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Doug Marr, Diner Theater and Keeping the Faith


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Omaha playwright Doug Marr first made a name for himself when he and some drama cohorts created Diner Theater, the blue collar, workingman’s version of dinner theater.  The concept was just quirky and fun enough and Marr’s plays more than entertaining enough to develop a loyal following.  Diner Theater is no more, but Doug’s gone on to write many more plays for many more venues.  His wife Laura, a fine actress, has appeared in many of his works.  Doug is one of those individuals you can’t help but like.  The fact that he’s made a living at his art in his hometown speaks to his persistence and talent and imagination.  I loved going to his Diner Theater plays in Benson, just a short drive from my then-home, and I somehow always knew I would write about him.  I finally did and this profile is the result.  It appeared in a short-lived paper called the Omaha Weekly.  I trust after reading it you will like Doug as much as I do.

 

Doug Marr

 

 

Doug Marr, Diner Theater and Keeping the Faith

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

“One reason why I’m not intrigued by a lot of theater and literature being written today is because the dreams die too early on the page. The writing today is faithless, hopeless and destitute of any soul, and I can’t live in that world. I can’t.”

The words and sentiments belong to Omaha writer Doug Marr, whose life and work have put him on intimate terms with keeping the faith despite steep odds.

His best known creation, Diner Theater, encompasses a body of funny and poignant plays about a gallery of misfits who find surrogate homes in greasy spoon denizens of our collective imaginations. In 1983 Marr was the lone writer among a bunch of dramatic arts acolytes from the University of Nebraska at Omaha longing to bring theater “to the people.” Led by their guru, UNO dramatic arts professor Doug Paterson, the idealistic group planted the seed for what became the Circle Theater company at the wedding reception of Doug and his wife Laura, who had fallen head-over-heels for each other during a UNO production of Marat/Sade, a drama of lunatic asylum inmates enacting a play.

Crazy is what some called Marr when, desperate for a performing space, he and his cohorts settled on Joe & Judy’s Cafe, a real working diner smack dab in the heart of the Benson business district. Inspired is what they called him after he penned the first in a series of plays set in Phil’s, a place where life lessons are dished-up along with the blue plate special. The play launched the Circle in 1984. From the start, a genuine diner meal preceded each show, and thus was born Diner Theater, a charming and inspired concept that attracted a fiercely loyal following among new and veteran theatergoers alike.

More Phil’s plays followed, along with others set in assorted bars, cafes and road houses. Marr, who spent his share of time in working-class dives like the ones he wrote about, found a winning formula with his diner counter dramas, really morality plays infused with his loony humor, heartfelt sentimentality, deep social consciousness and abiding faith.

Back to the Future
Today, with all but the Marrs departed from the Circle, Doug and Laura have gone back to the future by relocating the theater from its diner home the past 17 years to Central Presbyterian Church, 55th and Leavenworth Streets, an unlikely venue until you learn the couple are active members (Doug teaches Sunday School) and the associate pastor, Dwight Williams, is a veteran Circle performer. Instead of Chapel Theater, though, the couple opted to resurrect the Circle name. Why move from the spot where the magic first happened? “It just didn’t feel right there anymore — creatively, spiritually, emotionally. We were ready for a change. We needed to be in a new place. To have a rebirth,” Marr, 47, said from the mid-town brick home he, Laura and their two young children, Dylan and Emma, share.

 

 

It may surprise some to learn Marr, that wild and crazy theater guy, is a devout Christian but then again he is all about defying expectations. For example, while best know for the Diner Theater cycle, his wide-ranging work includes the acclaimed stage drama Starkweather, whimsical stage adaptations of Mother Goose and Curious George, an historically-based Civil War dramatic feature film scriptBall Hill (which has been optioned) and a pair of mystery novels he’s now writing. He’s done a fair amount of directing for the stage. He’s encouraged new theater talent through a playwrighting competition. There is also his outreach work with special needs groups, school residencies and a new for-profit venture, Dramatic Results.

Life Lessons
A Cheyenne, Wyo. native, he grew up in a middle class family (his father was a high school music teacher and a professional jazz player and his mother worked office jobs) and at age 12 moved with his folks to Omaha. It was at Ralston High School where the avid reader, weaned on the rebellious ‘60s literature of Kerouac, Vonnegut and Heller, first dabbled in writing.

“I had always been in love with the written word. Literature spoke to me on a really deep level. I just liked what writers were telling me and the fact you could take away from literature whatever you wanted,” he said.

He wrote a well-received one-act play as a failing undergrad student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. When UNL officials urged him not to return in 1971, he dropped-out. His plan was to earn some money before giving college another try. He went to work for Wilson Meatpacking Co., where he got a gritty education no college could provide. His first job, on the night cleanup crew, found him “catching blood” in the blood pit. After a shackled cow was stunned and its throat slit, it was his task to prop a bucket under the thrashing animal’s head to catch the fountain of blood spurting out. By morning, he stood knee deep amid a river of red.  Later, he was “promoted” to cleaning the chitlin machine and its tub full of intestinal worms from butchered hogs. “It was very surreal and very nightmarish at times,” he said of his three-year Wilson ordeal. It was there too he was indoctrinated to union machinations. “I was a young guy brought up with a strong work ethic but there, if you worked too hard, people pulled you aside and threatened you to slow down. So, I basically worked four hours and sat around the other four reading and hiding from the foreman.”

At the end of his shift Marr obeyed tradition by unwinding at South O watering holes, usually Mel’s or the Pork Chop Bar. The idea was to get numb. “The Pork Chop was a scary establishment. It was built sometime around the turn of the century and that was the last time it was cleaned too,” he said. “I remember the day they condemned the moose head over the bar. It was like the place the bartender in It’s A Wonderful Life describes, ‘We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast.’ That was it. You didn’t take your wife or date there. It’s where I had my first experience getting drunk at six in the morning, which was odd. Mel’s was a little nicer.”

It was at these joints Marr was exposed to some of the dreamers, schemers, drifters, losers, lushes and flophouse philosophers who would populate his fiction.

“Some of these guys, when they died, left behind stacks of uncashed checks in their little roominghouses because basically they lived to work and drink,” he said.

In his plays he purposely evokes a more romantic, less dreary image of those blue collar haunts. His lost souls seek not just oblivion but redemption. And, in the person of Phil, unlike real-life bartenders, they find a friend, a confessor, a soulmate. Long before Cheers, Marr portrayed a place where hope springs eternal for patrons and barkeeps who form an extended family. Phil is the head of that family, dysfunctional as it is. “Phil’s a guy who had dreams of having more. Of having a fuller life through material wealth. But what he ends up finding out, as do the people in his diner, is that they have real wealth in their connection to one another. In their friendship and love. They support their dreams even though they realize their dreams are maybe never going to come to fruition,” Marr said.

The allegorical stories have resonated for many. “Doug writes about the common man in a common language. You see a real caring for his fellow man in his plays and he does it with humor and insight” said Nebraska Shakespeare Festival Managing Director Mike Markey, a Circle co-founder and the originator of the character Phil.

 

 

 

 

Marr’s humanist bordering-on Honeymooners style is evident in this exchange between the whimsical Phil and the pragmatic Rudy regarding the joint’s dreamer of a dish washer, Daryl, from Phil Contemplates Putting a Jukebox in the Diner:

Phil:
“It’s just a phase. He’ll grow out of those comic books in
time.”
Rudy
“He’s 28 years old for God’s sake. His phases should have
been over with a long time ago. He’s going to turn into a
comic book character.”
Phil
“He’ll see the world as it really is soon enough, my friend.
Let him have his odd fantasy or two. Let him escape for
awhile. It never hurt nobody.”
Rudy
Escaping never earned anybody a living. It won’t bring home
the bacon.
Phil
Well, he has a little while before he needs to start worrying
about that.

Archetypes — from wisecracking waitresses to gruff old codgers to homeless vets to beleaguered laborers — abound in Marr’s work. “It’s a real skill to create a true, honest character that is a unique personality as an individual but that also represents a broad range of social type. Doug is really good at that,” said UNO’s Paterson, a Circle co-founder.

