Whether you’re a regular or occasional visitor to this blog you have by now probably noticed that I like to write about Nebraskans in Film. That is a function of my being a Nebraskan, a film buff who just happens to be a journalist. Naturally, I seek every opportunity I can find to write about fellow natives of this place who have and are doing great things in the world of cinema. It’s not only filmmakers and actors I profile either. You’ll find pieces about many different aspects of the industry as well as about people who don’t make films but instead showcase them for our entertainment and education. Take the subject of this profile, Dena Krupinski, for example. When I wrote this article seven or eight years ago she was a producer at Turner Classic Movies in Atlanta, where she was one of the key figures behind those Private Screenings Q&A’s that host Robert Osborne does with legends. It was a dream job for her because she’s been in love with the movies for as long as she can remember and that gig put her in close contact with some of the biggest names in Hollywood history. She’s since moved on to teach at a university but her cinema obsession remains intact. I too have had the distinct pleasure of interviewing and in some cases meeting Hollywood royalty, past and present, including Robert Wise, Patricia Neal, Debbie Rynolds, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Danny Glover. I am hoping for an interview with Jane Fonda in the near future because she’s coming to Omaha for a July program at Film Streams that will have Alexander Payne interview her live on stage. Of course, Payne is someone I’ve interviewed dozens of times over the years and because of that relationship I’ve had the chance to interview Laura Dern, Matthew Broderick, Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh, Virginia Madsen, producers Michael London, Albert Berger, and Jim Burke, screenwriter Jim Taylor, and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael.
Dena Krupinski Makes Her Hollywood Dreams a Reality as a Turner Classic Movies Producer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Orignally appeared in the Jewish Press
For most of us, childhood dreams remain just that — the unfulfilled musings of our starry-eyed youth. But for Omaha native Dena Krupinsky, an associate director with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in Atlanta, her long-harbored fantasy of working with Hollywood greats has become reality. Since joining TCM in 1994, the year the national cable network launched, Krupinsky has produced dozens of special programs featuring stars and other notables from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Even a cursory glance at her producing credits reveals a Who’s-Who of movie royalty she has worked with — from Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, James Garner and Rod Steiger to June Allyson, Leslie Caron and Liza Minnelli.
Whether in a digital editing suite or in a sound recording booth or in a television studio, she gets on intimate terms with some of the very luminaries she’s idolized. She might be producing a Private Screenings session in which James Garner recalls his career or she might be pruning a feature with Liza Minnelli discussing her father and his films or she might be recording a voice-over track in which Carol Burnett pays homage to Lucille Ball. “Do I wake up in the morning excited to go to work? Yeah,” Krupinsky said. “I feel like I’m doing exactly what I knew I’d be doing. It is a dream come true.” She has, in the course of putting together various programs, met dozens of Hollywood legends as well as many more obscure but no less significant film industry professionals. “I do feel lucky meeting these people. They were part of that Old Hollywood, which was an exclusive, elite world. And now that I’m part of it, I’m so excited. When I watch the Oscars I’ll see these people up there and go, ‘Yeah, know him, met him. Nice guy.’” That goes for screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a 2001 honorary Oscar recipient whom Krupinsky met while taping a program in which Lehman discussed how scenes from his script for North By Northwest were brought to inspired life by director Alfred Hitchcock.
Somehow, even as a little girl, Krupinsky knew she was destined to work in film or television. Growing up in the Rockbrook Park neighborhood, she was the oddball kid on her block who much preferred watching TV hour upon hour to playing outside with her friends. So enamored was she with whatever the magic box displayed that she would kvetch with her mother for extra viewing privileges. Although her parents, Jean Ann and Jerry Krupinsky, could not then see how such a steady diet of old movies, sitcoms, dramas, game shows, variety shows, soap operas and commercials could possibly benefit their daughter, it undoubtedtly has — embuing in her a deep affinity for popular entertainment that, if not a prerequisite for working at TCM, certainly helps. “It does. It definitely does,” said the perky Krupinsky during a June visit to Omaha for her 20th high school class reunion. She is a 1981 graduate of Westside High School and a former student at Temple Israel Synagogue. “I just always loved television and movies and I’ve just always known I wanted to be in them.”
During her recent visit from her home in Decatur, GA., a community near Atlanta, where she works, Krupinsky, who is single, wore a bright red dress that matched the burning intensity she has for her job. That job entails producing segments for the network’s (Channel 55 on Cox) Private Screenings, Star of the Month, Director of the Month and Spotlight features as well as producing special projects related to individual films, figures or themes, such as a new half-hour documentary, Memories of Oz, which has been well-reviewed in the national press for its informative and fun take on the making of The Wizard of Oz. She has worked with everyone from impish Mickey Rooney to serious method actor Rod Steiger and tackled themes from Religion in the Movies to the Art of the Con. Her work has been recognized in the industry with Telly awards for Private Screenings segments on Tony Curtis and Leslie Caron. a 1999 Gracie Allen Award for a Carol Burnett On Lucille Ball special and the 21st Annual American Women in Radio and Television Award for a series of interstitials (promotional links) on women in film.
Many of the stars that Krupinsky, a graduate of the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism, has worked with have since passed away, most recently Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. A Private Screenings installment she did with Lemmon and Matthau remains one of her favorites, if for no other reason than she was enchanted with the man who originated the role of Oscar Madison on stage and on screen. “That was something that I loved to do. Walter Matthau was the greatest, funniest guy I ever met. I loved him. At one point, I was walking with him to show him where the Green Room is and he grabbed my hand. He was so sweet. He called me Charlotte the whole time. I’d be like, ‘No, it’s Dena.’ And he’d go, ‘No, no, I had a girlfriend named Charlotte, and you’re just like her.’ When he died I remembered this line he said that I loved during our taping session: ‘Dear, oh dear, I have a queer feeling they’ll be a strange face in heaven in the morning.’ And I thought of him and that line. Bless his heart.” Krupinsky invited her parents to attend the Lemmon-Matthau taping. She said she often tries sharing her Insider’s position with less experienced co-workers by letting them listen in on phone interviews. “I always like to have people listen because it’s too great a learning experience not to have your co-workers there.”
On one occasion, Krupinsky gathered a phalanx of Liza Minnelli fans in her office for a scheduled phone interview with the star only to have the diva surprise everyone by inviting the producer up to her place instead. “She said, ‘I’d love it if you could come to my house — I really don’t like to do phone interviews.’ And I was like, ‘Well, Liza, I’m in Atlanta and you’re in New York.’ She goes, ‘I’ll fly you up.’ So, I checked with my bosses and they said, ‘Go for it.’ I went to her house in New York and hanging on the walls were these big Andy Warhol prints — one of her, one of her mother and one of her father. Staring at those prints reminded me I was with a member of Hollywood royalty, and that her mother really was Judy Garland and her father really was Vincente Minnelli. She was as easy as an old friend, but I was in awe the whole time. It was great.”
Not at all jaded even after hobnobbing with scores of celebrities, the star struck Krupinsky said she still gets butterflies every time she meets one. “I’m always a little nervous, but the minute they start talking you kind of forget you’re scared.”
She said the stars are real troopers who go out of their way to make her and her colleagues feel comfortable being around them. “So far, they’ve all been so easy to work with and I think it’s because they want to tell their stories. They’re proud. They don’t do it for the money. They do it because they want to do it.” She said stars are put through their paces on a typical Private Screenings production day, which entails a three to three-and-a-half hour taping session, promotional intros and press interviews. “It’s an exhausting process, but never have we had problems. I’ve never had anyone complaining that it’s taking too long or demanding star treatment. They’re totally professional. When we bring them on to the set, they’re not worried or anxious. They just say, ‘I got it. I know what to do.’ And they love it. I feel like they have as much fun with us as we do with them. I mean, they even sit with the crew and eat lunch.”
With stars flying in to Atlanta for the tapings, opportunities abound for Krupinsky to hang with the screen legends. “We usually take them out to dinner the night before. Tony Curtis, whom we’ve worked with a lot, came with his wife Jill. We took them to dinner and shopping. Tony is a lot of fun. This is a guy who doesn’t want to rest. He wants to go out at night. He has fun with his celebrity. He gladly signs autographs.” Following a Private Screenings session with Best Actor Oscar winner Rod Steiger, Krupinsky was asked to escort the actor to a Florida film festival in his honor and she witnessed first-hand the respect and adulation audiences feel for this “very intense and very passionate” man.
