee, a five-time Obie winner and a co-founder of the famed Circle Repertory Company in New York. He’s also been recognized with several lifetime achievement awards for his directing. The veteran artist brings his expertise to Omaha for the May 26-June 4 Great Plains Theatre Conference, where he’ll conduct directing workshops.

In the early 1960s the Texas native was a directing prodigy at Northwestern University. Soon after graduating he left for New York to work off-off-Broadway. He soon established himself a consummate director at the experimental theaters Cafe Cino and Cafe LaMama. Those venues introduced him to playwright Lanford Wilson (The Hot L BaltimoreFifth of JulyTalley’s Folly), whose work Mason would become the primary interpreter of. In ‘69 Wilson and Mason, then only 29, formed the Circle Rep, where they made their legends the next two decades.

Mason has directed extensively for Broadway, regional theater and theaters around the world, including a 1985 revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the National Theatre of Japan in Tokyo. He’s also directed television adaptations of some of his greatest stage successes. He’s also a noted teacher. Now semi-retired, he divides his time between Mazatlan, Mexico and New York, only taking an occasional directing gig. These days, he said, “I’ve now put all my energies really into writing.” His book Creating Life on Stage: A Director’s Approach to Working with Actors was recently published. He’s writing two new books, one on the Circle Rep’s founding and another on the many icons with whom he’s worked.

This will be his first visit to Nebraska, home to two figures from his New York heyday. Playwright Megan Terry is a longtime Omaha resident who was playwright-in-residence at the Omaha Magic Theatre. Her Hot House was produced at the Circle Rep. Actress Swoosie Kurtz is an Omaha native. She won a Tony in Mason’s production ofFifth of July.

Mason, speaking by phone from his New York apartment, exuded a youthful voice and gracious manner.

LAB: Theater is a living, breathing experience that communicates the human condition with an audience. Is a director’s ultimate task to bring the text to life?

MM: “That couldn’t have been a more perfect question because Heinemann (Press) has just published my first book…in which I make that exact point. That a director’s main job is to bring the text of a play to spontaneous life on stage so that the audience experiences the play.”

LAB: Did the process of writing the book help you coalesce your own ideas/theories on directing and, in a sense, reinvigorate your approach to your craft?

MM: “Absolutely, yes. It was a long process. I started writing the book around 1990 or so when I was living in Los Angeles. Then in 1994 I moved to Tempe, Arz., where I became a professor of theater at Arizona State University…I taught both acting and directing and as a result had to find a way to communicate my ideas about these subjects to the students. It was tremendously instructive to me in terms of clarifying my thoughts and giving me the ability to systemize in away what I was talking about. The big breakthrough for me, however, came when I wrote theater criticism for a weekly newspaper there called the Phoenix New Times.

“I had an editor who was very exacting about the use of words…and I learned so much in terms of being simple and direct and clear. That was a step that was so tremendously important in terms of my being able to take what is a difficult thing to describe — the creative process — and find a way to make it clear and simple enough to understand.

“My mentor Harold Clurman, who was a great director and teacher, was of course a critic. When I was first in New York…I became a participant at the Actors Studio directing unit. Lanford Wilson also was participating — in the playwriting unit. We both studied there with Clurman and (Lee) Strasberg…Clurman was our regular playwrighting teacher and I attended all his sessions.

“Then of course later after I started the Circle Repertory Company Clurman became one of our really, really good friends. He was a critic who loved our work and wrote about it in glowing terms and was the person to whom we could turn and actually ask advice. He had been with the Group Theatre and we were coming along sort of in the footsteps of the Group and trying to create our own living theater in New York.”

 

Circle Rep production of Julie Bovasso play, Angelo’s Wedding

 

LAB: Do you have a sense for why you felt pulled to be a director?

MM: “When I directed my first play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, at Northwestern when I was 19, I discovered I had been a director all my life. I’d just not really known it. Back in the 3rd grade I wrote a Halloween play that I ‘put on,’ The Night the Witches Rode. That’s what you call it in 3rd grade — putting on a play. Later you understand putting on a play is what a director does.”

LAB: How old were you when you first went to New York?

