Linda Lovgren’s Sterling Career Earns Her Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame Induction
Wherever one lives there are those high achievers whose professional work and community service connote on them the epitome of respect, and that’s certainly the case with the subject of this profile, Linda Lovgren, a marketing-public relations expert known for her keen strategic thinking and execution. I can attest to her not only being extremely professional but eminently approachable as well. She’s just what you’d expect from a Midwest entrepreneur, too, with her legendary work ethic and unassilable integrity combined with that down-to-earth humility that makes her rather uncomfortable talking about herself. Of course, she makes her living polishing the image of others and so naturally she prefers deflecting attention away from herself to her clients. But it’s easy to see why clients would develop an easy rapport with her and place their trust in her. Yes, she’s as salt-of-the-earth as they come. But don’t assume that means she’s unsophisticated. Her blue plate client roster is proof she’s fully engaged in 21st century marketing-public relations techniques.
Linda Lovgren’s Sterling Career Earns Her Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame Induction
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in the New Horizons
“I’ve kind of always been a carpe diem or seize the day sort of person,” says new Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame inductee Linda Lovgren.
The highly respected public relations maven began her Lovgren Marketing Group in 1978 at the age of 30. It was an era when relatively few women, especially women that young, went in business for themselves. Growing up and working on her family’s far northwest Iowa farm taught the former Linda Hoeppner the independence and conviction necessary for being an entrepreneur. Her parents were both teachers but they left that field to run a farm and later formed another business. With that enterprising model as an example, Lovgren made the leap from working for others to working for herself only eight years after graduating college.
“It never occurred to me I could fail,” she says.
She’s keenly aware of the glass ceiling many women report encountering in the corporate world, then and now, but she didn’t experience it herself.
“I felt like when I started my business I had an equal opportunity to go after new business or to make people aware of what I was doing and to integrate into the community,” she says. “Now those aren’t things you do overnight, it takes time to grow a business, to grow relationships, and one connection leads to another connection. It’s this large linkage you begin to build.”
With businesswomen scarce then, her mentors were the opposite sex.
“As I discovered there weren’t very many women in business and so that made it a little bit tougher, and so a lot of my business mentors have been men.”
She says former Chamber president Bob Bell was a big help at the start.
“I went down to get a Chamber membership and I met Bob and told him what I was going to do and he said, ‘Well. let’s see what we can get you involved in that would be good.’ He kind of started to help connect me in various ways.”
Those connections not only aided her in getting established but forged a strong relationship with the Chamber that culminated in her serving as its first female chairman in 2003.
Several other prominent men have taken her under their wing.
“Hal Daub was clearly one of them,” says Lovgren, who’s been active in Republican party politics. “I got to know Hal when he was running for Congress and he hired me to do marketing work with him and we became very good, lifelong friends. In fact, when he was running for reelection in 1980 I had young children at home and one night we needed to have a meeting but I couldn’t leave because my husband had some obligation and I had kids to put to bed. So the meeting came to my house and Hal put my kids to bed. He read them the stories while his staff and I worked on the campaign. We always chuckle about that a little bit.
The late Bob Reilly, an Omaha PR-advertising legend, proved an invaluable resource as well.
“When I first started in business I realized I knew a lot about advertising and public relations but I didn’t know a lot about running the business. I didn’t know the business management practices for billing and managing. I called up Bob, who had been a partner in Holland, Dreves, Reilly and was teaching at UNO at the time, and I said, ‘Can I hire you to consult with me and help me through this startup phase?’ We talked things over at what turned out to be a long lunch and we developed a long friendship and great relationship.”
For someone as forward-thinking and confident as Lovgren, making a go of it on her own was a strategic move to advance her career. She entered the adventure with a come-what-may attitude that prepared her for whatever happened.
“As I look back on it now I just kind of looked at it as this is the next step in what I’m going to do, and if it works out that is spectacular, and it has been, and if it doesn’t work out, there will be another door opening.
Besides, when she and her husband moved to Omaha after college she tasted the disappointment of not finding the dream job she had her sights set on, yet she landed on her feet anyway and soon found the pathway to her career.
“I really had wanted a job in an advertising agency,” she says. “I had gone around and knocked on all the doors and dropped off my resume and nothing happened.”