One of the toughest parts of her job, she said, is trying to whittle down the star interviews from several hours to the one hour or less allotted for airing. For several months now she has been working on the edit for an August 2 scheduled James Garner Private Screenings segment. “James Garner’s has been one of the hardest to cut because he told so many good stories. I cut and cut on paper first and when I went to edit I thought for sure I‘d be fine but it was still too long. Cutting stories is the hardest part. Editing is a long process.” In preparing to tape a Private Screenings or to produce a special project like the Memories of Oz documentary, Krupinsky immerses herself in the project, gathering and reviewing reams of materials on the subject, including published interviews, biographies, tapes of movies and archival photos, with the help of staff researchers. “I become totally absorbed in my subject. For three months I can tell you everything about Tony Curtis or James Garner because I study them and I learn about these guys. I’ll know everything — dates, times, movies – you name it. But then once a project’s done that information goes away as I move on to the next one. The thing I love about my job is that I’m learning all the time. I feel like I’m still in school. It’s like having advanced film classes with experts talking about how they approach screenwriting or directing or acting.”
Krupinsky followed a logical route to TCM, working in local television promotion before graduating to the network level. Once out of college — and with her sights dead set on a career in TV — she took an entry-level job, as a secretary, at CBS affiliate WAGA-TV in Atlanta, where she was soon promoted to associate producer status — developing image campaigns and teasers for the station’s news and entertainment divisions. Even with the new position, she said, it was hard to get by on her small salary. “I was broke. I ate a lot at Taco Bell.” After a brief stint with a station in Knoxville, TN, she landed a spot as a writer-producer with Turner Network Television Latin America, which equaled a step-up on her career path but which also presented a dead-end since she did not speak a word of Spanish or Portugese. Then, in 1994, she heard about the formation of TCM and promptly applied for and won her current post. When she began at TCM, media mogul Ted Turner was still taking a hands-on approach with the fledgling network unlike today, when various mergers have taken Ted’s folksy presence out of the picture and replaced it with corporate suits. “Ted would always come by. One day, we had a meeting with him and he was wearing a cartoon tie and he was just hilarious,” she recalled. “Other times, he’d walk by the office and say, ‘Hey guys, what are you doing?’ Everyone who worked for Ted has this feeling for him because he did a great job. Thank God I was there for that regime.”
Before joining the ranks of film buffs and cinephiles at TCM, Krupinsky acknowledges she was a bit out-of-step with her workmates because even though she loved movies, she lacked a deep knowledge of their history and lore. As an example, she points to Warner Brothers tough guy John Garfield, someone she was assigned to do a feature piece on and knew next to nothing about. “Before I did John Garfield I didn’t know who he was to be honest. I told my mom who I was profiling and she said, ‘Oh, John Garfield, he’s great. You’ll fall in love with him.’ I said, I will?’ And sure, enough, I did. You almost fall in love with all these people.”
The Garfield project led Krupinsky to the late actor’s daughter Julie Garfield, an actress, who provided personal insights into the man, and to former director Vincent Sherman, who directed Garfield in the 1943 drama Saturday’s Children and who worked with many other Warners greats in the 1930s and ‘40s. Krupinsky played matchmaker of sorts when she arranged for the two to meet. “I brought Julie and Vincent together for lunch and it was great to sit back and let him tell her stories about her dad that she didn’t know. I was kind of proud myself because I brought these two together.” Krupinsky feels privileged getting the inside scoop from veterans like Sherman, who at 95, is one of the last surviving directors from Hollywood’s classic studio era. Sherman knew everyone on the Warners lot and hearing him talk about the old days and the old stars is like getting the Holy Scripture from the prophet himself. “I had lunch with him and he was telling me stories about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, God, I’m sitting here with a man who worked with these legends.’ I mean, it is very cool. Vincent’s become a friend of our network’s.”
A large part of her producing chores involves developing scripts, which generally include narration read by a star or stars who have some relationship with or enthusiasm for the subject. For example, to promote a month-long salute to the late producer-director Stanley Kramer, Krupinsky hit upon the idea of having comic Jonathan Winters, who appeared in Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, wax nostalgic about the filmmaker, with whom he was quite close. She interviewed Winters by phone and developed a script from his comments that adhered very closely to his own words. The resulting Winters’ salute was a surprisingly sober, reflective and personal reminiscence. When it comes time for the star to record the narration, as in the case of Winters, leeway is given for the star to go off-script and improvise. “They’ll paraphrase and add their own little things,” Krupinsky said, “and so it almost sounds like it’s off-the-cuff, and a lot of times it is.”
Among new and proposed projects, Krupinsky is now brainstorming ideas to promote TCM’s scheduled Coming of Age theme in October. She would like to get a Matt Dillon or Diane Lane or Reese Witherspoon to host the Coming of Age festival. Another idea she has is to get Dustin Hoffman alone or as part of a reunion of the cast of The Graduate. Other projects she would like to see happen range from a special on the Marx Brothers (she recently interviewed Carl Reiner on that comedy team) to Private Screenings segments with Shirley MacLaine, Elizabeth Taylor, James Coburn and Jerry Lewis. She is also busy thinking of some project that would be a good fit for Steve Martin to host/narrate.
Pitching projects is part of what Krupinsky or any producer does. She feels fortunate having superiors who value her input. “The cool part about my job is that as producers we have a lot to say. It’s not like, ‘Hey, Dena, your next assignment is…’ It’s more like, ‘Hey, Dena, here’s the programming we’re thinking of doing and we want you to come up with ideas.’ I can come back and say, ‘Let’s try this,’ and they’ll say yes or no, but a lot of times they say yes. That’s why I love my job. Like the Lemmon-Matthau Private Screenings. That was mine. I wanted to do something on comedy teams and I thought of Lemmon-Matthau and I did it. And the cool thing is you get to do this stuff with people you’ve always admired and wanted to meet.”
For now, Krupinsky is content at TCM, but she can see herself moving on, perhaps to produce feature-length documentaries. “I think about it all the time and I do feel like I am making a slow progression towards it. I’m doing great stuff now but I always feel like there’s something else I could be doing out there. I don’t want to ever get away from this work. Even if I moved on I still want something to do with Older Hollywood. Right now, though, I’m happy where I am.”
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Where there is a celebrity, there is an attorney, and in the case of the entertainment attorney profiled here, Ira Epstein, this Beverly Hills-based lawyer never lost the taste for show business he acquired as a kid growing up in Omaha, Neb. In a diverse life and career he’s touched many different aspects of the human condition, the legal profession, and the entertainment industry, working with some genuine legends along the way.
Entertainment Attorney Ira Epstein, Counsel to the Stars
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Veteran west coast entertainment attorney Ira Epstein, a counsel to high-profile clients in film and television, traces his show biz roots to growing-up in Omaha, where he and his brother, Arnold “Tuffy” Epstein, a well-known Omaha woodwind player, performed in area fairs and amateur shows during the Great Depression.
Born and raised here, the brothers, studied music at the prodding of their grocer parents, Harry and Jenny, the proprietors of their own mom-and-pop store, Epstein’s Grocery, originally located at 27th and Maple and later at 20th and Martha. The family lived above the stores. As kids, Ira and Tuffy were prevailed upon by their parents to entertain salesmen pitching wares. “Ira would play the accordion and I would sing,” Tuffy recalls, adding their stage mother booked them “wherever she could get us,” including two neighborhood movie theaters, the Roseland and Corby, where the boys were billed as Ruffy and Tuffy for amateur show performances. Their younger siblings, Allen and Gloria, also performed.
Graduating to the piano, Ira performed in music programs at his school, Central High, where he cut short his senior year in order to join a touring big band headed by Skippy Anderson. While he downplays his own musical talent, Ira was, in Tuffy’s estimation, “an excellent jazz pianist.” With the help of money his mother saved, Ira attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and took paying gigs to pay his tuition, room and board. “I worked my way through school playing in bands,” he says. Often, he and Tiffy found themselves jamming on the same stage.
By the time Ira started college, the Korean War erupted and the military draft loomed large. The then-social work major sought a field of study that would keep him in school. That’s when he and a pair of buddies decided “we’d take the law school exams. We didn’t have anything better to do.”
What began as “a lark” turned into a distinguished career nearing its half-century mark. But his frivolous attitude toward the exams nearly quashed his plans. Certain he’d failed, the silver-tongued Epstein proceeded to talk his way into law school with the personal chutzpah and charm that made him a natural for the courtroom.
As Epstein remembers, it happened this way: “The dean called me in and said, ‘Ira, you really didn’t do well on these tests.’ I told him why. That I left early every day to conduct cheerleading tryouts in my role as Yell King. That I was in every activity imaginable at Nebraska. I was a member of the gymnastics team, the student council, the Nebraska athletic board. I was active in Jewish activities, including AZA. I was president of the campus chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu. And the dean said, ‘Because of all your activities. we’re going to let you into law school.’ And that’s how I got started. I ended up enjoying the law and doing pretty well.”
