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Life is a Cabaret, the Anne Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love

May 28, 2011 7 comments

My writing brand focus is “telling stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions” and the following New Horizons profile I wrote about cabaret singer Anne Marie Kenny is an almost perfect match of writer and subject. She is a multi-talented woman whose love of music and adventure has driven much of her life. She is one of those bright spirits I feel drawn to, and I think you will too reading her story.  She comes from a long line of Omaha women who have made careers as cabaret or torch or big band singers – from Anna Mae Winburn to Julie Wilson to Richetta Wilson to Camille Metoyer Moten to Karrin Allyson.  These chanteuses all share in common at art and craft of interpreting a song.  Indeed, they all feel a kinship with one another, and Kenny is quick to acknowledge that she adores Julie Wilson’s work.  Much like Wilson had to once take an extended leave from the performing world she loves so, Kenny did as well.  My story charts some of the ups and downs,  twists and turns, and various adventures of her life in and out of music.

©photo by Bill Sitzmann
Life is a Cabaret, the Anne Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love

©by Leo Adam Biga    

As appeared in the New Horizons

“What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret old chum, come to the cabaret…”

 

Singer Anne Marie Kenny’s life is a cabaret alright. The story of how she left Omaha to follow her dream in Paris is storybook stuff. It only gets better when you learn she came back home to find true love in dashing advertising executive, John Bull. Then she left for Paris again, only this time with her man. The two lived an enchanted life as expatriates abroad. She sang, he painted…

But then like the tragic-romantic songs this chanteuse sings in clubs and concert halls, their fortunes changed. They struggled financially and then John fell ill. She gave up music to go into business, reinventing herself as an entrepreneur in the newly liberated Czech Republic. Just as her company took off and a new life dawned in Prague, John’s condition worsened. He later died.

That was 15 years ago. Since then Kenny’s reinvented herself again. She remarried, though this second union didn’t last long. She has no children of her own but is involved in the lives of her step-children.

After selling her company she resettled in Omaha, now the base for her intercultural consulting and training business. She’s fluent in French, Italian and Czech, Along the way she earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership from the College of Saint Mary..

Today, this vivacious world citizen, businesswoman, vocal coach, choir leader and cabaret singer still lives her performing dream. She looks forward to whatever life holds, certain she’s prepared to take the bitter with the sweet.

Growing up, Kenny’s musical family met tragedy when her father, attorney Dan Kenny, drowned at 35. While on a fishing trip with buddies his motorboat capsized. Everyone ended up in the chilly waters that fateful day. He was a good swimmer but between the cold, the heavy clothing he wore and his head likely hitting the motor, he didn’t survive.

Anne was not quite 3. She, her four older sisters, a brother and their mother, Veronica Janda Kenny, were on their own. Until the initial shock wore off, their Field Club home, usually filled with the sound of music, was silent except for weeping.

“My father played instruments, saxophone, a little bit of piano. My mother played the piano. My father had a great singing voice, so did my mother. They loved music — it was a big part of their lives,” said Kenny.

All the kids took piano lessons.

Soon, music took its rightful place again in the Kenny home, serving as healing therapy for the still grieving Irish (her father’s side) and Czech (her mother’s side) clan.

“I think the music redeemed whatever loss we had.”

This was the mid-1950s, long before professional counseling became de rigueur for children touched by trauma.

“In those days, no, you just forged ahead,” Kenny said. “I think the music was a godsend for us. I don’t know what we would have done if we had not had it. I think life might have been a little bit harder, but music was our outlet, and we harmonized.”

When old enough, Anne joined her sisters in the four-part harmony group, the Kenny Sisters. They performed at Show Wagons, service clubs, receptions and various other events. All her siblings have remained musical into adulthood.

Not all was peaches and cream. Anne’s mother, formerly a traditional stay-at-home mom, suddenly had to be the breadwinner.

“I can look back now and I realize what an amazing mother we had because she made sure she provided for us, there was no thought of welfare or anything for Mom,” said Kenny. “She had to go to work and she found a way. She worked hard. She started as a secretary in my dad’s old law firm.

“Then she moved to Creighton University, in the career placement office. Even though I’m sure we had very little money, we always looked good because Mother sewed all of our clothes. She made sure we had a parochial education.”

Anne attended St. Peter Elementary and Mercy High Shool.

Everyone pitched in to make ends meet. Mother Kenny made sure of it.

“She made us start working at a very early age, so that we helped with the finances,” recalls Anne, who with her sisters worked at St. James Orphanage. “I remember having to go get a work permit at age 13 or 14 to be a child care worker. I would pick up babies and feed them three nights a week.”

Meanwhile, Anne blossomed into a beauty with an angelic voice and a fetching personality. She couldn’t go to a party without being prevailed upon to sing. Her late ’60s repertoire included folksongs, Beatles hits, show tunes, et cetera.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was in high school, all I know is that everybody loved my music. I could play the guitar, I could sing, I could play the piano a little bit. I got the leads in the plays — the musicals, even the nonmusicals.

“When my mother asked me what I wanted to be, I said I wanted to be an actress, so I was thinking along those lines in those early days. And singing is acting, because you’re selling a song, you’re becoming the character of whatever the song is.”

It would be a few years yet before Anne became a polished vocalist but right from the start she understood the importance of breathing heart and soul into a song and winning over an audience.

“I learned early on, when I first started singing professionally at 21, that you have to lose yourself in the song, and that’s what you do when you’re acting. You have to lose the nerves, you have to lose the everybody’s-looking-at-me mentality and get into the music, interpret that music, let it take you away.”

That expressiveness, she said, only comes “after you do your homework and learn the words and learn the song, and learn some technique and how to deliver it.” It only comes, she said, “after you have really concentrated on studying it.”

One of Kenny’s musical idols is fellow Omaha native Julie Wilson, the legendary singer. Wilson’s a revered figure in New York City cabaret circles and is still going strong at 86. Kenny said no one does cabaret better than Wilson.

“Julie is a master at that. She really sells the song. You’ve heard that Rodgers and Hammerstein song a hundred times, yet you hear Julie Wilson sing it and it’s like you’ve never heard it before. It’s her phrasing and the color and tone she brings to it. And her diction is impeccable. I am a huge fan of Julie Wilson.”

 

 

Julie Wilson

 

 

She said unlike some singers who bore after awhile, Wilson holds you spellbound.

“Never do you feel you want it to get over. You’re hoping there’s another verse. She’s completely into it. I would say I am too when I sing but I don’t know if I get it across as well as Julie.”

Kenny said while Wilson’s voice is limited in range now, age has also ripened it. “She delivers it with such intensity and emotion,” said Kenny. “She just has it.”

All this insight was was still ahead of Kenny in 1973. Music then was an avocation, not a career. She tried office work for a time, but felt her creative impulses stymied.

“I knew it wasn’t for me, and that’s when I decided to move from Omaha. I was 21, I couldn’t figure out where I wanted to go, I just knew I needed to spread my wings.”

“Put down the knitting, the book and the broom, time for a holiday…”

In truth, Kenny knew exactly where she was headed: France. She studied French  in school and became a Francophile. At 18 she made her first trip to Europe, to then-West Germany, where a sister and her military husband lived. Even though Anne didn’t make it to Paris that time, she said, “That trip did tell me I’m coming back to Europe and I always knew someday I was getting to France.”

That day came sooner than expected when she finally threw caution to the wind and booked passage there.