She considered working in television, whether in front of or behind the camera. She acted in theater productions and did public speaking throughout high school and college. She studied broadcast journalism as part of her communications program at Indiana University, where she interned at the school’s TV station.
“I really wanted to work in that creative field of writing and production.”
Among other things, she was the IU station’s weather girl. “I knew nothing about the weather,” she admits. “It was all about the performance,” And about a pretty face and nice figure. Thus, she says, “my first job interview in Omaha was to do the weather on KMTV. But Carol Scott got the job.” With her TV and advertising aspirations foiled, Lovgren moved onto the next best thing.
“I went to work for KRCB Radio in Council Bluffs. I was doing the writing for all the direct accounts and doing a lot of voice-over production. If the news person got sick I did the news. It was a small family station at the time. This was before it was acquired by the Mitchell Broadcasting Company.”
Her big break finally came when veteran ad man Howard Winslow offered her a position with his Winslow Advertising agency.
“His clients included Sears, McDonalds, Shavers Food Marts and a number of retail stores. As creative director I was the writer-producer of all the spots we did. I really was well-suited for that. I enjoyed working with the clients.”
In seven years with Winslow she says “I got a broad education from him. That was a good foundation.” He was the first in that string of male mentors who aided her professional development.
Branching out on her own after working for Winslow was “a defining moment” in her personal and professional life, she says. Making it an even greater challenge was the fact she had a 16-month old child at home, with her second child on the way. Going it alone while pregnant was a big decision. She knew being a mother, wife and owner-operator would severely test her and the family.
She got the idea to go in business for herself when, she says, “some of the clients I had been working with came to me and said, ‘We know in a few months you’re going to take some time off but we would really like to continue to work with you.’
So I thought about that for awhile and decided I was going to start the company.”
She says she and her husband, Robert W. Lovgren, then a fresh from college Mutual of Omaha manager and now longtime executive with the company, discussed the pros and cons. “We talked about all of this and he said, “I know you really well and I know you’re not going to be happy unless you try because you’ll always look back and say, Should I have done this?’ So I had great support from him to start with.”
She concedes there were sacrifices and struggles being a working mom but she wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
“I know I was a happier person because I was working, which means my children were probably happier kids. It meant that when we spent family time together we spent very focused, productive family time together, and so that’s a positive. It was just a matter of figuring out how to make all the pieces fit.”
Finding the right balance, she says, was key. That was no easy thing either for this self-described “workaholic.” Having a driven nature is characteristic of virtually every successful entrepreneur and she’s no different. Her hectic schedule as a new business owner and mother was all she could handle.
“I had childcare in the mornings, so that”s when I’d see my clients and do my work outside of the house. Then I’d come home in the afternoons and do naps and activities with the kids, fix dinner at night and put the kids to bed. We would do that as a family. And then I’d resume work again.
“I’ve always been a late night person which probably was a good thing in this case.
I would always enjoy that peaceful time in the evening to work and think about the strategies for my clients and do creative things.
She says young entrepreneurs need “to think about how they want to use their time and what kind of balance do they want in their life. As their business grows and if they have a family then the pressures on priorities start to grow as well. There were times when I don’t think I did the best of job balancing those priorities but now when I talk to my kids who are adults and have children of their own they say, ‘Boy, Mom, we didn’t realize it then, but we’re kind of wondering how that all worked out.’ And it did, too, because they both have great families.”
A favorite way she maintains balance is by enjoying the great outdoors, particularly her sport of choice, fly fishing.
“I grew up on the Minnesota-Iowa border and my mom and my dad and my brother and my grandmother loved to fish. I learned to spin fish for bullheads and crappies and bass when I was growing up.”
She says she hadn’t fished for maybe 20 years when she and her husband were off on one of their backpacking, hiking, camping trips in Estes Park, Colorado and she noticed a promotion for a fly fishing instructional.
“I thought, That looks really interesting, I’m going to go do that, so I went on this Sunday night four-hour excursion to learn how to fly fish and that was it. I have taken to it you might say like a fish to water. I love it. Part of the reason I love it is it’s physical and what I do day to day isn’t very physical.