Marr acknowledges his work bears the influence of writers who plumbed the depths and eternal hopes of fringe dwellers. The clearest reverberation is with Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and its saloon-full of wash-outs awaiting a deliverance that may never come. The same types abound in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men, two of Marr’s favorite reads. “Even though they’re dreamers, the guys still have hope and faith. And that’s why these beautiful tragedies are so compelling and touching,” Marr said.

Marr’s grasp of life-on-the-brink despair and coming-out-of-the-dark hope comes from personal experience. After undergoing a risky operation for the removal of a tumor from his spine at a Denver hospital in 1975, he was left paralyzed from the waist down. He was 22. Confined to a wheelchair at first, he worked hard to make himself mobile again and, with the aid of crutches and leg braces, he has since gotten around with surprising facility. Ask him how his disability has impacted him and he’s apt to deflect the question by quipping, “What disability?” or “Nobody wants me to be on their bowling team” or “I get better parking.” After some prodding, he replies, “I think it’s helped me see the world in a truer light, as it really is, with all of its afflictions.” And with all its dreams, he might have added.

“Given what he’s had to deal with in losing the use of his legs, his ability to renegotiate his life in a way that is entirely creative is just extraordinary. Doug can be grim in his work, but he is such a fun and hopeful person,” Paterson said.

The Artist’s Path
After reordering his life Marr gave college a second try at UNO in the mid-70s. He enrolled in the Writer’s Workshop, where he fancied himself more a poet (he got his poetry degree in 1979) than a dramatist. “I was kind of taking the easy way out. I didn’t want to write novels or plays. I thought they were these impossible tasks. I really didn’t start writing plays again until we formed the Circle Theater in 1983, when the other members said, ‘Well, you’re the writer — write us some plays.’ So, I started writing, and I found it wasn’t so impossible. It was very fun. And in writing dialogue between characters I found my voice. It felt right.”

The voice he hit upon is nostalgic for an earlier, simpler, happier time but, in spite of deep lament, an ultimately sanguine expression of the Capraesque kind that views all people, even the discontented, as members of a larger community. Marr, who views theater as a healing process, believes his characters represent the void many people feel today. “I think sometimes people fight for things they don’t have instead of being satisfied with what they do have — human touch, conversation, interaction. They’re part of the integral pattern of the world but they don’t recognize it.” In Back at the Blue Dolphin Saloon an alienated young man cannot face the real demon haunting him. When the man finally breaks down, his sister and saloon friends are there for him.

UNO’s Paterson speculates these very themes are what struck a deep chord with Diner Theater audiences. “My theory is the Diner Theater space was an alternative community for folks hard hit by the recession then. And just like Phil’s provided a family for these alienated characters, I think the audience bought into a feeling of being part of this extended family that found meaning in being together. There’s something about sitting down and eating a meal together that’s a hopeful act, and so I think it was a great metaphor. And I think to this day the whole notion of the Diner Theater remains one of the really fresh inventions in the American theater,” said Paterson, a veteran Diner actor-director.

In Paterson’s view, Marr’s plots also “inventively broke the bounds of where theater is taking place.” In one play, a radio announcer is broadcasting a live on-air talent show from Phil’s when a fire erupts down the block and the announcer, corded mike in hand, rushes out to the street to report on the inferno as real passersby rubberneck to see what the commotion is all about. “That was great fun and it displayed Doug’s really wonderful dramatic imagination,” he said.

For Marr, the whole diner theater experience was “profoundly interesting.” He added, “Early on, when it was a real diner and there were no theater trappings, people got really caught up in it because they were almost like patrons in a cafe watching a real drama unfold. They were an integral part of it. The audience is very important in the collaborative process of theater but even more so when they’re two feet away from what’s going on. It was really unique.”

 

 

 

 

The plays became a phenomenon here and even in steely New York, where productions were mounted at eateries like the Third Street Grill, the Silver Dollar Cafe and the Hudson Diner. Others were produced in California. The rest is history.

Those early years Marr was a writing machine, penning five or six original plays per season. He was often working on the second half of a play while the first half was in rehearsal. Laura, a distinguished local actress and a member of the professional staff at the Omaha Theater for Young People, starred in most of the early plays. The Marrs soon became Nebraska’s leading theatrical couple. Eventually, even their kids got in on the act — appearing in several plays. While the Circle produced many works outside the Phil’s Diner series, it officially changed names — to the Diner Theater — to make capital of its market niche. And so it remained through a change in ownership, as Joe & Judy’s morphed into Vidlak’s Cafe before the diner finally ceased operations and the theater simply rented space in the building.

Along the way, the founding Circle/Diner gang left to pursue other opportunities. Some, like Amy Kunz and Mike Markey, became leading lights on their own. Eventually, only Doug and Laura remained, as artistic director and executive director, respectively. It became their baby and burden. Ironically, the theater faced competition from a slew of new community theaters (the Blue Barn, the Brigit St. Brigit, the Shelterbelt) whose start was inspired in part by the success of the Circle. By the late-‘90s, with crowds thinning, funding sources eroding (United Arts Omaha’s demise hurt) and Marr’s creative juices flowing elsewhere, the couple sought a new home and mission for their theater. Enter Central Presbyterian Church. Well, actually, its basement.

In February the newly incarnated Circle Theater premiered its first offering at its new digs with 84 Charing Cross Road, co-starring Laura. They followed that play with a Deaf Theater Project production of Plaza Suite. The Circle’s next offering, You Can’t Take It With You, is set for a June 28 through July 15 run. True to its Diner Theater roots, a catered dinner precedes each show.

When invited to assist the Nebraska School for the Deaf with stage productions in the early-’90s Marr found the experience so satisfying he and Laura formed the Deaf Theater Project, which integrates deaf and hearing individuals in plays under the Circle banner. “The Deaf Theater Project literally brings two cultures together — hearing and deaf. We’ve run across many wonderfully talented deaf individuals who are actors and directors.”

The couple are also adherents of “creative dramatics,” a healing-through-arts concept they apply to physically and mentally ill patients, whom they interact with through dramatic skits. “We’ve experienced incredibly positive feedback working with hospital patients. I remember us visiting this one boy, age 8 or 9, who was hooked up to IVs. We were told by staff he might not be up to seeing anyone that day, but we went into his room and made finger puppets and told really silly jokes and he just had a great time. And while we were waiting in the hall to go to another room, this same boy was walking down the hall, rolling his IV-tree beside him, and his mom came up to me and said, ‘You’re the best thing that happened to him today.’ That makes you feel extraordinarily good.”

Asked if his own disability motivates him to work with special needs populations, he replied. “I don’t differentiate between ability and disability. I have not run across any person who was not able to do something. Why should people be excluded from the performing arts because of some cultural difference?” Added Laura, “Doug is great at working with people of different ages and abilities — many with little theater experience — and at making them feel comfortable. I think it’s really hard to do. We share a similar vision for what challenging theater should be, including giving voice and opportunity to people in theater who don’t usually have it.”

The Marrs are also believers in the educational benefits of theater and, with a partner, recently formed a company, Dramatic Results, that finds them applying dramatic techniques to workplace sensitivity-diversity-creativity training.

Even with multiple irons in the fire, Marr is unabashedly not success-driven. He said, “I realize writing is not the most important thing in my life. It’s certainly not as important as my family and my relationship with God.” Between raising kids, mounting plays, finding funding sources and doing volunteer projects, the Marrs are busier and happier than ever.

“We have different things that keep us sustained as artists. That’s what keeps us going. And it’s great fun doing it with someone you love dearly and have grown with over the years. It’s still interesting, It’s still fun. The magic is still there.”

John Beasley, Making His Stand

June 6, 2010 1 comment

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It has been my privilege to write about actor-director John Beasley and his John Beasley Theater & Workshop a number of times.  This is the first and most extensive piece I have done on him. Most of the other articles have been about productions at his theater, usually August Wilson plays.  Look for me to post future Beasley pieces.  John has been an actor and storyteller from an early age, but he did not enter professional acting until well into middle-age.  He was too busy making a living the ways he knew how and raising his family. He’s like many of those old Hollywood stars and directors who lived rich, full lives before ever stepping foot in Hollywood. It shows in his work on screen and on the stage.  If his name is not familiar, his face is. You’ve likely seen him in a film or TV series or two.  The theater he was just starting up when this article appeared in the Omaha Weekly has become something of an institution by now. That paper was not so lucky — it no longer exists. John is sure to give us many more fine performances.