“It was just welling up in me and I still feel this way today — I cannot not do my art. If I don’t, I’m not healthy.”

Still, the idea of going off to Paris alone was daunting. Yes, she was adventurous but also insecure enough that she kept her plans secret. She was even too timid to tell herself she was pursuing a singing career.

“I didn’t dare tell anybody I was going to Paris. I didn’t know anyone there, I didn’t know anything, except I knew some French. So I sold my little Volkswagen Beetle, all my possessions. I knew I couldn’t tell anybody who would naysay. I’ve held that principle all my life — don’t talk about any big plans to anybody who cant help you or isn’t going to be encouraging. I knew my mother would talk me out of it, but I was old enough to do this, so I did.”

She found a great deal and made the voyage on a luxurious Italian oceanliner.

“That was an education in itself —  this Omaha girl on a ship,” she said.

She disembarked in Marseilles, where she caught a train bound for Paris. En route, she said, a French passenger asked what her plans were, “and I don’t know why but I said, ‘I’m a singer, I’m going to sing,’ and that’s the first time I admitted that to myself. I remember being surprised to hear that come out of my mouth.”

Once in Paris the romance and reality of the City of Light set in.

“When I first moved there by myself I didn’t know a soul, but the minute I hit Paris I felt like I was home. Paris is about beauty and art all around you. That’s how I see it.”

That electric energy aside, there was still the matter of supporting herself.

“I only had like $2,000 to my name to last me — I had to start earning money. I did get a job as an au pair, so I at least had a secure place to live, and the family was just wonderful. It was a great job. I’m still friends with these people today.”

But how does an unknown young American break into the Paris music scene? In Kenny’s case, by pluck and luck.

“I put this sign up at a place called the Centra Americain that read, ‘Singer looking for musicians.’ I don’t know how I had the guts to do this by the way. And lo and behold a couple days later a phone call — this deep resonant voice on the other end. The person spoke French but I could tell it wasn’t a Frenchman. He was a guitarist named Carlos. He’d worked with a lot of singers.”

It was attraction at first sight. He, the tall, dark Argentine virtuoso. She, the lithe, lovely American song stylist.

“We didn’t even talk much. He started playing, and he just played with such purity and exactness. He’s the best guitarist I have ever heard. Anything I knew, he knew. We were very good together musically. After we had about 10-12 songs under our belt, he said, ‘I think we’re ready to perform in the streets.’ I said, ‘No way,’ but he talked me into it.

“He felt we should go to the Champs Elysees, the busiest street in Paris. We had crowds all around us listening. I passed a long glove. We made pretty good money.”

Her first big break happened only days later when a talent scout discovered them.

“Somebody came along from ORTF radio and asked if we would come for an audition, and we did, and we got a job on the radio.”

She and Carlos appeared on the popular Le Petit Conservatoire de Mireille, a showcase for emerging talents.

“The French loved the show,” said Kenny. “We were on almost every week, and we got paid — not a whole lot,  but enough to get me ‘off the streets’ so to speak.”

The duo also appeared on the show’s television spinoff. More offers poured in.

“It got me an agent, who was also a songwriter. He wrote songs that kind of fit my voice. He got me gigs in theaters around Paris.”

All this after being in Paris only weeks. She chalks it up as “meant to be,” adding, “I just think things do fall into place, and if they don’t maybe they’re not meant to be.” Plus, she sad, “I was determined.”

She and her Argentine dream boat were more than musical partners, they were lovers. But their romance and collaboration didn’t last. Se la vie, as the French say.

After a year living her dream, she ran short of funds. After all, singing is at best sporadic work. Besides, it was time to return home.

“No use permitting some prophet of doom, to wipe every smile away, come hear the music play…”

Kenny took her first formal voice lessons from teachers Diana Morrison and Mary Fitzsimmons Massie. After she performed Edith Piaf and Jaques Brel songs at an Omaha Alliance Francaise concert, the late Morrison offered to work with her.

“She got me started in a whole new world of learning the technique of singing,” said Kenny. “Now, before that, I had a good natural voice, but she got me into classical music. I must say I love it. But I love the Great American Songbook, too. With good technique you should be able to do it all, you should be able to sing operatic but then when you sing a pop song not sing it in the operatic style, but switch those gears.

“I don’t think there’s many people who have a cache of different voices to use.”

With training, she said, she’s learned to “try on different voices” to suit the song, the mood, the venue, the audience. Therefore, she can project, in a belting voice, in all the registers, but can also “pull it way back” to a soft, intimate purr. She likes leading off her opening set with a “wow” song, then throttling down a few notches, before closing with her favorite, “La vie en rose,” or saving that emotional number for her encore.

She’s further honed her instrument in master classes at Juilliard, Peabody and Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. She’s fluent in the full French and Italian repertoire.

It was the late ’70s in the Old Market when Kenny became a hot item singing at M’s Pub, V Mertz and the French Cafe. Meanwhile, she’d met her future husband, John, socially. He was a Mad Man ad whiz from Chicago come to work at Bozell and Jacobs. His big account was Mutual of Omaha. Sparks flew when the two met and their mutual attraction developed into a full-blown courtship.

“Every time I performed, he was there. He clearly was interested in me.”

They married in 1980, honeymooning — where else? — in France.

Back in the States she sometimes traveled with him cross-country as he made syndication deals for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Then one day he surprised her by announcing he’d quit his job and they were moving to Paris.

“We had talked about one day wouldn’t that be wonderful. He wanted to live his dream too — of painting. Talk about a risk taker. But it was a shared dream. So off we went to live our dream.”

They started their new life together in Paris in 1983.

“We lived the life. We were two artists in Paris. It was a beautiful life. We had a lot of fun, contact with other artists. We had musical parties. I would sing at his art shows, He was always so supportive of my music.

“We just blended so well. I heard life, he saw life. We would go places and he would notice things I would never even see. Likewise, I’d pick up on other things.”

The couple lived in an idyllic setting, too, in an apartment on the Iie Saint-Louis, an island in the River Sienne, right in the heart of Paris.

Whenever she visits Paris that’s where she heads — to that arrondissement or district where she still knows the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, as well as all the neighborhood cafe proprietors.

Her next big leap as a singer came under the formidable vocal coach Janine Reiss, who’s worked with world class artists Maria Callas, Luciana Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Kenny knew it was a long shot that Reiss would take her on as a student but she no sooner phrased a few verses at an informal audition then Reiss agreed.

“I was shocked.”

 

Janine Reiss

 

They worked intensively together and are friends to this day.

“She was meticulous, you could not get by with anything,” said Kenny, who appreciates how much Reiss pushed her to improve, saying, “She took me deeper into my art.”

The student-teacher relationship “is way more than just the singing,” said Kenny. “Invariably you need to talk about what is this song saying and where do you find that emotion within yourself. It’s like method acting. You end up having very intimate conversations. You need to be very vulnerable with your teacher, and Janine would share as much about herself.”

Kenny applied her finely honed technique and artistry at some posh venues, such as the Oak Room at the Paris Ritz Hotel. “Probably one of my favorite gigs of all time,” she said, “They treated me so well and they’re real connoisseurs. Sophisticated.”

 

Anne-Marie Kenny

 

She found time, too, for the part of Miss Moneypenny in three feature films shot on the Riviera and principal roles in plays and operettas.

“Come taste the wine, come hear the band, come blow your horn, start celebrating…”

Life was grand, and then the bottom fell out. The American dollar took a dive and the unsteady income from her singing and John’s painting no longer allowed them to live in the manner to which they’d become accustomed. It meant downsizing and moving to the South of France, where things were less expensive.