“I also enjoy the peace and quiet and just the serene atmosphere. It’s just you and the fish. It’s an opportunity to think about things that aren’t day to day work. It’s just kind of that emotional release and, of course, catching a fish is a lot of fun. It has skill and it has art. But most of all it has an emotional attachment with the people I’m around when I fly fish.”
The sport took on deeper meaning for her when it became part of her own and other women’s ongoing healing as breast cancer survivors.
“About three years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I was home recovering from a minor surgery reading a fly fishing magazine and there was something about an organization called Casting for Recovery. It’s a program that does fly fishing retreats for breast cancer survivors because the therapy of the fly fishing is good for the muscles in the arms and chest area. I contacted them and got together a group of friends and we had our first retreat in Nebraska last September.
Fourteen women. We went out to Valentine and fished on the Snake River.”
She emphasizes she was “very lucky” in her own bout with cancer because the doctors caught it early.”
Life throws curves at her like it does at everyone else sand she says it helps to cultivate positive attitudes and friends.
“I guess you could say I always had confidence but it didn’t mean I always got what I wanted and I think that’s really an important lesson to learn, too – that sometimes even though you think you’re the best or you’ve done it the best you aren’t going to win all the time, and in a way those are good growing experiences, too. I’ve never regretted and I’ve never looked back.
“I surround myself with a very eclectic group of people that I like to be around. They’re all energetic, they’re all achievers in their own way. Some are professionals, some are stay-at-home moms. Some of them are my fly fish pals. They all like to get out and do things. They’re all looking forward to what’s the next adventure we can have. They’re also people that are very loyal to each other. If you need help and you call them, they’re there.”
It helped that she knew what she wanted when she launched Lovgren Marketing. Thirty four years later she still looks forward to coming to the office every day. Her hunger has never left and it’s reflected in the can-do attitude she brings to the image enhancement, branding, message control and media liaison work she does.
“Get there, do what you can, do it with enthusiasm, and if things don’t go the way you want, pick up the pieces and find out how to put them back on track. That’s what I love about it, and no two days are ever the same.
“What keeps me going every day is that I really love what I do and I enjoy the relationships I build with clients.”
One of her firm’s big ongoing projects is the Clean Solutions for Omaha or CSO Program that includes sewer separation in northeast Omaha. Lovgren Marketing has been recognized for its work on the project with multiple awards from the Public Relations Society of America – Nebraska Chapter.
“When the city’s CSO project came along we were selected to do the public involvement work on it, so for the last six-plus years we’ve been doing public education in all sorts of fashions: marketing materials, media management and training, speaking to civic groups, working with schools and doing presentations to students about the environmental reasons for the project and how it will affect them into the future.
“It will be 15 years before the project’s implementation is finished and many years beyond that before we finish paying for it. I’ve gotten to meet people from literally every corner of this city, from the Mormon Bridge to Bellevue, from the Missouri River to Elkhorn, and I really get energized by talking to other people and finding out what they’re thinking and why they’re thinking it.”
She says public involvement projects like this are a new niche for her firm.
“When we started out we were primarily a retail advertising organization. We worked for restaurants, a clothing store, an appliance store, a car dealer, a bank and for Countryside village shopping center. Krug’s Men’s and Boys Clothing was our original client. We were very active in political campaigns for two and a half decades. About seven years ago we started doing a lot of work with municipal organizations.”
Lovgren Marketing Group led the advocacy campaign for the Omaha Convention Center and Arena bond issue.
Her company also does its share of earned media and event marketing. “We’ve done things like the ground breaking and ribbon cutting for Pay Pal and Gallup and the CenturyLink Center.”
As communications has evolved so has her business.
“The public relations field today is not just about news conferences and news releases,” she says. “It involves Facebook and Twitter and all the social media activities that are available now to help people get their messages out and to help manage messages. So staying up with technology, understanding how that technology can impact a client, those are all important.
“As time has gone on our business has changed dramatically. Twenty years ago we didn’t have personal computers. We do probably three times as much business with one person because of the computers and the Internet and the ability to communicate and get more information quickly. We can design more quickly and certainly make design changes more efficiently, and that’s good for the client.”