This blog also features stories about a Beasley Theater production of August Wilson’s Jitney, with more Beasley related stories to follow.

John Beasley, Making His Stand

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

Noted film and television character actor John Beasley of Omaha brings a reality and gravity to his roles that is more than an expression of his considerable craft, but also a product of the rich life he lived before ever becoming a fixture on the big and small screen.

For years, the solidly-built Beasley studied acting while working at just about anything to support his family. He served a hitch in the Army. He swung a hook as a longshoreman on the Philadelphia waterfront. He bluffed his way into a producing job at a Philly TV station and, later, finagled his way into a news director’s slot at now defunct Omaha radio station, KOWH.

He tried the entrepreneurial thing when he and his brother opened a Philly cheese steak sandwich shop. After finding success in Omaha theater circles in the 1980s, he continued laboring as a clerk and janitor at Union Pacific Railroad and as a machine operator at the now closed Vickers hydraulic manufacturing plant. He viewed it all as a means to an end — an actor’s life. Even though he was 45 by the time he got his first paying acting gig, he did not look upon himself or his situation as a failure, but rather as a-work-in-progress.

“I was content, even when I was a janitor, because I was doing what it is I love to do — the theater,” he said. “There were people who looked down on me and I always said to myself, ‘Well, just wait. I know who I am, and pretty soon you will know who I am.’ I’ve just always felt I could do whatever it is I wanted to do. A lot of times I would do things just to prove to myself I could do them and then, after doing that, I would move on because it didn’t matter anymore.”

Now, only a decade removed from his days as a nameless, blue-collar shift worker, the 58-year-old is a bankable property. Between his role as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the summer blockbuster The Sum of All Fears and his recurring role as the narrator in the new WB series, Everwood, which debuts this fall, Beasley has done the improbable — nearing the “A” list of Hollywood supporting players while living in Omaha, where he was born and raised and has resided virtually his entire life. In addition to his film and TV work, he has established a non-profit foundation that looks to revive the old Center Stage Theater in south Omaha. The actor hopes the newly renamed John Beasley Theater at the Center Stage, located in the LaFern Williams Center, opens its inaugural season in the fall.

It is all quite a leap for a man who, not long ago, cleaned toilets while nurturing his fledgling acting career. Those unfamiliar with Beasley’s background may see his recent prominence as an overnight success story when it is actually the result of a long journey that has given him a reservoir of experiences to draw on for his work. Instead of regretting his relatively late entry into the big leagues of acting, he views his gradual rise up through the ranks as a plus.

“There’s that life experience I have,” he said. “I’ve paid my dues, and I know that. The foundation was already set. I’ve always been content and confident that I could have made it as an actor years ago. But I wasn’t ready at that time to do what it would take. I mean, I had a young family that I was raising, and I love my family. I love the time I spent with them. And if I had started this (career) earlier I would have lost all of that. I have no regrets.”

While making a living always came first, Beasley built a solid base for his stagecraft. A life on stage was almost a birthright for Beasley, who grew up on the near northside immersed in the vivid stories told by his high-achieving family (His father was an electrician and his grandfather an entrepreneur who held interests in a movie theater, taxi stand and restaurant.).

 

 

John Beasley

 

 

“I’m from a family of storytellers. My uncle Pal (David Triplett) was a great storyteller. He’s a preacher and he would make up stories with characters out of the Bible. He had a character named Nicodemus McDooglesprout. He told stories about his dog Fritz. Kids came from blocks around to hear him. He’d put us in the stories, and if he put one of us in a bad light we’d start crying. As a little kid I always wanted to entertain…acting, singing songs. It’s just a passion. I really enjoy sharing my passion with other people. Sharing emotional moments. Making people cry. Making them laugh. Being able to emote is just a gift God has given me. I guess that’s just part of who I am.”

At Technical High School, the budding athlete came under the influence of drama and speech coach Kenneth Roy, winning awards for his oral interpretation of prose literature and performing in school plays. After three years in the service, he returned to Omaha and enrolled at then-Omaha University, where his focus was more on football (He was a two-way star as a freshman on a squad featuring future NFL great Marlin Briscoe.) than academics. Before dropping out of school, he participated in a couple stage projects there — Readers Theater and the play In White America.

His formal theater training came a few years later when, after living and working in Philadelphia (where he heeded the itch to act again at the Germantown Theater), he came back home and resumed his studies at UNO. He has high praise for the training he received from the dramatic arts staff there, particularly one William Smith, a former UNO instructor whom he is still in contact with today. “Bill taught me how to be an actor. He taught me movement and voice and things I still rely on when I go tackle a role. He got me to the next level.”

It was at a UNO theater workshop conducted by members of the visiting Royal Shakespeare Company that Beasley further honed his skills and gained added affirmation of his talent.

“I wanted to learn more, and the people from the Royal Shakespeare Company took to me. A lady instructor really kind of singled me out. She was having us do poetry readings. Then it was my turn, and so I read my thing and she whispered in my ear, ‘John, black people have soul…I want you to read that again and I want you to read it from here,’ and she put her hand on my stomach. I read it, and the class was just in silence. When I finished, everybody applauded. Right there, I learned to get out of my head and to get into my gut. That was a big learning point for me.” Another instructor was David Suchet (who played the title role in the A&E series Poirot). Suchet also saw something in Beasley and worked with him. “David Suchet taught me what it is to be a professional at what I do. During the workshop he cast me in A Streetcar Named Desire in the role of Mitch, the love interest of Blanche. I was the only black in the cast.”

Beasley said the color-blind casting he found at UNO was an exception for that era of Omaha theater.

“The script didn’t have to say, ‘a black actor,’ for UNO to cast me in a role. David Suchet said, ‘I don’t see why a black couldn’t play anything.’

An emboldened Beasley began auditioning at area community theaters, breaking down some color barriers along the way. He was cast by director Charles Jones as Horatio in an Omaha Community Playhouse production of Hamlet. Then, he and black Omaha actress Margaret Bates began testing the waters together, auditioning for the leads in On Golden Pond — which they did not get — and Come Back Little Sheba — which they did get and for which they received local theater guild nominations for Best Actor (he lost) and Best Actress (she won) in a dramatic play.

He went on to win many traditionally white roles in Omaha-area theater productions, including Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman at the Center Stage, Midge in I’m Not a Rappaport at the Chanticleer Theater in Council Bluffs and Big Julie in Guys and Dolls at the Firehouse Dinner Theater. Other venues were not so accommodating. “A lot of theaters and directors didn’t have the courage to do that,” he said. “Some directors felt if the script didn’t say ‘black,’ they weren’t going to look at you.” As far as opportunities for black actors in Omaha today, he said, “they’re not really great, and never have been to tell you the truth. I will say this for the theater community. If you show the talent, they will accept it and appreciate it, but they’re not going to go out looking for black actors.”

He believes many minority artists eliminate themselves from the running by not trying for non-ethnic specific parts when, in reality, directors may be open to casting minorities.

“A lot of times blacks won’t audition because they think, ‘Well, OK, there’s nothing for me,’ where, with me, I see the parts I want to do, like a Willie Loman or a Horatio, and I go after them.” Because racial stereotypes persist, Beasley makes it a point to infuse his characters with pride. It is something he learned from watching Sidney Poitier’s film performances. “Sidney Poitier brought dignity to everything he played. What that’s meant for me in my acting career is that I have never played a character that did not have dignity. That’s very important to me and I think that’s why I get the roles I do — because I bring a certain amount of dignity to a character.”

His goal for the Beasley Theater is to make it a showcase for minority drama. “I want to get up a production of Blood Knot (the Athol Fugard play about two brothers’ response to South African apartheid), and then do some August Wilson (the American playwright who chronicles black life) and then try to reach out to the large Hispanic community in south Omaha and see what it is they would like done. I don’t think of it as being just ‘a black theater.’ I want to involve the community. I want to do things not being done by other theaters in town, which is basically plays by and about minorities. August Wilson is arguably America’s greatest living playwright. His work is always well-received. But I still don’t see theaters around here taking on his plays. I think it’s essential, especially in Omaha where we really don’t have a minority media voice, to have this arena.”