MM: “I was 21. I was the youngest member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers when I joined the SSDC in 1963 when I was 23 and became essentially a professional director. And then many years later I became the president of that union.”

LAB: You really were a prodigy breaking new ground.

MM “As a matter of fact when I started directing in New York young people didn’t direct. It was something only middle-aged people did. I was the only director of my age and when I would have auditions actors twice my age would come in the room, look around and say, ‘Where’s the director?’ And I’d say, ‘It’s me!’ It was strange.

“Of course since then there’s been a profusion of (young) directors, in film particularly. People now go to school and get an MFA in directing and come out and try to start a career. When I was in school people became directors from some other position. Usually they were stage managers first…and then they would eventually take over directing. It was not common practice when I was at Northwestern to study directing as a profession. Now it’s very common.”

LAB: Did your real education in theater commence once you got to New York?

MM: “I would say both yes and no. Certainly I continued to learn a great deal in New York, but the basis of my work really had been laid in firmly by the great teacher Alvina Krause at Northwestern. So I had a firm grip of my techniques when I came to New York; what I learned is how to apply them in professional situations.”

NOTE: Krause was a legendary figure in Northwestern’s fine theater department. Besides Mason, other Krause-trained notables include Oscar-winning actors Charlton Heston, Jennifer Jones and Patricia Neal. Neal will join Mason in Omaha.

MM: “I was trained in the classics. I would call Ms. Krause from New York and say, “I really want to do the classics. When do you think I’ll be ready?’ And she said, ‘You’re ready now.’ But when I got to New York, especially at the Cafe Cino, I began to meet young American writers.”

LAB: Like Megan Terry…

MM: “Like Megan Terry and many others. But it was Lanford Wilson who basically said to me, ‘You should really concentrate on new plays because these old dead guys like Shakespeare don’t need you. We need you — to put our reflection of our contemporary world on stage.’”

 

Marshall Mason and Lanford Wilson

 

LAB: What accounts for you and Wilson enjoying this long, simpatico relationship?

MM: “It’s because of trust Lanford has had in me as a director. We first worked together on his Balm in Giliad. He felt I understood his play. I told him the fact his play is set among drug addicts and prostitutes is incidental because what his play is really about is the commerce between people, and it could happen just as well on Wall Street as it could on the streets. He was tremendously impressed by that because that’s exactly what he had in mind.

“The first thing I did in my first rehearsal was to break the play down into beats of action for the actors to mark in their scripts. Lanford was sort of fascinated by this because he’d never seen a director do this before.

“That first production was enormously successful and after that, sort of as a self-preservation thing, he said, ‘If you’ve got something that really works, why would you take a risk and try some other director?’ He’s worked with many directors of course over time, but the two of us found a compatibility with the way we thought about theater. He valued acting that didn’t look like acting and I was able to deliver performances that didn’t seem like acting.”

LAB: Is it true you and Wilson got off to a rocky start?

MM: “Yes. It was our very first meeting. Joe Cino introduced us. Lanford had already done four productions at the Cino. I had seen all four. The current one was Home Free. I’d seen an earlier production of it, too. The play is about an incestuous relationship between a brother and a sister. In the original production you didn’t discover they were brother and sister until the last moment of the play, which was tremendously powerful. But Lanford changed the play and the brother-sister thing came in right in the first line of the play.

“When we met he said, ‘Haven’t I done a really wonderful job of revising it?” and I said, ‘No, I think you’ve ruined it’  — starting our relationship off with a disagreement right up front. I think the good thing about that was he recognized right away I was going to deal honestly and tell him what I thought, no matter what.

“I’ve now come around to feeling he was probably right to do it that way (reveal the bombshell at the start).”

LAB: You two developed this phenomenon known as the Circle Rep.

MM: “Balm in Giliad was such a remarkable ensemble of a living play that Lanford said, ‘My God, we’ve got to keep these people together…’ He was a very important influence in terms of insisting we at some point form a company. It was actually four years later that I bit the bullet and said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’” At first I thought, I’m too young to do this. But by the time I was 29 I didn’t feel so young anymore. The first production I did at the Circle Rep was Chekhov’s Three Sisters in two contrasting productions that played in rotating rep. One was a traditional approach like Stanislavsky (the Russian actor/director/theoretician who developed an influential system of dramatic training) and everybody had always used with Chekhov. The other was a truly experimental Chekhov.”

