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


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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Phil Kenny and wife Clare

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Kenny got more connected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Once On This Island

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was just a thrill beyond explanation.”

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

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

Kenny shares the ride with wife Claire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit 42nd.club.

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

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Niche theater for classics still going strong in 25th year

April 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Niche theater for classics still going strong in 25th year

Cathy Kurz and her Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre Company 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in April 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

A quarter century since Cathy Kurz was told, “No one wants to see this stuff,”‘ her Brigit Saint Brigit (BSB) Theatre company still draws paying audiences to productions of the classical canon.

Works by Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekov, Ibsen, Miller, O’Neill, Williams, Albee, Stoppard and other playwright legends grace its stage. Since leaving College of Saint Mary eight years ago, the theater’s moved around and now alternates its site-specific work between Joslyn Castle, First Central Congregational Church and other venues.

This 25th anniversary season concludes with Uncle Vanya, April 5-20, at the Castle and The Shakespeare Revue, May 3-24, at First Central, on select dates. All shows are 7:30 p.m.

Low overhead helps keep expenses down, but what’s truly made BSB sustainable without a fixed home is an unwavering commitment to mission.

“Going to rehearsals and working with actors and reading all these plays and thinking about them – that work is everything. That produces the endorphins that make everything else happen,” said Kurz, BSB artistic director and co-founder. “I know the medium, I know the story, and when I read it, I can imagine the story in the medium, and that makes all the difference.”

It helps she’s yoked to a fellow believer in her husband, Scott Kurz, BSB managing director and frequent actor.

Her own fascination began in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas. First, watching television productions, then film adaptations and, finally, live theater.

“I just remember being gob-smacked. I would still be sitting there when they were sweeping up. I was entranced by the smell of the greasepaint, the whole thing, I knew nothing about how it worked. I just knew I liked being there.”

The theater became her home through studies at Friends University (Wichita) and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“Trying to translate these plays to the stage and working with actors to find the extra dimension that occurs in the theater has been the greatest love of my life. I’ve had so many incredible learning experiences.”

She feels classic theater can touch all of us deeply.

“Story is the oldest form in the world. Humans love to be told stories, The reason why these scripts have lasted is they’re so good. People don’t get an opportunity to see them. When they do, they realize today’s dramas pale in comparison, and then you combine that with the fact it’s live, it’s right there, and it’s really spellbinding. “There is no spectacle that even remotely can do what theater does. It’s that visceral encounter with talented live actors working right in front of you in a play that’s well-paced and interpreted. There’s just nothing like it. It’s spectacle. You can’t pause it, you can’t start eating and drinking or get distracted. It’s right there and it amazes people.”

When she moved to Omaha in 1980, the Norton Theatre was the city’s only regular classics showcase, Kurz directed several seasons there. When it closed, she felt adrift. Stage manager Cathy Murphy-Barron and actor John Jackson agreed they should stop simply lamenting its loss and, thus, they formed the nonprofit BSB.

“I didn’t know if people would come. I was discouraged from doing it by others,”  Kurz said.

She persisted anyway, buoyed by her fellow travelers.

“If, as a director, you have talented, disciplined, dedicated actors and you can match them, then you’re going to do it. I’ve never believed you have to have a fancy backdrop or electronics or big screens. That’s not how we are. If you believe in the power of theater and this material, you’re going to do it wherever you can.”

BSB found an instant following and developed a company of players.

But, she acknowledged, if the Norton hadn’t closed, “i don’t know if I would have started the theater.”

BSB produced its earliest shows at Joslyn Art Museum, then Bellevue University, before taking residence at College of Saint Mary in 1997. BSB stayed 11 years.

“College of Saint Mary was just pivotal. They were so supportive of us. We had storage space, dressing rooms, offices. We rehearsed and constructed sets there. People liked the location. We really did build a lot of audience over that time.”

But when CSM experienced an enrollment boom, it reclaimed the space.

“We were really sorry to leave.”

That was 2008. Then came a twinning experiment with the Blue Barn, followed by a stint in the Capitol District before settling at the Castle and First Central. One-offs happened at Mastercraft and 40th Street Theatre.

The Castle’s 19th century architectural splendor lends itself to period pieces without having to build sets and First Central’s flex space allows great freedom.

Kurz wasn’t sure audiences would follow BSB from venue to venue, but they have. Now she wants the uninitiated to know that instead of treating Chekov’s Uncle Vanya as some dry academic-historical exercise to sit reverently through, it’s okay to laugh.

