Omaha’s signature arts-entertainment district the Old Market was never a foregone conclusion. It only came into being because a few people with the vision and guts to make it happen could see the potential of a derelict old produce center to be the base for a mixed-use urban village with residences, restaurants, shops, galleries, bookstores, live music, theater, and all sorts of funky creative spaces. What long ago became a chic destination place was forged from rough-hewn beginnings that to most looked unpromising. A band of artists, hipsters, and entrepreneurs applied their individual and collective talents to transforming a history-laden area into something entirely new and 45 years later it continues to be a vital melting pot for culture and creativity. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) attempts to explore how the Old Market emerged and who was there at the beginning to see its possibilities and to help shape those possibilities into reality.
Once Upon a Time an Urban Dead End Became Omaha’s Lively Old Market
Popular Arts-Entertainment District Emerged in Late 1960s-Early ’70s Thanks to Artists and Entrepreneurs
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In a state with few destination attractions, Omaha‘s Old Market arts-entertainment district packs them in. The draw is not any one or two venues, but a collective of shops, restaurants, bars, galleries and creative spaces, along with the historic character of those places.
Designer Roger duRand opened one of the first businesses there, the head shop The Farthest Outpost, with Wade Wright in 1968. duRand later designed businesses and apartments there. He was struck then as he is now by the area’s contiguous array of late 19th-early 20th century warehouses.
“I was really charmed by how coherent the neighborhood was. It was really intact. The buildings all had a relationship with each other, they were all of the same general age. They were all designed in a very unselfconsciously commercial style. They’re very honest buildings.”
If density and diversity define vital urban areas, then the Market is Omaha’s most lively concentration of eclectic spots.
It’s also a neighborhood whose residents add to the vibe.
“Having people live here makes it a 24-hour alive place,” says Ree Kaneko, an Old Market artist, arts administrator and resident whose presence there goes back 40-plus years.
Nicholas Bonham-Carter a nephew of the Market’s late godfather, Sam Mercer, says, “The Old Market works because of the multiplicity of things going on. In other historical districts they have no residence portion at all so at night when the shops close it looks dead. But in the Old Market when the shops close you know people are living upstairs. Even if you can’t see them the knowledge they’re there gives it life;”
In this same year the Market turned 45 years old its guiding light, Sam Mercer, died (Feb. 5). The Mercers are longtime property owners and landlords there. When the idea for it surfaced they were perhaps the only locals with the resources and inclination to make it over on the scale required to turn the abandoned produce center into a chic oasis.
In the mid-’60s Mercer began heeding advice that the dying wholesale district could be revived for a new use. It took vision and guts as the old buildings were in bad shape and no one knew if enough entrepreneurs would take the plunge. The four-square block area became a real life assemblage or installation that creatives reclaimed and rebirthed, one building, one endeavor at a time.
Cedric Hartman and Judy Wigton put the proverbial bug in Mercer’s ear. He’s an internationally known lighting and furniture designer who keeps a low profile at his factory on the Market’s southeast edge. She’s an arts lover. Their shared appreciation for the finer things led them to open a mid-town high-end shop, The Afternoon (the Omaha store by that name today has no relationship to the earlier store).
In 1964 the business partners went on a buying trip to Chicago and discovered Old Town – a mix of quality shops in repurposed buildings.
Wigton recalls coming back and driving around Omaha’s city market “looking for a likely area” to relocate The Afternoon and finding a For Rent sign. She made the necessary inquiries and, she says, “On a very cold day in Dec. 1964 we met Sam Mercer. He showed us the property. We indicated it wouldn’t work if we were the only ones down there. We wanted there to be a number of shops. He seemed very doubtful about our idea for a community of shops and restaurants.”
But Wigton and Hartman persisted and kept pitching the concept.
“We became great friends. One evening we took Sam to see Jim Shugart’s wonderful house in a former Budweiser building at 1215 Jones. It made a good impression on Sam who then said that maybe what we were talking about would work. Eventually he seemed to be coming around. He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.
“We also appreciated old buildings. Cedric and I had special interest in architectural history. I had started the drive to try to save the old Omaha City Hall from destruction, but when we met with Mayor (A.V.) Sorenson about it, he made it clear a serious goal of his and city fathers was to get rid of old buildings. That conflict continued for years.
“All through 1965-1967 we talked about possibilities for the area.”
The Market happened in spite of meek support and sometimes outright opposition from Omaha city government and business leadership. The very idea of it flew in the face of conservative, parochial Omaha.
Old buildings were razed with alarming frequency then. Aging inner city neighborhoods were neglected. The Great Suburban Boom was on and new was preferred to old. Downtown Omaha was already slipping and would soon find its once vibrant retail base gone. Flipping, reinventing, transforming massive buildings simply didn’t occur here.
Bonham-Carter echoes others in arguing the Market “provided sort of the initial shove for the rebirth of downtown.”
The Market’s success undoubtedly made Omaha more receptive to preservation and revitalizing areas like the riverfront and north downtown. Even its example though couldn’t save Jobbers Canyon and its historic buildings just east of the Market.
Hard as it may be to imagine now, the warehouses comprising the Market were mostly viewed as eyesores, not assets.
Hartman and Wigton saw things differently and their dogged pursuit of what to others seemed a pipe dream paid off.
Kaneko says few realize how vital they were to the Market coming into being.
“Nobody wanted to take on these brick warehouses. The idea was planted with Sam with Cedric’s help and as these Old Market spaces were renovated Cedric provided much good advice.”
Bonham-Carter, who spearheaded the creation of the Passageway in the Market, says Hartman “sowed the seeds of what could be done. He’s a real genius.”
Hartman was so convinced of its potential he recalls “I couldn’t stop on the subject. Judy was enthused too.” His motivation was to break Omaha from its dull status quo. He’d lived in Chicago and New York, studied in France, and upon returning to Omaha found “it dreadful, nothing happening here, it seemed like a very unsophisticated place to me. I was interested in seeing something happen downtown.”
He says there was resignation nothing would really ever change.”Most people droned, ‘It seems like nobody will ever do that here, this is Omaha, forget it.’” He wasn’t deterred. “I just kept talking it up.”
In Mercer Hartman and Wigton found the receptive audience they craved and someone in a position to do something about it.
“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman.”He was very smart and a very worldly and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both flabbergasted, dazzled by his personal style. We were taken with him and in his way he was with us.
“He did respond to us in a great way and I think he was genuine. We were a couple of really arty kids and he was really arty, too, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”
Hartman recalls walking around the Market with Mercer when it was a warehouse graveyard “trying to imagine what could be done.”
With Mercer on board Wigton helped raise public awareness of the proposed redevelopment by hosting luncheons at the old Omaha Club where Mercer bent the ear of stakeholders and tastemakers.
“Sam was invariably charming and interesting and would lay out the possibilities in a very persuasive way. I especially remember a lunch there with (the late columnist) Robert McMorris which seemed to result in dozens of favorable stories in the World-Herald. Another was with city planning director Alden Aust, whose advocacy became invaluable.”
The initial businesses in the fledgling district opened in 1968. Percy Roche’s British Imports was the first.
Omaha businessman Tom Davis invested in several ventures there.
The French Cafe
“It was very much a combination of the right people in the right place at the right time,” says Wigton “And then it was very fortunate that Sam’s family, Mark and Vera Mercer and Nicholas and Jane Bonham-Carter were able to move here when they did and keep everything going. It hasn’t been easy and I don’t think any other family could have done it.”
Wigton suggests, and others agree, that “perhaps it really began to come together” when the French Cafe was born in 1969. But even that anchor, signature eatery only happened because Hartman was in the right place at the right time. He spotted a condemnation notice posted on the Solomon Gilinsky Fruit Market building and contacted Mercer.
“That’s a building I promoted finding. It was not a Mercer property, it belonged to the Gilinsky family. I said, ‘Sam, we really ought to buy this building.’” Hartman’s concern was that if the structure, situated mid-way on Howard St., were razed it would interrupt the flow of what they hoped to do with the other buildings.
“If we were working on separated buildings and somebody would do something else that didn’t quite fit in that could have destroyed the atmosphere for the whole place,” says Bonham-Carter.
Mercer and Gilinsky made the deal but even then last minute fast talking was required because, Hartman says, Gilinsky had a contract with a wrecking firm to take the building down. Demolition was set for the following morning. After some frantic calls the order was canceled.
The idea to open a French restaurant there was entirely Sam’s. Hartman designed the space. He admires the chance Mercer took.
“It was a risky thing for them. Who knew if that would work?”
Kaneko says if Hartman hadn’t prevailed on Mercer at that critical juncture there might not have been a French Cafe or Old Market.