 

 

John Beasley Theater & Workshop

 

 

Race aside, Beasley made a name for himself on various Omaha stages in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Still, it was not until 1990 he abandoned the 9-to-5 routine and pursued acting as his livelihood. It was a daring thing to do for a middle-aged man with a family and mortgage, but he made the leap anyway. He figured the time was right. His youngest son was in college. He and his wife Judy, a medical secretary at UNMC, had a comfortable life. It was now or never.

“I was very dissatisfied (with the Vickers job), so I quit. I convinced my wife to let me try making it as an actor. She’d been fighting me all along. She didn’t want any part of being married to an actor. I didn’t do it earlier becaue I didn’t want her to suffer being married to a struggling actor,” he said. “But I finally told her, ‘I’m going to Minneapolis, and if I don’t make it in three weeks I’ll be back and I’ll get a normal job.’ She said, ‘OK.’ So, I went out there and within two-and-a-half weeks I was turning down plays.”

After taking the vibrant Minneapolis theater scene by storm, performing at the Mixed Blood Theater, he found success at major Equity theaters in Chicago (the Goodman) and Atlanta (the Alliance). Besides playing great roles in classic works, including Othello, he has shared the stage with notables Roscoe Lee Browne, Eric La Salle and Don Cheadle. As he made his presence known on the regional theater circuit, he helped pay the bills acting in commercials and corporate films.

He was so intent on making it he often undertook grueling road trips that found him driving from Omaha to Chicago to Minneapolis and back home again in a single 24-hour span. In the process, he became a much-in-demand interpreter of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson’s (Troy Maxson in Fences, Mr. West in Two Trains Running, Turnbo in Jitney) characters. Beasley adores the work of Wilson, whom he’s met, and even selected Wilson’s Fences, a story about a bitter father and his estranged son, as the play he reopened the Center Stage Theater with last summer. Beasley both starred-in and directed the production.

“I love August Wilson. Basically, he deals with every decade of the 20th century… with blacks migrating from the south to Pittsburgh (where Wilson is from) and what they faced once they got there. His characters talk about what happened back down south and touch on some of the reasons they came north. It’s always their stories. The plays deal with the era of urban renewal, when a lot of black businesses and neighborhoods were being boarded-up and blight set in and how, once redevelopment came in, blacks were being forced out. You can see the same pattern here in Omaha.

 

 

John Beasley in Huntington Theatere Company production of August Wilson’s Fences

©photo by Eric Antonlou

 

“He’s really telling the black American story, but the thing about August’s work is it’s not just the black experience, it’s the human experience, and that’s why I love August. When I’ve done Fences I’ve had white men and women come up to me after the play with tears in their eyes and say, ‘That was my father.’ I mean, to me, Troy Maxson (the protagonist) is Willie Loman. Both of them are tragic figures who had a dream that was dashed. Troy could never let go of the fact he never got a chance to play major league baseball. That but for the color of his skin he could have been greater than any of them.”

While TV and film commitments limit the stage work he does these days, Beasley said he would still stop drop everything if a juicy part in a Wilson play opened up. For him. Wilson’s work is not only inspirational but instructive.

“August talks about relationships which, when I’m teaching acting workshops, is all I talk about. How we relate to each other. How we deal with each other from the heart. How we overcome obstacles. Because that’s what you have to bring to the table as an actor — that inner feeling. If you know what it feels like inside, then it’s going to come out.” Feelings tapped by a play sometimes cannot be contained within the boundaries of the stage. “I remember doing Willie Loman and how after each performance I’d just break down and cry because, emotionally, it’s such a draining experience. I found myself doing that every night. The same with Troy Maxson — I’d just have to breakdown. I had to get that release.”

He next made waves in episodic TV, including a 1990 role in Oprah Winfrey’s short-lived but much-talked-about series Brewster Place. Soon thereafter he landed his first feature film roles and became a regular TV guest star. He hasn’t stopped working in film and TV since.

He became a known commodity among moviegoers with small but convincing portrayals in the hits The Mighty Ducks and Rudy. He first caught the attention of critics with his strong supporting performance as a retired Southern preacher in Oscar-winner Robert Duvall’s 1998 critically-acclaimed film The Apostle.

He has appeared in other high-profile Hollywood pics (Losing Isaiah, The General’s Daughter) along with indie films (Journeyman). His TV appearances have included spots on MillenniumThe PretenderC.S.I. and Judging Amy and the TNT movie Freedom Song. He has worked with everyone from Duvall and Poitier (on a cable movie remake of To Sir With Love) to John Travolta, Melanie Griffith, Morgan Freeman and Della Reese.

His standing in the industry is such that he turned down a coveted lead role opposite Angela Bassett in John Sayles’ new film Gold Coast for a smaller but bigger-paying turn in The Sum of All Fears. While he rues having given up a lead, something he’s worked hard for, he feels the buzz around Sum, combined with his work on the well-reviewed Everwood, starring Treat Williams, have put him in line for more choice roles. He feels well-served to date by his keen eye for material. “I’ve been very picky about the things I’ve done on stage and I think that’s carried over into films.” He has also been promised a chance to direct episodes of Everwood and hopes to do more directing down the road.

With his career in high gear now, he is weighing buying a house in L.A. for those Tinseltown trips he makes every year. He insists, however, his lifestyle has not changed much from when he was just another middle-class Everyman. “I was never that interested in money, per se. My life has been full without money for a long time and now that I’m earning a little money, I’m not impressed with it still.”

He stays hungry and humble remembering where he came from and how far he has gone to reach his destination. His advice to aspiring actors: “Don’t be afraid to try and to leave your comfort zone.” He offers himself up as proof of how, with enough preparation and poise, an Omaha actor really can conquer Hollywood.

Kooky Swoosie: Actress Swoosie Kurtz Conquers Broadway, Film, Television

June 6, 2010 4 comments

It’s always a pleasure to interview a star you have admired.  That certainly was the case when I did a phone interview with actress Swoosie Kurtz.  The occasion was a Tony nomination for her role in Frozen, a drama co-produced by friends and family in her native Omaha, which if you’ve been reading my article posts you know by now is my hometown and place of residence.  She was every bit the fun and funny bright spirit I had come to expect.  The Omaha connection extended to her having worked with Alexander Payne on his debut feature, Citizen Ruth, which was shot here. My own career has intersected with Payne, whom I have been covering since he completed that project in the mid-1990s.  As I write this, I am about to call Payne to arrange a face-to-face interview with him about his recent shoot of The Descendants in Hawaii, where he just wrapped on Friday.  One final Omaha connection involving Swoosie is my having written about the Omaha company that co-produced Frozen and my scripting a documentary that that same company shot and edited.  Small world.

My Swoosie piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

 

 

Kooky Swoosie: Actress Swoosie Kurtz Conquers Broadway, Film, Television

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Frozen
Omaha native Swoosie Kurtz, that sometimes kooky stage, film and television actress with the dizzy name to match, is dead serious about her work. The depth of this consummate artist’s craft is on full display in the current Broadway drama Frozen, in which she plays a mother coming to grips with the void of her missing daughter, whose terrible fate she doesn’t know for 20 years.

The story revolves around the daughter’s disappearance and how this event connects the girl, the mother, the serial killer that took her and the therapist trying to discover what set this tragedy in motion. The theme of child abuse looms large in the killer’s own past and drives him to revisit his horror on others. Brian O’Byrne won a Best Actor Tony for his performance as the killer. Critics are calling Kurtz’s Tony-nominated portrayal of the shattered mother a tour de force.

 

 

Brian O’Bryne and Swoosie Kurtz in Frozen

 

 

“My character goes through this 20-year journey of having her child taken and not knowing she’s dead. She goes through all the stages — mourning, anger, depression — and, finally, into acceptance, but in a very beautiful way. The second act of the play, particularly, is uplifting and life-affirming and redemptive,” said Kurtz.

Her process is a melding of the interior Method approach that uses emotional exploration and the more classical exterior approach that focuses on body, voice, movement, makeup, et cetera. “What works best for me is a kind of working from the outside in. When I can picture a character — how they sit, how they walk, the kind of clothes they wear — it tells me a lot about the inside of the character. The process is partly intuitive and partly technique. I think a lot of actors starting out today rely too much on the intuitive and the instinctual. You have to learn your craft,” she said in a 1999 Tony Awards Online interview.