“It’s not dour. There’s a lot of humor. It’s just life.”

The greatest affirmation she receives is seeing patrons after a show “affected” the same way she was when first captivated by theater.

“There isn’t a greater gift.”

She’s grateful a new generation of theater lovers is being cultivated by BSB public after-school programs conducted by actress-educator Patty Driscoll.

By Kurz remaining true to her vision, BSB remains vital.

“This 25 years has has a lot of ups and downs, tension, drama and worry. The thing that’s kept it going is the belief in it and the love for it.”

Visit http://www.bsbtheatre.com. Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Stephanie Kurtzuba: From bowling alley to Broadway and back

August 27, 2016 2 comments

So, everything you need to know about stage and screen actress Stephanie Kurtzuba from Omaha is summed up in the Bill Sitzmann photo of her below and in her scenes in the movies “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Annie.” She’s the rare performer who can project many dimensions and emotions at once or in rapid succession: brash, silly, poignant, smart. This multi-talented artist can act, sing, dance, play comedic or serious and have you smiling and laughing one moment and move you to tears the next moment. You may not know her name or her work, but she is one of the brighest talents in a long line of talented individuals from here to have found serious success in Hollywood and on Broadway. She got her acting and dancing start in Omaha at Central High, Show Wagon and the Rose Theatre. Growing up in Omaha she was encouraged to pursue her performing dreams by her mother, who didn’t live to see her realize her dreams. But Stephanie’s supportive father has. She and her dad and her siblings still own the family’s West Lanes Bowling Center that she spent a lot of time in as a girl. On a recent visit back home she agreed to a photo shoot at the bowling alley and you can see the fun movie-movie magic she and Bill Sitzmann made together. Stephanie’s also involved in an Omaha-based production company that’s developing a TV pilot drawn from her own life that is to be shot right here in her hometown. She is one of very few Nebraskans in film to bring the industry back to these Midwest roots. Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler and John Beasley have led that charge and others are looking to do the same. Whatever Stephanie ends up doing, it should be entertaining. This is my profile of her in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/).

 

StephanieKurtzuba

 

Stephanie Kurtzuba

From bowling alley to Broadway and Back

August 26, 2016
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Kristen Hoffman
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Stage and screen actress Stephanie Kurtzuba has graced Hollywood red carpets and Broadway billboards, but she is most comfortable at her family’s West Lanes Bowling Center in her hometown of Omaha.

The Central High School graduate’s maternal grandparents, Tony and Nellie Pirruccello, built the place at 151 N. 72nd St. Her late mother, Connie Pirruccello, had grown up there in the 1950s. Stephanie, a co-owner with her father, Ray Kurtzuba, spent countless hours at the bowling alley as a stage-struck kid. It’s now a favorite hangout for her two boys when they visit from New York City.

“I remember running up and down the concourse practicing cartwheels and using the dance floor in the lounge after school to rehearse my dance recital numbers,” recalls Stephanie, who displayed her cartwheel moves in the 2014 movie Annie. “It was a second home to me and now my children. My boys only get to visit about once a year, so when they do, they eat it up.”

Stephanie’s mom encouraged her to perform in Omaha Show Wagon. Her breakout came in Oliver at the Music Hall. She performed at the then-Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater (now The Rose) as well as the Firehouse and Upstairs dinner theaters. When the original Broadway Annie became a sensation, she sang its anthems around the house. Stephanie says, “It’s the ultimate irony” that three decades later she played Mrs. Kovacevic in the movie.

A local choreographer planted the seed that she had the chops to pursue a professional acting career. But talent only takes you so far. The rest is desire and discipline.

“It’s almost like what some people would call a calling. But it’s almost like there’s nothing else I can or want to do with my time and energies than pursue this, and that’s a real motivator.”

Her theater passion may not have gone far without tragedy befalling her biggest champion.

“If I had not lost my mother when I did, I don’t know that my choices would have been the same in terms of following my dream. We were so incredibly close, my mother and I. When everything went down with her health, it became very clear to me in a very short amount of time, tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone. Losing her rocked my foundation, my very being, but it taught me some really valuable lessons about carpe diem.”

Stephanie won a full-ride to Drake University but got cold feet being so far from home. She briefly attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. With her mom gone, she resolved it was now-or-never. She prepared an audition with help from The Rose’s James Larson and got accepted to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Off-Broadway and regional theater parts honed her craft.