Technology can only take you so far though. Her profession, she says, is still about
“thinking and strategy to come up with the best product you can.” She feels her staff of five have some built-in advantages, including “the ability to connect our clients to the right people to get their business done. Because we are experienced and mature we have a lot of network and connection throughout the community, so we’re able to help people find the right places to get information effectively to market their products or services.”
She brings a wealth of experience and a considerable tool box to the table.
“I think I’m really good at sitting down with a client and saying, ‘What do you want to achieve?’ and then figuring out very useful strategic ways for them to meet their goals through marketing and public relations. And obviously one of the skill sets in that industry is having some creativity, being able to brainstorm with the client what creative ideas might help get that message to the public, what’s going to connect their product or service to their target audience.
“Over the years I think I’ve really honed a skill set that helps me get through all of the discussion and figure out what really is the underlying strategy for doing that.”
She’s quick to add, “i don’t do this on my own. In fact, sometimes I look at the organizational chart and I think I’m on the bottom of it. There are very talented people on our staff who do design and writing and PR and keep the organization functioning as a whole. We’ve had amazing talented people work here who I have enjoyed a lot. It’s a very collaborative kind of business. It’s like a family. Everyone has a task to do but as a whole we are so much better doing it together.”
What keeps her hungry for more after all these years is essentially the same thing that’s always motivated her.
“I think the thing I love the most is getting to the end of the day and knowing we helped a client or clients take one more step toward their success. You got the meeting you needed or got the ad finished and it looks great. Whatever that is it just makes you feel good when you go home.”
An indication of the mark she’s made locally is that she’s among very few women in the Omaha Chamber Business Hall of Fame. This year’s unusual in that she’s one of three women inductees, along with Ree Kaneko (Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and KANEKO) and Lori Hogan (Home Instead Senior Care). The other 2012 inductees are Land Title Company founder and former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, Midlands Business Journal founder and publisher Bob Hoig and the late co-founder of Pamida, D.J. “Tex” Witherspoon.
Lovgren feels Omaha abounds with many “capable” women professionals and that it’s only a matter of time before more of them fill top management and executive roles in corporations and other organizations. She points out that many of the most accomplished women are, like her, Kaneko and Hogan, owners of their own businesses. Women CEOs are harder to find.
“It will come,” she says.
A chapter in her life that once again found her in a male-dominated field was her involvement with the GOP. “I worked very hard in party politics from 1976 to 1980.”
She was state party vice chairman before becoming interim chair. “It’s a huge responsibility. I enjoyed it tremendously, and I learned a lot. I certainly met people all over the state. It was a great time.”
While working on the state committee to elect Ronald Reagan she went on a campaign junket the then-candidate made across Nebraska. She flew on the press plane and then got to sit next to Reagan in his limo on the way to a speech he was making in Grand Island. “
“I spent 15 minutes talking to him. That was very exciting.”
At the 1980 national GOP convention in Detroit she was part of a team that put together a daily newspaper delivered to delegates. She was on the convention floor and attended various parties. “It was a lot of fun,” she says.
“I did stay involved in party politics for a long time after that in other ways,” she adds, but today she’s more calculated in her political deliberations.
“I’m very interested in politics and where it leads because it has an impact on us every day in terms of the policy that’s made. I think it’s very important for people to pay attention to the candidates and the issues surrounding us.”
Just as politics can be topsy turvy, her life and career have had ups and downs but she tries keeping an even keel through it all. She buys into the conventional wisdom that one learns more from failures than successes.
“I do agree with that, and sometimes they aren’t big failures either. You know, in our business we have great clients but sometimes they merge with someone else or they sell their company or the relationship just doesn’t work and you move on and they move on. I never look at those as failures in the sense that a lot of people might. I look at them and say, What opportunity does that present for me to build a better company and to build better relationships with the clients we do have? So I think you learn from everything you do.”
As a matriarch in her field, she feels she has something to offer young people coming into the profession and embraces sharing her knowledge base with them.
“I take every meeting that I can get with them. Not only young women but young men, too. I enjoy talking with them because they come with new ideas and fresh perspectives. I think it’s important for them to understand what they want to do, what they want to be, and if I can help them sort that out I’m happy to do it. I haven’t done it all right but I’ve done enough things right.”