In typical Epstein fashion, he ran with the opportunity, becoming editor of the campus law review and earning a law fellowship in trial procedure evidence. During his fellowship, Epstein got a chance to work with and learn under famous personal injury defense attorney Melvin Beli, who was trying a case in Omaha at the time. “He came into Omaha to try a medical malpractice case against a foot surgeon. Beli had a national reputation. He was the big man from the west coast up against a small town country lawyer, who was one of the best defense lawyers in the business. Beli took him to the cleaners…and back in those days you couldn’t easily recover against doctors. It was really tough. Beli brought me in to help do the research. He was a great scholar and a great guy. I was very impressed…I got some good experience and we got to be good friends.”
Coming out of college, Epstein harbored designs on working for one of Omaha’s prestige Gentile law firms, which he says then maintained an unspoken but nonetheless rigid country club policy barring Jews, regardless of their credentials. “When I graduated law school I was a pretty hot prospect with a lot of enthusiasm and I decided I wanted to break the barrier in Omaha and go into a non-Jewish law firm.” he says. “Well, I interviewed with most of the major non-Jewish firms…at least 10 of them…and I could not get hired. Here I was editor of the law review and, while I didn’t finish first or second in my class, I was in the top 20 percent, plus I was in all kinds of organizations, and yet I couldn’t break the barrier. That was anti-Semitism at its best. Now, it’s changed, of course.”
Then, in 1957, Epstein applied for and received a direct commission into the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General or JAG court. The recently married (to the former Noddy Schein of Omaha) JAG officer was first assigned to San Francisco, where he looked up Beli, who officed in the city on the hill, to see about joining the famed attorney’s practice and thereby supplement his low military salary. “I ended up working part-time for him while in the service. At that point I got a good flavor of personal injury law and decided that just was not my bag.” Meanwhile, his JAG duties helped him develop keen lawyering skills. “JAG was really a good experience for me. I tried a lot of cases…a lot of court martials. For being a closet introvert, I was a pretty good trial lawyer.”
He had no longer settled in his next station, cushy Long Beach, when a mid-air collision of Air Force and Navy planes over civilian air space caused severe property damage and personal injuries, resulting in a flood of claims he handled. This, too, proved a valuable training ground. “As a result of that very serious accident I spent a year settling claims for the government. It was a tremendous experience. By the time I joined a law firm in 1959 I was an experienced lawyer already.”
With his JAG commitment up, he interviewed with private L.A. law firms and got hired by an established entertainment law firm. It was familiar territory. “I felt comfortable from the very beginning,” he says. “I was always interested in entertainment. It was appealing to me.” Besides, as a former performer, he understood the fragile creative personality. “It’s not so much just temperamental artists, it’s temperamental producers, too. They’re all the same. They all have that mind set, which they’re entitled to. It’s an ego business. You have to have a particular kind of mentality to represent them. You have to be pretty patient. You have to be more of a psychologist, bordering on a psychiatrist, than a lawyer.”
Among his first clients was Larry Harmon Productions, whose stable of artists included TV’s Bozo the Clown. Another Harmon artist, animator Lou Scheimer, became one of Epstein’s closest friends. When Scheimer left Harmon to start his own animation shop, Epstein continued representing him. At the time, there were only a few independent animation companies, and when Epstein’s boss ordered him to drop Scheimer to avoid potential conflicts with competing animators, Epstein remained loyal to his friend. “I said, ‘Well, I’d just as well drop the firm than drop the client,’ which was a dumb thing on my part because the guy had nothing going. That was 1963. So, I went out on my own with this partner, and don’t ask me why, but we got a lot of clients. We were doing pretty well, only my friend Lou Scheimer was doing nothing.” That soon changed when CBS plunged into Saturday morning animation and a major player in comic books, National Periodical, sought somebody to animate their signature Superman franchise. Scheimer got the job and Epstein bought a piece of his studio, Filmation.
“Superman launched the company and really got me started in animation. After Superman we started doing all the action heroes. Batman. Aquaman. Captain Marvel. Then we branched into other animation series. We did Fat Albert. We did Masters of the Universe – that was a big series. We ended up selling the company in 1969 to a cable company called Teleprompter that was the predecessor of all the big cable companies. Teleprompter ended up selling to Westinghouse and as a result we made quite a bit of money for young guys at the time.”
Outside animation, a good share of Epstein’s early clients were in the music business. When he was still a law firm employee in the early ‘60s, he did work for Liberty Records, a kitsch pop label whose recording artists included Julie London, Bobby Vee and the Chipmonks. “I learned a little about the music industry, but I knew music anyway.” When he opened his own firm, he rode the wave of the soulful black music movement. “I set up the California corporation for Motown Records, which then moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. I worked with many Motown artists. My personal client from their stable was Hal Davis, who wrote and produced many Jackson 5 and Diana Ross hits.”
Then Cooper set about reinventing himself and his practice again. “In 1975 I left my then partner and went with another attorney, Jay Cooper, who was and still is the outstanding music lawyer in the country.” With the addition of a third partner, the firm of Cooper, Epstein and Hurewitz became a player in the entertainment law arena for 20 years. “We started with about six lawyers and built it up to about 60. We had one of the best entertainment law firms in Los Angeles,” he says. “We had a lot of good lawyers. We had a lot of good clients, It was really a major firm.”
Although Epstein did select legal work for legendary stars Marlon Brando, Barbra Streisand and Mary Tyler Moore, his biggest client during this time was Carroll O’Connor, the late actor forever identified with the role of Archie Bunker on the classic, ground-breaking CBS series All in the Family. “I represented Carroll through All in the Family, and all his battles with its producer Norman Lear, and up through his last series, In the Heat of the Night. I also represented him throughout all his problems with his late son and the lawsuits that evolved from that.”
More than a client, O’Connor was a friend, Epstein says. “We had great rapport with each other. We became extremely close. I shared all his joys and sorrows. It was a lasting relationship. I still represent the O’Connor estate.” Bigoted Archie Bunker was far removed from the man Epstein knew. “He was not that character. He was the antithesis of Archie Bunker. He was an extreme liberal. A champion of human rights.” Given that Epstein is a self-described “extreme conservative,” their friendship made for “an interesting relationship.” He says as different as O’Connor was from A.B., the actor struggled escaping the persona he so indelibly fixed in people’s minds. “I represented him on Broadway, where he was never able to have a successful play. It just wouldn’t work. He got so closely tied to the role of Archie Bunker that the public just wouldn’t buy him as a legitimate stage actor, where he got his start. But he was a great actor and a wonderful guy.”
The television landscape Epstein and his clients knew in the ‘70s an ‘80s was vastly different than the one that’s emerged today. Back then, the medium centered around the Big Three networks, monolithic television-focused businesses which got most of their product from independent producers. Today, technology has created an expanded television pie sliced up among dozens of networks and hundreds of channels while at the same time economic forces have seen a consolidation of power, programming and production among a few major multimedia giants. “The television business has been considerably impacted by consolidation,” he says. “An independent television producer today doesn’t have a chance because the majors have taken over almost all of the production. It’s all pretty much integrated vertically. It’s all just controlled by a very small group of people.”
Making television deals for clients today requires Epstein know more than just what the U.S. television market will bear. He must also be well-versed in foreign distribution and in the home video and spin-off markets. “The business has changed a lot. There was no such thing as a foreign television market in the early years. Now, foreign markets produce about 50 percent of the income for television series. With the advent of home video and product merchandising, I have to know these aspects. If you do a major animated show like Masters of the Universe, your income is coming out of merchandising as much as it’s coming out of television. I made a deal a couple years ago bringing the Japanese animated series, Yu-gi-oh to this country and it made all its money in the merchandising area.”
Other forces impacting his work include the ever changing home entertainment market, which has seen VHS and laser disk formats supplanted by DVD, and the proliferation of cable TV and its ever expanding programming menu to serve an insatiable viewing habit. In this wide open environment, anyone or anything can be a hit, as evidenced by the Reality TV phenomenon that makes people from all walks of life instant celebrities. In his quest to stay current, Epstein represents a professional gambler trying to make it on the popular TV poker playing circuit. He also represents Peter Funt, producer of Candid Camera and the son of the show’s creator, the late Alan Funt, who did Reality TV before it had a name. The growth of televised sports and the birth of sports celebrities is another sea change, says Epstein, who’s “done deals” for such figures as George Foreman and Hulk Hogan.