“My goal has always been to be a working actor.”

Her credits include Broadway’s The Boy from Oz, Mary Poppins, and Billy Elliott; the feature films Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and The Wolf of Wall Street; and TV’s The Good Wife.

She hopes one day to perform again where it all started.

“The Emmy Gifford was so seminal in my development as a young artist. I loved it deeply. I still remember the smell of the place. It was home. It would be singularly fulfilling to be able to come back and rejoin the Omaha arts community. That would be some deeply felt, full-circle kinda stuff right there.”

Meanwhile, she’s found a new love: producing. She has several projects in the works. She’s also developing a TV series set in Omaha, which is loosely based on her life, for local Syncretic Entertainment. The pilot is due to shoot here in the fall. They look to put local talent to work. Paying it forward.

“It’s my passion project. I love it so much.” 

To learn more, visit stephaniekurtzuba.com.

StephanieKurtzuba

 

In her 101 years, ex-vaudeville dancer Maude Wangberg has lived a whirl of splendor

August 2, 2010 2 comments

English: Photograph of Sophie Tucker

Image via Wikipedia

With the passage of time the chances of meeting an ex-vaudeville performer diminish.  A few years ago I got the chance to meet a veteran of the vaudeville stage, and while she was never a star or a household name, she shared with me and I shared with readers her experience in one of the great American forms of entertainment.  Like most people around today, I never got to witness a vaudeville show.  My only reference for it is movie and book depictions of it. But after meeting and profiling Maude Wangberg, who was part of a vaudeville dance act, I feel a bit closer to that enchanting chapter of the American popular stage.  My story appeared in the New Horizons when Maude was 101.  I don’t know if she’s still living. but I’m glad I got to her when I did, and when her recall was still quite sharp.

 

In her 101 years, ex-vaudeville dancer Maude Wangberg has lived a whirl of splendor

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

Vaudeville once ruled the American live entertainment scene. For mere peanuts, an entire family could enjoy a show in an ornate theater on whose stage artists of all kinds took turns performing their well-honed acts. Acrobats, jugglers, comedians, singers, dancers, magicians, orators, trained animals and precocious kids filled the bill. Everything from gymnastics to pratfalls to pirouettes were seen. Everything from hot jazz licks to Shakespearean soliloquies to operatic arias to punch lines were heard. House musicians in the orchestra pit cued the action on stage.

From the late 19th century through the 1910s, vaudeville was king. With the advent of motion pictures and radio, two mediums that stole many of vaudeville’s best talents, this American art form went the way of variety and burlesque. Vaudeville hung on until the 1930s before finally succumbing to the movies. Vaudeville’s wide-ranging impact extended to the slapstick-screwball-sketch comedy routines and variety show formats that ex-vaudevillians brought to radio, film and television.

Omaha’s own Maude Wangberg, age 101, is proud to count herself a veteran of vaudeville, a distinction few can claim today, as most of its artists are long gone now. If not for acting on a whim and studying dance as a girl Maude might have become a nun. Two of her classmates at Mount St. Mary, the forerunner to today’s Mercy High School, did. Maude grew up in a strict Catholic home at a time when a girl’s options were pretty much limited to marriage and motherhood, religious vocation, nursing, teaching or secretarial work. She chose dancing.

Still cutting the trim figure of a dancer, the New Cassel Retirement Center resident defied convention to become a show girl in a vaudeville act called The Whirl of Splendor. The show took its name from the revolving stage that performers made entrances and exits on. She was part of an all-girl dance act that closed the show. In between dance numbers singers performed. Preceding Maude and the other chorines a couple did an adagio. Sharing the bill with The Whirl were all manner of acts. Presented by New York City-based producer Meyer Golden, the popular show toured widely. Maude performed with the act from 1925 to 1930, a stretch that saw her mature into a woman.

The Whirl followed the vaudeville circuit, playing Orpheum Theatres in and around New York, across Canada, down the west coast, the middle of America and then back east, but mostly playing the big Loews Theatres along the East Coast. The act appeared at all the top vaudeville sites. Maude and company sometimes shared the bill with established stars like Sophie Tucker or legends-to-be like Edgar Bergen.