“I sang a lot in the South of France, but they weren’t the same opportunities I had in Paris,” she said, “so I wasn’t as happy.”

When John fell ill, things became even harder.

Then something straight out of one of the sentimental songs she sings occurred. It was late fall 1989 and the Iron Curtain was falling in Eastern Europe. The Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic was capturing people’s hearts and imagination. The new president, Vaclav Havel, a poet and playwright once imprisoned for his dissident views, took office in a bloodless regime change from communist to democratic rule.

Watching on TV Kenny was enthralled by the charismatic Havel, a fellow artist, at the head of this movement. She was moved too by his writings.

“He was the moral voice of the people,” she said. “If you read anything he’s written you would be inspired, too. He’s the Nelson Mandela of the former Soviet bloc countries.”

Amid the nationalistic fervor, she took new pride in her Czech heritage.

“I’m half Czech, so I felt extra connected. I hoped to go one day.”

Caught up in the spirit of it all, she did something rash.

“That was one of those moments when I think I had too much champagne,” she said. “We had just seen on TV the celebrations in the street and I went over to the piano and I wrote some English words for the Czech people to Jacques Brel’s song “If We Only Have Love” and I sent them to President Havel with a congratulatory note that said how moved we were to watch this happen.

“And by gosh I got a letter back on behalf of President Havel inviting me to sing that song at the Reduta Jazz Club.”

That Prague club is a national landmark and playing it is considered a high honor, so naturally she accepted the offer. Her performance there marked the beginning of her own Czech Spring, as she witnessed first-hand the opportunities being afforded by the country’s new found freedom. With John sick and the couple needing a stable income, she began looking at making a major life-career change.

“I knew we had to do something and I was ready to make a break with music.”

With the Wild Wild East wide open to economic development, Kenny learned that companies struggled finding enough employable talent. That’s when she hatched the idea of a training and staffing firm. There was little competition at the time.

“Everything was new, laws were changing and it was the best time to go in. It was just a great place to be. I was very inspired there. I also realized I would have to throw myself completely into it if I was going to start this business.”

But could she really walk away from music to become a CEO? It’s then that she recalled a meeting with her idol, Julie Wilson, years earlier at New York’s Algonquin Hotel. Kenny was there to see Wilson perform. The two had never met.

“Julie walked into the room and I was alone sitting at one of those wonderful round booths, and as she came by I said, ‘By the way, I’m from Omaha and I’m a singer, too, and I’m so excited to hear you.’ Julie said, ‘Do you have time for dinner afterwards?’ ‘Why, yes,” I stumbled. ‘Good, I’ll catch you after the show.’ And we just had a great talk over dinner.”

As Kenny weighed her options in Prague years later she thought back to something Wilson told her that night — how this queen of the stage and the cabaret set had to quit when her marriage failed and she needed to attend to her trouble-prone sons in Omaha.

“She told me right out there came a time in her career she had to stop and give up what she loved doing the most to work a regular job to support her kids. I was so touched by her story. I thought, That’s what I have to do, I have to give up music. And it wasn’t a huge hardship. I’d been doing it professionally 20 years. But it was different.”

Kenny said she also identified with and took solace in something else Wilson told her: that once an artist, always an artist, “even if life takes you away from it.” And as Wilson proved, you can always go back to it. It’s never too late.

All of Kenny’s deliberation was rewarded when her company flourished, becoming Easter Europe’s go-to staffing and training service for multinationals.

“I knew I could do it. I just wont accept failure. Once you stand up at the Oak Room of the Paris Ritz Hotel and sing to that clientele, you can sell yourself.”

She ended up living 10 years in Prague.

Just as Julie Wilson resumed her singing career, Kenny’s performing again. She works gigs in Omaha, in Florida, in the South of France, all around her busy business schedule. Her intercultural work is ever more in demand in this flat world, digital age, global economy, where cross-cultural competency is vital.

She also enjoys passing on her expertise to vocal performance students she trains at her Dundee home. A new passion is leading the Siena Francis House Singers, a spirited choral group comprised of that shelter’s homeless residents.

Kenny looks forward to whatever new adventures await.

“I don’t know what my future is, but I don’t expect it to be any less exciting than what my life has been so far.”

There is one dream she pines to fulfill:  “I would love to do a cabaret show with Julie Wilson. The two of us back in Omaha. I just know we’d pack ‘em in.”

“Start by admitting, from cradle to tomb, isn’t that long a stay, life is a cabaret old chum, only a cabaret old chum, and I love a cabaret!”

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Once More With Feeling: Loves Jazz & Arts Center back from hiatus

May 5, 2011 16 comments

The Loves Jazz & Arts Center has been one of Omaha‘s little-known gems among arts-cultural organizations and venues. Its programming has been consistently engaging.  But the organization has also been held back by certain deficiencies and challenges that have kept people away and prevented it from realizing its potential. Named in honor of Omaha’s late great jazz and blues man, Preston Love St., the center has also suffered from an identity crisis – never quite figuring out what its specific mission is and thus being diminished by trying to be all things to all constituencies rather than focusing on a few things it can do at a high level.  After an unexplained dormancy or hiatus period, during which time I heard all kinds of speculation about problems at the center and I could not get anyone from the center to explain the situation, I finally managed to speak with the two men currently working on revitalizing the center.  Ernest White and Tim Clark seem to have a good sense for what the organization should be – an art gallery that celebrates Omaha’s jazz heritage and black culture.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) that follows is based on the recent interview I did with these men.

 

 

 

 

Once More With Feeling, Loves Jazz & Arts Center back from hiatus

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Rumors about the impending demise of a north Omaha cultural institution began flying last fall when Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2510 N. 24th St., took an extended break from normal operations.

Even the hint of trouble alarmed the African American community and city-county officials, who view LJAC as a linchpin for an envisioned 24th and Lake revival. The North Omaha Development Project, the Empowerment Network and others target the area as a potential cultural-tourism district.

The reports, while dead wrong, were not unreasonable given that during a nine-month hiatus LJAC made no announcement concerning why it ceased exhibitions and programs. Or why it was open only by appointment and for rental. It turns out the inactivity was not due to financial crisis as some feared; rather, the staff and board undertook a funder-prompted and strategic planning and building process.

LJAC also underwent an audit, which board chair Ernest White says “came out clean.” The result of it all, White said, is a restructured and refocused organization whose makeover is in progress. For the first time in months LJAC is regularly open to the public, presenting gallery displays and live music events.

White could have quelled negative speculation by offering an explanation through traditional or social media. The American National Bank vice president chose silence, he says, to distance LJAC from the rumor mill that dogged the nearby Great Plains Black History Museum.

While questions went unanswered about its dormancy, LJAC participated with other nonprofits in the Omaha Community Foundation’s capacity-building initiative. White says the monthly sessions, led by OCF consultant Pete Tulipana, critically examined staffing, administration, memberships and programs.

White says no funding was withheld as a stick for LJAC to undergo the review, though some funds are “pending” its compliance with recommended changes. (The LJAC would not identify any specifics in terms of pending funds.)

Understaffed and under-funded since its 2005 opening, LJAC hurt itself, White says, by doing a poor job marketing, not signing up members, keeping inconsistent hours and, on at least two occasions, losing approved grant money by failing to file required paperwork.

“There were some things not done, there were some inefficiencies,” he says. “We need to do a better job, we need to be open when we say we’re going to be open, we need to be accessible, and those are things I think we’re already a long ways to fixing.”