She says “credit for building the Old Market belongs to many people over the years who put their ideas, dreams and patina on the spaces in these handsome, left behind buildings. Yes, it’s true the Mercer family had the financial ability to make lots of things happen and the flare to do it right, but I would guess had it not been for Cedric Hartman who called Sam Mercer in Paris to inform him that a building in the middle of the block of Howard St. was about to be torn down that maybe it would not have happened at all.
“Paris is a long ways away for one to keep an eye on what’s happening down the block. The idea was planted with Sam…And so it started this way – the idea, the saving of a structure, then the investment in the renovation and all the wonderful ideas and people that followed.
“So many interesting people shaped this area with their ideas and energy. Each person added to the growth of the dream. They were the fiber of the place. They came to work here, they lived here, they ate here, they hung out here. They were neighbors…they were friends.”
Bonham-Carter says, “I think everyone who was down here was in some way or another very unique and we couldn’t have done it without them.”
The Edison Exposure and Omaha Magic Theatre were cutting-edge venues. The Antiquarium and Homer’s were counter-culture bastions.
The French Cafe helped legitimize or mainstream the district.
“It was getting the so-called aristocracy of Omaha to come down to our area. It was very sophisticated and its image rubbed off on the rest of the Old Market. so I think it was very important. And it generated traffic. It became sort of a magnet,” says Bonham-Carter, who helped shepherd the Cafe its first couple years.
Bonham-Cartern notes that the Market ultimately benefited from the family having meager development funds because it reinforced leaving the buildings largely alone, to retain their historic integrity. ”We had a lot of bricks and mortar but not much money,” he says, “so we were always having to sort of economize and so as a result that probably made it less likely for us to make some expensive mistakes.”
The last thing the family wanted was to make the Market a glossy theme park whitewashed of age.
For Kaneko the great attraction was “space, space and more space. It’s just what artists needed. And at that time the visual arts were the poor sister in town. So this was a big deal.” She was among the early vanguard to move in as working artists. She says despite a lack of creature comforts they felt impassioned.
“It was a no-man’s land but very exciting because you were making a change happen. We felt we were doing something very important and very radical. We were saving this wonderful architecture and bringing new life to these discarded places. We had nothing but our dreams and hard work and intense desire to make it happen.”
duRand, who was there even earlier, says, “It was exhilarating really because it was all new and it was a creative process. The whole venture was kind of an artwork really. Making something out of nothing – that was really the fun part.”
He recalls the Market as “a really interesting urban environment” where hippies and artists commingled with blue collar laborers. Some wholesalers were still operating. Cafes catered to truckers and railroaders. “A lot of jobbing went on – suppliers of all kinds of mechanical stuff. The railroad cars would go up and down the alleys at night where freight was loaded and unloaded.”
For years Sam’s son Mark Mercer and his wife Vera Mercer have stewarded the family’s various holdings and ventures. Mark developed V Mertz restaurant in the Passageway. The couple later created La Buvette and The Boiler Room. They’re now developing a new eatery at the site of the French Cafe, which closed last year. Mercer says their guiding philosophy is the same as Sam’s was:
“We want to create things that are attractive and different than other places that have been infected by chains and franchises or things like that because than it’d be just like anywhere else. We pick things we think to rent to or to do ourselves that fit our tastes and our interests.”
“Something that has made the difference between the way we did it and the way other people would do it is that we determined the only businesses we would get there would be home grown, locally owned,” says Bonham-Carter. “I think we are today exactly where we hoped we would be in having a pretty good mix of tenants down there.”
Kaneko says, “The Mercers are wonderful at allowing things to take shape. They know it is a slow process, so if you come to them with a good idea and they believe it fits with their dream for the Old Market you could probably have a good chance at succeeding. They have a great sense of the mix of things that need to happen to make the Market exciting.”
duRand says the Market succeeded “because it was genuine, it wasn’t really contrived. it evolved authentically. The main criterion wasn’t profit it was for interesting things to happen. The Mercers made it very easy for interesting people to get a foothold here. A lot of times the rent was negligible. You could give receipts for improvements in lieu of rent money, and it helped everybody. It helped people on a shoestring build something for themselves and the owners got improvements at no expense to them, so it was a win-win.”
“For a long time,” he says, “Mercer Management kept the rents low and took a percentage of profit so that if people were struggling it didn’t cost them so much to be here and then if they were successful the Mercers shared in that success. It was a nice formula.”
Mercer says it didn’t take long for the Market to attract tenants.
“It really did take off pretty quickly in the sense of these groups of artists and the French Cafe and then M’s Pub in 1972, and the galleries. Rusty Harmsen did the Toad and Spaghetti Works. Then a little bit later we did the Passageway and V Mertz.
“A lot of people were excited because maybe there wasn’t something like that in Omaha, a place where you could combine music and art and new kinds of food. We didn’t have any French restaurants in Omaha at that time. There was a hunger too for a pedestrian area and arts and books and different kinds of movies that could combine. So it all seemed to get established in a couple-three years, although there were still problems with how to deal with building code inspectors. But it seemed it had gained enough momentum by then to attract people and as long as people were coming and finding it exciting…”
Kaneko says, “Things were happening and being presented in the Old Market you could not find anywhere else in the region.” Arts were always a part of the scene but the early emphasis was all local artists. The Bemis artist residency program she founded in 1981 with Jun Kaneko, Tony Hepburn and Lorne Falk introduced artists “from all over the world who added to this conversation,” she says. “The spillover into the community has been the benefit. Hard to measure but it’s alive and it’s there. The more artists and creative people in your community from all walks of life, makes for a much better place to live.”
It’s helped that the Mercers are art lovers. Sam painted as a hobby. Vera’s a noted photographer and painter. Mark’s designed the family’s restaurants.
Not everyone agrees with the direction the Market’s gone. duRand feels it’s over-gentrified compared to its counter-culture roots. Underground newspapers were published there. Edgy film, theater and art happened there. The drug culture flourished there.
Mercer concedes it may have been more adventurous early only.
“Maybe in the beginning it was a little more rebellious and exciting in finding different things,” he says. “In the early days it was, well, newer. Maybe a little more controversial and a little more avant garde.”
Hartman despairs the Market’s overrun with bars and restaurants.
Bonham-Carter feels it might be time for another big project, adding that “a little extra sprucing up might be nice to do over the years – tuck pointing here and there. We don’t want it to look too worn out or too overdone.” The recently announced $12.8 million Jones13 apartment project at 13th and Jones may be the next large scale endeavor. It’s being developed by a private company.
Mark Mercer says, “As long as we can I guess we’ll keep trying to do new things and find new things that will enhance the Market, enhance the area,” Vera Mercer says the passion still burns. “I think we are as excited as before about doing something new. We are still looking for new things.” As for who will carry the torch in the future since the couple have no children, he says, “We have to think more about that.”
Kaneko, who with her husband, artist Jun Kaneko, has developed an arts campus there says the district illustrates how the arts act as a catalyst for renewal. Looking ahead, she says, “The next period of time in the Old Market’s life is what I call cultural in-fill. A time of refinement. If we are lucky and if we are wise we will maintain the quality, respect and excitement that this urban area needs and this city deserves.”
- Omaha for Art Lovers (apartmentguide.com)
- Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jazz Pianist Paul Serrato is Back in His Hometown of Omaha After Decades in New York City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
My Omaha Magazine Story on Iraq War Veteran Jacob Hausman Wins Best Feature Story and Best in Show at Omaha Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards Competition
Yours truly was part of the Omaha Magazine team that won in the Best Feature Story and Best in Show categories at tonight’s Omaha Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards Competition. The recognition came for my story about Jacob Hausman, a U.S. Army combat veteran who endured some serious trauma in Iraq and has come out the other side of PTSD to live a full, productive life. Jacob deserves much credit too for bravely sharing his private struggles. In addition to my writing, the awards recognized the layout, design and cover art for the 10 to 12 page cover spread that ran in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue.
It was a great evening with my colleagues and best of all I got to share it with my dear friend Tina Richardson.
Check out the story on the blog by linking to it at-
Or by entering the name Hausman in the search box in the upper right corner of my blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com.