Touring meant a hectic schedule spent in hotels, theatres and rehearsal halls, on trains and two shows a day or more on stage, seven days a week. “You played every place of any size. The bigger the city the more performances you had to do,” she said. Some audiences were livelier than others. “In Pennsylvania we played a lot of smaller places like Redding because the big steel mills were working then and the young men employed there had to have entertainment,” she said. “They would stomp their feet and whistle. It was fun then.”

 

 

 

Young men, naturally, have a thing for pretty young girls in skimpy outfits, but she said there were never any problems with “stage door Johnnies, as they used to call them, but somehow or other we met a lot of them. In Providence, R.I. we met a lot of fellas from Brown University. They came down to the hotel — a whole bunch of ‘em. They were nice. I mean, they didn’t get rough or rowdy or anything. I guess they wanted to say they’d been with show girls.”

Advances were common from not only fans but other performers on the bill. If Maude were ever singled out for special attention from stage struck paramours it’s no wonder because her classical-training earned her featured parts in two of the troupe’s dance numbers. Of the six chorines, she shined brightest.

“I always had a little special part. See, I had more training than the other girls did and I had much better training too. I had ballet, tap and toe dancing where they just had ballroom. I was a better dancer alright. You could tell the difference.”

She well recalls the dance numbers she performed in.

“The first act we clanked hand-held cymbals as we danced around in little Grecian costumes. The costume was a pink cotton under thing with a filmy deal over it. Real short. I would dance around and take a big leap off the stage,” she said. “The second act was an Italian folk dance. I had the lead along with another girl who did some turns. I was dressed as a boy. I had black velvet shorts on and a big red sash around my waist with long streamers and a red bandana on my head with streamers too. We had tambourines. I was supposed to kind of romance her and then she would spurn me and I would dance off and then do this Italian folk dance.

“Then the last one was a jazz number. Our costumes were one-piece silver tops and shorts with fringe all over. We danced to Black Bottom, a real popular tune that was THE song then. That ended the act.”

Although a lifetime ago now, once Maude gets to reminiscing it seems like only yesterday she cavorted on stage at New York’s Palace Theatre or the Hippodrome, two of vaudeville’s finest venues. Those years gave her the time of her life.

“It was just a lot of fun. I liked it. I just liked being on the stage and wearing a costume and, oh, hearing the applause and everything. It’s just very enticing when you hear your music come on. You’re ready. You get keyed up. You know what’s coming exactly because you’ve been rehearsed and rehearsed. It’s nice to get out there and see a big audience in front of you and to wait for the applause, and then when you get the applause you enjoy that,” she said.

There were other benefits too.

“I loved traveling and seeing all those different places,” she said. “I loved New York. We were there during the Prohibition Era and there were speakeasies on almost every corner. We were in Washington, D.C. when the cherry blossoms were in bloom. New Orleans, I think that’s the most interesting city in the United States. I love the French Quarter. I used to stroll through there all the time. Just a wonderful place. Sorry about the flood. I would name San Francisco second (most interesting) because of the Wharf district…Chinatown..and all they have there.”

Dancing opened up a world of splendor to Maude, who learned under the tutelage of a petite, attractive Omaha woman named Adelaide Fogg. An intimate of hoofers Fred and Adelle Astaire, the Omaha brother-sister act that became the toast of Broadway before Fred achieved fame in Hollywood, Fogg might have been a star herself if she’d desired it. “She could have been in any New York show she wanted to be in,” Maude said. “She was that good.”

In a century of living Maude’s pretty much seen and done it all. Show biz accounted for a brief period in her life, but no matter how short her time in vaudeville it provided fond memories and linked her to a great tradition of which she’s one of the few survivors. Hers is the classic tale of a starry-eyed girl who ran away from the stodgy Midwest to see the bright lights of the big city and to dance amid the footlights and spot lights of the stage. She gleefully recalls how it is a gal from a convent school ended up a chorus girl.

Fogg’s dance studio was in the ballroom of the ritzy Blackstone Hotel. She had a reputation as “the leading dancing teacher here,” according to Maude. “She went to New York every summer to get the latest dancing steps for her classes.” Maude was about 15 when she heard about Fogg from some neighbor girls who studied with her and she pestered her mother to let her join the dance school too.

“I insisted on it. Even though I started kind of late — most kids start in grade school — I enjoyed it. It was just a lot of fun. I danced and danced. I practiced at home too. I got so that I took two private lessons a week.”