Despite “great” exhibits and programs, White says few people knew of them.

The review process, he says, is “brutally honest — here’s your strengths, here’s your weaknesses. They make you do a 10-year plan. They challenge you.” The need for a seasoned administrator led White to ask Neville Murray, executive director since LJAC’s inception, to relinquish that role and remain as curator. When Murray declined, White appointed Omaha entrepreneur Tim Clark as interim executive director.

Clark, who assumed the post in April, says board development is a major priority. He’s looking for board members “to serve in three areas — advocacy, policy and fund raising. We really need to focus more on getting individuals on the board who can help with the fund development. In these very challenging times fund raising is an every day deal. It has to be a board-executive director partnership, and you have to have individuals who have some reach — the capacity to give and go get. They’ve got to have access to dollars.”

“This place needs money,” says Clark, “and every single board member has to step up and do their part. You can’t ask anybody else to help you if your board is not helping.”

The LJAC board continues to be in flux.

Efforts going forward, says Clark, revolve around “trying to retool, build the infrastructure for capacity, for sustainability long term.” He says, “The strategy now will be more looking at how do we build partnerships with school systems, getting more youth involved. We’ve brought on Janet Ashley as program director to help look at our Loves Art School and partnering with targeted elementary schools this summer.”

White says funders want the center to do more educational programming and stay on mission as an art gallery that celebrates black culture and jazz music.

“When people give us money,” says Clark, “we’ve got to give them a return on their investment. They can hold us accountable — we’ve just got to live up to expectations.”

He says LJAC’s securing sponsors and strategic partners to help it realize its potential as a public attraction.

“I think we have a product and a story to tell. We just have to be better at telling that story. We have to be more proactive. I think we’re positioned now to move forward. I’m excited about its future possibilities. I think if we’re successful it stimulates everything around us.

“Have we made some mistakes? Yes, we have. We have some challenges before us. It’s not going to be a cakewalk, but we’re going to roll up our sleeves and tackle them.”

Acknowledging the center’s transitional mode, Clark says, “We’re open for business, but we’re not making a big splash of that until we know we can sustain that. We want to do the work within first. We want to be whole.”

“We want to be viable,” adds White.

LJAC’s new Jazz Fridays series launches May 6, from 5 to 8 p.m., with For the Occasion. Two new exhibits are in the works. For more information, call 402-502-5291.

Favorite Sons: Weekly Omaha pasta feeds at Sons of Italy Hall draw diverse crowd

April 28, 2011 6 comments

I am part Italian. More precisely, I am half Italian on my mother’s side, and half Polish on my father’s side . When in Omaha‘s Little Italy  or when with that strain of the family I make like a good paisan and summon the Calabrese in me. To be honest, I have never gone in much for affiliating myself with groups of any kind, much less with those that celebrate Italian heritage. Don’t misunderstand – I am proud of my heritage and I certainly indulge a love for Italian food, but I don’t go out of my way to cultivate cultural associations or observances. Omaha is home to a chapter of the national Sons of Italy fraternal organization and this chapter’s headquarters operates out of a social hall that’s locally famous for the pasta feeds it puts on. Most of the clientele at these lunches and dinners are non-Italian, but most of the men and women serving and cooking there are.  As for myself, I have eaten there many dozens, perhaps even a few hundred times over the course of 30-odd years. And even though I have been a writer that entire period this is the first time I’ve written about the Sons of Italy experience. The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) tries to express how they roll at Sons.
Favorite Sons, Weekly Omaha pasta feeds at Sons of Italy Hall draw diverse crowd
©by Leo Adam Biga

As appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

If you go to Sons of Italy expecting a “Jersey Shore” or Goodfellas scene, you’ll leave disappointed. If you anticipate a square meal and a fair deal, minus any drama, you’ll leave satisfied, and probably stuffed.

The Nebraska chapter of this national fraternal organization is famous for its Thursday pasta feeds. The weekly 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. lunches draw 600 to 800 diners, says its stout president, Charles “Butch” Turco.

They’ve been feeding folks like this since the early 1960s. At the start, only members, and exclusively men at that, could partake. As guests spread the word, lunches were opened to the public, but still not to women; that is until, Turco says, a threatened discrimination lawsuit prompted the lodge to open its doors to everyone.

There’s a rich history behind Sons dating to 1929. Early on it aided Italian immigrants getting settled. In 1954,world heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano cut the ribbon for the newly remodeled digs. The original building, formerly a horse stable, has been renovated and added onto many times, all the work done by members skilled in various trades.

Today, Sons is a social and community service club. The meals not only help celebrate Italian heritage, but proceeds from the Thursday lunches as well as from weekly Friday night dinners and special fundraisers go to charitable causes, including St. Frances Cabrini Church across the street.

Sons of Italy reeks with nostalgia, right down to the sauce, whose recipe, Turco says, remains unchanged after all these years. Same with the sausage and meatballs. He and the tall kitchen boss, Sam Vazzano, are always around when these staples are made in big batches, to ensure quality and consistency or, as Turco puts it, “so nobody jacks around with it.” Turco won’t give up the secrets of the sauce, quipping, “Like my mother said, ‘When you’re done putting the ingredients in, you give it the sign of the cross.’”

This is not gourmet Italian, rather your nana’s home-cooked Sunday dinner Italian. Or a close approximation. Nothing fancy, just a straight up red sauce over pasta, spaghetti one week, mostaccicioli the next, served, alternately, with meatballs or sausage. There’s a full bar, too.

Turco says everything’s made from scratch (except the pasta and bread). He’s especially proud of the homemade sausage. Sausage days are the hall’s biggest draws.

The pasta may not be cooked al dente, the sauce leans toward bland, and the Iceberg salad drenched in oil and vinegar is overly wet and wilted, but these are quibbles that soon fade in light of the $7.50 price and the warm embrace of the people.

Ah, the people. It’s the kind of egalitarian joint that draws diners from all walks of life to feed at the same trough. Therefore, professionals in business suits chat or gorge beside laborers in overalls. Past and present Little Italy neighborhood residents mingle with downtown, Old Market and South Omaha denizens and artist types. Some suburbanites even make their way down. Judges, lawyers, politicos and businessmen are known to flock there. Regulars abound.

At peak time, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., expect elbow-to-elbow, shoulder-to-shoulder action. In the close confines, a bib or else stain-guard clothes are advisable to protect against spills and splatters. No worries though, your red stain’s a badge of honor.

Wall signs and floor workers remind you, “Don’t throw away the forks.”

It’s largely a 30-something, middle-aged and senior crowd. The same demographic applies to volunteers. Mostly retirees. Turco says the only paid help are four men from the Siena Francis House assigned heavy-lifting duties in the spacious commercial kitchen. The hot, steam-filled space is run with precision. Huge cauldrons of sauce bubble away, stirred with wooden paddles the size of small oars.

The kitchen crew is the heart of the operation. Jack, Pete and Tony work the takeout counter. The two Georges — Matuella and Grillo — are the salad kings. Short Sam and Ernie float from station to station. The average age may be 75. Turco himself is 70. Short Sam and Bernie are both 88. Sam Vazanno, 91. Joey “Bag of Donuts” Costanzo is the notable exception at 48. The men, along with women crew members like Marge Bruno, enjoy the “camaraderie” and “friendship.”