- Fears, misconceptions of PTSD fuel divide (stripes.com)
- For Veterans, Mental Health Care Often Fragmented (livescience.com)
- StoryCorps Collecting Veterans’ Stories Through Tomorrow In Huntsville (whnt.com)
After Decades in New York City Omaha Native Jazz Pianist Paul Serrato Proves You Can Come Home Again
Jazz artist Paul Serrato is one of those cool cats who left his native Omaha to do his thing in the big city. He carved out a nice career in New York as a pianist, arranger and composer. He has serious chops and he’s well respected in the jazz world for his talents. Now, decades after leaving here, he’s come back to his hometown something of a jazz legend to aficianados, though he’s largely unknown to the general public. He’s one of those classic cases of being unappreciated in his own backyard. That’s partly due to the fact that jazz is off most people’s radar. Then there’s the reality that he was not in Omaha when he did make a name for himself in the Big Apple. But he’s come home to stay and he’s eager to share his work with Omaha audiences. My guess is he will get the recognition he deserves here before too long.
After Decades in New York City Omaha Native Jazz Pianist Paul Serrato Proves You Can Come Home Again
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in El Perico
Jazz pianist-arranger-composer Paul Serrato left his native Omaha more than 50 years ago to pursue a theater and music career in New York City. He found considerable success there. He led headlilne and backup bands, he soloed and did sideman work at top clubs. He composed original music for hit underground, off-Broadway plays. He recorded and released several well-reviewed CDs on his own Graffiti Productions label.
He would return to visit family and friends. In 2011 he came back here to stay. He performs around town, including a regular gig at The Addicted Cup in the Old Market. He’s preparing a new CD highlighting some never released original music.
Why move here after so many years away?
“Well, it was a push-pull thing,” he says. His mother, who had remained in town, died and rather than give up “the family compound in South Omaha” he decided to move in. It beat the Big Apple’s high cost of living.
Omaha is where it all began for Serrato. He grew up the only child of a single mother. He never really knew his father, who left for Calif. It’s only in the last year Serrato discovered half-siblings on the west coast. “We’ve really bonded,” he says of his new found family.
Times were tough for Serrato and his mom. She traveled wherever she could find factory work.
“I went to school in Michigan, Texas, Tennessee,” says Serrato.
His love of the piano began as a young boy. An aunt in Omaha played a big upright he couldn’t resist. He started lessons at age 9 and quickly showed promise and passion.
“I really found an obsession.”
He won local music contests and was a featured soloist in school concerts. He played mostly classics until happening upon jazz.
“I used to hear it on the radio and I was very like blown away by the great jazz pianists. I’d thought I wanted to be a concert pianist until I started hearing recordings by Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson.”
By high school he was living in Omaha again. Soon after graduating Creighton Prep in the late 1950s he left for Boston University to study theater arts. Then New York beckoned.
“It was a magnet, it was a pull, it was an exciting lure,” he says. “What I did when I arrived was I saturated myself in the club scene.”
He was a regular at the landmark Birdland. He also took composition studies. His studies continued. His resulting music expresses the energy and edge of the bustling city. He calls his sound urban jazz – not by the rules.
“You’re a product of your culture, whatever it is,” he says.
He acknowledges a strong Latin influence in his work. Conga player Candido Camero was “a great inspiration,” he says.
“Candido made a record called Mambo Moves with one of my favorite pianists Erroll Garner. It has such great duets they play. I’ve always loved that record and I’ve tried to incorporate some of those ideas into my own music.”
Serrato’s worked with several conga players over the years. He recently found a new one – “He’s got the licks, man” – with whom he hopes to perform and record.
He identifies strongly with his Mexican heritage. He didn’t grow up speaking much Spanish but he fell in love with the language and became an English-as-Second Language teacher for Spanish-speakers.
“I’ve done a lot of traveling in Spanish-speaking countries. I spent lot of time in Spain, where I used to follow bullfights. That was a whole passion of mine. I used to be a really great aficionado. I got my master’s degree in urban education ESL and my last few years in New York I taught adult education in Washington Heights to mostly Dominicans. I taught bilingually.”
His early years in New York he supported himself working odd jobs, including tending bar. While managing a Greenwich Village bookstore he met artists from the underground scene – poets, playwrights, painters, singers.
“That’s a great thing about New York, where you just collide with people. In that New York downtown underground culture nobody was dictating you to write it this way or that way, so I was writing jazz for singers to perform in plays. I had the field to myself because nobody else was doing that. Everybody was doing like rock songs and the Velvet Underground, and I loved the Velvet Underground but that wasn’t what I was doing. I was a novelty.
“I jumped into it and had some wonderful collaborations with (Andy) Warhol superstars, playing for them, accompanying then, getting acts together. I did stuff with jazz basses, walking basses, trumpet solos, all this stuff, and they loved it.”
Serrato made tours of London in the 1970s. More recently he’s performed concerts in Japan. His work’s been featured in television documentaries, included An American Family, and in the HBO dramatic movie, Cinema Verite.
He says New York is “where I’ve done my most memorable creative work and I’m hoping I can transfer some of that to Omaha, and I’m having some gratifying success. I’m meeting some really good musicians.
He looks to add to a personal recording catalog that includes the albums AlterNations, Pianomania, Excursions, Origami and Nexus.
His next Addicted Cup gig is June 29 from 4 to 6 p.m.
Find more about the musician at http://www.paulserrato.com.
- Potash Twins Making Waves in Jazz: Teen Brothers Count Jazz Greats as Mentors (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Laura Love: Omaha’s High Yaller Gal Comes Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- You: Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol group settle suit over banana image (latimes.com)
- Jazz Pianist And Pedagogue Mulgrew Miller Dies (wnyc.org)
- Jazz Fest 2013: Interview With Aaron Neville (Review) (popmatters.com)
Appearances can be deceiving. Take the subjects of this story, for example. On first blush who would be less likely to be positioned to lead a revival of Omaha’s once kickin’ but long dormant live jazz scene than a couple of Jewish kids from suburbia? What’s more, you probably don’t think of privilged white boys as being promising proteges of contemporary black jazz greats. But in each instance the Potash Twins, 19-year-old identical twin brothers from Omaha, are overturning assumptions, Their making waves in the world of jazz not just in their hometown but in places like New York City and New Orleans. They count among their mentors Wynton Marsalis, Jon Faddis and Jonathan Batiste. It’s anybody’s gues what they’ll end up doing in jazz but they’re riding a wave that at least for now shows no sign of slowing. I have a feeling I’ll be writing about them for a long time.
Potash Twins Making Waves in Jazz: Teen Brothers Count Jazz Greats as Mentors
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Identical twin brothers from Jewish suburbia, Ezra and Adeev Potash, are Omaha’s unlikely gift to the jazz world. Their soul and funk-infused horn playing has everyone from Big Sam Williams to Wynton Marsalis singing their praises.
Ezra plays trombone, tuba and sousaphone. Adeev plays trumpet. The Westside High School grads recorded their 2012 debut album, “Twintuition,” in Omaha as a New York City calling card. The 19-year-olds are elite music students there.
They’ve parlayed a gift for schmooze and chutzpah into private lessons and close personal relationships with jazz greats, notably trumpet master Marsalis.
“When we go to concerts we bring our instruments with us and for us that’s like a baseball fan bringing your glove to a game hoping to catch a foul ball. But for us the foul ball is the lesson, and we’ve caught a couple foul balls,” says Adeev.
They also have a knack for nabbing national attention. In March they performed at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where they led an impromptu New Orleans-style Second Line down Sixth Street that National Public Radio featured. A film crew following them for a proposed Reality TV series was there and at the May Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting the brothers performed at.
Currently back in Omaha on summer break they’re performing June 8 with their band The Potash Twins at LoessFest on the same bill as Don Vattie, a New Orleans legend Marsalis introduced them to. The free fest is at River’s Edge Park on the Bluffs end of the pedestrian bridge. The brothers’ group consists of players from the Westside jazz band they anchored along with other hometown friends. Following their 4 p.m. appearance Preservation Hall Jazz Band takes the stage at 7:30.
Ezra, who describes himself and Adeev as “musicians, entertainers and personalities,” says they realize how surreal a ride they’re on. It’s why they’re already writing their memoir.
“It’s been a fast transition and a huge transition for us,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe some of these things that happen to us. I have to write them down. Every time something happens we look at each other and say, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’
Like meeting jazz heavyweight Jonathan Batiste on the streets of New York and being invited to a Harlem church gig he was playing. They went to dinner with him and that led to playing with him at the famed Dizzy’s Club, where Marsalis and Bobby McFerrin were their rooting section. All that in their first week in the city.
Ezra and Adeev have since performed several times with Batiste.
“We can’t believe the way our lives have turned out. We were never that serious about being musicians until we met Wynton in 2008. The next thing we know we’re playing with all these people and invited to all these things, living in New York City,” says Ezra.
Their superstar mentor, Marsalis, opens doors for the twins to hang out and jam with major artists. Indeed, the brothers may have never emerged as promising jazz newcomers if not for Marsalis, who took them under his wing in a series of backstage encounters that changed the way they thought about music.