So. what’s the next big thing? Epstein says a mass-market, user-friendly technology to download movies off the Internet is sure to one day replace DVDs by virtue of the ease, speed and convenience of select-and-click home movie viewing.
By 1994, Epstein resigned as managing partner of Cooper, Epstein and Hurewitz and went into a semi-retired mode that saw him work some 10 years at Weissmann Wolf. Then, in 2002, at the urging of his former partner, Jay Cooper, Epstein joined the huge international firm Greenberg Traurig and its growing entertainment practice, where he’s rejoined his old friend. Epstein, who’s recently represented producers and distributors of mini-series and features, operates autonomously there. At age 72, he thinks of retiring, but remains too much in the game to leave now. “When I went into semi-retirement the whole idea was I would phase out and quit soon. Well, I’m still phasing out. I hope to quite real soon, believe me, but I don’t know, I seem to stay with it. I do very little of what is called the traditional practice of law. I advise my clients far beyond the lawyering. It’s fun.”
He also is a senior member of the board of directors for Image Entertainment.
A new challenge occupying much of his time these days is his presidency of the North Coast Repertory Theater in Solana Beach, Calif., whose move to a planned facility in a neighboring community he’s spearheading. His association with this theater company fulfills a dream to be “involved in the legitimate theater.”
Two days a week find Epstein in Los Angeles, attending to his law clients, and the rest of the week at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, a short drive from the theater. He and his wife Noddy are the parents of three grown sons and the grandparents of six — four girls and two boys. He rarely gets back to Nebraska these days, although he was here last fall for the 50th reunion of his Innocents Society pledge class. “We had a wonderful reunion…a lot of fun.” He stays in contact with family and “a lot of good friends in Omaha,” including former schoolmate Ben Nachman.
- Steve Rosenblatt, A Legacy of Community Service, Political Ambition and Baseball Adoration (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Allan Noddle’s Adventures in the Food Industry Show Him the World (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Food as a commodity is something most of us only think about as customers, when we go to our local supermarket or farmers market or restaurant or deli and pay dearly for the nourishment we cannot live without. If you’re like me, you don’t give a lot of thought to the food chain infrastructure that provides the meat, dairy, produce, canned, and packaged goods to the places we access it unless of course there’s a price spike or a shortage or else some FDA recall because of a food contamination scare. Allan Noddle of Omaha is a food maven right in the mix of the food chain. Today, he’s a highly paid adviser, but for decades he ran companies in the U.S. and abroad that sold food to consumers by the millions and billions of dollars worth annually. He has a local, regional, national, and global perspective on the processes and systems that get the food we all need from producers and distributors to consumers’ dining room tables. He comes from a family of entrepreneurs that had their humble start in Omaha, Neb. and that experience is never far from him as a reminder of how far he and his brothers came.
Allan Noddle’s Food Industry Adventures Show Him the World
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Three Omaha brothers. Three company presidents. What are the odds a trio of sons from a Jewish family of humble beginnings would realize the American Dream, and then some? But brothers Harlan, Allan and Jeff Noddle did just that, as one by one they rose to the pinnacle of their respective profession while giving back to their community. It’s an American success story times three, only the real foundation for this accomplishment is rooted in the example set by the brothers’ late parents, Robert and Edith Noddle, who stressed education and charity.
Eldest brother Harlan Noddle, who died last December, worked as an executive in the retail food industry until he founded his own real estate development company. Noddle Development is one of the Midwest’s largest developers of shopping centers and office buildings. His son Jay Noddle now runs things.
Baby brother Jeff Noddle is president and CEO of Minneapolis-based Supervalu, the nation’s third largest grocery retailer and the leading food distributor in the U.S.
Middle brother Allan Noddle, whose story is told here, has enjoyed the most far flung of careers. In the 1960s the University of Nebraska-Lincoln cum laude graduate went from being a U.S. Army officer to an IBM computer salesman to a Hinky Dinky supermarkets trainee. It was at Hinky Dinky, the now defunct Omaha-based chain, he discovered his niche. Within a decade he climbed the corporate ladder to become executive vice president and COO. Courted by other grocery retailers, Noddle left Hinky Dinky in 1980 for an upper management position with Giant Food of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Mega Danish food company Royal Ahold acquired Giant in 1981. Often referred to as the world’s most successful food provider, Ahold tapped Noddle to be president and CEO of its USA Support Services division in 1988. After building its U.S. market, an opportunity arose he never anticipated when, in 1998, Ahold named him executive VP and elected him to the corporate executive board. He became the first American board member in the company’s 114-year history. The promotion meant moving to Holland, whose culture Noddle embraced.
Based in Amsterdam, Noddle traveled the world to oversee Ahold’s operations in Latin-America and Asia. He retired and returned to Omaha in 2002 but he’s as busy as ever today between the teaching he does for Ahold and others around the globe, the many speaking engagements he makes at food industry forums and his duties as adviser and board member for various corporations.
He offices in the Noddle Companies suite at the One Pacific Place II building where his nephew Jay runs Noddle Development, but he’s as likely to be in some exotic locale as he is home. In May, he stayed put long enough to chart his journey from schlepper to titan.
Perhaps no one appreciated more what the Noddle boys achieved than their late mother. In 1991 the brothers, each having already reached the top, offered Edith anything she wanted for her 80th birthday. To their surprise, she told them she wished to visit the White House, the symbol for all the opportunities America afforded her and her Russian immigrant parents and her own family.
So, as Noddle tells it, he and his brothers set about to bring the family matriarch to the very seat of power. “It took a lot of doing, but we got a private meeting with then Vice President Dan Quayle,” he said. The boys were extra protective of mama as they escorted her through the White House. After all, Noddle said, “She’s this little old Jewish lady — 5’3, 90 pounds, dripping wet. She came from a poor, uneducated background. She was a checker at the old Central market downtown. We thought our mother would be intimidated.” They needn’t have worried, as she soon showed the moxie her boys got from her.
“When we were finally called into the west wing and then eventually into the Vice President’s office we were coming in just as he got up from his desk to come around and greet us,” Noddle said. “We were kind of shielding my mother to make sure she wasn’t intimidated and she pushes us aside, goes right up, puts her hand out and says, ‘Mr. Vice President, I want you should know I have three presidents – none of them are vice presidents.’ And he just laughed and we hit it off.
“He brought in the White House photographer and he took pictures of the whole family. This is one of them,” he said, indicating a framed photo on his office wall. “He gave my mother a special broach with a seal of the Vice President of the United States. He gave us tie tacks with the seal.”
That’s not the end of the story, according to Jeff Noddle, who spoke to the Press by phone from his Minneapolis office. “As we were leaving the White House and walking down from the north portico,” he said, “she turned to my oldest brother Harlan and said, ‘So what’s the matter, the President was too busy?’ Because the senior Bush was there that day and she just wanted to know why she didn’t get to see him. Yeah, she was quite a lady.”
Allan Noddle recalls the many lessons his parents provided. As a boy, his mother made the family home a haven for chabads, roaming members of the orthodox sect, who knew they would be welcomed there. “My mom would say, ‘We have to feed these people. We have to help them, and that’s what I’m here for.’ And so she always gave them a hot meal. It had to be kosher, of course.”
He “looked on in amazement” at these devout men dressed all in black and puzzled over how different ones always knew to come to their house for the good eats. It was only years later he came to understand that a red X stenciled on the curb in front of the house served as a marker for chabads coming through Omaha.
The brothers were expected to do for others as well. Their mother saw to that. She made sure the family home at 58th and Webster was never without a keren ami or charity box for donations to support the state of Israel. “We were expected at the end of the week if we had anything left over from our five or ten cents allowance to put something in the pooshkeh (piggy bank),” Allan said. “My mother would take it to the shul and, guess what, an empty one appeared the next day. So this was ingrained into us…the importance of charity and giving to others.”
Even as they carved separate paths for themselves, the Brothers Noddle shared some common education and work experiences in their rise to the top. All three graduated from Central High School. Their Lithuanian immigrant father, Robert Noddle, was an entrepreneur before the word had much currency. The family patriarch worked in the scrap metal business before opening his own small grocery store. Later, he had his own liquor store — Pete’s. Eventually he and a brother bought and managed rental properties. Robert’s two oldest sons helped out in the liquor store as young boys. Allan recalls using “a feather duster” to wipe all the bottles clean and pushing a broom to sweep the floor.
When Allan was older he went with his dad to collect rent from occupants of the apartments his father owned. The way his father dealt with people made an impression on him. “He treated everybody with respect,” he said. “He helped them if they needed money. If you couldn’t pay the rent he’d say, ‘Oh, I’ll get it next time.’ I learned some things that helped me later in my life and career.”