It’s family. It’s tradition. Turco’s father was active in Sons before him. His wife Ann is involved too. More than a few couples, along with parents and their adult children, belong and volunteer there. You don’t have to be Italian to join, just to vote.

Sons of Italy is at 1238 South 10th St. Call 402.345.4639 for the weekly menu. NOTE: The Thursday lunches take a hiatus June through August.

Omaha arts-culture scene all grown up and looking fabulous

March 6, 2011 22 comments

I was asked by Metro Magazine to write a 20-year retrospective piece on the Omaha arts-culture scene and the story that follows is the result.  The story is my take and the take of a few others on the city’s creative community, which by almost any measure has experienced a maturation and flat-out growth that has drawn attention near and far, including a widely read and circulated piece (“Omaha Culture Club”) by Kurt Andersen in the New York Times a few years ago.  Yeah, Omaha has indeed grown up a lot in the space of a generation and today is much more the cosmopolitan metropolis of its aspirations than it was 20 years ago.  I anticipate that growth to continue too. Omaha is still a city without much of an image outside Nebraska, particularly on the coasts, but it is increasingly getting known for its sophisticated, even world-class arts-cultural offerings among the cognoscente.  If you’re still doubtful and skeptical about that, then simply check out some websites devoted to Omaha or better yet the next time you’re traveling cross country don’t simply fly over or drive over without giving the place a second thought, stop here and stay awhile and see for yourself just what Omaha has to offer.

 

Omaha arts-culture scene all grown up and looking fabulous

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

 

Twenty years ago Omahans grumbled about there not being enough to do here. For a city searching for an image in a flyover state straining to retain its best and brightest and attract new talent, it sounded an alarm.

Seemingly, Omaha arts-culture plateaued. Major players retrenched while smaller, newer ones tried finding their way. It appeared Omaha collectively lacked the vision or confidence to enhance its horizons. The status quo went stale.

Then, whether by design or coincidence, Omaha enjoyed a renaissance in the space of a single generation. This flowering shows no signs of slowing down.

“Over the last 20 years Omaha has grown up a lot and the arts have grown up with it,” said Todd Simon, an Omaha Steaks International executive and a major arts funder. “There’s certainly a lot more variety and a lot more choices for our community. Any night of the week you can open up the newspaper or go on the Web and you can find something of interest to you. Whether it’s music, art, film, live theater, there is something for everyone every night of the week in Omaha now.

“If you’re bored here it’s because you’re not breathing. If you can’t find something to do in Omaha right now, shame on you.”

Saddle Creek Records executive Jason Kulbel was among those bemoaning the lack of options. No more.

“Simply put, there’s more to do now,” he said. “There’s so many different things to pick and choose from. Whatever interests you, whatever your thing is, it’s here now. It’s really cool.”

He champions the live indie music scene now having more venues and he embraces the festivals that have cropped up, from MAHA to Playing with Fire to the newly announced Red Sky Music Festival.

Kulbel and SCR colleague Robb Nansel have added to the mix with their block-long North Downtown complex. It includes their company headquarters, the Slowdown bar-live music showplace and the Film Streams art cinema. Together with the new TD Ameritrade ballpark, Qwest Center Omaha, the Hot Shops Art Center and the Mastercraft art studios, anchors are in place for a dynamic arts-culture magnet akin to the Old Market.

From the opening of the downtown riverfront as a scenic cultural public space to the addition of major new venues like the Qwest and the Holland Performing Arts Center to the launching of new music, film and lit feasts to the opening of new presenting organizations, Omaha’s experienced a boon. Major concerts, athletic events and exhibits that bypassed Omaha now come here.

Artists like world-renowned Jun Kaneko put Omaha on the map as never before. The indie music scene broke big thanks to artists recording on the Saddle Creek label. Alexander Payne immortalized his hometown by filming three critically acclaimed feature films here. The Great Plains Theatre Conference brought Broadway luminaries in force.

The Old Market solidified itself as a destination thanks to an array of restaurants, shops, galleries, theaters and creative spaces. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the Blue Barn Theatre and the Omaha Farmers Market became anchors there. Omaha Fashion Week and the Kaneko added new depth.

 

hollandcenter1-dl_jpg_610x343_crop_upscale_q85

 

 

Omaha Performing Arts president Joan Squires said she’s seen “a huge change” since arriving eight-plus years ago from Phoenix to head the organization, which programs the Holland and the Orpheum Theater.

“The first time I drove in from the airport the Qwest Center didn’t exist, the Holland wasn’t here, a lot of the small groups weren’t around. If you were looking for things to do and it wasn’t the Orpheum or a few other places, it was limited. Now on any given night the breadth of what you can do is exciting. There’s a synergy about it that’s reaching all segments of the audience.”

Omaha native Rachel Jacobson left New York to launch Film Streams, one of several attractions that’s taken things to a new level.

Growing up here, she said, “there was a lot of good stuff to do but nothing really bringing people to town or being talked about in the national and international press, other than Chip Davis. Today, the Omaha arts community is strong, it’s alive, it’s visceral, it’s something we’re known for worldwide. Musicians continue to move here from other cities to make their home here because of Saddle Creek Records. Visual artists move here because of the Bemis and Jun and Ree Kaneko. New galleries are opening up all the time.

“It has really blown up in the best way.”

 

 

Established organizations have shown new life. Joslyn Art Museum built a huge addition designed by noted architect Sir Norman Foster. It’s since added a pair of sculpture gardens. The Durham Museum underwent a refurbishment and gained Smithsonian affiliation. The Omaha Children’s Museum found a new home and completed extensive renovations. The Omaha Community Playhouse redid its theater and lobby spaces. The Henry Doorly Zoo built the Lied Jungle, the Desert Dome, the Lozier IMAX Theater and other new attractions.

The Bemis expanded its gallery exhibition schedule and educational programming as well as added the Underground and the Okada. Now it’s poised for new growth.

Old venues received serious makeovers. An Orpheum renovation allowed the largest touring Broadway shows to come. The city spent millions in renovating Rosenblatt Stadium, in turn helping it become a national icon.

Existing organizations found new digs.The Omaha Symphony made the Holland its home. The Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater moved into the old Astro (Paramount) movie house, renamed The Rose, and became the Omaha Theater Company.

Popular events drew ever larger crowds, such as Jazz on the Green, the Cathedral Flower Festival, the Summer Arts Festival and the CWS.

Midtown Crossing Jazz on the Green

Photos Courtesy of Omaha Performing Arts

 

Even with all the new options, it didn’t appear as if Omaha reached a saturation point. Using the Holland and Orpheum as examples, Joan Squires said the presence of these two venues has only increased patronage.

“When you open a major facility and you bring in new arts offerings the community continues to lift up,” she said. “It broadens and really makes more things possible. In the last five years we’ve reached 1.7 million people. We’ve seen nights where both buildings sold out and there’s a lot of arts going on at other facilities all at the same time, and there’s an audience for everybody.

“We’ve got a growing and thriving arts community. I think it’s very encouraging.”

Funder Dick Holland describes the arts as “an economic engine” and “a big part of the community.”

Great Plains Theatre Conference artistic director Kevin Lawler, a Blue Barn founder, has seen a more adventurous scene develop.

“There are several new generations of artists making work in all genres and receiving support and interest from their peers and others,” he said. “This heralds the beginning of a new, vibrant era for arts and culture here. That small group of philanthropic leaders who have been supporting the arts in Omaha for years have enabled enough fertilization for this new blossoming to begin.