Roots
Born in Omaha as the only child to a war hero father and society matron mother, she did part of her growing up here — attending Field Club School — before her family moved west. Her career military father, the late Col. Frank Kurtz, was the most decorated U.S. airman of World War II. She was named after the B-24 bomber he flew, dubbed the Swoose after a Kay Kyser song about a half swan, half goose. Before the war, Col. Kurtz was already famous as a world class platform diver. He won a bronze medal in the 1932 Olympics and competed in the ‘36 Berlin Games.

Her mother, the former Margo Rogers, authored a book, My Rival the Sky, about being the wife of an absent war hero. Margo hailed from an old money Nebraska family headed by her father, Arthur Rogers, a cattle tycoon who headed the Omaha Livestock Commission in the stockyards’ heyday. Kurtz recalls him taking her to the yards, plopping her atop a horse and playfully telling her to “wrangle those cattle. I weighed about 45 pounds, but because he told me to do it, I thought I could. I never questioned it.” Her enterprising grandma, Gigi Rogers (formerly Conant), built three downtown hotels — the Conant, the Sanford and the Henshaw.

Kurtz had one familial tie to show biz. A maternal great uncle, Homer Conant, was a set and costume designer for legendary impresarios Ziegfeld and Shubert in 1920s New York. “So, I’m revisiting the scene of the crime here on Broadway,” she said.

Kurtz stayed with her grandparents in Omaha when her much-traveled parents were away on missions and war bond drives. Of her grandparents, she said, “They were a huge influence on me in my formative years. They were incredible. They had this big country house that my mom grew up in and I partly grew up in. When I was in town doing Citizen Ruth (Alexander Payne’s 1996 film), I went to the house, just to see it, and it brought back amazing memories to revisit it.”

Her father’s many transfers meant frequent moves for her and her family. Being an only child forced her to cultivate her imagination. “I would play different games with myself and become different people and talk to myself in different voices. The characters would talk to each other. Only children have their own way of survival.”

A Eureka Moment
The theater first enchanted her when, as a kid, she attended Broadway plays with her folks. Her earliest stage acting came at Hollywood High. “I was in this drama class at Hollywood High and I did this scene from Dark Victory or some other Bette Davis movie and it was like, Whoah. Something fell into place in that moment and clicked and it was like, I can communicate with people this way better than I can on my own. It was just a eureka moment.” She began formal dramatic studies at the University of Southern California, where her parents graduated, before crossing the pond to complete her training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. There, she fully immersed herself in acting.

If anything, her Tony-nominated turn in Frozen is a reminder of Kurtz’s versatility and penchant for sinking her teeth into challenging roles. Much of her best-known work has seen her essay women-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown in plays by some of the world’s greatest living dramaturgists. Her whimsical, lost souls are tinged with a deep well of sadness and display a sharp wit.

Among her stage triumphs are her turns as Gwen in Lanford Wilson’s The Fifth of July and as Amy John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves. Her many film portrayals include: a hockey groupie in Slap Shot; the wry hooker in George Roy Hill’s The World According to Garp; the frothy wife in A Shock to the System; the ambitious mother in Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons; “the world’s laziest woman” in David Byrnes’s True Stories; and a scheming abortion war fanatic in Payne’s Citizen Ruth. For television, there was her Emmy Award-winning portrayal of high society living, cancer surviving Alex in the popular NBC-TV series Sisters and a socialite dying of AIDS in the HBO drama And the Band Played On.

Dangerous Ground
Even though its subject matter put her off, she felt compelled to do Frozen. The play’s executive producer is an Omaha cousin, Thompson Rogers, whose Oberon Properties owns the screen rights. “This play just knocked the breath out of me,” she said. “I hadn’t read anything like this ever. I think the issues of child abuse hit me the hardest. What struck me on my first reading of the play is that the serial killer character of Ralph, who takes my daughter, has been horribly abused as a child. And I firmly believe what the play is hypothesizing is that when children are abused…certain parts of their brain get stunted and the part that has empathy and compassion and remorse simply doesn’t develop in the way that it should.”

Playwright Bryony Lavery’s disarming examination of abuse, trauma, loss, regret, forgiveness and grace drew her in. “Just the sheer poetry of the way this subject is handled,” she said. “It’s a subject we see all the time on television and, so, we think we know all about it, and then this play comes along and presents this in a way that defies any expectation you have.”

She knew Frozen was a must-do project when reading it unnerved her. “When something scares me as much as this play did, I have to do it,” she said. “It’s so dangerous, this piece. It’s so risky. I thought, How are we going to rehearse this play? How the hell do you work on something like this and not just be a wreck? And, actually, we laughed a lot in rehearsal, which sounds really irreverent, but that was the whole key — to be irreverent about the material. Because the audience’s experience of it is very different from ours. We have to do it and go through it and it’s up to them to have the emotional response.”

Kurtz believes in challenging the gods rather than playing it safe. She recalls the time she essayed identical twins in Paula Vogel’s play The Mineola Twins, which not only required her to be two separate people, but to be on stage for all but a few seconds. Again, she asked herself, How am I going to do this? As usual, the motivation of the challenge allowed her to find a way to make it work. That discovery and accomplishment, she said, is what makes the journey into the abyss worthwhile. “And then it’s such a great feeling when you prove to yourself that you can,” she said. “You’re like, You know what? I did it. I took the leap.”

Making real the ultra-sensitive, bereaved, even mad characters she inhabits means muting the obvious comic notes to express the inner beauty. It’s about being nonjudgmental “and also having great compassion for the character,” she said. “I always find I turn a corner in rehearsal when somehow the character moves me.”

She said she learned not to play the fool when the legendary Jerry Zaks, with whom she worked on House of Blue Leaves, gave her “the best piece of direction I ever got. In my mind, I thought, I have to let the audience know right away that this woman, Amy, is a little out of touch with reality. I had this line, ‘Is it light yet?’ And I was doing it kind of spooky, like a strange woman would. And Jerry said, ‘Swoose, you are the happiest, most normal housewife in Queens.’ It was a brilliant thing that resonated through that whole piece and everything I do because people who are on the edge or neurotic or insane think they’re totally normal. And it’s that everydayness or normalcy what is sometimes so shocking.”

Citizen Ruth
If ever a performance has embodied the power of subtlety over histrionics it’s her rendering of Diane Siegler in Citizen Ruth. In this one character, Kurtz plays an arc of extreme types, but believably so within the framework of Diane’s fanaticsm. When we and the title character, Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern) first meet Diane, she appears to be a prim holier-than-thou pro-life advocate. Then, as we and Ruth learn, it turns out Diane’s only posing as a pro-lifer, but in reality is an openly gay pro-choice agitator who’s infiltrated the enemy camp in order to spy and reek carnage on their campaign. Diane’s hilarious “coming out,” complete with removing her dowdy wig and eye glasses to show her true identity and sympathies, is all the funnier and more surprising because Kurtz underplays it so matter-of-factly. “What was so great about that was I got to do play two people,” said Kurtz.

 

 

Kelly Preston, Laura Dern, and Swoosie Kurtz from Citizen Ruth

 

 

She was impressed with fellow Omahan Alexander Payne, who co-wrote Citizen Ruth and made it his feature film directing debut. “He was so grounded and so real in his approach to everything,” she said. “Well, you know, he’s from Omaha. But he is so smart, on so many levels, that I think he sometimes had a plan in mind that we didn’t know about, and we didn’t have to know about it. He had his map in his head very clearly, but he was also very open to experimentation and open to whatever was happening in the moment.

“If we happened to ad-lib something, he was delighted with it and very often would use something. He just came up with these great sort of subversive, out-of-the-box ideas. He’d just throw some curve at us right before the take and it’d be something I would never have thought of in a million years.”

As an example, she recalls a scene in the kitchen at the country house where she and her lover (Kelly Preston), are putting up Ruth Stoops. The phone rings and Kurtz’s Diane Siegler “answers the phone as the lesbian liberal activist and then” — when it turns out the caller’s a pro-lifer — “I put on my (eye) glasses in order to talk to her. And that was Alexander’s idea. And I thought, Oh, my God. What an incredibly bizarre and amazing idea” to have her put her defense/disguise back on.