Allan feels it’s no coincidence the Noddle boys followed in their father’s footsteps. “I guess it’s the DNA we got from our dad,” he said. “Harlan went into the real estate business. My little brother and I went into the supermarket business.”
Life lessons outside the family circle also prepared Allan for the world and the anti-Semitism that’s a part of it. In grade school he would hear an occasional slur like “those dirty Jews,” but he really didn’t grasp the insidious nature of it all until later. For a high school project he set out to prove the Gentleman’s Agreement principle that denied Jews and other religious or ethnic minorities equal access.
“I wrote letters to ten very reclusive resorts in the United States requesting reservations for the same weekend, for the same dates, for two people I made up — one with a Jewish name and one with a Gentile name,” he said. “I got turned down by eight of the ten with the Jewish name and I got accepted by ten of ten with the Gentile name, despite the fact I sent these requests after I’d already gotten responses saying, ‘Sorry, no rooms.’ So, yeah, I got a glimpse of that experience.”
A more personal experience with discrimination came after he got of college. Despite graduating at the top of his class and with all kinds of extracurricular activities to his credit, when he applied for an entry level opening at Northern Natural Gas Company, they showed no interest in him. He couldn’t understand why. Then he spoke to a local Jewish community elder, Norman Hahn, chair of the Omaha Human Relations Commission, who looked at the application Noddle completed. That’s when Hahn saw the name of the Jewish fraternity Noddle belonged to, just the kind of red flag employers used to identify and exclude Jews.
Undaunted, Noddle applied with other employers and impressed IBM enough to land a job with what was then the gold standard among American businesses.
“My father was so proud that his son got hired by a company like IBM,” he said. “They were It. They were doing cutting-edge stuff that nobody else was doing. And they only hired, supposedly, the best and brightest.”
But the start of his IBM career would delayed until he completed a two-year military hitch. IBM was willing to hold the job for him. At UNL he’d completed reserve army officers training that made him “an obligated volunteer.” He earned a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army ordinance corps. Then he graduated with honors from “a tough boot camp for officers” that got him assigned to the 24th Infantry Division with NATO forces deployed in West Germany.
As this was a short time after the Cuban missile crisis, Cold War tensions ran high. The outfit he served with represented “the first line of defense” against a Soviet ground assault. The responsibility was enormous but he responded to it well. The Army gave him the leadership skills he would later use in business.
“It was a wonderful experience commanding troops,” he said. “I taught a lot in the army. I worked with people from all over the world.”
His superiors tried to get him to make the army his career. “I was told I was a five percenter. Of all the Army officers in the U.S. Army across the world I was in the top five percent,” he said. “But I had to come back and do something.” Besides, he said, “I had a job waiting for me.”
His preparation for leading others — in the army and in business — came at UNL, where he took “probably the single most important course in my life– business speech.” he said. “It taught you to go in front of people, collect and organize your thoughts, communicate a position, be understood and sum up what you said in a few minutes. It was a fabulous course. It changed my life.”
IBM kept its promise upon his return home, but after a short time on the job he realized knowing the ins and outs of computers “just wasn’t my cup of tea. It wasn’t people. It was board and wiring.” That’s when he “answered a blind ad in the newspaper” that turned out to be the start of his 40-year career in the retail food field. The ad was placed by Hinky Dinky, whom he broke in with as a trainee.
“They were looking to expand the company and they wanted to hire more college graduates. A great part of the industry, which had been built on the strong backs of guys who stocked shelves, was changing. Mom and pop grocers were being displaced by modern supermarkets with delis and bakeries and all that kind of thing and stores were becoming a helluva lot more complex to run,” he said.
He was learning the ropes out on the floor when suddenly promoted to be a buyer, which proved a gateway for his swift ascent to the top. “I came up through the merchandising-marketing side of the business as opposed to the store operations side of the business,” he said. Hinky Dinky, a staple of the area grocery scene under founder J.M. Newman and sons Nick, Murray and Bob, fit Noddle to a tee. “Yeah, I loved it,” he said, “and after 11 years I was the youngest vice president ever made in the company and four years later I was elected the executive vice president and chief operating officer.”
At its peak Hinky Dinky was “doing $300 million a year” in sales, he said. A new Hinky Dinky division Noddle helped launch operated grocery departments within major retail stores. JC Penny was the primary client and its management was so taken with the concept that Penny’s bought out the whole division. The resulting company, Supermarkets Interstate, which grew bigger than Hinky Dinky, went bust.
The stability of family-owned Hinky Dinky changed during that time when, in 1972, it was acquired by the Dallas-based Cullum Cos.
“That was not a good development because they were taking money that we made and sending it as fast as they could to Texas,” Noddle said, “where they had a real competitive battle on their hands. So, the money we needed to continue to grow our company and build new stores was going to help the Dallas company.”
Those actions, he said, spelled “the beginning of the end” for Hinky Dinky. “The suburbs were being formed and if you weren’t going to be a part of that growth you were going to die. I saw it right away.”
Disillusioned, he and president Chuck Monessy resigned the same weekend in 1980. It wasn’t long before Noddle said Cullum “killed” what had been “a fabulous business model” and an Omaha tradition.
Giant Food had wooed Noddle for years and now that he was out of a job he went to work for them. When Royal Ahold took over Giant he feared it was a repeat of what Cullum did to Hinky Dinky. “It turned out I was absolutely, one hundred percent, unequivocally wrong,” he said. “They admitted up front they didn’t understand the American market and they gave us what we needed to grow faster than we ever could have grown on our own.”
Grow Giant did, going from a 26-store, $260 million operation to a nearly 75-store, $1.7 billion operation. An assured public speaker, Noddle became Giant’s television spokesman in a series of commercials that made the corporate big-wig a familiar name and face back East.
From 1986 to 1988 Ahold assigned him to turn around the struggling operation of another of its U.S. holdings, Bi-Lo, a Greenville, S.C. discount store chain. He did.
His career took an international turn when he entered the executive ranks at Ahold. Then came the “stunning” news of his election to its senior board.
“That was something no American thought would ever happen,” he said. “When they asked me, I was bowled over.” There was one catch: the move to Amsterdam. “‘Well, that I’ve got to think about,’” he told them. “I slept on it for one night and I told myself, This is an opportunity you absolutely have to take. I talked to my brothers and they said, ‘Go for it. Go do it.’” He did and never looked back.
One factor that’s made his career moves less complicated is his single status. “I never have been married. I got married to the business,” he said. “The company was my family. I had a very wonderful family-family, but then I had another family where I worked 60-70 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, and that was the company. We shared our successes and we cried over our failures, but we were together.”
He called his time with Ahold “a wonderful experience. My satisfaction was being a mentor and watching the people that make the company go develop over time. It wasn’t much about fancy homes, big boats or any of that stuff. I didn’t care.” Working in Amsterdam he learned first-hand what makee the Dutch such master merchants. “They’re traders. That’s what they do. They have kind of a concensus management style that’s different than the Western style. They’re great people. I have friendships today that will last forever.”
Whether dealing with his Dutch colleagues or with his peers in any of the other 28 countries he’s traveled to, Noddle gained an appreciation for diversity.
Too often, he said, “Americans go to foreign countries but they want everything to be done in the American way as opposed to learning about the richness of other cultures and experiences. Our way is sometimes not necessarily the best way. There are different ways of doing things.” Doing business in a foreign marketplace, he said, “you need to be sensitive” to local cultures, “but you’ve got to be successful. So how do you create the best ways? Sometimes you take risks. And if they don’t work, what’s wrong with that? That’s not a mistake — it’s an experience. A mistake is when you know something doesn’t work and you continue to push, push, push thinking it will work anyway.”
He taught in Ahold’s advanced management school for up and coming talent. An instructor from Cornell University, the designer of the curriculum, caught one of his talks and was so taken he invited Noddle to be a guest lecturer at the prestigious institution, a role he still fills at Cornell today. “I give a talk once a year at a special course for graduate level students in the food management school,” he said. “It’s usually about globalization or marketing or the future of the industry.”
Today, the “retired” Noddle applies his vast expertise as an adviser to Ahold and other companies. Just don’t call him a consultant. “I’m not a consultant — I’m a teacher,” he said. “A consultant gets paid a lot of money to develop new projects and to show companies how to get from point A to point B. I do the bulk of my work without pay, helping to teach and train how to build a successful business model — the philosophies, strategies and tactics. I love it. I teach in the Netherlands, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Portugal.” Much of his time is spent with food industry managers in the field, evaluating store practices, making comparisons to competitors, trying to find the best practices and innovations and the best ways to implement them.