“When we began the Blue Barn there were almost no theaters willing to take on new, challenging work as a regular part of their seasons. Now, there are a number of groups that follow this path.”

Lawler notes there “is a new generation of artists staying in Omaha to make work because they feel there is enough energy in the community to support and respond to their work. I feel this trend reflected not only in theater, but all the arts.

“There are stages to the cultural life of a city. Omaha is in a blossoming stage. It is a rare and exciting time to be here.”

The linchpin behind this growth is private support. “Omaha has an exceptionally generous philanthropic community that understands the value of investing in its cultural institutions,” said Bemis director Mark Masuoka, adding that funders here appreciate the fact the arts “improve quality of life.”

He said the Bemis is close to reaching its $2.5 million capital building campaign goal “thanks to several generous gifts from local foundations and individuals.”

What losses there were sparked new opportunities. After years of struggle the Great Plains Black History Museum rebounded. When Ballet Omaha folded Omaha Performing Arts brought in top dance troupes and Ballet Nebraska soon formed. The Omaha Magic Theatre closed only to birth new ventures. The Indian Hills Theater was razed but Omaha movie houses multiplied. The Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts arose after its namesake’s tragic death.

The recession impacted large and small organizations alike.

Todd Simon said, “Many not-for-profits have struggled and I think they’ll continue to struggle in these economic times, but I also think there is a dedicated group of supporters in our community who will step up to fill the gaps.” These lean times, he said, encouraged “many organizations to get smarter in how they use resources and how they collaborate with each other, where they leverage the talent and the resources they have. I think that trend will continue.”

Dick Holland said few cities can boast Omaha’s philanthropic might. He favors a public-private coalition to undergird and concentrate arts funding.

By any measure, it’s been an era of net growth for the creative community and leaders see more progress ahead thanks to a spirit of innovation and support.

“A strong legacy of investing in the arts here has been established and I believe it will continue to proliferate,” said Rachel Jacobson. “We’ll see new initiatives develop, especially arts in education and social-community development arts projects. There are a lot of high-energy, incredibly innovative people who have a huge heart for this city and will make a strong commitment.

“Just in the last month I’ve heard about wonderful projects in the works. I’m excited for the next 20 years.”

More than Buddy: Billy McGuigan expands on Buddy Holly shtick to collaborate with his brothers and band in Beatles tribute


Photograph of The Beatles as they arrive in Ne...

Image via Wikipedia

Billy McGuigan is an example of someone who always had talent to burn but for the longest time had little to show for it as a minor community theater performer and as a struggling garage band front man.  But when his big break presented itself, he was prepared to take the opportunity and run with it, and a decade later he’s running to ever greater heights.  His niche has been to parlay the continuing fascination with and popularity of rock icons Buddy Holly and The Beatles into successful shows he produces and stars in.  I have been reading about Billy and his shows for years now and I finally had the chance to meet and interview him for the following story, though I have yet to see him perform.  I will make sure to do that this year, as I want to write about him again. There’s more to his story than I was able to fit into the space allotted me and I look forward to going deeper next time.  But the story posted here, which I did for Omaha Magazine, will still give you a sense for this young man and his passion and for the concerted journey he’s on to pay forward the musical legacy his later father left he and his brothers.

 

More than Buddy: Billy McGuigan expands on Buddy Holly shtick to collaborate with his brothers and band in Beatles tribute

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine (omahapublications.com/magazines/omaha-magazine)

 

After years of performing as Buddy Hollly, Billy McGuigan proves he’s no one-show wonder with his act paying tribute to the Beatles.

Undertaking a Beatles tribute show is no small order. Besides the task of replicating the sound of the most popular band of all time, there’s the matter of mastering the Beatles’ catalog – all 230 songs worth.

“It took us six months,” says Billy McGuigan, creator of Yesterday and Today, a Beatles tribute show he performs with two of his brothers. Yesterday and Today completed a triumphant third year at the Omaha Community Playhouse in January to prove the show’s staying power.

Yesterday and Today consists mainly of the band fielding requests from the audience and performing them.  McGuigan and the band don’t wear wigs or attempt accents. He doesn’t want anything getting in the way of pure music immersion.

And thanks to their comprehensive preparation, the band is ready for any request that comes their way. Those who know McGuigan know he’d never settle for anything less.

“What I find remarkable about Billy is not only his talent and ability to sing and play just about anything,” says Playhouse music director Jim Boggess, “but his single-minded dedication to be true to whatever music he is playing. He will not rest until it is right.”

That same dedication, preparation and passion is what made Rave On, McGuigan’s renowned Buddy Holly act, the success it was, and Rave On paved the way for McGuigan’s Beatles’ tribute.

It’s no coincidence the Beatles were also favorites of McGuigan’s father, Bill, who passed on a musical legacy to his three sons.

Growing up a military brat, home was wherever his U.S. Air Force-indentured father got stationed, Having a dad who played guitar and dug the Beatles immersed Billy in all things Fab Four, especially Paul McCartney.

“All we did was sit and listen to music,” McGuigan said. “I remember  McCartney’s ‘Tug of War’ came out and my dad going, ‘OK, you gotta listen to this. This is your first new McCartney album.’ He stuck headphones on me. I hear those songs now and l’m just like, ‘Ahhh, yeah.’ I mean, that was music for me. It was always there.”

The elder McGuigan died of leukemia in 1996.

“It was awful,” Billy said. “I was just starting out in life and we had that moment where we’d become friends. He was proud of what I was doing.”

Before the untimely death, the bonding forged through music continued in Omaha, where the family moved in 1990. McGuigan didn’t set out to pay forward his father’s music bequest, but he has. After dabbling in theater and fronting his own band, he found his niche with Rave On.

Replicating that success with Yesterday and Today meant getting his siblings to sign on, which took some doing. It meant leaving regular jobs for the uncertainty of show biz and being away from wives for weeks. Then there was McGuigan’s ambitious idea of learning the entire Beatles’ canon. Every time a new player joins the band it’s a crash course all over again, he says.

What distinguishes the show from similar acts is that McGuigan fields audience requests and asks folks to explain why the songs are special to them. Then his improv skills take over. McGuigan and his brothers also share their connection to the music and often reference their father on stage.

“Completely, because what we found out is it’s really a tribute to him,” says Billy. “This is the music he taught us. We would sit around and play these songs all the time. He created it. This is the inheritance we got.”

McGuigan’s road to becoming a rock star came after some less successful efforts at finding his voice. Colleen Quinn, general manager of Funny Bone, is McGuigan’s manager and business partner. She’s witnessed his progression from early days, which included attempts at improv comedy, bartending and fronting a cover band.

It was through Buddy Holly, Quinn says, that McGuigan finally found his niche.

“Billy connects with all people. That’s what makes him a charismatic presence,” she says. “He thoroughly loves performing Buddy and Beatles songs and it shows. He relishes hearing people’s requests and reasons for loving the music as he does.”

The Buddy role came after serendipity intervened for McGuigan while vacationing in London, where he and his wife caught a West End production of The Buddy Holly Story. He saw his future on stage.

“I thought,  If I ever got the chance to do that I think that’s something I could do because he sings, he plays guitar and he gets to be a rock star. Thinking, never in a million years…”

Only a couple months later, he got a call from Boggess asking him to be their Buddy. He didn’t need to think twice.

But first there was the matter of an audition. McGuigan invited Boggess and artistic director Carl Beck to catch his band at a Benson biker bar. He recalled that night:

“So there we were, 10 people, all in leather, and then Carl and Jim and the band. We started playing ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and they (the Playhouse duo) left probably half way through, and I was like, This was my shot and I just lost this gig. I called Jim the next day and he said, ‘No, you got the job, you’re the right guy, we knew it right away.’”