Payne is equally impressed with her. “I remember her as being so delightful and cooperative and professional. She knows her dialog. She comes prepared. She has good ideas. Highly directable. I mean, she’s a total pro. And she’s funny,” he said.

The film, still unappreciated among general movie audiences, is a favorite of hers. “I’ve never seen a movie like it. It’s just unto itself. It’s an amazing film,” she said.

Feeling the Most Alive on Stage
Kurtz has been nominated for eight Emmys (winning one for Carol and Company) and has stolen scenes in dozens of big and small screen pics, but her stage work is what makes her a living legend. She has two Best Actress Tonys to her credit (for Fifth of July and House of Blue Leaves) in addition to Drama Desk Awards, an Outer Critics Award and an Obie. She moves effortlessly from one medium to another, but the boards is her true calling. It’s where she feels most engaged as an artist.

“An actor on stage has more responsibility than in any other medium,” she said. “You are so much more responsible for what happens out there on the stage. Film is definitely the director’s medium. They shape the film. They take what of your performance they want. They choose what the audience is looking at at any particular point. Your face may not even be on camera at that moment. On stage, you control everything. You control your body, your voice…whether the audience is seeing your profile or the front or back of you. You control how loud you are. You control the timing of everything.

“I’m not sayng film and television are easier by any means, because they’re all enormously challenging, But, ultimately, you are much more accountable in the theater for what happens that night on stage.”

Acting, for Kurtz, feeds her like nothing else. “It’s when I feel most alive,” she said. “I definitely think when I’m acting I’m my true self. You know how in therapy they talk about your true self? I think that joy just comes out. I mean, I was on stage the other night thinking, I’m so happy right now. I’m so alive.” Where real life once seemed boring compared to acting’s hyper intensity, she sees it differently now.

“I’m getting a lot more enjoyment now out of real life. Thank God, because there’s a lot of that around,” she said, unleashing her happy, kooky, bright spirit’s laugh.

New School Ringing in Liberty for Students


Lady Liberty With Sword

Image via Wikipedia

The thought of a new downtown elementary school housed in a massive former bus barn situated smack dab in a neighborhood rife with social ills caught my attention.  The barn site was only temporary, but that nontraditional location, plus the red light district around and about it, was enough for me to file a story.  Plus, I liked the fact the school would be serving a diverse student body of Latinos, Africans, African-Americans, and whites.  The space was every bit as interesting and the students every bit as diverse as I had hoped.  Then when I met the dynamo principal, Nancy Oberst, mother of indie rock star Conor Oberst, I was officially hooked.  My story, which originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), is as much about her and and her staff’s passion as it is about this incongruent site for a school.  Liberty Elementary has since moved into its built-from-the-ground up school building just down the street.

New School Ringing in Liberty for Students

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Like a Pied Piper, Liberty Elementary School principal Nancy Oberst set a brisk pace one evening in the Columbus Park neighborhood. It was one of several nights when Oberst and staff went door-to-door in the blue-collar, racially-diverse area to symbolically blow the horn about Liberty, the new downtown K-6 public school. Liberty, which opened August 19 with some 360 students (and more matriculating each day) was conceived in part to relieve overcrowding at two other OPS sites — Jackson Academy and Field Club Elementary — which Liberty is drawing many students from. Consistent with the new OPS emphasis on neighborhood schools,

Liberty is serving a growing school-age populace on downtown’s southside. Temporarily housed in a renovated warehouse running from 22nd to 20th and Leavenworth Streets, Liberty is in a kind of incubator phase while awaiting construction of its own building, slated to open in March 2004.

In naming the school, Oberst wanted something that “embraced as many people as possible and spoke to a lot of things inherent in this society.” Above the main entrance is a phrase from Roman philosopher Epictetus that reads, “Only the educated are free.” Fittingly, Liberty is a beacon of hope to a largely Hispanic ward of recent emigres. An education for these children is more than a right of passage  – it is a burden of dreams. “These kids come from working class families that need to invest in something for the future,” she said. “They’re really wanting for their kids that old dream of learning English and being upwardly mobile.” It is why Oberst insists her staff be fully committed. “When I interview applicants, I say, ‘I’m really looking for people that have the will and the desire to make something special for kids who need a leg up.’” The impetus to learn, she said, is made even greater by the fact children often act as interpreters for their Spanish-speaking parents.

Because everyone is welcome at Liberty, parents are not pressed for their legal status. To register a child, a parent need only provide a birth certificate, an address and some record of the child’s past schooling, if any. Serving a highly-mobile population, Liberty expects to see a high student turnover rate.

 

Nancy Oberst, ©photo by Marlon Wright

 

 

 

Oberst, principal at Jackson the past three years, has many former students assigned to Liberty. During that night canvassing the hood she scanned a roster looking for familiar names. She found one in Diana Ramirez. In a wood-frame house perfumed by the rustic aroma of tortillas and accented by the folksy lilt of Spanish, Diana shyly emerged from a bedroom, bedecked in a fine pink dress, and when her big brown eyes locked on Oberst’s, she warmly embraced her. “There’s a beauty and a richness about a very urban group of kids,” Oberst said. “They’re the nicest kids I’ve ever been in contact with. Just well-behaved, very, very respectful children. They look forward coming to school. It’s very important to their day. I’ve never had one swing at me or push me. Sure, there’s times when one gets mad and tips over a desk or kicks a door, but you’d be amazed at how lovely these kids are. And, you know, the school has to set the tone. Kids have to know this is not just hanging out — this is different. That’s why we call kids if they don’t come and go get them if they can’t get here. They know we love them.”

While children from Spanish-speaking homes predominate, Liberty is also a magnate for area African-American, Sudanese, Asian and Caucasian families. Combined with NuStyle Development’s ongoing renovation of the historic and once stately Drake Court apartments on the north side of Liberty, the school is seen by many as an anchor of stability and a catalyst for redevelopment. The circa 1916-1921 Drake Court, a 14-building complex featuring Georgian Revival and Prairie style design elements, was once the centerpiece of this mixed residential-commercial zoned district. But when the apartments fell into disrepair in the 1970s, occupancy declined and the designated blighted area became a thoroughfare for transients. NuStyle has worked closely with the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority (NIFA) to qualify for low income tax credits for the Drake Court project. In anticipation of Liberty moving out in 2004, NuStyle is weighing various reuses of the warehouse, including a day care center, artist studios, a multi-media technology center and condos. It is also eying more area residential and commercial projects.

While most welcome the school and look forward to construction of the permanent Liberty site, a $9.2 million three-story structure to be situated on the corner of 20th and St. Mary’s Avenue, there is concern about introducing a large contingent of children into an area heavily trafficked by motor vehicles and frequented by panhandlers, vagrants, prostitutes and drug users.

“There’s been an undercurrent that this is too tough a neighborhood for a school,” Oberst said. “Some of the families are worried. But OPS is saying we believe in Omaha — we believe neighborhoods can be redeveloped. We know what a renovated North High did on 34th and Ames. That has become a very safe place for people to live. When we held meetings with residents in the spring we said, ‘This is how you do it — this is how you change your neighborhood. You put an anchor in with a school. You make the streets safer for mothers and children to come to and from school.’ I’m a big believer in the community the school is in knowing about the school and being involved in it.”

She said she will do whatever it takes to make Liberty safe, from asking street denizens to respect school property to telling those engaging in illicit behavior to move on. “You want to be a good neighbor. You don’t want people mad at you. You have to do some co-existing. But you also have to draw some lines.” She said when problems surfaced at Jackson, from the school getting tagged with graffiti to men harassing girls, she had students spread the word the school was off-limits and she told harassers their actions were unwelcome. The problems, she said, vanished.

Despite assurances from OPS, extra police patrols and neighborhood watch efforts, some parents still voice concern. “I’m not happy with the location,” said Lisa Arellano, whose son, Gage, is a 5th grader. “We have a lot of homeless people and trouble up on Leavenworth. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the police tackling someone on the ground. Walking to and from school is too scary. It puts kids in jeopardy. There’s always reassurances, but there’s no guarantees.” Gatdet Tut, whose daughter Hynalem is in kindergarten, said, “I don’t want my child to walk on these streets.” Other parents, like Craig Hinson, hope OPS-OPD vows to keep a sharp eye out are more than “lip service.”