“It’s not theoretical. It’s on the book. I’m just thrilled with the opportunity to help people learn,” he said.
Having not one but two “high achievers” as older siblings “was a definite plus” for Jeff Noddle, who said his brothers “always put the bar very high for me. They were great role models.” He said Allan continues to be an inspiration. “Among many positive attributes, he has the highest integrity. His word is his bond.”
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Rosenblatt is a magical name in Omaha because of the popular mayor who belonged to it, the late Johnny Rosenblatt, who in his day was quite a ballplayer, and because of the municipal stadium whose construction he speerheaded. That stadium was named after him and became home to the College World Series. The subject of this story is his son Steve Rosenblatt, who inherited his father’s love for the game and followed the old man into politics. Fabled Rosenblatt Stadium is no more, replaced by TD Ameritrade Park as host of the CWS. The stadium, the series, and his honor the mayor are more than just tangential memories to Steve, they are lifeblood and legacy.
Steve Rosenblatt, A Legacy of Community Service, Political Ambition and Baseball Adoration
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jewish Press
Legacy plays a big part in Steve Rosenblatt’s life.
The Omaha native and his wife, the former Ann Hermen, live in Scottsdale, Ariz.
His late father, Johnny Rosenblatt, became an Omaha icon: first as a top amateur baseball player; than as a sponsor of youth athletic teams through the Roberts Dairy company he managed; and finally as a popular Omaha city councilman and mayor. The elder Rosenblatt, who served as mayor from 1954 to 1961, led efforts to build the south Omaha stadium that became the city’s home to professional baseball and to the College World Series.
The city he loved paid tribute to one of its greatest boosters when Omaha Municipal Stadium was renamed Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in 1964. The venue and the name have become synonymous with the NCAA college baseball championship played continuously at the stadium since 1950.
In a classic case of the apple not falling far from the tree, Steve Rosenblatt was a ballplayer in his own right and served on the Omaha Chamber of Commerce Sports Commission and the Omaha Royals Advisory Board. He followed his father’s footsteps into politics as well, serving two terms on the city council and three terms on the Douglas County Board of Commissioners.
The stadium that’s forever associated with his father played a key role in Steve’s early life. He was a bat boy for the inaugural Omaha Cardinals game played there, a duty he performed the first years the CWS took up residence. He regrets that the facility so closely tied to his family will be razed after the 2010 CWS in line with the planned construction of a new downtown palace slated to host the Series beginning in 2011. But the pragmatic Rosenblatt knows the decision is driven by the bottom line, which trumps nostalgia every time.
Sports and politics are inheritances for Rosenblatt, who is an only child. Just as his father used sports and charisma to forge a political career, the son used his own passion for athletics and way with people to become a player on the local political scene and to find success as an entrepreneur.
Bearing a name that has such major import in Omaha could have been an issue for Rosenblatt, but he didn’t let it be.
“You can take that and make it a burden,” Rosenblatt said, “or you can take it and have it be an asset, and I wished to take that route.”
Comparisons between he and his father were inevitable. “That’s fine, because we weren’t the same. First of all, he was a better ballplayer than me,” he said with his dry wit. “I was a better golfer than he was. Basketball might have been a toss-up, except he played college basketball — I didn’t.”
Growing up, Rosenblatt couldn’t help but notice what made his father a strong mayor and the sacrifices that job entailed.
“I was aware obviously of it and I learned as time went on how he operated and how he did things. Of course it was intriguing. He was a people-person who had an ability to communicate and to have relationships with his constituency and to make the tough decisions and still maintain a tremendous popularity. He had what I would call a broad-based support. He was well liked all over the community and one of the things that contributed to that — and it was what also helped me — was the background he had in athletics. That benefited him as I think it benefited me.
“He was well known as an athlete long before he was well known as a public official and his abilities as an athlete helped to project him into places.”
Rosenblatt said his father epitomized the “It” factor politicos possess. “All the people you see serve in the public sector as elected officials have in my opinion an attribute that goes beyond the norm,” he said, “in that they have the ability to speak and to be received in a fashion that projects themselves as leaders.”
Being an accessible mayor means never really having any down time.
“What was difficult about it was the fact you learned early on there’s a price to be paid as well,” Rosenblatt said, “because obviously with my dad doing what he did he was not going to be with you doing the things you might like to be doing all the time. He had public obligations to take care of as an elected official.”
The level of commitment required to be an effective, responsible public servant was not enough to dissuade Rosenblatt from seeking a seat on the city council and later on the county board. Even with the cachet of his name, his strong base in the business community and a groundswell of support to make a mayoral bid he never seriously considered running for that office. The same for a Congressional seat.
“I really was never interested in it. It was not aspiring to me. I’m as much a people- person as my dad was but at the same time I’m much more private. You cannot in my opinion be an elected official at that level and be as private as I would have liked to be. I want to do the job I was elected to do and when the day is over I want to go to the golf course, be with my family, watch a ballgame. You can’t do that in certain areas because you’ve given up that right and that time by your election to a particular office.”
He said it all comes with the territory.
“Make no mistake about it, when a person is elected to office, even at the city level, the county level, there’s a sacrifice to be made,” he said. “People may not realize it at the time they do get in but they will find out. I found out and I knew how much I wanted to give and how much I didn’t.
“People thought I should have run for mayor. The thing that used to scare me about that thought was I might get elected. Then I’d have to go do it and, you see, I knew too much about what a mayor had to give up and to do to be successful. I could have done it. I think I could have done a good job at it but it was not appealing to me because my (golf) handicap would have gone up.”
He never discussed with his father prospects for a public life nor went to him for political advice.
“Not really,” he said. “I first got elected in ‘73 and he was stricken with Parkinson’s disease in the latter part of the ‘50s, so he was really not able, but he didn’t have to because I learned from him when he was healthy, vigorous and in office, so I’d already got the lessons.”
Even though he never planned for it, Rosenblatt said he always assumed he would gravitate to public service.
“Well, I’d always thought that as a son of a former mayor and as somebody who had learned that life that perhaps some day I might get involved. I knew how to operate, so to speak. Actually, the way it happened is former Mayor Eugene Leahy said to me one day, ‘Steve, you need to run for the city council — we need to get some new blood in there.’ I guess he kind of triggered the desire.”
At the time he declared his candidacy in 1972 Rosenblatt was a salesman with Sterling Distributing Company, an alcoholic beverage distributor. He’d done some college work at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Only his mind was more on baseball than higher education.
“I was only interested in athletics and still am to this day as a matter of fact. I really did not have the kind of plan that I would hope my kids would have. I was not academically a good student but I think you could say I was more attuned to the practicalities of life. You might say I was street smart…”
A three-year varsity letter-winner at Omaha Central, he tried to play ball at UNL, he said, “but academically I wasn’t taking care of business and physically I was too young to have an opportunity to be successful.”
While school was hardly a home run, his experience trying to cobble together a college baseball career given him priceless insights. He also gained much from his friendship with two coaching legends — Eddie Sutton and the late Rod Dedeaux.
“I’m fortunate to have been very close to two of the greatest coaches in the history of sports.”
Rosenblatt got to know Sutton when the then-Creighton University head basketball coach and his family moved across the street from Steve and his folks. The families remain close to this day. He got to know Dedeaux when the University of Southern California head baseball coach led his powerhouse clubs at the CWS.
“If I’d have known then what I learned from Rod I would have had a chance to have been a better baseball player,” he said, “but at the time I didn’t have that coaching-mentoring.”
The ability to evaluate talent and to weigh options has made Rosenblatt a kind of scout and adviser for promising young athletes, especially Jewish athletes.
“I’m helping kids to try to get situated within athletics. I had a young Jewish kid and his father from Scottsdale, Ariz. go to Omaha to try to help him get set up collegiately. I’m making calls to some baseball people trying to help a young Jewish kid in Omaha who’s a good ballplayer. People call me. People know that I kind of understand. I try to offer guidance to both the parents and the youngsters as to what could be in their best interests. That, to me, is fun.”
Rosenblatt said it’s not an accident he’s drawn to strong, charismatic men like his father. After losing Johnny in 1979 Rosenblatt drew even closer to Dedeaux.
“He also was a people-person and a great communicator,” Rosenblatt said of Dedeaux. “He learned the baseball business from one of the smartest men in the history of the game, a fella named Casey Stengel. That was his mentor. The two games he played in the major leagues Casey Stengel was the manager.”
By the time Rosenblatt owned his own business — a sales and distribution outfit for corrugated package containers better known as boxes — Dedeaux and he were like father and son. They were also business associates.