That first meeting in the green room of the Lied Performing Arts Center in Lincoln, Neb. turned into an extended private lesson.
“We talked for a really long time about what it means to be a musician. Wynton’s very about being humble and just representing the music like you’d represent yourself. It’s something he always talks about,” says Ezra. “When Wynton told us ‘you guys should be learning this’ we had to learn it, especially if we wanted to continue a relationship with him. It was like, If we want to be musicians this is what we need to do. He handed us like a free pass almost.”
The twins acknowledge their nonchalant attitude about music turned around once Marsalis entered their lives.
Ezra says, “That lesson really got us serious about being musicians. Everything changed from that point on.”
“We started practicing a lot more,” says Adeev.
After a Marsalis concert in Minneapolis the brothers attended Marsalis offered to help with their college admissions applications. They’re not entirely sure why he’s taken such an interest other than the fact “he knew we were eager,” says Ezra. “He gets it that we understand basically what he wants us to do.
“We’re apt students,” adds Adeev. “When we saw him the third or fourth time he said he had a huge connection to us because we were old souls. But I don’t know if that would describe us.”
They do acknowledge their deep appreciation for jazz is unusual for people their age. Their brazen approach to big names, usually sneaking or fast-talking their way backstage, “kind of takes artists by surprise,” says Adeev
“They can see we’re really interested,” says Ezra. “They don’t mind, especially because we’re eager to learn from them, and we’re respectful and we really appreciate their time. They see we’re more students than fans.”
“We think this is something jazz musicians have – a willingness to welcome eager younger musicians. It’s a jazz family,” says Adeev.
The twins attribute their rapid progress to hard work and good instruction more than prodigious talent.
“I wouldn’t say we have natural ability. I just think we’ve had really good music education,” says Adeev.
Ezra says, “I think we’re the poster children of Omaha or Westside music education. We learned how to play and we just continued.”
Then came the lessons from jazz greats. Today, Adeev studies under Dizzy Gillespie protege Jon Faddis and Ezrra with veteran sideman Dave Taylor. “We take what they give us and we kind of run with it,” says Adeev.
They know they have much to learn.
The brothers are not only tight with Marsalis but with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, whom they first met in Omaha in 2009 “after worshiping their musicianship for a year,” says Adeev.
“We knew all of them by name. We had studied this band. It’s like people collect baseball cards, well we memorize everything about certain jazz musicians,” says Ezra. “We got such a connection with them the first time and we got like really good one-on-one advice from top New York musicians.
“They are like our adopted parents in New York City. It’s pretty special because Jazz at Lincoln Center is a huge organization. These guys are pretty famous. We feel so honored with that “
The twins are determined to get horn players respect across genres. They aspire being the horn section of a famous band.
They also want to revive Omaha’s live jazz scene. They recently played at Loves Jazz and Arts Center, where they learned about its namesake, local music legend Preston Love Sr. and North Omaha’s jazz hub legacy.
“We want to give back to Omaha specifically. We want to bring in these big artists we know. We really want to develop a New York City-Neb. jazz connection,” says Ezra, who confirmed that he and Adeev are LJAC’s new artistic directors.
He’s aware how strange it is he and Adeev are “the jazz representatives of Neb. in New York.” He’a aware too how ironic it would be if North O’s jazz scene is resurrected through the efforts of two white Jewish boys from the ‘burbs. But they’ve found a shared interest with Loves Jazz to recapture a music heritage.
“They have the passion for it, we have the passion too. We want to bring that back,” says Ezra, who imagines a packed jazz club and hot jam sessions there. “We really do have a love for the music and we’re trying to bring it to places where it’s not as accessible. A lot of people say jazz is dead. It’s definitely not at its peak but I think it’s something people can relate to if they put the effort in.”
Meanwhile, the bros have written original tunes for their second album, which they’ll record in New York this fall.
Follow the Potash Twins at http://www.facebook.com/PotashTwins.
- Marsalis on Jazz (venitism.blogspot.com)
- Jazz Harlem Lincoln Center (thestarryeye.typepad.com)
- Chick Corea and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: 16 May 2013 – New York (Review) (popmatters.com)
- Crosby, Stills and Nash get jazzy with Marsalis (miamiherald.com)
Brenda Allen is a good old broad. That’s a compliment by the way. She just says it like it is, take it or leave it. She’s funny, brash, the life-of-the-party and yet more than a little acquainted with tragedy. Her career as a country singer-guitarist took some unexpected turns, like taking her to Vietnam and Vegas. Her path and the forks in the road she came to along the way make her life story compelling. I tell that story in the following article for the New Horizons.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
NOTE: This Web version contains bonus material not found in the print version
Brenda Allen is not your typical crooner come open mic nights at the southwest Omaha bar, Lauter Tun. Unlike the amateurs and wannabes who struggle carrying a tune, she’s a pro who can style a song to fit her voice and mood or any crowd and occasion. A real cut-up, she invariably does comedy bits as part of her act. Her brazen, earthy manner comes through loud and clear.
“I’m a straight shooter…full of piss and vinegar,” she likes to say.
The singer-guitarist, who was born Brenda Allacher, has decades of paying gigs behind her. She’s performed at major venues and appeared alongside bone fide legends, including the late Johnny Cash, who became a friend and champion.
Though long ago retired from her music career she simply can’t give up taking the stage, putting an audience in the palm of her hand and lapping up the laughs and applause. That’s why she often heads to the nearest night spot to present selections from her vast repertoire of country and rockabilly sounds.
A natural comedienne with a bold, often risque sense of humor, Allen is a no-holds-barred personality with plenty of stories to share from her eventful life. She sometimes catches audiences off guard with not only her humorous anecdotes but her unexpected true tales of love and loss, fear and regret, addiction and recovery.
She was in her early 30s when she had to leave the successful band she helped found, The Taylor Sisters, to address her alcoholism. She now has 39 years of sobriety that she maintains one day at a time.
The Taylor Sisters headlined at the famed Golden Nugget in Las Vegas when things came to a head for Allen, who upon getting herself clean and sober began a crusade against substance abuse.
“I left the show in ’73 because I was an alcoholic. I needed help,” she says. “I was told I had less than three months to live from cirrhosis of the liver. I had a good connection up there (she signals to heaven) because I’m the only one alive out of the original Taylor Sisters. He let me stay around because I talk about (the dangers) of alcohol and drugs. I started going into schools and doling shows like that. Then I went to nightclubs and said, ‘All you drunks, if you want to meet me tomorrow morning I’ll take you into detox.’ I talked about it even in nightclubs.”
Her use of alcohol to medicate feelings, she says, got worse after taking part in a three-and-a-half month tour of Vietnam the Taylor Sisters made during the height of the war in 1969. Servicemen called her “Crazy Legs” for the way she’d kick her legs up and fling her shoes into the crowd.
The members of the all-girl band were not really sisters but the things they experienced over there bonded them like blood siblings.
Allen is still haunted by all that happened. She survived a rocket attack that killed a U.A. Army nurse. Once, she got left behind by the convoy she was traveling in and had to catch up to it in the dead of night. After one show she talked her way out of a possible rape. Three U.S. army doctors died in an attack only hours after she met them. One time a mysterious U.S. Army colonel spirited her away, blindfolded, to a secret POW camp manned by a black-op Special Forces unit.
She can’t shake the fact mere boys were put in harm’s way for so dubious a cause. She fears their lives were lost in a conflict that had more to do with boosting the military industrial complex than defending freedom.
“To sacrifice a generation of young men for prosperity is sick,” she says.
She’ll never forget being around scared, lonely young men who saw in her and her fellow entertainers their girlfriends, sisters, mothers.
“They were looking at you, longing for you. We let them know America loved them and we were there to entertain them. We sat and drank with them just like we were one of the boys.”
Back home, Allen felt compelled to share these experiences with the press but she says nobody showed any interest. Then The Taylor Sisters hit it big at the Golden Nugget and between her busy career and wanting to forget what she saw at war she suppressed the trauma. Her drinking got out of hand. Not long after she left the group the other original Sisters died – one of cancer, the other by suicide, Just like that two of her closest friends were gone. She’s never married and has no children.
A man she dearly loved, Hollywood makeup artist Jerry P. Soucie, died in a 1989 motorcycle accident.
Life’s thrown more challenges at Allen. She was in a bad auto accident that cost her part of a foot. She was an identity theft victim.
After going on the wagon for good Allen returned to performing, sometimes with bands led by Johnny Ray Gomez and Pat Hamilton.