Commerce of all kinds unfolds around the school. Across 20th Street is the 24-Hour Package Liquor Store and the Motor West used car lot. Three blocks east is the Douglas County Correctional Center. On the south side is Precision Industries. A little farther west is a St. Vincent DePaul Super Thrift store.

The eastern front of the old bus barn housing the school has two ongoing businesses — Grunwald Mechanical Contractors and an auto detailing shop — that maintain active garages. Robert Wilczewski, owner of the property occupied by the firms, feels the volume of kids passing by to enter and exit the school, whose main entrance is off an adjacent alleyway, poses hazards and hinders operations.

“It’s starting to complicate life around here,” he said. “We just have some serious concerns about safety and about restrictions on what we do here. It’s become intolerable. We want business back as usual. They’re going to need to find a different route for children to enter the school.” Wilczewski, who owns part of the alley and a piece of Grunwald, said the company and OPS are signatories to a 1930 agreement prohibiting public alley use. The parties are trying to reach an accord.

Harold Wrehe, co-owner of Motor West, echoed other area businessmen in expressing surprise at the number of Liberty students. “I didn’t believe there’d be that many children going to an elementary school in this area. But I like it. It brings people in. Everything helps.” Mike Nath, branch manager of nearby Motion Industries, agreed the school “will, in the long run, probably be a good thing. It could help clean up the neighborhood.”

The consensus is that whatever undesirable-incongruous elements surround it, Liberty, along with the Drake Court, reopening for occupancy next year, is a keystone for an emerging 20th Street Corridor some envision as an Old Market West. Oberst, busily forging alliances between Liberty and the nearby Omaha Children’s Museum, the YMCA and the Omaha Theater Company for Young People, joins others in referring to 20th Street, from Leavenworth to Farnam, as Children’s Row. As Liberty’s provisional site does not have many school amenities, including a gym or theater, students are attending P.E. classes at the Y and performances at the children’s theater.

For Roberta Wilhelm, executive director of the children’s theater, the concept of “a downtown school is a great idea,” with Liberty adding another dimension to the burgeoning arts-educational scene emerging along the 20th Street strip. “I think between the school, the Children’s Museum, the Y, us, and the Joslyn Art Museum, which is not that far away, the synergy is just going to be wonderful. We’re excited to have the school as a neighbor.”

She envisions the theater and school having an intimate rapport. “We see ourselves developing a very close relationship with Liberty,” said Wilhelm, whose home base, The Rose, is only a stroll away. We will be doing our Every Single Child program in their school…which is where every child — in each grade — has a different experience with the children’s theater through drama residency workshops and dance activities. And that, in my opinion, is just the beginning. I think there’s much more we can do with them in after-school programming. We’d like to see the arts infused in their school.”

Oberst wants that infusion as well. “We’re really wanting to bring art into the school, including artists from the community, and to bring our students to the arts. We hope to build relationships with the Joslyn Art Museum and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. We have to take advantage of where we are.”

The idea of placing a school smack dab in the middle of a bustling urban district is not new for Omaha. Central Grade School operated for decades across from Central High School and in the shadow of the Joslyn and other downtown landmarks. Although Liberty is the first school in the Drake Court-Park East-Columbus Park district since Mason School closed in the 1980s, it is repeating history in that, like Mason, which once served a largely Italian immigrant population, it is educating many new arrivals from Mexico.

What makes Liberty different is that the school is operating — at least the next 18 months — from a makeshift site that once served as a maintenance barn for Greyhound Bus Lines and more recently as a paper-printing supply storage facility for Redfield & Co. The top-to-bottom refurbishment of the old bus barn has revealed a 49,000 square foot space highlighted by the second-story’s free-span, cathedral-high, vaulted wood beam ceiling and elaborate iron truss network. A massive skylight and banks of tall windows bathe the upper level in natural light. Large ceiling fans maintain a constant air flow.

The rehab was funded by NuStyle, which bought the structure from Robert Wilczewski, and designed by Alley-Poyner Architects. OPS, which leases the building from NuStyle, is using large partitions to create classrooms and resource centers in a modular, flexible floor plan. By opening day, each partitioned space was outfitted with all the usual fixtures of a traditional school setting.

 

The new Liberty Elementary School building

 

 

 

In the time in takes for the permanent school to be erected — construction starts this fall — Liberty plans being an established player in the neighborhood by building coalitions that Oberst hopes makes the school a vital contributor to and welcome beneficiary of the revitalization happening around it.

“The idea is to form this community now and for the kids to participate in the building of the new school and to have the neighborhood be involved with the whole redevelopment going on with us and the Drake Court,” she said.

Drawing on her experience forging community ties at Jackson, where she found an Adopt-a-School partner in Picotte Elementary, formed a food pantry with ConAgra Foods and sponsored clothing drives with First Lutheran Church in Omaha, she is already lining-up Liberty collaboratives. A food pantry, serving poor residents, is in the works along with clothing and furniture drives. “Our families sometimes don’t have beds and other basic things and, so, we’ll do a lot of give aways. It’s meant to bridge the gap. That networking with the community is part of my job and, besides, it opens more doors for opportunity for our kids and parents. I’m always looking for an angle,” she said.

Opening day at Liberty was marked by two words: diversity and vitality. Beaming brown, black, yellow and white faces mingled in the old-new environs. The sing-song sound of Spanish and hip-hop reverberated throughout the cavernous space.

Craig Hinson, whose daughter Jamillah is attending the 6th grade, said the diverse urban setting is just what he wants for his child. “I think it’s great. To me, it just adds a little flavor. I think being downtown, where you have blacks and whites and Hispanics and Sudanese, it just gives kids a real sense of the real world.”

As a show of faith in Liberty 3rd grade teacher Michelle Grau enrolled her own daughter Jordan there even though her family lives in Field Club. “I think the more kinds of people and the more kind of cultural experiences you can be exposed to, the better,” Grau said. “That’s why Jordan’s coming here. And to be in on the ground floor — I’m really excited about that. It’s going to be a fantastic thing once it’s finally completed…if you can just see the big picture.”

The promise of bigger things to come is what led Barb and Jim Farho to place their two children at Liberty. “We’re probably one of the few families choosing to go there even though we’re not forced to,” said Barb Farho. “My husband and I are interested in seeing downtown rejuvenated and we think this is one way to do that. A lot of people are afraid of downtown, but we think there’s a lot of cultural experiences awaiting. We also know the principal is very good at getting the community involved and we just think those partnerships are only going to get better. The surrounding area is going to improve for having a school there. Plus, our kids are excited about the fact the new school will be built before their very eyes. It just seems like a fun place to be in on at the very beginning.”

Assuming the school thrives, Oberst anticipates that once the new building opens and the word spreads more pilgrims will flock to Liberty from around the metro. “We are expecting that once the new school is up and once the real cultural-corporate connections are evident that parents from other parts of the city will want to send their kids here.” The new Liberty will accommodate 600-plus kids, yet another reflection of the confidence school officials have in the enterprising area.

Whatever happens, Oberst is sure to stir the melting pot. “What that woman does for and gets out of kids is incredible,” said Linda Daly, an ESL resource teacher and one of several educators who followed Oberst to Liberty from Jackson. “She makes things happen for the kids. She is absolutely a dynamo.”

It’s a Hoops Culture at The SAL, Omaha’s Best Rec Basketball League

June 6, 2010 1 comment

Basketball hoop heart

Image by Chapendra via Flickr

This is one of those scene-setting pieces I don’t do as much anymore.  I like doing them, but they can take a lot of time and effort for very little return other than the satisfaction of doing these stories.  The subject here is a recreational basketball league of the type that can be found in just about any urban neighborhood. The idea was to capture the vibe of this distinct subculture to the extent that I put you as the reader there in the bleachers with me.  To make the story a visceral experience.  The article originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  Written as a secondary feature, I was surprised when it ended up on the cover. It’s not the first time that’s happened and I suspect it won’t be the last.

It’s a Hoops Culture at The SAL, Omaha’s Best Rec Basketball League

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Once the hoops get rolling in the Sunday men’s recreational basketball league, the scene turns into the kind of urban soul fest you associate with Chicago, Detroit, Philly or New York. Only this is Omaha. In an intimate, interactive community setting, the best summer ball in town is played in The SAL, Omaha’s version of the Harlem Ruckers League.