She proved a natural. “I don’t really know, it’s just that I loved moving around like that and learning new things. It wasn’t that hard to conquer the steps.” The by-then dance crazy young lady sought out dancing wherever she could find it.

“I never missed any dancers that came. I saw Anna Pavlova (great Russian ballerina) dance The Dying Swan at the Brandeis Theatre. That was really something.”

Never dreaming she’d one day be on stage, she “went every chance I got” to Saturday matinee vaudeville shows at the Orpheum and Gaiety Theatres. Maude attended Duschene College for a time but the pull of dance made her leave.

Saturday nights were reserved for Peony Park, where she and her future husband, John Wangberg, “would dance the night away” to the swing tunes of a live orchestra in the ballroom. But weekdays meant practice. Lots of practice. It wasn’t long before Maude was a star pupil of Fogg’s. She even conducted classes in Omaha when Fogg was away teaching in outstate Nebraska and in Iowa. At her mentor’s urging, Maude left home at age 20 to pursue a dancing career back East. Her father disapproved, suggesting she’d only come running back home disappointed, but her mother encouraged her. It was the chance of a lifetime.

“When Adelaide Fogg’s dancing master in New York wanted to form a dancing act he asked her to bring any of her dancers that would be interested to New York for him to see,” Maude said. “She asked several of us to go with her. Her mother always went with her in those days. They rented an apartment with two bedrooms. We girls had one bedroom, with all four of us jammed up in it, and she and her mother had the other bedroom. You could see the Hudson River from there.”

Of the four girls from Omaha who went East, only Maude stayed, the others either getting married or soon tiring of The Life. Maude stuck with it. There were lots of good times. She and her roommate for most of those years in vaudeville, Edie, became fast friends. There were also some tough times. Maude and Edie and the rest of the girls did a lot of growing up far from home and family.

“You were on your own. Well, see, I was a convent girl and the other girls were just out of high school. Totally unsophisticated — that’s what we were. Totally new to everything. That’s the way it was.”

Maude finally got “sick” of the $55 a week road grind and retired from the stage at 25. She resettled in Omaha, taking up with her old beau, John Wangberg, an RKO Pictures salesman. Much happened in between the time Maude went from girl next door to show girl and much more happened after she hung up her dancing shoes.

The former Maude Fodrea was born in Grand Island, Neb. on May 16, 1905 to Pennington Parker Fodrea and Blanche Watson. She was the youngest of three sisters. Her parents met and married in Grand Island. When her father, a manager with the Burlington Northern Railroad got a promotion, the family moved to Chicago. Blanche returned home to Grand Island to have her babies. When Maude was about 5, the family moved back to Grand Island after her father lost his job and her mother suffered a nervous breakdown. After her mother recovered, the family moved to Omaha, where her father got work, first as a reporter with the Omaha Bee, and then as advertising-sales manager for the Iten Biscuit Company.

Maude grew up near downtown, in a home at 2869 California Street long since gone in the wake of Creighton University campus expansion. She’s seen Omaha’s skyline rise and fall and rise again, just as she’s seen the city’s boundaries expand ever westward. She witnessed one mark to its landscape she’d rather forget — the devastation left behind by the 1913 Easter Sunday tornado.

“Oh, yes. My family and I were out in Benson visiting my grandmother. Towards the middle of Sunday afternoon there was such a strange light in the sky and then it got real dark after awhile,” she said. “So my father and mother decided it just wasn’t safe to go out. No, it just didn’t look right. There was something wrong. So we stayed there all night and then the next morning we left. The streetcars were running. Nothing moving but them. No automobiles. No people. It was just very quiet. Just dead silence. On our way home we saw clothes hanging up in trees and trees down and, oh, things like that. We didn’t know if anything happened to our house or not. But everything was OK in that section of Omaha. There wasn’t anything bothered at all. That’s about all I remember of it. It was soon forgotten.”

 

Aftermath of 1913 Easter tornado

 

 

 

Streetcar lines once crisscrossed Omaha and that’s how Maude, her family and her friends got around town. “We took the streetcar every place — downtown, to high school and back. It was a nice ride, you know. I think it was a nickel.”

One of her streetcar rides brought her smack dab in the middle of a violent mob. It was September 28, 1919, a day of infamy in Omaha history. Only a few days before a black man named William Brown was arrested and charged with the rape of a white woman. Serious questions were raised even then about his guilt, but racist fervor made for a tense situation. An attempt to lynch Brown the day of his arrest failed. Calm seemed to prevail but on the 28th passions reignited and an angry crowd bent on vigil ante justice gathered outside the Douglas County Courthouse in the afternoon. Word spread that Brown would be taken by force and hanged.