Increasingly, the entertainer felt a need to educate the public about the overlooked military and civilian roles American women played in Vietnam. She performed for veterans groups. Vets who saw her perform in Nam would call out “Crazy Legs” at her shows and she’d hold mini-reunions with them afterwards. She made a point to tell each vet, “Welcome home, soldier.” She advocated for a national memorial dedicated to the women who served. She was on a committee that pressed for the Congressional Medal of Freedom be given veteran USO entertainer Martha Raye.
A native of Lincoln, Neb., Allen grew up in nearby Martell, where her mother was the town switchboard operator. She sang at church and school from childhood. When her older brother went into the service he left his ukulele behind and she learned to play it. She soon switched to guitar. The advent of rock ‘n’ roll changed her life while a student at Lincoln High.
“That was the beginning of it all – The Memphis Five, Elvis, rock n roll. In 1958 we were rocking and rolling and the black sound was coming in and I loved it. I was the only one that played guitar in my school and the guys invited me to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band – The August Heat Wave. I was the only girl in the band. All the girls at school were mad at me.”
Her parents were not thrilled with her new passion.
“You know all the young girls found their libido after watching Elvis. My parents didn’t approve. My mother shut the TV off when Elvis was on. My dad said, ‘Why don’t you sing at church?’ I said, ‘They don’t applaud.”
She enjoyed every opportunity she could find to make music for people.
“I’d sit out on my front porch at night singing and playing and kids from the neighborhood would come. I loved doing that. I’d make money, too. I’d put a tin cup out there and say, ‘If you want to hear a song it’ll cost you a nickel.’”
The pretty, vivacious, saucy Allen attracted admirers. One was Charles Starkweather, just another neighborhood kid before he went on a killing spree that made him infamous. Allen was close friends with his sister Lavita.
“Charlie was nice looking but he had bright flaming red hair and he was bow legged and he spoke with a lisp, He was slow. Kids made fun of him,” recalls Allen. “Lavita loved him dearly. Charlie called up one day and said, ‘I’m Lavita’s brother.’ He’d been listening to me from his car. My father saw that and came out and said, ‘I don’t know who you are but I don’t want you here.’ I felt bad.”
Her last encounter with Starkweather gave her a chilling insight into what may have contributed to his homicidal rage.
“Lavita invited me to a slumber party and said to bring the guitar. There were about 10 of us girls. Her father came home and said hello and then here came Charlie. He sat down and listened to me playing guitar and asked if I would show him some stuff. I said sure. I gave him the guitar, showed him chords, and his father came in and said, ‘What are you doing in here you little shit?’ He was drunk. The dad took Charlie and threw him out the back door.”
Allen says she later learned that Starkweather didn’t returned home and the sister suspected her troubled brother was “with that girl” – meaning Caril Ann Fugate, his accomplice in the killing spree. Allen says she remembers asking Lavita, “What do you think of her?” and Lavita answering, “She’s nothing but trouble. He acts different with her.” Allen says, “The next few days they found the bodies. It was a very scary thing because Charlie was killing people he knew.”
Tragic as it was, Allen would not be distracted from her goal of being a professional musician. Her first major public show happened by accident but whetted her appetite for more big stages.
“I went to the (Nebraska) state fair and Jimmy Wakely (a popular singing cowboy) was appearing in the open auditorium. I snuck backstage and got his autograph. I was sitting back there singing with a band I knew from high school who were backing Wakely. We did “The Bible Tells Me So’ – a big Dale Evans song back then. Somebody tapped me on the shoulder and it was Wakely, and he said, ‘I want to have you be my special guest.”
Before she knew it she found herself being introduced before a crowd of a couple thousand folks. She was 15.
“I didn’t have time to be scared. He screwed up on the ending of it and he said, ‘Hey, you messed that up,’ and I shot back, ‘You’re the pro.’ Later, he took me aside to tell me, ‘Take up country music.’ Well, I loved Teresa Brewer, Patti Page, people like that. I said, ‘What’s country music?’ and he said, ‘Listen to Hank Williams.’ And he said there was only one big female name in country then – Kitty Wells.”
Allen followed his advice and transformed herself into a country artist.
She also got a taste of show biz’s seamier side.
“He (Wakely) did make a play for me by the way and I downplayed it with, ‘Mr. Wakely, you always rode off in the sunset by yourself.’ A year later Channel 10 in Lincoln had a Multiple Sclerosis telethon I performed on and Mr. Wakely was there and he said, ‘How old are you now?’ I said, ‘Mr. Wakey, I’m 16, I’m still jail bait, and he kind of laughed and said, ‘Here’s a dime, call me when you turn 21.’”
Allen began making a name for herself as a solo entertainer and as one half of the duet, The Country Misses. She decided to go to Springfield, Mo. to audition for the Ozark Jubilee made famous by Red Foley on his ABC-broadcast show. It was there that an elephant doing its business brought she and a country icon together.
“I did my audition and they said I could stay and see the rest of the show. This was about 45 minutes before show time. My girlfriend and I were looking at three guys sitting in front of us. They weren’t regulars on the show.”
One in particular caught Brenda’s eye.
“I said, ‘God, he’s good looking,’ and my girlfriend said, ‘All three of them are good looking. Yeah, I wonder who that is?’ In the meantime the Jubilee’s version of a Hee Haw couple, Uncle Cyp and Aunt Sap Brasfield, were rehearsing.”
A live elephant was part of the act. The animal did some tricks. Then the elephant decided to pee.
“It sprayed 20 rows out. All the performers were in their costumes already. Everybody got hit. We were soaked,” Allen recalls with a hearty laugh. “I dived and my girlfriend dived under the seats and I saw these long legs go running over top and I said, ‘Is he done yet?’ And this male voice said, ‘No, you better stay down there,’ and he went on by me. Finally I peeked up and they were putting saw dust all over the place, wiping seats down and I heard that same voice say, ‘Well, how high is the water, mama?’ I said, ‘It’s two feet high and rising.’ It was Johnny Cash.
“I popped up and said, ‘Are you staying across the street?’ ‘Yeah,” he said. ‘We’re staying there, too, you want me to bring you a shirt?’ ‘Hell, yes,’ he said and he gave me the key to his room and I got him a clean shirt.”
The old theater lacked dressing rooms and so anyone drenched had to make do with what they had on or what they’d brought.
That unlikely meeting was the beginning of an enduring friendship with The Man in Black. At the time Cash was married to his first wife Vivan and the woman he made his second wife, June Carter, was not yet in his life.
“That’s what started it,” Allen says of her long association with Cash. “We sat and played guitars that night and talked about country music. He was a perfect gentleman. I told him I was looking to join a band and he said, ‘Why not get your own band together?’ Back in Lincoln I wrote him a letter and I got a letter back. We had exchanged pictures. I gave him a picture of myself with my Fender Telecaster and I got his first song book. He wrote, ‘Love & kisses.’ Trust me, he wouldn’t have written that after June (Carter).
“Without me even knowing it he sent my picture to Fender. That’s the kind of guy he was. Fender offered me a contract to model.”
She never signed the contract. Instead, she worked hard on her music and at 18 landed her next big break when she met Marty Martin, who gained fame as Boxcar Willie.
“I was his first girl singer. Because of my age I couldn’t be in nightclubs. He and his wife looked after me. We toured the Midwest in a big car. I learned a lot from Marty. He was a honey. He was a very, very good teacher for me. But I got bored because they wanted me to be the prim Miss So-and-So. I’m not geared that way. I’m a ham.”
Fate intervened again when she got a call from an agent saying Cash was coming to Lincoln and needed an opening act. She promptly pitched The Marty Martin Show Featuring Brenda Allen. It was the early 1960s. They got the gig.
“We opened in Lincoln for him at Pershing Auditorium and in Omaha at the Music Hall. I played the Music Hall with a lot country acts.”
“Wonderful,” is how she describes sharing the stage with Cash. She says he flattered her by saying, ‘You’ve got a damn good voice.’” She says Cash and his lead guitar player Luther Perkins “sat me down and said, ‘Brenda, stick with country music, you’re going to make it.’” She did, too.
She says it was sometime in the early ’60s that June Carter “started entering the picture and I started noticing things about John from when I first him.” Cash battled drug addictions at various points in his life.
When Allen turned 21 she began playing Lincoln lounges-clubs, When not performing she modeled and worked the switchboard at Hovland-Swanson clothing store. She says s strict policy forbid employees from moonlighting. One night, she says, the owner showed up where she was performing. His guest was newly hired University of Nebraska football coach, Bob Devaney. She says the owner fired her on the spot, saying, “You sing better than you sound on the switchboard.” She adds that the married Devaney took an immediate liking to her and pursued her through the years.