She says part of the satisfaction she takes from her career is when a former employee goes on to success of their own and tells her they couldn’t have done it without her. “That tells me I made a difference for somebody,” she says, “and that’s what we all hope to do in our life.”
For Lovgren, whose give back has included volunteering with the State Fair Board, Nebraska Kidney Foundation, Mid-America Boy Scouts of America and Habitat for Humanity, “the prize in the end is not one thing,” adding, “The prize is – Did I accomplish what I wanted to accomplish for the people who surround me and work hard for the company, for my family who have come along for this whole effort, for the clients we work for? It’s really more about knowing you have accomplished something that has made a difference for all of those people.”
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Steve Gordon, the Man Behind RDQLUS Creative, Lives and Breathes the Life and Career of an Independent Creative
Everyone is all aflutter these days about the creative class. Sometimes it makes you wonder what all the fuss is all about. While there’s nothing really brand new, except perhaps the term itself, when it comes to people either identifying themselves as creatives or getting labeled with that name, there is undoubtedly a shift underway that finds more and more people working for themselves by pursuing some passion, often with a creative aspect to it. This phenomenon does tend to capture the public’s and the media’s imagination because there is a sense of freedom and adventure to what these folks are doing, though in most cases this notion of independence is rather romanticized or idealized because when you come right down to it creatives are, in their own ways, just as hidebound and constricted as the rest of the population. I mean, after all, they do have clients to please and deadlines to meet and taxes to pay, and on and on and on. It’s not like they’re living off the grid or anything like that. Indeed, creatives tend to be hyperconnected souls whose dependence on things like digital social media and social networking are to the extreme, which means that in an electrical power failure scenario they will be left untethered and disconnected more than most. Of course, I shouldn’t talk about creatives as if they are some alien species because I am one myself, except for the hyperconnected bit. The subject of this short profile, graphic designer Steve Gordon, is a prototypical creative in that everything he does is an expression of his branded creative self.
Steve Gordon, the Man Behind RDQLUS Creative, Lives and Breathes the Life and Career of an Independent Creative
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in Omaha Magazine
Designer Steve Gordon’s urbanized sense for what’s in-vogue permeates his lifestyle and RDQLUS Creative signature work. He indulges a love for hip hop, sneakers and bikes. He provides brand development, identity design and creative direction services for corporate clients, big and small, near and far.
“I was encouraged to explore and I think exploration is a major part of creativity and innovation,” he says. “All of that comes from the wide open spaces of being able to reach and grasp at straws, get some things wrong. After I bought into that so many things opened up. At Prep I fell in love with architecture. It still drives a lot of the work I do. My work is a lot more structured than the free-form work of some other designers. Mine is very vertical and Art Deco influenced.”
His design endeavors shared time with his passions for music and competitive athletics. He “fell in love” with music as a kid and went on to success as a DJ, producer and remixer. His skill as a triple jumper earned him scholarship offers from top colleges and universities. After two years as a Cornhusker in Lincoln he transferred to the University of South Dakota, where he won multiple national titles. He was ranked among the world’s best.
His pursuit of an Olympic berth and a music career took him around the world. Back home, he worked corporate gigs before launching RDQLUS Creative in 2005.
“As an artist you want that creative outlet to do something a bit more outside the box, something you’re passionate about,” he says of going the indie route.
The sneaker aficionado recently combined two of his passions when NIKEiD invited him to design shoes and to document the process online.
“I didn’t want to just put some pretty colors on a shoe, I wanted there to be some story, some branding. I’m very much into fashion, style, aesthetics and athletics, and so I wanted to design a shoe that spoke to all of those things.
“Guys like myself, though we dress in denims and sneakers rather than wing-tips and a tie, we’re no less in tune with wanting to look sharp and present ourselves well.”
He’s authored two books on freelance design for Rockport Publishers, whose Rock, Paper, Ink blog features his column, Indie. He also does public speaking gigs about design. He’s a big tweeter, too.
“I love communicating with people.”
“At times I wonder how I keep everything up in the air. All of the things I’m involved in, I really have a true belief they feed each other. Someone asked me once, ‘What is it you do for a living?’ and I said, ‘I hope my answer is always, I live for a living.’ What I do to sustain that, well, that’s a different story.”