 

 

LAB: The Circle Rep became known for its lyric realism style.

MM: “In a way I regret the phrase because the critics picked up on it and it sort of became our tag, The thing is the Circle Rep did many, many plays of all different kinds of styles. But we got tagged with this thing of lyric realism, probably because it’s what we did best.”

LAB: How do you define lyric realism?

“What is it? It has a surface of realism. As the New York Times put it, ‘Real plays about real people’ with a rather linear plot you can follow. However unlike let’s say (William) Inge, who wrote realism but was never able to lift the experience above the mundane, lyric realism elevates the realistic experience to a poetic experience  through things like eloquent language.

“Lanford was recognized…as being the next voice of lyrical writing in America since Tennessee Williams. Their writing is in the same vein, only Lanford’s is less florid. Tennessee’s first play, Battle of Angels, had its first New York production under my direction. It was 30 years from the time he wrote it until if came to New York. Tennessee and I were just planning to begin work on a new production of Night of the Iguana with William Hurt when he died.”

LAB: What kind of shape was Williams in when you worked with him?

MM: “He was in great shape. It was after his druggie days. I was terribly afraid of meeting Tennessee. I admired his work so much and I heard such terrible things about his personal life that I didn’t want my idol to have feet of clay…The New York Times did a big spread on the Circle Rep and me and I mentioned Tennessee had been my inspiration from high school on up, so he called up and asked me to come to dinner. If he actually invites you to dinner you can’t say, ‘No’…So I went to dinner and it was an amazing experience.”

LAB: Do you attend many gatherings like the Great Plains Theatre Conference?

MM: “I haven’t for a long time. Edward Albee and I went to Valdez, Alaska to help Jody (Metro Community College President Jo Ann McDowell) found her Last Frontier conference up there. She first met me, and Edward too, at the Inge Festival (in Independence, Kan.). Edward’s been a tremendous supporter of hers. This year I was persuaded it would be a good thing to go again. I’m really looking forward to it. I feel especially with the book I’ve got a lot of new ideas to share…”

LAB: Are forums like this vital for theater artists who live outside of New York?

MM: “It is really great because it decentralizes the theater and makes it available in the far reaches of the country. People can come to Omaha that would find it really difficult to come all the way to New York or, on the other hand, Alaska. So I think the Great Plains is a wonderful place to have a theater conference.”


Great Plains Theatre Conference grows in new directions

May 28, 2011 23 comments

No, my usually eclectic blog has not suddenly changed focus to become a theater blog – it just seems that way because of the Great Plains Theatre Conference happening in my proverbial backyard, Omaha, and my wanting to emphasize a theater theme during at least the initial run of the event, which goes on May 28-June 4.  Therefore, in the span of a few days here I am posting various articles I’ve written about the conference and about other theater goings on and figures here.  My blog is replete with stagecraft stories, along with stories about filmmakers, musicians, artists, authors, and other creatives,  The article below is from a couple years ago and charts a somewhat new course for the conference, then entering its fourth year and now in its sixth, and new leadership for the event.

 

Great Plains Theatre Conference grows in new directions

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine

 

Year four of the Great Plains Theatre Conference, May 23-30, is less about the past and more about the present and future.

This tweaked emphasis comes from two leading Omaha theater figures, Kevin Lawler and Scott Working, new to the GPTC staff since last summer. Each is a playwright and director who’s started theaters from scratch. Lawler helped launch the Blue Barn Theatre. Working birthed the Shelterbelt. They’ve been artistic directors.

GPTC founder Jo Ann McDowell enlisted them for their new roles. The former Metropolitan Community College president oversees special projects for Metro, host of the city-wide event since its 2006 inception. The conference is still her baby. Looking for fresh ideas and more sustainability she brought in Lawler and Working as creative director and Writer’s Workshop coordinator, respectively.