“He was not only a good friend but one of my biggest customers. He had a trucking company with warehousing and distribution divisions. Multiple operations. It was really big. Make no mistake, he was a baseball person, but he was also a phenomenon in the world of business.”
Rosenblatt parlayed his background in athletics by serving on the Chamber’s Sports Commission, which had a similar agenda as today’s Omaha Sports Commission.
“It was a matter of trying to do the things that make Omaha an attraction for new athletic environments,” he said.
He described his work on the Omaha Royals Advisory Board as “an opportunity for the Royals management to hear from people that are looking at the franchise from perhaps a different standpoint.” He’s still tight with the Royals today. “The general manager of the Royals, Martie Cordaro, is a good friend. I meet with him literally every time I go back to Omaha to talk about what they’re doing and how we can help them be successful.”
Those enduring ties to the Royals keep Rosenblatt informed on the Triple AAA club’s uneasy status in town. Principal owner Alan Stein is in ongoing negotiations with the Omaha Sports Commission and the Metropolitan Entertainment Convention Authority that will determine if the Royals strike a deal to play in the new downtown stadium or go play ball somewhere else. La Vista and Sarpy County are among the Royals’ in-state suitors and Stein indicates out state communities are courting the team as well. Like any good businessman, he’s playing the field.
“Well, I think he has to have that attitude,” Rosenblatt said. “I’ve met with Alan and Martie. I know what they’re thinking is. I’ve offered them my opinion of the situation. It will be interesting to see what develops.”
Steve’s personal connection to Rosenblatt Stadium and to the pro and college baseball tenants that have occupied it rather uneasily in recent years have put him in a Solomon-like position. He loves the CWS and how it’s grown to become a huge event garnering national media coverage. His long association with the Series and his deep affection for the figures who made it special give him a unique perspective. He knows players, coaches, local CWS organizers and NCAA officials.
He sat in on negotiations between the city and the NCAA as a city councilman. “The city was a cooperative partner with the private sector in the production, basically, of the College World Series,” he said. He played a similar oversight role as a county board member.
On the other hand he appreciates what the Royals offer the community and the compromises they’ve made to placate the city and the NCAA and the proverbial 900-pound gorilla that is the CWS. Just as he still talks with Royals officials, he bends the ear of NCAA officials, acting as a kind of intermediary between the two.
It all came to a head when the political hot potato of the new stadium proposed by Mayor Mike Fahey, and subsequently approved by the city council, sealed the fate of Rosenblatt Stadium. The new downtown stadium is being built expressly for the NCAA and the CWS. If the Royals do play there they’d be the ugly step-child who has to accept the leftovers from the favorite son.
Rosenblatt equates a Royals move from Omaha a loss.
“Well, I would because the original concept of the stadium that has Johnny’s name on it was not initially for the College World Series, it was for professional baseball,” he said, “Because of what has transpired with the emergence of the College World Series, it’s now created what I would refer to as an unfriendly situation for professional baseball. There’s no other professional baseball team in America that has a competitor in town called the College World Series. So it’s awkward.”
Even though he now takes an indirect role in such matters, he’s keeping a wary eye on the downtown stadium project, whose estimated $140 million price tag he considers overly optimistic. He predicts it will end up costing $175-$200 million once all the dust settles.
Like many Omahans he’s concerned that if the Royals don’t play at the new stadium and no minor league franchise is secured in their place, the venue will sit empty 50 weeks a year and not be the economic catalyst or anchor for NoDo it’s intended to be. This longtime proponent of a CWS hall of fame said the stadium would be an apt home for it and an Omaha sports hall of fame.
A CWS hall would acknowledge those who’ve excelled as players or coaches or been responsible for the Series’ success. While he doesn’t feel that venue would be much of a year-round draw he sees an Omaha sports museum as a turnstyle magnet “because so many great athletes have come out of Omaha. That would be very interesting, and if you could incorporate the two, that’s a helluva an idea.”
He also has a vested interest in seeing his father’s name live on in the new stadium.
“In my opinion that would be wise and appropriate given the lengthy association that that name has had with college and professional baseball in Omaha. Hopefully the powers that be will have his name connected in some way,” he said.
The stakes are rarely as high as they are with the stadium issue but he makes a practice of using sports as an ice breaker with people.
“Almost everything I’ve done business-wise, athletics has been a tool of taking care of business. My involvement in athletics is an invitation. If I happen to be calling on new customers and if they’re knowledgeable in athletics, then I’m going to get their business, because I can talk it. If they’re interested in the opera and the theater, I’m in trouble. So athletics is a great tool in communicating.”
Athletics and business were not his only finishing schools for a political life. He gained valuable leadership experience as a Nebraska Air National Guardsman and as chairman of the Midlands Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“That was a very rewarding opportunity,” he said. “Hopefully we did some good there. I had learned, of course, with my dad being afflicted with Parkinson’s and my mother being afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis how devastating that can be. Being associated with the Multiple Sclerosis Society gave me an opportunity to contribute and to try to help people…”
Community service motivated his entry into politics.
“You try to get elected in my opinion to help people who perhaps don’t have the ability to help themselves,” he said, “because everybody needs help. Having the ability to collectively help people is the thing that gives you the most pleasure.”
His political life has taught him some lessons. One is to be “leery” of any candidate who makes promises. “The fact of the matter is there’s very little individually they can do because it takes a collective effort to get something done,” he said. Any rhetoric about reducing taxes is just that. “That’s folly,” he said. “They’ll be lucky if they don’t have to raise taxes.”
His action on some issues elicits satisfaction all these years later. One involved the Orpheum Theatre. Omaha’s then-mayor, Ed Zorinsky, wanted it razed. Rosenblatt, a fellow Jew and key ally, went against Zorinsky to side with preservationists who wanted it restored. The conflict came down to a close city council vote.
“The Orpheum Theatre would not be around today if not for Steve Rosenblatt,” he said. “I felt an obligation to the people of the city of Omaha to ensure that it remained for the use down the road. I was the swing vote on that. If that vote goes the other way it’s gone.”
A controversial decision on his council-county board watch was demolishing Jobbers Canyon to make way for the downtown ConAgra campus. “It was an emotional issue,” he said. “I don’t make decisions based on much emotion. I try to make them based on what I think is right.” He said the project “was an absolute must because we as a community could not afford for ConAgra to go to Lincoln or somewhere out in the suburbs — one of the possibilities at the time. It needed to be downtown to be the initial thrust for the redevelopment of that area.”
He encouraged then-mayor Bernie Simon to have the city match a financial commitment the county was making for the project. The city did. He said, “One of the things I had going for me was having been on the city council I retained a great deal of working relationships with people at city hall. The ability to transcend the workings of city and county government was helpful on a variety of projects.”
He credits ex-mayors P.J. Morgan and Hal Daub with driving forward Omaha’s growth by continuing city-county cooperation and public-private sector synergy. Under current Mayor Mike Fahey Omaha’s makeover has been “phenomenal.”
If Rosenblatt and his wife have their way, they’ll eventually live in Omaha half the year. The Rosenblatt name could once again be center stage in the political arena.
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Omaha’s Pitch Man: Entrepreneur Extraordinaire Willy Theisen is Back with His Next Big Business Venture
Willy Theisen’s self-made success story is an American classic. I have known of him since the breakout success of his Godfather’s Pizza chain in the 1970s but it wasn’t until I was assigned the following profile that I finally met him. I interviewed him for the piece in early March and the story will appear in an upcoming issue of Omaha Magazine. It all started for him in his adopted hometown of Omaha, which happens to be my hometown as well. Omaha has been the launching pad and testing ground for some of his original ideas, most notably Godfather’s but he’s also gone far afield to follow his passion for the restaurant business. He is an entrepreneur through and through. When he fixes on an opportunity, whether a concept he’s created himself or an existing one he sees he can take to the next level, he appies his high energy, long vision, laser focus, risk tolerance, and indefatigable hunger to realize his ideas into reality.
Omaha’s Pitch Man: Entrepreneur Extraordinaire Willy Theisen is Back with His Next Big Business Venture
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the May/June 2012 issue of Omaha Magazine
Willy Theisen has done it all in the restaurant business. He founded a national name brand in Godfather’s Pizza that became the fastest growing pizza chain in America. He’s been a successful innovator, franchisor and franchisee. He’s opened thousands of restaurants across the country. He’s a millionaire many times over.
He’s far from done, too, as he’s about to replicate his latest concept, the popular Pitch Coal-Fire Pizzeria in Dundee. Always hungry for “the next thing,” you can bet Pitch won’t be his last hurrah either.
Part of his wheeler-dealer’s genius is selling others on his ideas.
