For Love of Art and Cinema, Danny Lee Ladely Follows His Muse
When I wrote the following article in the early 2000s the alternative cinema landscape in Nebraska was very different than it is today. The profile subject of the story, Danny Lee Ladely, headed the only dedicated art cinema in the state, what was then called the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater but which came to be known as the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center , located in Lincoln, Neb. At roughly twice the size of Lincoln, Omaha had no such venue. Neither could one be found anywhere else in the state. That’s changed with the addition of Film Streams in Omaha, where Rachel Jacobson is the metro’s equivalent to Ladely in running and programming a full fledged art cinema complete with screenings of the best in contemporary film, along with repertory programs, visiting filmmakers, Q&As, and panel discussions. The Omaha Film Festival has added another dimension to the film scene. And there have been concerted efforts to restore long abandoned neighborhood and small town theaters. This is all familiar territory for me, as I used to be a film programmer in Omaha and I appreciate any attempts to engage and energize the cinema culture here. Ladely was way out in front of anyone in Nebraska in nurturing an alternative film culture and what he’s accomplished with the Ross in Lincoln is remarkable, including the new facility he got built courtesy of the cinema’s major patroness and namesake, Mary Riepma Ross. My piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared as the facility was under construction. It’s been operational for years now and now that Film Streams in Omaha has provided a comparable venue in Omaha, the area’s once rather stark art cinema landscape has turned bountiful. It took the vision and will of Ladely and Jacobson (who’s profiled on this blog) to make it happen.
For Love of Art and Cinema, Danny Lee Ladely Follows His Muse
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
With his braided pony tail, arrowhead-pattern shirt, blue jeans, boots and Stetson hat, Nebraska film guru Dan Lee Ladely looks like a holdover from the 1960s, when the Gordon, Neb. native was in fact an anti-war demonstrator in college. During his undergrad days at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned a degree in English lit between showing films for the student council, he once led a takeover of the campus ROTC building. These days the 50-something Ladely is an activist for the aesthetic, educational and entertainment value of the moving image and more and more his cinema dreams loom large on the horizon.
As construction proceeds on the new Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater (MRRFT) at 13th and P Streets in Lincoln, the new home for the nationally recognized alternative film program Ladely’s overseen since 1973, he daily watches his dreams taking shape from the temporary office he and his small staff occupy a block away. Once the theater opens in early 2003 he plans an ambitious exhibition schedule that will give cinephiles access to see American independent, first-run foreign and classic films the way they’re meant to be seen and opportunities to meet emerging and established filmmakers. Two auditoriums, equipped for film, digital and video projection, will provide flexible exhibition space to show a large, diverse menu of feature, documentary and short films as well as video art pieces. Plans call for the theater’s Great Plains Film Festival, a celebration of regional indie film which Ladely inaugurated, to continue unreeling there every other year.
The new theater will replace the auditorium the program exhibited in at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, located within a block of the new site.
The MRRFT is an anomaly. Where art houses and alternative film series have failed in more populous Omaha, Ladely’s program has survived 30 years in Lincoln of all places and now, in the midst of a recession, is embarking on a new building program.
It is a stunning accomplishment, especially in the capitol of such a conservative state, because the pitfalls to success in the art film market are legion. Among the obstacles to running any art house in today’s environment are: the tight economy; the fact that indie films regularly play at commercial cineplexes; and the encroaching presence of cable television, video-DVD and the Internet, media formats that feature much of the same kind of fare art houses used to be the exclusive outlet for.
Now, a film buff outfitted with a home theater system can select from the market’s glut of viewing choices and, in effect, be his or her own film programmer. In addition to this competition, Ladely’s program faces additional constraints in the form of: budget cuts, as his theater is partly subsidized by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where it is a department within the College of Fine and Performing Arts; the whims of private and public contributors it depends on for the bulk of its funding; and ever higher operating costs. All of which might lead one to wonder if this is the right time to build a new theater?
“There still is a place and a need for this program and I think people will respond,” a reflective and soft-spoken Ladely said. “I think people will come out, at least at the beginning out of curiosity, in pretty good numbers. The new building is going to do one thing for us. We were sort of hidden in the Sheldon Art Gallery. I think being in an art museum kind of put some people off and now that we won’t be there we have the possibility of a whole new audience.”
The mission of the theater, which he said he “sort of created out of thin air” over the years, has always been “to provide an alternative venue for true commercial cinema and to bring films here that wouldn’t get shown here otherwise.”
He said the proliferation of art films on cable and video/DVD has made it “harder and harder” to stay true to that vision. But the one thing MRRFT can still provide is a state-of-the-art space where you can watch these films in the manner in which they were meant to be seen, namely, a theater. He said regardless of how elaborate one’s home theater system is, “it’s still not the same” as the real thing. “No matter what happens in the future there’s always going to be a place for the film theater because film is really still a social event. Even though you’re there in the dark, there’s an audience and the audience reacts and that’s part of the experience. It’s totally different when you’re home alone.” Plus, there’s the dearth of alternative film exhibition in Nebraska, where except for the Dundee Theater, art houses have come and gone, the most recent being the short-lived Brandeis Art Cinema.
As Ladely points out, “There isn’t any other alternative place in this whole area right now where you can see these films.”
Much of what Ladely envisions has already been done from its old site in the currently closed Sheldon Art Gallery, where a major renovation under way has put a halt to the film program’s exhibition schedule until the new theater is completed. For years the program has been the state’s best and most consistent venue for presenting what used to be called underground cinema and the people who make it.