This one-man shop embodies the independent creative class spirit of engaging community. “Design and creativity are not about art,” he says, “but communication. We’re visual problem solvers.” He says “the really fervent” way he worked to better himself as an athlete “is a lot of like how I still approach life in general,” adding, “If I could work so hard at something that was a game and that gave me fulfillment and made a lasting legacy for myself, then how can I not enjoy life that same way?”
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Timeless Fashion Illustrator Mary Mitchell: Her Work Illustrating Three Decades of Style Now Subject of New Book and Exhibition
Fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell of Omaha is about to enjoy the kind of rediscovery few artists rarely experience in their own lifetime. Selections from Mitchell’s 1,000-plus fashion illustrations, an archive that sublimely represents decades of style, are the subject of a forthcoming book and exhibition that will expose her work to a vast new audience. No less a fashion icon than famed designer Oscar de la Renta has high praise for her work in the foreword to the book, Drawn to Fashion: Illustrating Three Decades of Style by Mary Mitchell. The soon to be published book explores her work in words and images and is a complement to the same titled exhibition opening the end of January and continuing through the spring at the Durham Museum in Omaha. My story below, which will appear in the February edition of the New Horizons newspaper, charts her rich life and career. The story also reveals how her illustrations may have never been rediscovered if not for the discerning eye and persistent follow through of her friends Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Joichm. You can see more of Mitchell’s work and order the book at http://www.drawntofashion.com. A short video about Mitchell on the Drawn to Fashion website is narrated by Oscar-winner Alexander Payne, a family friend from the Greek-American community they share in common in Omaha. Clearly, Mary and her husband John Mitchell have made many good friends and it’s only fitting that her work of a lifetime is finally getting its just due on a stage large enough to encompass her immense talent.
NOTE: My profile of the aforementioned Anne Marie Kenny, a cabaret singer and entrepreneur, can be found on this blog, where you can also find my extensive work covering Alexander Payne. Mary Mitchell’s reemergence as a fashion illustrator comes as the Omaha fashion scene is enjoying its own renaissance, and my stories about that burgeoning scene and its all-the-rage Omaha Fashion Week can also be found here.
Mary Mitchell in her studio, @photo Jim Scholz
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in the New Horizons
Fashion illustration revived
Just as good art is timeless, so are the artists who make it.
Born in Buffalo, New York, fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell has seen art movements come and go through the years, but quality work, no matter what it is called or when it is en vogue, endures.
Much to her surprise, finely articulated fashion illustrations she made in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are finding new admirers inside and outside the world of design. Friends and experts alike appreciate how Mitchell’s work stands the test of time while offering revealing glimpses into the lost art of fashion illustration she practiced.
She worked as an in-house illustrator for an elite Omaha clothing store, “The Nebraska,” for four years. She then decided to become a freelance illustrator, which found her illustrating men’s, women’s, and children’s fashions for several leading Omaha stores. Her illustrations appeared in the Omaha World-Herald, the Sun Newspapers, the Lincoln Journal-Star and various suburban papers and local magazines.
When there was no longer a demand for fashion illustration, she moved onto other things. Her originals – meticulously rendered, carefully preserved black and white fashion illustrations – no longer had a use and so she put them away in her studio at home. Untouched. Unseen. Forgotten.
That all changed in 2010 when, suddenly, Mary found her work from that period the subject of renewed interest. It happened this way:
Two good friends visited Mary and her husband, John Mitchell, in Longboat Key, Florida, where the couple reside half the year. When guests Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Jochim asked Mary what she used to do for a living the artist showed a portfolio of her work. Kenny and Jochim were instantly captivated by Mitchell’s handiwork. The guests were so impressed that en route home they conceived the idea for an exhibition. The women formed an organizing committee and after many meetings and much planning, the right venue for the exhibition was found at the Durham Museum.
The resulting exhibition and book, Drawn to Fashion: Illustrating Three Decades of Style by Mary Mitchell, marks the first time and most certainly not the last that the artist’s work will be exhibited. The show opens January 28 and runs through May 27. Omaha-based Standard Printing Company designed and printed the book. The University of Nebraska Press is distributing it.