“You’re only as good as the product you’re selling, and that could be yourself, too. You’ve got to be confident in yourself and then you have to share that confidence and knowledge base with others,” he says. “I take it as a compliment when someone says, ‘You’re a great salesman, you’re a good pitchman.’”
His entrepreneurial bent showed early growing up in Clinton, Iowa. He liked earning his own money delivering papers, stenciling addresses on curbs and flipping burgers. While attending Northern Iowa University in Cedar Falls he became a top door-to-door salesman of cookware. Before starting Godfathers he leased commercial real estate.
Appearing fit, energetic and jaunty in an all-black ensemble and looking several years younger than his age (66), he’s still the driven dynamo who hit the ground running in his late 20s to make himself an overnight Player in the fast-food industry.
Just as he still retains his knack for recognizing opportunities, he still possesses the initiative for seizing the day and staying out front of the competition.
“My idea of an entrepreneur is having the ability to see things possibly other people don’t see. Having an eye for opportunity I think is key to my success. I don’t know that you train for it or study for it. Either you have it or you don’t have it. You can see a location, you can see the potential for a business in there, you can see potential in people and bring the best out in them or make them better than they are.
“That’s what makes someone successful – the ability to perceive and receive what people want.”
Identifying a good idea is one thing. Making it profitable is another.
“Recognizing and then doing something with it,” he says, “is a trait you gotta have.”
Being a successful entrepreneur, he says, means taking calculated risks. “It’s making a commitment and pulling the trigger on an idea or a concept or any opportunity that is there. I can identify it as one word, and that’s timing.” It’s knowing when to get in and when to get out.
“With businesses exit strategies are always important,” says Theisen, who sold Godfather’s in 1983 for hundreds of millions of dollars and saw it enjoy continued success. “Anybody can find the front door but once you go in, what’s your exit strategy? What is the life span of a concept, of an investment? Things come in and go out. How long is this going to be good?
“And when you go onto another business, you have to leave some meat on the bone for the next operator. There has to be some future for it.”
If not Godfather’s, would he have still made a killing in some other business?
“It just happened that way,” he says. “I don’t know if it would have happened if I was in the car business or if I sold life insurance. I was confident but I wasn’t to the point of being blind to the fact things don’t always work.”
This self-described “food maven” would likely have found a niche in some food business segment. He gets too much satisfaction watching people enjoy themselves dining and drinking not to. Then there’s the gratification of conceiving winning venues.
“The toughest job of what I do is to try to figure out what everybody’s going to like. Ultimately I’ve got to figure out what tastes good to people, where they like to go, where they like to park, how long they want to stay, what they want to happen while they’re there. It takes time to do it. You just don’t wake up one morning and go, ‘I’ve got it all figured out.’ There’s a process and there’s a lot that goes into that.”
Before opening Pitch he did his due diligence.
“I wanted to go into a neighborhood, I wanted trees, I wanted people walking dogs, I wanted slow moving traffic, I wanted soul, nurturing families, a university, light retail. That’s the ingredient for the location. The ingredient for the food is separate. First I had to figure out where I was going to do what I was going to do.
“I spent a lot of time looking around. Of course, I wanted to do it in Omaha. There’s such a thing as a home court advantage when you’re first starting, and my knowledge base was the best here because I’ve been here the longest. So I ended up in the Dundee area. I sat across the street on this bench by myself for several afternoons, with a pad of paper and a cell phone. After several days and discussion with some others I decided that was where I was going to do it.”
Pitch is Theisen’s most refined dining model yet. He says it’s intended to be the kind of “special place” – from decor to food to vibe – “you discover when you’re out of town and say, ‘I wish we had one of those here.’ That’s what I’ve built. I wanted to give it a pedigree. I think it’s so much different than a lot of things I’ve done but it’s also an accumulation of a lot of things I’ve done. It’s on the progressive side. The foods are more broad-based. It’s current, it’s going after a lot of different demographics..”
If his instincts are right, then Pitch will soon be a household name all over.
“We don’t want it to be one and done. It’s got a future life in other locations out of the city,” says Theisen, who adds he has lined up people “very much interested in taking this brand and developing it. My plan is by year’s end to open company-owned restaurants in six other cities throughout the Midwest and then simultaneously open it up to franchising joint ventures.”
Theisen’s been down this road before. He conceived Godfather’s while working for Omaha developer Tom Fellman, who had a planned unit development in a southwest suburb. Theisen leased all the available commercial space save a 5,000 square foot bay he saw opportunity in. Apartments with single adults and young families surrounded the heavily trafficked spot.
In 1973, with help from an uncle and a Small Business Association bank loan, he opened the combined Wild Willy’s beer garden and Godfather’s Pizza, brazenly capitalizing on the popular The Godfather. Wild Willy’s faded away but Godfathers took off.
Within a year Theisen began franchising, first in Columbus, Neb., then expanding across the state, the Midwest and nationwide.
“It seems like the success kind of fed itself,” he says. “We hit the ground running with these things. There were many people at our doors wanting franchises. We built by the model, and we managed by the model, and we kept it very simple because we were opening many locations simultaneously.”
At its peak Godfather’s had nearly 1,000 locations in 40-plus states. He revolutionized the industry by using conveyor ovens and introducing free, refillable Coke containers.
After selling Godfather’s he took time off to focus on himself. He worked his magic again buying and selling GB Foods (Green Burrito). Hebecame Famous Dave’s first pure franchisee, winning operator awards and guiding it in new directions. Then he developed Pitch.
Through it all, he’s gained local icon status as one of Omaha’s favorite self-made success stories, yet he’s a Chicagoan by birth and was raised in Iowa. He only ended up here when his Ford Falcon broke down on his way to California in 1969.
Omaha long ago became home. His deep affection for where his success began is expressed in many ways. He’s served on the Omaha Airport Authority and Creighton University boards. Mayor Jim Suttle just appointed him to the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority (MECA) board. Theisen’s helped make the fortunes of Nebraskans who’ve become owner-operators of his ventures. He also encourages emerging entrepreneurs who seek his advice.
“I’m so blessed. I’m really at peace with what I’m doing, giving back, the things I’m involved in, the people that come to me for assistance or questions or what-ifs.
I just think where I am and what I’m doing gives me great pleasure. Of course, I like my cars and certain other items. Those are my hobbies. I like working out. I try to go to the gym regularly to keep my body in pace with my mind because sometimes my mind runs a little quicker than my body can run at my age.
“I don’t deny I’m getting a little bit older but there’s never a bad time for a good idea and that’s what I’m striving to do with Pitch.”
The man who built a 20,000 square foot Regency mansion has moved beyond conspicuous consumption. He doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody.
“I think I’ve evolved, not only as a businessperson but as a person. You change as you grow older, at least I do. Things may have been important to me early in life and now its not about having things, it’s about giving back, it’s about my community and what I can impact in a positive way.
“I’ve just been very fortunate. My dad said the harder you work the luckier you’ll get, and maybe those are hand in hand. I’m not so sure though that if I’d gone to Calif. that would have been a smart move. Maybe I was fortunate my car broke down and I was forced to stay here. Omaha is the key to what I’ve been, what I’ve done.”
The single Theisen also enjoys quality time with his family.
Though he’s hands-on and nothing escapes his scrutiny, he’s more the big picture- strategy guy today with his business pursuits.
“I make sure the day to day stuff is done, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t do it myself. I’ve got to stay a little ahead of that. I cant personally worry about a burned-out light bulb. That gets me off track. Don’t you think I don’t look at those light bulbs, and don’t you think I don’t go in our bathrooms, like I’ve done for years. They’ve got to be right, the kitchens have to be clean, everything’s got to be in order.”
It’s not like he has some Midas touch either. It’s more that he pays attention to details and doggedly stays after it.
“I’ve struggled like everybody else. I tried some things that didn’t work. But I always had a couple things going. I didn’t bank on one thing. I hate losing more than I like winning. I just don’t like to lose, and I don’t give up. I’m not known to throw in the towel too often or too quick.”
He admits he can reach too far too fast. Then again, that’s his nature as a risk-taker. He likes the action. He also has the power of his convictions. “People around me make suggestions and then I have to make decisions. It’s a big responsibility and it all comes down to being able and willing with good information to make that decision, whatever it may be, and so I try to attract the best people possible.”
Never one to rest on his laurels, he’s determined to make Pitch his next legacy. Beside, he couldn’t slow down if he wanted. He’s tried retiring and it didn’t take.
“I think that’s possibly the true definition of an entrepreneur – they really can’t stop. They continue to try to think ahead. Yeah, you’ve got to have that fire in your belly, and you either have it or you don’t, and I have it. I’ve always got something cooking.”
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