Life hasn’t been the same since.

“Everything at that point changed,” said McGuigan, “and I don’t know why. It was like something clicked in me, and I’m going to take this role seriously — I’m not going to pull the typical Billy. I learned the script two days after I got it, learned all the music, went and got guitar lessons, which I’d never done before. I went to the gym before rehearsals even started. I lost 40 pounds. I was fit.”

He steeped himself in Buddy ephemera, reading books, studying films. Watching one documentary, The Real Buddy Holly Story, became a daily ritual.

“…that’s what I absorbed, that’s where my Buddy came from — that and whatever I could bring to it.”

He next appears in Rave On on Feb. 3-4, at Harrah’s casino. A summer amphitheater gig is in the works and the Beatles show returns to the Playhouse in December.

McGuigan is looking to hand-off Rave On to someone else so he can focus more on Yesterday and Today. He expects to direct The Buddy Holly Story sometime and to one day maybe take a leading role in a show like Jesus Christ Superstar.

Beyond that, it’s more touring. Quinn hints McGuigan may even be bound for Europe and Australia.

For now, McGuigan’s says the Beatles show has given him the time of his life.

“Every aspect of that show turns me on. When it works, there’s nothing like it. The music is great, it’s what I’ve always wanted to sing. Then you look over and there are your brothers, and then there’s your friends who have gone on this journey with you, and you have an audience getting (into it). How can it get better than that?”

Charles Fairbanks, aka the One-Eyed Cat, makes Lucha Libre a way of life and a favorite film subject


Rey Mysterio on WWE Wrestle Mania Revenge Tour...

Image via Wikipedia

When I read about filmmaker Charles Fairbanks for the first time last year I was immediately taken by his story: how a rural Nebraska student-athlete turned artist become enamored with and immersed in the world of Mexican professional wrestling known as Lucha Libre, which he’s made the subject of some of his short films.  Then when I delved further into his story, by exploring his website and watching some of his work, I knew I had to write about him. We met last summer, when his disarmingly sweet personality and thoughtful responses made me immediately like him.  The following story I wrote about Fairbanks and his work appeared just before this year’s Omaha Film Festival, where one of his Lucha Libre films, Irma, was shown. Fairbanks is a serious artist whose work may or may not ever find a wide audience but is certainly deserving of it.  I plan to follow his career and to see much more of his work as time goes by.

Charles Fairbanks, aka the One-Eyed Cat, makes Lucha Libre a way of life and a favorite film subject

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

In the space of a few years Charles Fairbanks has gone from conventional prep and collegiate wrestler to one of the few gringo performers of Lucha Libre, Mexico’s equivalent of WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment).

Amid a world of masked figures with exotic alter egos, Fairbanks performs as the One-Eyed Cat. It’s not what you’d expect from this cerebral, soft-spoken, fair-skinned rural Nebraska native. Then again, Fairbanks is an adventurous artist and art educator, which explains why he’s devoted much of the last nine years to Lucha Libre’s high-flying acrobatics and soap opera melodramatics.

Fairbanks, whose pretty boy face and chiseled body are in stark contrast to Jack Black in Nacho Libre, is a photographer and short filmmaker who loves wrestling. Naturally, then, he combines his passions as self-expression. He’s gone so far as affixing a video camera to his mask to record the action.

“Oh, I look silly,” he says of his third eye. “Other wrestlers laugh out loud but they’re always very welcoming. I make sure to establish a relationship before I walk in with a camera on my head.”

His documentary short Irma, an Omaha Film Festival selection, lyrically profiles Irma Gonzalez, a hobbled but still strong, proud former wrestling superstar and singer-songwriter who befriended him at Bull’s Gym on the outskirts of Mexico City.

Last fall Irma won the Best Short prize at the Coopenhagen International Documentary Film Festival. It’s shown at festivals worldwide, as have other works by Fairbanks, some of which, like Pioneers, have nothing to do with wrestling.

Intense curiosity brought him to Mexico in the first place. Oddly, he’d just abandoned organized wrestling. He was a state champion grappler at Lexington (Neb.) High, where his artistic side also flourished. His mat talent and academic promise earned a scholarship to Stanford University, where he wrestled two years before quitting the team.

He was touring Mexico on a rite-of-passage mission of self-discovery and enlightenment when he saw his first Lucha Libre match. He soon started shooting and practicing. He made still images that first trip and has since used video to capture stories.

“I just fell in love with this spectacle,” he says.

Bull’s Gym, located on an upper floor of a hilltop building, is his main dojo, sanctuary and set. It overlooks a cinematic backdrop.

“There’s something powerful for me in looking out at the miles of humble cinderblock housing spread out and up the ridges around Mexico City,” he says. “That view is very beautiful. With all the pollution the sunsets are very colorful. The airport is nearby and so you see the airplanes taking off.

“For me all of this magnifies and modulates the gym’s energy, which is really pretty fervent. There’s often boxing and wrestling going on at the same time in the same room. With all the activity, the ambient noise is really a roar.”

Lucha Libre has a near mystical hold on him now but he admits he originally regarded it as a lovely though bastard version of the wrestling he grew up with.

“At the time, as most competitive wrestlers in the U.S., I denied the connection,” he says. “I said, This is totally different. Now I’ve gotten to the point where I can accept the real links between competitive wrestling and show wrestling.”

Fairbanks, a Stanford art grad with a master of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan, takes an analytical view of these kindred martial arts.

“There is a lot of overlap but at the same time I think they have very different philosophies embedded in them.”

Asking if Lucha Libre is fake misses the point. The visceral, in-the-moment experience is the only reality that matters.

“In my experience of Lucha Libre the matches themselves are not staged — you don’t know who’s going to win. You still maybe want to win, but it’s not just up to you,” he says. “You can’t just go for a pin. You really have to try to entertain. It’s very much like a dance. There’s a certain repertoire of moves my opponent and I know how to do together, and if I start to do one move you recognize this move and you actually respond in a certain way to help me do it more spectacularly.

“And then there are variations, where you’re doing something defensive that’s changing me, so it’s not my move anymore. As we go through this back and forth we establish these sort of rhythms.”

The unfolding dance, he says, is also “an improvised drama” marked by “waves of tension” and “a building of energies. One wrestler is dominating but then the tides turn and the other wrestler comes back. It’s not something scripted but you feel your way through.” The improvisation, he adds, extends to the referee, who “plays his part,” and to the crowd, “who play their part.”

Reared in the no-frills tradition of amateur wrestling, he says “it’s been really hard to learn this completely different way of thinking or feeling reality. I’m the first to say I haven’t mastered Lucha Libre. I’m not trying to make it big as a wrestler in Mexico. I’m trying to learn about wrestling.” He’s also a practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

He’s learned about Lucha Libre’s  “built-in codes of honor” and “certain ways people present themselves publicly or don’t.” The wrestlers aren’t supposed to reveal their identity outside the ring. He’s made himself an exception.

“I feel OK transgressing this because I’m already marked as Other.”

Irma Gonzalez

In his Flexing Muscles some native wrestlers half-kiddingly harangue this outsider.It’s very important to me they’re calling me gringo and saying, ‘Go back to your damned country,” he says, as it makes overt his interloper status. As deep as he’s tasted Mexican culture he knows he remains a visitor and observer.