“They founded two of the most important theater companies in Omaha and have great respect from the local arts community,” McDowell said. “Their involvement with local theater goes back many years, which has been very valuable to the conference. Scott and Kevin have moved the play selection and labs to a new level. Their professionalism and theater knowledge is a huge asset.”

Lawler’s a Minneapolis resident who considers Omaha his second home. Working is Metro’s theater program coordinator and a full-time faculty member. The pair worked the conference before in more limited capacities. Already sold on it as a vehicle for theater synergy, they embraced the idea of taking on expanded duties.

 

 

Kevin Lawler

 

 

The mission of celebrating playwrights has shifted from what Working calls “an old boy network” of name-above-the-title scribes to “emerging” artists.” Witness 2009 honored playwright Theresa Rebeck, a Pulitzer finalist with widely performed work. Accomplished, yes, but theater grunts can more easily identify with her than past honoree gods Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, John Guare.

“What makes this conference unique is that it caters or appeals to several tiers of playwrights at different stages of their career — master playwrights with well-established careers, emerging playwrights in mid-career and beginners who’ve only written one or two scripts,” said Working. “The interaction, networking and fellowship between those tiers is really valuable and educational.”

The Masters Performance Series features productions of works by Rebeck and fellow bigger-than-life playwrights Constance Congdon and Mac Wellman. New this year is the Mainstage Series, a competitive showcase for more life-sized artists. The series presents five finalist scripts in staged readings by local directors-casts that master playwrights respond to. The winning author earns $1,000. Lawler credits the series with more than doubling script submissions (170 to 423). He said the large script pool (from several states) made “a huge difference” in the overall quality of work. A criticism of past conferences was the dearth of quality scripts.

“We definitely always want to have space for the beginning playwrights, so there’s always going to be plays that aren’t ready for Broadway or off-Broadway, and that’s OK,” said Lawler. “But the great addition is we’re bringing this group of people in who are just about to break into the big time. They’ve been writing for awhile, they’ve had a number of productions, they’re getting very skilled at their craft.”

McDowell said the Mainstage Series “adds a new dimension.” “There’s a big local side to this, too,” said Lawler, “which is that our local theater companies get to meet these playwrights, to work with them on scripts, to become friends.”

Master playwrights also work with less experienced counterparts in workshop sessions covering various craft issues. Besides exposing Omaha theater talents and audiences to new artists and works, there’s no telling where relationships developed here may lead. For example, Lawler said, “there’s a number of scripts this year that very well may get New York productions in the coming years.” He said a play with Omaha ties breaking big in NYC would have ripple effects here.

“The hope is that if one or two of these scripts worked on here go big in a large market that will bring just much more energy back to the conference for people to get involved, and that becomes sort of a centrifugal force itself. That kind of synergy is really great for the local Omaha theater community, too.”

“That’s already really starting to happen. We’ve had major playwrights work with our local companies putting on their productions,” he said.

Lawler envisions a playwright mounting a locally produced show that a national producer then stages with that same Omaha talent. “Imagine that happening for Brigit Saint Brigit or the Blue Barn or Baby D (Productions) or for one of our local playwrights,” said Lawler.

 

 

Scott Working
Scott Working

 

 

Working said the young conference continues “evolving” its niche. Lawler agrees, saying, “The conference in a sense is in its infancy still. There’s a growth process it’s going through.” Lawler knows where he’d like to take the event. “I think the conference should be benefiting local playwrights, actors, directors and theater companies — artistically, financially and also with their connection to the national theater scene — and will be much more exponentially each year.”

Lawler said outreach with the local theater community, who volunteer to direct and act in conference labs and staged readings, is improving. “At a couple sessions we just sat down with them and said, ‘Alright, tell us what can we do better — how can we change things?,’ and we got some great feedback on things,” said Lawler, who hopes one day the conference can reimburse local artists for their time.

For Lawler, the GPTC is a microcosm of Omaha theater.

“Nobody’s doing theater here for money, for fame or anything like that,” he said. “Everybody’s doing it because they actually love doing it and they love the other people involved with it, which is the essence of any good theater. It was illustrated beautifully by the community meeting that happened when the Omaha (Community) Playhouse went through its troubles. That (passion) makes this theater scene one of the most vibrant, exciting. It’s why I keep coming back.”