Now that she was on her own, she focused on perfecting her comedy and country act that was equal parts innocent and naughty.
“For instance, I’d start up and say, ‘OK, fellas, hang on because I’m going to take you for a ride. Hey, hey good looking, what you got cooking…’ And then I’d still be playing guitar and I’d say, ‘Move that chair,’ and I’d sit down on their laps and say, ‘Oh my goodness. I think he’s got a flashlight in his pocket.’ “
With suggestive lyrics like, “I’ve been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too, the things I did to them, sugar, I can do to you, I’m a Fujiyama Mama…” she made quite an impression.
How far she went depended on the crowd.
“Then I’d start doing my version of Johnny Cash.”
Allen had an established solo career going when she met fellow musician Joann Paugh backstage at a show. Paugh wanted to start an all-girl band. Allen resisted. “But she kept bugging me and bugging me,” recalls Allen, The dye was cast after Paugh introduced her to Helen Taylor, a formidable guitarist herself. “We drew straws to see who would play bass and rhythm guitar,” says Allen. Helen got bass and Brenda rhythm.
Things moved fast for the group. They began performing as the Taylor Sisters before Helen’s husband took over as manager and changed the name to Helen Taylor and the Taylor Sisters. “It pissed me off,” says Allen.
The band played with Cash a few times, even opening a 1964 Wichita, Kansas show with June Carter, Minnie Pearl, the Statler Brothers and Lefty Frizzell.
“I’d say we were in damn good company.”
Then the call came that changed their lives.
The Taylor Sisters had toured with Sheb Wooley and the entertainer called Brenda to say, “They need you in Vietnam,’ to which she responded, “What’s Vietnam?” He thought the Taylor Sisters would go over well with the boys. She says the decision to go was easy “once we heard what was going on over there and how bad it was.”
Instead of going with the USO (United Service Organizations), the group went independently though the Johnny Robinson talent agency, who hooked them up with an agency in Saigon, who signed them over to the Korean Entertainment Corporation.
Brenda and Co. arrived in Saigon the first week in April. The humidity, heat and stench are what first struck her.
Until they returned home in July they were kept busy.
“We did three-four shows in a day within a 150-mile radius every four or five days,” says Allen.
They traveled by jeep, truck, boat and helicopter. A military escort was assigned but she says those they were often drunk or stoned by the end of the show. Drinking and drugging were prevalent wherever they went. Brenda imbibed a lot herself.
The women were given strict orders to not venture out at night alone but that didn’t always prevent them from going off on their own, especially with an enlisted man they liked. “We always made sure the others knew where we were,” Allen says. Not every GI could be trusted, she discovered.
“One night we were tear gassed. We came off the stage and we were separated
The guy who grabbed me ended taking me out to a hangar and I said, ‘What are we doing here?’ ‘This is where you’re going to meet the rest of the group,” he said. ‘No it isn’t, I’m supposed to go to the major’s tent.’ The guy said, ‘We can wait a little bit.’ ‘No we can’t.’ Then he admitted, ‘I’m so lonesome.’ ‘That’s too bad,’ I said, ‘then you need to get a break. If you have the idea of what I think you’re thinking and you rape me here now the girls are going to miss me and the Army’s going to find you and throw the book at you, and I don’t want to see that happen. Look, I came here to get paid a little bit of money. I didn’t have to be here to make you feel better. Americans do care about you. And you want to rape me?’ He started to cry.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry but you’ve got problems, you need to go to your commanding officer. He took me to hs CO. I explained what happened and the major said, ‘You’re going to lose a stripe over this soldier.’ I was a little bit more careful from then on.”
Her suspicions were aroused another time but her instincts told her she’d be safe and she was. The experience sounds like something out of a movie.
“After an outdoor show in Da Nang a snap-to colonel wearing a green beret came up to me and said, ‘I want to ask you a question.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘I am in charge of one of our POW camps and we have a North Vietmanese soldier starving himself. He doesn’t want to talk, he’s afraid we’re going to poison him. We want to get some information out of him. Would you be willing to help?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, where is it?’ ‘You can’t see where it is. but it’s about an hour’s drive from here. We’re Special Forces. Please do it.’”
Whether out of curiosity or patriotism, she says, “I agreed to go. I told the girls if I’m not back by six o’clock this is who I went with and I want you to report it. He loaded me up with my guitar in a jeep. We drove for awhile and then he said, ‘I have to blindfold you.’ ‘I’ll have a drink of scotch first,’ I said. He never laid a hand on me.” At the camp she found herself in an officers club, where the colonel barked, ‘“Attention. This young lady was going to help us with our North Vietmanese prisoner but he’s already been put down for the night. She has her guitar here and she’s going to entertain you.” She recalls, “The place went bonkers. They grabbed me and sat me on the bar. I cracked jokes and sang to them for about 45 minutes.”
When it was time for her to leave, she says the soldiers “separated into two lines and saluted her. At the end of the line was the colonel and as he walked her out he removed his green beret and placed it on her head. “He took me back and I never heard a word from him since,” she says. She tried tracking him down but her inquiries with the Army always got the same response: we don’t have anybody by that name. She assumes he was part of some black op, covert unit. She still has his green beret and sometimes dons it for pictures and performances. She also has a vest pinned with medals and decorations given to her by military personnel.
Brenda wearing the green beret and insignia
In Chu Lai Nebraska National Guard troops had just come back from the bush, she says, when the CO, “Big Daddy” Richardson, asked her, “Brenda, can you and the girls do one more show for the guys from Nebraska?” “Are you kidding?” she replied. Once on stage inside a quonset hut, she recalls, “I said, ‘Hit it girls,’ and we did ‘There is no place like Nebraska.’ The roof went off – the place exploded.”
She says that Chu Lai, a central coastal area manned by the Americal Division,“was one of our favorite places because we had privacy taking a shower. I remember ‘Big Daddy’ Richardson saying, ‘I’m going to work your butts off, but when you come back at night your favorite food and drink will be sitting in front of you.’ And it was, too. Lobster and blackberry brandy and Cutty Sark scotch. We’d do five and six shows a day for that man. The men, they just wouldn’t let us quit and we weren’t about to leave those boys. The guys were just absolutely beautiful. They called me ‘Crazy Legs’…I’d do wild dancing and kick my legs up. They just went bonkers. We’d come back exhausted.”
An incident in Chu Lai scarred her forever.
“One night, we’d come back from a show and a few of us were in the officers club drinking when there was a loud CLAP and the building just shook. “ It was the start of a prolonged mortar attack. A GI grabbed her and threw her down under the bar. “Aren’t we supposed to go to a bunker?” she asked, “Too late now,” she was told. “We took 16 rounds over a period of four or five hours. We just laid there on the floor and got drunk. I was so scared. Around daylight a young man came running in, shouting, ‘They got a nurse at the 312 Surg-Evac,’ which was like a block away.”
The victim, 1st Lt. army nurse Sharon Ann Lane of Canton, Ohio, was the first Army nurse to die under hostile fire in Southeast Asia and one of 68 American women in all — military and civilian — to die in the conflict. “She was decapitated by shrapnel,” says Allen. The incident shook the singer to her core. “She was 26 and I was 21. What really gets me is – why her and not me? – because she was saving lives. I held her mother in my arms at the dedication of the statue in 1993.”
The Taylor Sisters pushed off to their next stop. The war ground on as usual.
“We just forgot about it, we had to put it behind us…The next day it was a whole new ballgame, a whole new area to perform in.”
It was a sober reminder of what men in combat faced. She couldn’t fathom “seeing their best friends blown apart” and having to keep on fighting. “Holy crap, I still have post traumatic stress. I can’t stand the Fourth of July.”
She says she learned Western performers had a price on their heads. The bigger the star, the higher the bounty. Bob Hope was the biggest target of all though he reduced his exposure to danger by being flown to safety every night.
Another brutal reminder of war’s vagaries came when Brenda and Helen got their picture taken with three U.S. Army docs on the deck of a boat headed for Cua Viet, a base in the demilitarized zone near North and South Vietnam border.
“It was sand and tents and water. It was R & R for the troops.”
The Taylor Sisters did a show on a small stage with a sheet as a backdrop. The all-male audience sat on a sandy beach on the South China Sea.
“Cua Viet was getting hit almost every night. That’s why they got us back down the river right away. We did an afternoon show, they loaded us up, and away we went.”
After the band left the base came under attack that night and suffered major casualties. She was informed the men she got her picture taken with were among those killed.
“They died the day we played for them.”
The Taylor Sisters landed the Golden Nugget slot soon after returning from Nam.