Where many like programs in Omaha once thrived but eventually folded, including those of the New Cinema Cooperative, the Joslyn Art Museum and the UNO Student Programming Organization, Ladely’s has continued uninterrupted for 30 years. How? Part of the answer lies in the fact the Lincoln program has enjoyed a measure of institutional support unknown elsewhere in this state owing to the legacy of the man who formed it and hired Ladely to run it, Sheldon’s director emeritus Norman Gesky, and to Ladely’s own passion for creating something of world-class stature. Ladely also had hands-on experience running two theaters in his native Gordon. Long a step-child of the Sheldon, where the MRRFT eventually lost favor under the man who succeeded Gesky as director, George Neubert, who cut the exhibition schedule and made life uneasy for Ladely, the theater is now poised to have its own stand-alone facility and identity.
And then there’s the one factor separating the theater from its imitators — Mary Riepma Ross. The retired New York lawyer is not only the theater’s namesake but its most ardent patron, biggest contributor and tenacious protector. A former UNL undergraduate student who fell in love with the movies as a young girl living in Lincoln, she was serving on the University Foundation board of trustees in the 1970s when then-chancellor Durwood “Woody” Varner put her in touch with the Sheldon’s Geske, a fellow film buff just beginning to shape plans for a full-fledged film program. She bought into Geske’s vision and, according to Ladely, “pledged she would support the program, which she’s obviously done. She started very early on sending us financial donations.”
In 1990, with the then Sheldon Film Theater struggling financially after a round of state budget cuts and slowly but surely being squeezed into oblivion by a director (Neubert) unfriendly toward the program, Ladely sent her a letter outlining his bold dream for a new theater space that would give the program a solid, independent foundation for survival and growth. It was just an idea. Ladely didn’t even ask for money. Amazingly, her response was to donate 3.5 million dollars in an irrevocable trust, a giant windfall for an arts organization of any size anywhere, but a truly extraordinary and unprecedented commitment for a film series in the Midwest. The Sheldon Film Theater quickly became the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater.
Ladely, who has a portrait of his benefactress hanging in his office, said, “She’s actually the perfect patron. She has really impeccable tastes in film and she loves the kind of films we show. She sees them in New York and often writes to me and sends in articles about films she’s seen and makes recommendations to me. And very often they’re films we’re considering and we end up showing.”
In the new space Ladely anticipates reviving some activities he was forced to abandon during leaner times, such as film retrospectives, artist showcases and screening seven nights a week. In the past he has brought to Lincoln prominent filmmakers and actors with local ties, including Joan Micklin Silver, Peter Fonda and John Beasley. And now for the first time the theater will sell concessions, including popcorn, a new revenue stream he’s counting on to help defray expenses. He would also like to resume the theater’s long dormant touring film exhibition program and to share programs with other organizations, such as a film series it cooperatively presented with the Joslyn a few years ago.
There’s even more Ladely would like to do, but he admits all his plans are ultimately “contingent upon whether or not we can come up with enough money to keep the program going.” That’s why Ladely is using this down time while the MRRFT marquee is blank to write grants and solicit funds. Even if successful in securing enough money for the new theater’s operating budget, he is left with the nagging realization that attendance just isn’t what it used to be for documentaries by Emile De Antonio, Ricky Leacock, Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker (all of whom appeared at the old theater at one time or another) or for Hollywood classics or for the best emerging cinema from places like Iran.
Even in its fattest years, he said, “if the university hadn’t been paying all the utilities…we couldn’t have survived as a stand-alone theater in a market this size.” That, and the fact the theater is about to come out of the shadows and expand in every way, has made for “sleepless nights” for Ladely, who is left “wondering how we’re going to do it.”
But, if nothing else, Ladely is an evangelist for film. He has a way of making you see the stars in his eyes when he discusses the kind of cinema he sees at the Telluride and Sundance festivals and that makes him compelled to share it with audiences here.
“I’m really interested in what’s going on now. What’s coming out. What’s the next big thing. Who’s doing what. I’m always interested in new filmmakers. And I’m very interested in what’s happening locally. One of the major things we’ll be doing in the small theater is have an open screening night where local filmmakers show their films. We’ll be able to show them in almost any format.” He said he keeps tabs on the local filmmaking scene and expects more new filmmakers to surface as technology makes moviemaking, especially the digital variety, more accessible and affordable, “That’s going to be very exciting — to see what comes out of that.”
Despite shrinking attendance for things like politically-charged documentaries, he will continue programming quality cinema regardless of how little box office potential it has, because that is part of what an alternative film series is all about, particularly one allied with a university.
“We have to balance this out between showing stuff that’s very esoteric and very important, even if there’s just one person in the audience, and showing stuff that’s more popular and generates a bigger audience. Just like there are classes that are real popular and classes that aren’t popular but are really important and you have to have, there are some kinds of films people don’t want to see but it’s absolutely important that, for example, film students see them in order to get a well-rounded education. The university has these burgeoning film studies and new media programs and I think our program definitely serves a need for those students.” Reality also dictates the theater at least break even, which means Ladely must show slightly more mainstream fare or at least indie cinema with a strong buzz behind it in the hope that better box office returns offset losses incurred on more obscure selections.
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- Film Connections, An In-Progress Story of How a 1968 Convergence of Future Cinema Greats in Ogallala, Neb. Resulted in Multiple Films and Enduring Relationships; From the Melting Pot of Coppola, Lucas, Knight, Duvall, Caan and two Ranch-Rodeo Families Cam (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)