Where can the GPTC go from here? He points to the Humana theater festival in Louisville, KY that runs several weeks, does full stage productions of major new works and draws huge audiences. It’s a world-class theater happening.

“Maybe we don’t get as big as the Humana but maybe our focus gets stronger and it still brings in this great energy to the city that totally invigorates the theater scene. I think we can eventually create that.”

For registration, ticket, schedule details visit theatreconference@mccneb.edu or call 457-2618.


The much anticipated return of the Bagel Bin

December 3, 2010 2 comments

Bagel

Bagel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a popular, family-owned bagel shop or bagel factory in Omaha that was out of commission for 10 months due to a fire that destroyed the place and even though the family, the Brezacks, almost immediately set about rebuilding, delays of one kind of another kept the new Bagel Bin from reopening. That left its die-hard customers, of which there are many, without their fix for the New York-style bagels that the  family, who came to Omaha from Long Island, serves up.  The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in the midst of the Brezacks’ frustration with the red tape that was preventing them from reopening.  Since the piece appeared on Dec. 1, 2010, the Bagel Bin has indeed reopened and its bagelmaniacs are reportedly flocking there in record numbers.  Even though the Bagel Bin has been around for 30-plus years in my hometown, I had to admit to the owners that I had never eaten there, and so one of my must-dos this weekend is to stop by and indulge in some of their famous bagels, which for my taste and for a lot of other folks are a perfect food group unto themselves.  The place even makes authentic New York style pizza, another perfect food group.  Can’t go wrong there.

The much anticipated return of the Bagel Bin

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Coming soon.

The words on the hand printed sign affixed to the glass doors of the rebuilt Bagel Bin, 1215 South 119th Street, seem benign enough. Behind the hopeful words though is the bittersweet story of a family-owned kosher bakery that went up in flames Jan. 7.

The three-alarm blaze left a total loss of the beloved business the Brezack family opened there in 1978. It meant starting from scratch and a touchstone neighborhood place being out of commission.

Owner Sue Brezack, whose late husband Joel started the Bin, says she and her family were inundated with expressions of concern from people: “Anything we can do for you? We hope you’re coming back.”

The decision to rebuild was easy for her and sons David and Scott, who’ve run the business with her since Joel’s death in 2004

“We realize we’re kind of an icon in this area. Everybody meets here,” she says.

For weeks though the reopening has been pushed back by pending city inspector approvals and contractor delays.

“It’s been a long year,” she says. “It puts us into a stress mode because you think you’re going to open on a date and then somebody throws a monkey wrench in. Something has to be done, then it has to be ordered and installed. Then you need to get the permit.”

“Everything’s done. We have enough supplies we could open today,” David said two weeks ago.

“We keep telling everybody, it’s not us,” says Sue. “The codes are crazy.”

Rather than risk disappointing people again, she says, “We’re not going to commit to any dates.”

All the while the rabid fan base, evidenced by a Rebuild Bagel Bin Facebook page numbering hundreds of friends with comments of support, press the owners for a firm relaunch. Regular customers call or email, some stopping by to gauge progress and kibitz. Members of the Monday Breakfast Bunch, who’ve met there for years, peek in, reserving their spots for when the joint’s up and running again.

 

 

 

Mom and the boys

 

 

 

“We love seeing them as they come up here,” Sue says. “It’s great to know they’re all around. If we’re in any other big city and we had this fire I don’t think anybody would have been that upset. People would have just moved on. But Omaha’s such a wonderful place. People are very caring here.”

Her customers’ devotion, she says, “makes me cry.”

She and Joel felt Omaha’s embrace when they made a leap of faith in 1977 to relocate here from Long Island, New York. She says “the community kind of came together” for them, a young Jewish couple who invested everything in the start-up. It’s remained a staple in the Jewish community, though most customers are Christian.

Why Omaha? Sue did part of her growing up here when her father was hired as chief programmer at Strategic Air Command. After she moved to New York she and Joel, a Brooklyn native, married and started their family. On vacations, Joel fell in love with the city’s quiet and its slow pace, except he couldn’t find a decent bagel in town. That deficit, he figured, could be his gain, and so he learned the bagel biz inside-out before moving Sue and the family to the Midwest to become bagel evangelists-entrepreneurs. They had the territory to themselves, before competition arrived, but as David says, “we’re still here.”