Housed until recently in the Salvation Army North Corps center at 2424 Pratt Street, the league, by concensus, draws the area’s best players. Many have serious credentials. A typical game features jocks from the pro and college ranks, past and present, along with former and future legends from The Hood. All strut their stuff before a knowledgeable, appreciative, vociferous throng.

NBA journeyman Rodney Buford, the ex-Creighton star, is a regular, rarely missing a game or a mid-range jump shot. One Sunday, fellow NBA player and ex-Bluejay Kyle Korver showed, raining down 3s to the fans’ delight. The league is so competitive Buford’s teams have never won the title. “That lets you know right there” said team sponsor Talonno “Lon Mac” Wright. “If you can make it through here, you’re a player. It’s the best competition you’re going to get in the city,” league director Kurt Mayo said.

Former UNO Mav Eddie King, who grew up balling in Chicago, said, “I think it’s a staple of north Omaha and I think it’s the best basketball in Nebraska, period. Oh, yes, you’re going to get challenged every game. Every team has good players. You can never get comfortable.” He said the close confines and neighborhood feel create a special environment. “This is the best atmosphere because everyone has family and friends in the stands. It’s a small gym and everyone’s on top of each other. People talk a little smack. That makes it fun. Plus, it’s real competitive. It’s streetball, but at the same time it’s fundamental, because 80 percent of these guys played ball at a four-year college.”

Mayo formed the league with wife Melissa in 2002, reviving a gym fallen into disuse. Before the Salvation Army, the league operated under a differnt name at the LaFern Williams Center in south O and the Butler-Gast YMCA up the street, where it’s back again. Mayo met resistance when he announced plans to move things to the Y at 3501 Ames Avenue. Trading the homey, if dingy, old digs for the gleaming, if cold, new facilities was an issue. But “the grumbling” ceased when the league ended the summer season at the Y on August 7. By all accounts, the new venue’s a hit, even if it lacks character. It does, however, have a nice wood floor, not some tacky mat like the Salvation Army center has. Mayo hopes to reinvent the magic at the Y with an “elite” level men’s Sunday league starting September 11.

But The SAL is where the league gained the rep and made the memories. Where it found a fun yet gritty flavor as a combined sports venue and social club.

James Simpson is among many who come each Sunday. Besides enjoying friends play ball there, he said, “it’s good for the community. I’ll follow it wherever it goes.”

 

 

 

 

“It’s the thing to do,” Wright said. “It’s like, Let’s get dressed, we’re going to The SAL. Everyone comes to watch the games or to see the women. There’s music. You meet people. You see your friends. On a good day, it’s just wall-to-wall packed. It gets loud. The crowd gets into it. if they like you, they’re cheering on you. If they hate you, they’re booing on you. If someone does something good out on the court, they ‘oooh’ and ‘ahhh.’ Some people might run out on the court, just having fun. It’s just a nice hangout. No problems. Everybody gets along. A little fussing here and there, but no big deal.”

Ex-Husker Bruce Chubick said there’s no dogging it in The SAL: “You can’t really half step your way through because there are too many players that are good. Plus, you get a nice little crowd that comes out, and they’ll let you know about it if you make a bad play. So, you’ve got that motivation going. It’s entertaining.”

The league is a subculture unto itself. The many female fans include spouses, lovers and groupies. Some mothers have children in tow. The guys taking-it-in range from hoop junkies looking for another fix to coaches scouting talent to neighborhood cats looking to escape the weather. The common denominator is a love for the game. It’s why some folks view five or six contests in a single sitting.

The hold basketball has in urban America is a function of the sport’s simplicity and expressiveness. Only a ball and a bucket are needed, after all, for players to create signature moves on the floor and in the air that separate them, their game and their persona from the pack. Not surprisingly, the hip-hop scene grew out of streetball culture, where trash talking equals rap, where a sweet crossover dribble or soaring airborne slam resembles dance and where stylin’ gets you props from the crowd or your crew. Music and hoops go hand-in-hand.

The vast majority of players at The SAL and Butler-Gast Y are black, which makes it ironic that the two-time defending champs, Old School, are an all-white group of former Division I players led by Chubick. In what Mayo considers “a traditional” league, Old School is short on style but long on fundamentals.

Former Omaha South and University of Washington star Will Perkins said to cut it in this league, “you’ve got to be tough…you’ve got to be skilled. You can’t just take your college game or your streetball game here. You’ve got to have a mixture.”

 

 

 

 

 

As the action unfolds on the funky, tile-like court everybody complains about, the spectators join in a kind of call-and-response exchange with participants. A player jamming home a thunder dunk will stop, await his fate from the crowd, and then either get their love or take their poison. A guy blowing a dunk or a layup or drawing air on his jumper gets well-deserved catcalls. But here the good-natured smack directed at refs and players is often hurled right back.

“Man, you gotta finish that! What are you doing? You had a wide open layup. Hey, y’all gotta fight for this one, fellas. They’re not going to give it to you. C’mon!”

Unrestrained displays of emotion, usually shouted down from the bleaches, sometimes overflows onto the court. Despite threats and invectives, few incidents ever come to blows. Chest thumping and trash talking is just part of the heat and the edge. It’s all about respect out here. No one wants to be shown up.

As day wends into night, and one game bleeds into another, there’s a constant stream of humanity in and out of the cramped old gym, where music thumps from a boom box during time outs and between games, where burgers, dogs and nachos can be had on the cheap and where vendors hawk newly burned CDs and DVDs.

 

 

 

 

Amid the hustle and flow, players and fans intermingle, making it hard to tell them apart. There’s no barriers, no admission, no registration. It’s a straight-up come-and-go-as-you-please scene. As the small bleachers hold only a couple hundred people, the rest of the onlookers line both sides and ends of the court. Folks variously stand against walls, sit in folding chairs or sprawl on the floor.

The league serves many purposes. For college programs at UNO and Bellevue, it’s a way to keep teams sharp over the summer and toughened up for the coming NCAA season. Kevin McKenna, UNO head coach the past four years until rejoining the Creighton staff this summer, said, “I got my team to play down there the past few summers because I thought it was the best league. There was another league in town, but I felt this was the most competitive — where’d we get the most out of it.” Bellevue University coach Todd Eisner has recruited there. It helps Omaha Central grad and current Illinois-Chicago player Karl White get ready for the college grind.

For former college mates, like the Still Hoopin’ squad made up of such ex-Bluejays as Buford, Latrell Wrightsell and Duan Cole, it’s a chance to relive old times, stay fit and feed still hot competitive fires. For Buford, it’s one more workout in an off-season regimen before NBA training camps begin. For men pushing 30, 40 or older, it’s also a pride thing — to show they still have some game left. For them and guys not so far removed from the game like Alvin Mitchell, the former NU, Cincinnati and UNO player, or Andre Tarpley, a senior last year at UNO, or Luther Hall, a recent Bellevue U. grad, it’s both an outlet and a place to prep for pro tryouts.

Danai “Ice” Young, whose college hoops career stalled at NU, is using the league as a launching pad to try and make the ABA River City Ballers’ roster. Albert R. went from The SAL to a spot on the pro streetball tour, where he goes by “Memphis.”

For youngbloods, it’s a test to prove they can hang with the old dogs. “If you’re the best talent, or think you’re the best talent, this is where you’re going to be,” said veteran ref Mark LeFlore, Sr. Mayo said few high schoolers have had what it takes to play in The SAL. Two that did, guards Matt Culliver and Brandon McGruder, formed one of the highest scoring duos in the annals of the Metro Conference at Bryan High School last year. Both earned scholarships to play at the next level.

Another youth, Aaryon “Bird” Williams, is perhaps the most impressive of the pups as he’s only a senior-to-be at Omaha North, where he played in a handful of varsity games last year after moving here with his family from Gary, Indiana. Mayo sees a phenom in-the-making in Williams. “Man, he was dunkin’ on everybody. You have to see it to believe it. He’s definitely a man-child. He reminds me of a young K.G (Kevin Garnett), and I’m not exaggerating,” Mayo said. “He’s a beast.” It’s another example, Mayo said, of how top local talents “find their way” to the league. “I’m already missing The SAL, but I’m recreating it at the Y. The tradition continues.”

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