“I’m really conscious of my differences from most of the people there in terms of nationality and economics,” he says.

He’s acutely aware too of his privileged “ability to come in and do this and then leave and go back to the States and make art out of this experience,” adding, “With my movies in a certain sense I try to build in the story of my being there and my relationship to the subjects.” He’s struck by how generous his subjects are in opening their lives and homes to him even as they struggle getting by.

Stranger or not, he engages the culture head-on.

“I do try to immerse myself very much in that world I’m living in, but without losing who I am. I never try to pretend to be Mexican. I try to get as close as I can and I try to understand, but from my point of view.”

Despite the obvious differences between Fairbanks and his fellow performers, he feels a reciprocal kinship, adding, “there’s a certain kind of camaraderie I feel with wrestlers anywhere.” Wherever he’s traveled, including Europe and Asia, he’s wrestled.

Fairbanks has seen much of Mexico but is largely centered in Mexico City and Chiapas, where he teaches filmmaking. He says, “I love to stay with families, I love to have local people to learn from and to interact with.”

Moments of zen-like meditation and magic realism lend his work poetic sensibility and cultural sensitivity. Irma‘s tough title character sings a ranchero in the ring while her circus performer granddaughters romp. In Pioneers Fairbanks lays hands over his father’s ailing back in a shamanistic healing ceremony. Enigmatic stuff.

“I like to make movies that invite more questions,” says Fairbanks, who participated in Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School and cut his chops working with veteran filmmakers in Brussels, Belgium. “I like to have the films be a process of discovery for the viewers — to not tell the viewers how to see this world — but also a sense of discovery for me as I’m making the films.”

Authenticity is his goal.

“For me it’s important I’m making movies in Mexico that convey a part of experience not covered by our news media.”

As for the future, he says, “I have very specific stories I want to tell in Mexico and in other countries, some related to wrestling, other types of wrestling, some not at all related to wrestling.”

Irma‘s Omaha Film Festival screening is 6 p.m. on March 3 at the Great Escape  Theatre as part of the Striking a Chord block of Nebraska documentary shorts.

Long Live the Dude: Gail Levin Chronicles Jeff Bridges for “American Masters”

January 5, 2011 2 comments

My friend and sometime subject, documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, has a new work premiering Jan. 12 on PBS for American Masters — a profile of Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges. Her film, Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides, comes just short of a year since the star accepted the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. He may well be in contention for the award again on the strength of his performance in the Coen brothers‘ remake of True Grit.  I interviewed Levin by phone during a break from her editing of the film in New York, where she lives.  I haven’s seen the film, except for a brief excerpt you can find yourself on the American Masters web site.  But I know her work very well, and she’s handled similar assignments profiling acting legends quite well.  I expect the same with this project.  Levin is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker whose work has appeared before on both American Masters and Great Performances.  On this blog site you can find some of my earlier stories about Gail and her films The Tall Ship Lindo, Making the Misfits, James Dean, Sense Memories, and Marilyn Monroe – Still Life.  My story on Levin and her Jeff Bridges film is published in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

 

NOTE: Now that I have seen Levin’s film — on the rebound in a late night reprise screening — I can now say that it one of the better profiles of an actor I have ever seen.  Even though Levin expressed frustration to me at not getting in as deep or close with Bridges as she would have liked, I feel like I now have an authentic appreciation for who he is and how he conducts himself in his life and in his art.  As I mentioned to Levin when we spoke about the project, I have always felt that Bridges was hugely unappreciated and I think her film will be part of an ongoing reevaluation of his work and his career that will recognize him as one of the masters of his craft.

Long Live the Dude: Gail Levin Chronicles Jeff Bridges for “American Masters”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha native and Emmy Award-winning documentarian Gail Levin profiles actor Jeff Bridges in a new film kicking off the 25th season of American Masters, a series produced for PBS by New York Public Media THIRTEEN in association with WNET.

Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides premieres Jan. 12, showing locally on NET at 9 p.m.

 

Susan Lacy, Jeff Bridges, Gail Levin

 

 

 

Levin, an Omaha Central High graduate long based in Manhattan, says the project has been on quick turnaround to parlay the heat surrounding Bridges. A year ago he won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as country musician Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. Oddsmakers predict a nomination for his rendition of lawman Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers’ True Grit.

“We’re really trying to take advantage of all the energy and buzz of everything that’s going on with him,” says Levin (Making the Misfits, James Dean: Sense Memories).

Her film reveals Bridges as a multi-faceted creative. In addition to acting he’s a musician. He performs with his band The Abiders. He’s also a photographer, painter, potter,  and vintner. Performing his own music in Crazy Heart surprised many, but it was simply an extension of what he’s always done.

“His great love is music, and it has been all throughout his life,” she says. “He’s now really playing a lot of music, doing gigs. We’ve got a lot of footage of him. We shot at this funny little place he played in Niagara Falls.”

She also captured him at a Zen symposium.

“I don’t know that he would call himself a Buddhist, but he’s certainly in that ether at the moment. He’s very involved with a group called Zen Peacemakers.”

Levin was struck by a passage Bridges wrote in the intro to his book Pictures, a sampling of images the actor takes on movie sets and gifts as photo albums to cast and crew. In describing why he prefers the panoramic Widelux still camera, he offers a key to his creative method:

“…it has an arbitrariness to it, a capricious quality. I like that. It’s something I aspire to in all my work — a lack of preciousness that makes things more human and honest, a willingness to receive what’s there in the moment, and to let go of the result. Getting out of the way seems to be one of the main tasks for me as an artist.”

For Levin, the insight helps explain what makes Bridges a durable star 40 years since his feature breakthrough in The Last Picture Show.

 

AMERICAN MASTERS "Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides" - Gail Levin | by PBS PressRoom

 

In her interviews with him, his family and colleagues Levin found he’s more complex than his public Everyman-Next-Door, laid-back Dude persona.

“The interesting truth about him is that he’s rather tortured all the time. He says in the film he’s rather reluctant to all of this (film career). I think he came to it obviously through the legacy of his father (the late actor Lloyd Bridges) and his older brother Beau, But he even says he’s a little bit lazy, he’s got a little of the Dude in him, and it’s always kind of hard for him to kind of gear himself up again.”

This “drag me to the party” resistance and ambivalence is how he moves through life. She says some Bridges collaborators, such as Terry Gilliam and John Goodman, speak to his cautious approach.

“He’s not a spontaneous, improvisational actor,” says Levin. “He really needs to know what and where. He has guides who school him in being a junkie or a drunk. He takes that all very seriously and seems to form close relationships with these people who sort of become his models for how to play various parts.

“I think he’s very particular about the kinds of things he chooses. I think he picks films that have some intrigue for him and not necessarily what are going to be the biggest blockbusters. He’s a very individual star. I think he’s really on his own path.”

While Levin enjoyed “amazing access” to Bridges and Co., she found his well-protected veneer hard to penetrate:

“You’ll see in this film there’s a much darker side to Jeff than people realize, and this kind of push-me, pull-you about the acting is really a great revelation. People think he’s easy going about it, and he’s really not. But he doesn’t divulge dark disappointments and things like that. Others say it.”

She says if there are secrets to pry loose, “you gotta be long and deep with him,” adding she didn’t establish a rapport that might have led to such intimacies.

As for Bridges being an American Master, she says, “He’s worked with remarkable directors, he has an extraordinary body of work. He’s an amazing amalgam. He’s an artist on many, many levels.”

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