“We found our niche here,” adds Sue.

The couple’s three sons were enlisted right from the start. When Joel died David and Scott were already helping run things. Their brother Glenn is in construction and he finished out the rich new interior at the remade Bin. The spiffy new digs has some worried the homey old charm will be no more but David insists, “nothing’s changed.”

Feelings run deep, say the Brezacks, because it’s an old-school place where repeat customers are known by name and preference. As soon as they pull in the parking lot their favorite bagel’s toasted and coffee’s poured. Regulars love being pampered almost as much as exchanging good-natured barbs with the owners and counter staff.

 

 

 

 

“The people are just great, they really are,” says Sue.

All that’s left to reopen is the city’s final approval. Well, that and “we need our oven lit by the rabbi”, says Sue, adding, “But we can’t have him do that until we get the OK.”

Off-the-record, Dec. 1 became the new target date.

“It’s going to be a crazy place,” says David.

For updates call 334-2744 or visit www.bagelbin.com.

Art for Art’s Sake: Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts

September 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, 12th & Lea...

Image via Wikipedia

This was one of three stories I did during my incredibly short-lived stint writing for Star City Blog (www.starcityblog.com). The subject of this piece is an anchor institution in the cultural hub of Omaha, the Old Market, the former wholesale produce center that’s been preserved and its century-old warehouse buildings repurposed as galleries, shops, eateries, apartments, and condos. The Bemis is housed in one of those warehouses. The Bemis always seems ahead of the curve when it comes to the art scene, and after a few wandering years it has rebounded stronger than ever.  It’s a visionary place and in a very short article here I try to give a flavor for what makes it a dynamic space for artists and for visitors alike.  I would like to write a more in-depth piece about it, perhaps next year when it celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Art for Art’s Sake: Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally posted on Star City Blog (www.starcityblog.com)

 

At the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha’s historic Old Market district, the phrase Artists Matter is reality, not slogan. Going on 30 years now, the Bemis has been Omaha’s conduit to the modern art world by nurturing exceptional global talent.

Its renowned International Artist Residency program brings diverse artists to live and work there each year. A busy exhibition schedule of 20-plus shows presents work across a wide range of media by visiting and local artists. Admission is free.

Progressive live music performances occur at the Bemis and its adjacent installation/work site, the Okada. Community art projects serve as catalysts for collaborations between artists and the public. Art talks promote artist-audience dialogues.

The Bemis Center is housed in the 19th century McCord-Brady building at 724 South 12th Street. The five-story, 110,000 square foot structure is among the Market’s many landmark red brick mercantile warehouses repurposed as a cultural facility.

The Bemis got its start in the nearby Bemis Bag Company building. Four artists formed the center in 1981, including internationally renowned ceramicist Jun Kaneko and Ree Schonlau, now Ree Kaneko.

The center’s hub is its coveted residency, which began as a summer artist-in-industry program. It was still a new concept then. By the mid-‘80s, the Bemis operated year-round. The last two decades has seen an “explosion” in artist colonies nationally, said Bemis executive director Mark Masuoka.

 

 

From then till now, the center’s hosted nearly 700 artists from 34 countries. At any given time six to eight artist fellows are in residence, each with a spacious live-work loft. Artists, who receive a $750 a month stipend, plus supplies, stay from a month to three months. New fellows as of August include painter Myung-Jin Song from Seoul, South Korea, photographer Cybele Lyle of Oakland, Calif. and interdisciplinary artist Michael Beitz from Buffalo. They joined artists from Florida and Philadelphia.

Former fellows who’ve made Omaha home include Christina Narwicz, Littleton Alston, Terry Rosenberg, Jim Hendrickson. Steve Joy, Therman Statom and Claudia Alvarez.

Masuoka said interest in the program keeps rising, with 1,000 applications for 24 available spots each year. The Honolulu native said a planned expansion will accommodate additional artists. He goes back with the Bemis to the ‘80s, as a Jun Kaneko assistant and artist-in-residence. That history, plus art management stints in Las Vegas and Denver, gives him a perspective on what makes the Bemis special.