Maude, then a 14-year-old schoolgirl, was in a group of girls who heard news of the trouble and she and the others went downtown “out of curiosity.” What they found scared and sickened them. Brown, protected by a cordon of police far too small for the growing crowd, fled under guard to the balcony level of the courthouse, which people began laying siege to.

“My sister and I and another girl and her sister went down on the streetcar to the courthouse and we stood across the street. There was just a mob of people all over,” she said. “The man who was going to be lynched was up there on the steps higher up where you could see part of him. It just was awful, that’s all I can say. It was terrible and you wished that it wouldn’t be. It was just an eerie feeling. It was very unpleasant. We stayed awhile just looking and wandering around and then we went home. We never saw the actual lynching. We didn’t want to really. I remember that very, very well. I won’t forget it.”

As night fell some in the crowd armed themselves with guns and shots rang out. Blacks were beaten. Lives lost. A pitched battle between the mob and police ensued. In the process, the courthouse was riddled with bullets and set ablaze. Brown and other prisoners were forced to the roof to escape the smoke, flames, gunfire and ropes. Late that night Brown was captured by the mob, killed and his lifeless body strung to a telephone pole, a fate the mayor nearly met earlier. A race riot followed. The violence made news across America. The woman who accused Brown of the crime recanted her story.

A mix of memories — good and bad — abound for Maude. Like sharing the bill with a young Milton Berle, whose mother traveled with him and “would go down into the audience when it was time for his act and start the laughing. We could tell her laugh standing back there in the wings.” Watching performers from the wings Maude and the other girls sometimes got “silly” and caused a ruckus, whereupon a flustered stage manager would shoo them away. It was a kind of game.

Her last year on tour she got to perform at home, on the Orpheum stage. Friends and family saw her strut her stuff there and feted her at a banquet her dad put on.

Twice, Maude was offered chances at stardom and twice she declined, once to lead a Paris revue and again to head a new vaudeville act. The prospect of Paris came soon after arriving in New York, she said, and “it scared me to death.” She wasn’t ready for such an opportunity so early in her career. Besides she said, “I didn’t have any ambitions, so I didn’t really envision myself as a big dancer all by myself. I never really thought about that.” The chance to be a vaudeville headliner came after she already decided she’d had enough. “I don’t know what came over me, but I kept telling myself, You don’t want to do this anymore — you need to go home.” So home she went. On the very next train.

Like many a star-struck girl she fancied a fling at Hollywood but never could work up the courage to go try her luck there.

Following her abrupt departure from the stage she opened her own dance school at the Elks Club. Just as Adelaide Fogg did for her, Maude did for young girls. Hard times came with the Great Depression. “My father lost a lot of his money. Things were just pretty sad for awhile there around home,” she said. Given this reversal of fortune, Maude and John opted for a small wedding. His job took them to Kansas City. He rose through the RKO ranks to become regional manager. When his job required relocating to the South, the couple lived out of hotels in various cities and states. They returned to Kansas City, visiting their folks in Omaha on weekends.

With John on the road a lot, a “lonely” Maude began adoption proceedings for their only child, Lorraine. It was 1946. When little Lorraine was old enough, Maude gave her ballet lessons. Lorraine Boyd became a Creighton University grad and is now a reporter with The Daily Record in Omaha.

In Kansas City Maude volunteered for several Catholic causes and groups and played lots of bridge. “I was active. I really enjoyed Kansas City. I call that my home,” said Maude, who has a big framed poster of the night-time K.C. skyline above her bed. Except for that stint down South, she lived there until 1988, when she and John moved back here to be near their daughter. After nearly 60 years of marriage, Maude lost John in the early 1990s.

Today, she keeps active working crossword puzzles (in ink), reading, watching TV and going to mass. If there’s a ballet on she might give it a look but not so much anymore as her favorite artists, like Mikhail Baryshnikov, no longer perform. Yet her love for dance is always near and it doesn’t take much prodding for her to recall her days on stage. Even though Maude claims her passion for it’s all in the past, her daughter says her octogenarian mother is “always up for dancing at parties,” where she’ll demonstrate a few steps to anyone interested. At 101 she’s still gotta dance!

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