“We had a damn good thing – an all-girl country western show band. We had the comedy, all the girls sang, we all played different instruments. We made history as the only headline act at the Golden Nugget without a recording.”
Years of loss and love, making people happy and getting healthy again followed. Then she found the cause that was so close to her heart. Getting the Vietnam Women’s Memorial approved by Congress and erected on the Washington Mall took years of persistence. “We fought and we fought,” Allen says of the sisterhood that took up the fight. The bronze statue by sculptor Glenna Goodacre depicts women in fatigues caring for a wounded soldier.
The Vietnam Women’s Memorial
Brenda was there for the statue’s dedication. She was there for the 10th anniversary in 2003 and she’s due to be there again for the 20th anniversary in November. She always says a few words and sings a few lyrics at the memorial.
She became a big supporter of the Shirley Lauro play, A Piece of My Heart, that dramatizes the true-life stories of American women in Nam. When the Blue Barn Theater in Omaha produced the play the woman who led the effort for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, Diane Carlson Evans, attended opening night and ended up inviting the production to be performed in D.C. for the 10-year anniversary.
Brenda’s Vietnam story has been told in newspaper articles, the book Potpourri of War and in a Nebraska Educational Television documentary Not on the Front Line.
For a time she drowned her feelings about what happened in Vietnam in booze. But once she confronted those bittersweet memories the healing began. Of that intense time over there, she says, “I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.”
- Vietnam veteran keeps solemn vow to his lost brother in arms (stripes.com)
- A lifelong passion for fiddle, country music (mysanantonio.com)
- Making a Country Music Bucket List (countrymusic.answers.com)
The Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha is always looking for new ways to connect with audiences and in the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) I share the latest attempt to bring theater to where people live. The conference’s PlayFest is presenting Neighborhood Tapestries in two well-defined inner city communities that don’t always have the kind of access to theater that other communities do. The idea of these tapestries is for people of these communities to share various aspects of their neighborhood’s art, music, culture, and history.
Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The play’s still the thing with the Great Plains Theatre Conference but organizers are making a concerted effort to expand theater’s definition in order to connect more people to it.
The May 26-29 PlayFest is the Metropolitan Community College conference’s answer to making theater more accessible. That means staging works at nontraditional sites, including one along the riverfront, and, new this year, holding Neighborhood Tapestries in the inner city.
The inaugural tapestries, a cross-between a chautauqua, a street arts event, a storytelling festival, a salon and a variety show, will happen outdoor on separate dates in North and South Omaha. Each neighborhood’s art, culture and history will be celebrated through a loose program of music, poetry, stories, dance and other creative expressions. The performers will include professionals and amateurs.
Union for Contemporary Art
Chapman, an actress and stage director, is the Omaha Community Playhouse education director and a Metropolitan Community College theater instructor. She’s worked with a team to produce the event.
“We’re creating a thread,” she says. “We are thinking of our show as a block. So who are these people on the block? Borrowing from Sesame Street. who are the people in your neighborhood? We want to have this musical and movement throughline with these transitional words and the sharing of these stories as people get up and talk about community and food, growing up on the North Side, memories of their mothers and just all these different people you might encounter on a street in North Omaha.
“That thread allows us to plug in people as we get them, as they see fit. Who knows what could happen with the evening. We’ve got that flexibility. It’s not a rigid the-curtain-opens and this-series-of-events needs to happen for the show to make sense and come to some conclusion. Instead it’s this nice woven piece that says here are some things that happened, here are some reflections, here is some music , here’s a body in space moving. Hopefully at the end you’re like, Oh, let’s get around this circle and have a conversation.”
She says GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler gave her a “very open” script to take the event wherever she wanted.
“I’m excited about this project because it allows us to explore the concept that we’re all performers with this urge to tell a story or to share this happening or to recount this thing that happened to us. But where’s the platform for that? When do we get together and do it? What we’re doing is throwing some artists and musicians and actors in the mix. It’s engaging us as theater practitioners to not be so static in our art form and it engages the community to understand that theater isn’t this other thing that happens on the other side of the city.”
Featured storytellers include Nancy Williams, Felicia Webster, Peggy Jones and Dominque Morgan, all of whom will riff and reflect on indelible characters and places from North O’s past and present.
Jazz-blues guitarist George Walker will lay down some smooth licks.
Member youth from the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club will present an art project they created. Works by Union for Contemporary Art fellows will be displayed.
Chapman sees possibilities for future North O programs like Tapestries that celebrate its essence. She says such programs are invitations for the public to experience art and own it through their own stories.
“Then you start having those conversations and then you realize the world is a lot smaller than you think it is,” she says. “It just starts to close the gap. So yeah I think there’s a real possibility for it to grow and create these little pockets of reminders that we’re all performers and we all need our platforms for creation.”
The May 29 South Omaha tapestry will take a similar approach in fleshing out the character and personalities of that part of town. The site is Omaha South High’s Collins Stadium, 22nd Ave. and M Street. Director Scott Working, the theater program coordinator at MCC, says he’s put together an event with “a little music, a little storytelling, a little poetry to let people know some of the stories and some of the history of the neighborhood.”
He says he got a big assist from Marina Rosado in finding Latino participants. Rosado, a graphic designer, community television host and leader of her own theater troupe, La Puerta, will also emcee the program. She led Working to retired corporate executive David Catalan, now a published poet. Catalan’s slated to read from three poems written as a homage to his parents.
Rosado also referred Working to artist and storyteller Linda Garcia.
“I will be doing a storytelling segment based on my Abuelita (Grandmother) Stories,” says Garcia. “The story I am telling is an actual story of my abuelita, Refugio ‘Cuca’ Hembertt, and my exposure to her insatiable reading habits. That led to my discovery and connection with languages and the power of words.*
Even Louie M’s Burger Lust owner Louie Marcuzzo has been marshaled to tell South O tales.
Also on tap are performances by the South High School Louder Than a Bomb slam poetry team, Ballet Folklorico Xitol, the Dave Salmons polka duo and a youth mariachi band. Working also plans to bring alive an El Museo Latino exhibit of Latinos in Omaha. Individuals will read aloud in English the subects’ bios as a video of the subjects reading their own stories in Spanish plays. He says his inspiration for the evening’s revolving format is the Encyclopedia Shows that local artists and poets put on.
“It’s a combination of like standup and poetry and music and theater,” Working says. “It’s relaxed, it’s fun. Plus, I don’t think I could get David Catalan and Louie Marcuzzo to come to six rehearsals to get it right. I trust them.”
Rosado embraces the format.
“I believe in the power of art. Music, dance, literature, theater and all cultural expressions can change a person’s life. That’s why I am so excited about the event. Scott has a genuine interest in showcasing the best of our community. Tapices is the word in Spanish for tapestries and I can hardly wait to see the unique piece of art that will be made at the end of this month.”
Catalan feels much the same, saying, “Stories told as a performing art leave lasting impressions on audiences and motivate many to learn more about heritage and ancestry.” He applauds Metro for its outreach to inner city Omaha’s “rich cultural history in the transitional ethnic populations.”
Lawler says Tapestries enables the conference “to be more rooted in the community,” particularly underserved communities. “I wanted to go further into involving the community and being something relevant for the community. That’s why I want to generate these stories from the community. It’s kind of a lifelong quest I have to keep looking at the art form and saying, ‘What are we doing that’s working but what are we doing that’s not working very well’ That’s part of the reason the whole PlayFest is free. Theater is just priced out of society’s ability to go. That doesn’t work.”
Just as Chapman feels Tapestries can continue to mine North O’s rich subject matter, Working feels the same about South O. He adds that other neighborhoods, from Benson to Bellevue, could be mined as well.
Both the North O and South O events kick off with food, art displays and music at 6:30 p.m. Storytelling begins at 7:30.
For the complete PlayFest schedule, visit http://www.mccneb,edu/theatreconference.
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Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area
The following cover story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about a group of artists looking to take things to the next level at the Carver Bank cultural center and residency program in North Omaha has received some nice buzz. The four artists couldn’t be more different from each other. Each is doing his or her own thing and having success with it but they themselves and others feel there’s room for them to grow and to make an even bigger splash. It will be interesting to observe what they do individually and collectively from this point forward.
The inaugural resident artists at the Carver Bank cultural center couldn’t be more unalike in some ways and more congruent in others.
Carver is the new Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and Rebuild Foundation endeavor at 2416 Lake Street that houses a Big Mama‘s Sandwich Shop, a gallery- performance space and artist studios. Artist and urban planner Theaster Gates of Chicago is the facilitator-instigator of the project. Caver is one of several projects he’s done through his Rebuild Foundation that repurposes abandoned structures in inner cities to house art-culture activities that engage with community.