“The Bemis continues to amaze me as an organization, not just because of what we’ve been able to accomplish but because we’ve stayed true to our mission,” he said. “The more we grow and mature as an organization what becomes evident is that we really understand what artists need and provide support for that activity.”

He said the Bemis is rare in granting artists the freedom to create or research or just be.

“It comes from our having been founded by artists. Because of that, we really understand what artists need and we’re prepared and willing to do whatever it takes as an organization to tell artists, yes,” said Masuoka. “I think many times in our society and within even the art field there are so many reasons not to pursue a project or not to support an individual artist. What we continue to strive for is to find ways to support artists. At the core of it is why the organization exists — to help artists realize or actualize their ideas. I think it makes Bemis unique not just in the country but in the world.”

Lincoln collector Robert Duncan is part of a star-studded board that includes the artist Christo.Residency program manager Heather Johnson said the Bemis provides “a gift to artists.” That includes the sanctuary of their second-floor live-work studios, usually off-limits to the public. “It’s meant to be a place for artists and their process. We don’t make any expectations or assumptions or judgments about their process and what that should look like or shouldn’t, so it’s very self-directed, and artists love us for that.”

“That gift of time and space we talk about is critical,” said Masuoka. “It advances careers, it advances ideas, and it sort of reinstills and reconfirms to artists that they’re important to our culture.”

Masuoka said the only requirements of fellows is to make a presentation and to donate a piece. Otherwise, the Bemis culture is hands-off.

 

 

Bemis curator Hesse McGraw, who’s worked at galleries in New York City and Kansas City, Mo., said, “What distinguishes the Bemis Center from other arts institutions is that what drives it is the activity of artists and the work they’re doing right now. We really try to think of it as a laboratory for artists. The residency program is focused on supporting an open process.”

McGraw, who curates shows in the center’s three main galleries, said, “The exhibition program tries to carry that sensibility through to the presentation of the work.” He said the Bemis encourages artists to do what they couldn’t do in a different context or setting. “We really try to find ways of supporting them, whether curatorially, logistically, financially, to build-out projects significant in their career and in their practice.”

All this creativity brings a dynamic energy to the space and to the community, challenging the status quo and thereby enriching viewers.

“It’s an expression of this attitude about finding new ways and having the ability to look at things differently,” Masouka said. “Artists see things differently, they look at possibilities other people don’t see, and through that you increase the imagination about what is possible. Programs like the Bemis Center support individual artists, nurture creativity, but also really showcase the value of what artists bring to our society.”

The Bemis is intentional in fostering artist-led discussion through events like its First Thursday ArtTalk lecture series and cutting-edge exhibitions.

“The exhibition program is an opportunity to have conversations and dialogue with the public about contemporary art and its relationship to anything in public life or the city or a myriad of social and cultural issues,” said McGraw.

The current Hopey Changey Things group show (through Sept. 4) is an ironic riff on American society as expressed in photographs, videos and installations. McGraw said pieces variously posit an apocalyptic vision for wiping the slate clean, an absurdist’s view of our current cultural moment and a radical pragmatism for reinventing places.

“I think things we’re particularly excited about now are artists working across disciplines and at some level of social engagement,” he said. “I feel like it empowers audiences to think about contemporary life.” Always, he said, the Bemis looks “at how can we utilize the projects to create a perpetual sense of surprise” within the “intensive introspection and ecstatic spectacle” of contemporary art.

A venue for doing that is the Bemis Underground, a subterranean but warm space connecting local and visiting artists with each other and with the community via exhibitions, talks, art trivia quizzes and even potluck suppers. “It sort of ties everything together,” said manager Brigitte McQueen. “It’s very welcoming down here. The openings have huge traffic.”

Together with the adjacent Kaneko – Open Space for Your Mind and nearby studios, galleries and theaters, the Bemis Center continues being a mainstay in the Old Market art scene.

The Bemis is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For exhibition and event details or to schedule tours, visit www.bemiscenter.org or call 402-341-7130.

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