Each Omaha native participant was selected in line with Carver’s mission of providing work spaces and showcase opportunities for underserved artists of color whose creativity deserves wider support and recognition
The artists cut across a wide range of disciplines and starting with the Carver’s March 29 grand opening they’ve been displaying their respective chops in performances, readings, exhibitions.
Program director Jessica Scheuerman says the artists “care deeply about the cultural resurgence of the Near North Side,” adding, “In addition to their individual practices, they have quickly taken to the role of host and are developing public programming that will enrich the space throughout the year and expand the roster of artists presented in the space.”
Shannon Marie is a 20-something hip hop and R&B artist. The single mom works full time to support her dream of making it big out of her hometown.
Dereck Higgins, 58, is a pioneer of the Omaha alternative music scene as a bass player, drummer and arranger. This champion of psychedelia recently left his career as a licensed mental health professional to devote all his energies to his art.
Bart Vargas, the lone visual artist of the group, is a 40-year-old art educator and creator of salvage-based paintings and sculptures.
Portia Vivienne Love, 56, is a sometime singer and full-time poet and writing workshop presenter now also penning murder mystery short stories and novels.
Three of the four have close ties to the symbolically potent 24th and Lake area. Once the commercial-entertainment hub of the local African American community, its live music scene used to draw national artists. Love’s late father, saxophonist Preston Love Sr., cultivated his music passion there as a fan and player. The catty-cornered Loves Jazz & Arts Center is named after him. Higgins’ late father, James “Red” Higgins, was a contemporary of Love’s and also haunted the Deuce Four.
Marie, who’s real name is Ennis, grew up a few blocks from Carver. She’s adamant about developing a national name for her writing and singing.
“I’m definitely confident about it,” says Marie, who’s produced several mix tapes. “It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s where you want to go. I can make it happen.”
If it doesn’t happen here she may leave to try her hand elsewhere, though she admits she needs more polish.
“I feel like I need to be more prepared before I step out with the big dogs.”
She got serious about rapping as a junior at Benson High School. Her early professional forays taught her lessons about not selling out.
“I would contact promoters and they’d just kind of brush me off like, ‘Who is this chick?’ Now when they have something going on I’m one of the first people they contact. I’ve gained their respect. They’ve seen the growth and they know I have people backing me.”
Her YouTube videos attract hundreds of thousands of views. Her Omaha fan following is such she gets recognized most everywhere she goes.
Gone are the days when promoters tried extracting sexual favors from an aspiring newbie. “It’s a male-dominated industry and sometimes guys look at females like a piece of meat. You have to be confident to let people know, Hey, you cant treat me like this. Now they’re like, ‘She’s just about her business. She’s not about sleeping her way to the top.’
“I kind of had to learn the hard way in some cases. I still have to learn a few things.
But it’s a lot better now than me being naive and saying, ‘OK, let’s just do music.’ All that glitters isn’t gold.”
A dispute with a local record label resulted in some of her original music being withheld from her. She’s moved on.
She plans a Carver event featuring herself and other empowered women who’ve overcome obstacles. She’s also planning a listening party for her new work.
“Now I’m here, I’ve got my opportunity, everything is still possible.”
Working alongside fellow residents who are “so different,” she says, “is going to be interesting.” She adds, “We really do vibe together. There’s going to be positive stuff going on. I want to support everybody and I want them to support me, too.”
She feels the love from friends, family and fans. “Everyone is excited for me.” She terms the multicultural turnout for Carver’s grand opening “a beautiful thing” and encourages all of Omaha to support its programs. “It’s for everybody.”
She’s eager to add to the area’s rich music legacy, saying, “Now it’s our time.”
Dereck Higgins is intent on opening the Carver to a broad range of artists and audiences.
“It only makes sense that if Im going to be down here I try to get some of the people that work with me everywhere else to work with me down here,” says Higgins, who jams with Nik Fackler as part of InDreama. Higgins is presenting a Night of Sound Exploration with saxophonist and electronic musician Curt Oren from 7 to 9 p.m. on June 7.
Higgins, who has his own DVH Records label and an extensive vinyl collection, makes trippy music that draws on traditional instruments as well as a panoply of electronic and ambient sounds.
“It’s personal, that’s ultimately what it is,” he says, “and that’s probably why I’m not more commercially along the way because I don’t know what genre to be in and I’m not interested in it and I don’t like it. When people say to me, ‘I don’t know what you are,’ that’s a great compliment and I want to stay there.”
Since walking off his 30-year job at Community Alliance in 2012 he’s made music his number one priority.
“I’ve always been a real artist-musician but a hobbyist. Making the break from the job and now doing this Carver thing is really allowing me to embrace truly, fully the role of artist-musician. I’m very thankful. This is a luxury. I can come down here and I can work, experimenting with music and sound ideas at my makeshift little audio studio. I’m already working on my next album.”
He creates the collage artwork that adorns his album covers.
“I’m broker now than I’ve ever been as an adult but I’m happier,” says Higgins, who along with his fellow artist residents receives a $500 a month stipend.
It’s no coincidence that Bart Vargas, the lone Carver resident artist who’s not African American, though his dreadlocks often prompt people to assume he is, makes art from salvaged materials. Just when it looked like his life was a thrown-away bust, he found salvation.
Growing up in a chaotic home with a mentally ill mother and alcoholic father Vargas sought refuge in art. “I escaped through drawing,” he says. “Drawing was a way to have control over something and make believe and go other places. When I was 16 I was young, angry and confused and this other family saw the situation and offered me a safe place and took me in. So I have my biological family and what I consider my real family – the family I associate with all these years later.”
Vargas, a Nebraska Air National Guard veteran, feels his salvage art parallels the Carver project and its adaptive reuse of the long abandoned Carver Savings & Loan building and plans to revitalize other long vacant North Omaha properties.
“Everything has a potential. The only place trash is made is in our head…when we decide something no longer has value.”
Bemis chief curator Hesse McGraw says the hope is that by nurturing artists Carver “can generate some cultural heat and create a magnetic lure in North Omaha.” Another hope, he adds, is for their work “to have an impact on public perception of the neighborhood. Imagine when the Near North Side is again known as a place that artists live and work, and where we all can be part of that resurgence.”
A self-described “mixed blood” who’s white and Mexican and not sure what else, Vargas used some of his Carver money to take DNA tests to determine his ethnicity.
“I’ve thought about doing this identity painting after finding out what my genetic markers say I am.”
Or he might adapt a painted words series he began s few years ago to express musings about “my American muttness.”
The University of Nebraska at Omaha and Metropolitan Community college art instructor says he’s already made word paintings “specific to this place or neighborhood,” adding, “I want this part of the city to become part of the work I do here. Before I even moved in I painted ‘Carver.’ My goal is to cover the walls in my little corner in Yeses. To have this wall of positivity. I want to start it out with really good energy.”
Portia Love understands why she’s identified with her father, whose band she sang with for several years, but music was his thing, not hers.
“The writing thing is mine,” says Love, who retreated into words and stories as an “introverted” adolescent and began winning recognition for her work at Marian High School.
She went on to work in and teach human services but always wrote on the side. As a veteran artist with Why Arts she conducts writing workshops for people with disabilities. She also holds workshops through the Bemis.
She’s self-published two books of poems, Eclipses of the Sun and Redefinition. She creates poems by commission for clients, placing her original works in designer boxes, frames and photo albums.
WriteLife is publishing her debut novel, The Men’s Club, as well as a book of short stories, High Heel Shoes, Bright Red Lipstick and Strange Love.
Carver appeals to her for practical reasons.
“I went after it for the working space and the recognition. I’m real if nothing else. I tear my house up doing this stuff. Now I have a studio to work out of. This is my time for me and my writing. This is an opportunity that I hope is going to put me to another level. i hate anybody trying to put limitations on me and what I do.”
Moving artists along is part of the idea.
“We hope this opportunity provides a crucial jump for the residents and that they are able to move their artistic practices to new levels,” says McGraw.
Love says Carver’s location is “significant,” adding, “The whole thing is significant. I love that Hesse (McGraw) said the Bemis cannot be this white organization that ignores the fact there are people of color in this city with talent. And yes this is the perfect place for it, 24th and Lake. I think about my dad and how much he would have loved coming through here wearing the hell out of everybody. I think he would be so overjoyed to see me excelling at something that was not his.”
Love’s hosting a poetry reading from 3 to 6 p.m. on May 25. She’s invited her fellow resident artists to add their distinct flavors.
Carver events are free and open to the public.
For Carver updates visit carverbank(at)bemiscenter.org.
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