What so captured her friends’ fancy?
For starters, Kenny appreciates “the intricate detail and attitude, crafted in a superb drawing technique,” “the graceful lines” and “the exquisite flair” that run through Mary’s work. She adds, “The exhibit and new book devoted exclusively to her fashion illustration demonstrate her unique expression of a genre that is awesome to behold, highly collectable, and more relevant today than ever.”
Jochim, too, is struck by “the intricate strokes, down to the individual hairs in a fur coat, a herringbone weave, or the sparkle in a glittering evening jacket.” She said Mitchell “breathes life into the illustrations. The models in her drawings seem to all have a story to tell which makes you curious.”
Fashion designer icon Oscar de la Renta writes in his foreword to Drawn to Fashion: “Mary is a true artist, elegant and masterful. Her illustrations have enriched the experience of fashion in our time, and brought joy to the mind’s eye.”
Academics sing her praises as well.
Dr. Barbara Trout, a professorat the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design, which is contributing original garments for the exhibition, said Mitchell’s work “marked technical excellence through the fine articulation of garment details. Her ability to mimic the hand of the fabric, its distinct structure, and the projected movement allowed the consumer to envision themselves in those garments…Mary’s fine examples of illustration are truly a benchmark of their time.”
“Mary Mitchell’s fashion drawings reveal the confident hand of the experienced illustrator, one who brings to her work an editor’s ability to subtract and to refine, and an artist’s to enhance and to glamorize,” said Michael James, chair and Ardis James professor in the UNL Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design.
The rediscovery of Mitchell’s stunning cache of some 1,000 illustrations not only prompted the book and accompanying exhibition, it inspired the artist herself to create new fashion illustrations for the first time in years.
“I thought I probably would never have done any more fashion illustrations if it were not for Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Jochim. They showed so much interest in my work, it inspired me to start drawing in color, since all my work previously was in black and white to be printed in local papers,” said Mitchell.
Her new work now graces the book and the exhibit displays alongside her older work. She makes the new illustrations not for any client or acclaim, but purely for her own enjoyment and pleasure.
She throws herself into the work, creating without the burden of client restrictions or project deadlines.
“I get so excited about this that now I go down to my studio and work for hours to create another piece of art.”
She’s experimenting with other mediums, such as acrylic paints and watercolors, to draw fashions. Perhaps most pleasing of all, she feels she hasn’t lost her artistic touch. Her eye for detail, sharp as ever.
One should not assume Mitchell halted her creative life after the fashion illustration market dried up in the 1980s when clients and publishers abandoned hand-drawn illustrations for photographs.
No, her artistic sensibility and creativity infuse everything she does. It always has. It is revealed in the tasteful way she decorates her contemporary home, in how her hair is styled just so, in the stylish clothes she wears.
She is, as Jochim puts it, “a natural beauty” whose “graciousness and glamour” seem effortless.
Kenny said, “Mary lives and breathes art in every aspect of her life – her beautiful home, her elegant manner, her exquisite fashion illustrations, her glamorous style. Mary brings beauty to all that she touches.”
When fashion illustration was no longer a career option, Mitchell found other avenues of expression to feed her creativity, She became vice president of an advertising agency called Young & Mitchell, where she continued her graphic art. During this time she designed billboards, posters, and stationery logos, she called on clients, she made presentations, created television story boards and camera cards, wrote copy, and created advertising campaigns.
Her husband had bought several radio stations in Omaha and throughout Nebraska. The station general managers began asking Mary to create logos and to handle advertising for them. She then became a hands-on vice president with Mitchell Broadcasting Company. She created logos, designed all magazine and newspaper layouts, and bus signs for the stations, and handled creative projects for station promotions and concerts.
She seamlessly went from the intimacy of fashion illustration to the, by comparison, epic scale of signs and billboards.
“It was a different style of art needed for commercial advertising. I used to draw intricate, delicate drawings and now I was doing big, bold designs. Of course, that’s not fashion, it’s advertising, but it’s all a matter of design.
“It was a lot of fun. The people that worked in that environment each had their own personality – the DJs, the sales people, the managers.”
The passion of this accomplished woman would not be denied , certainly not suppressed. It is a trait she displayed early on growing up in Buffalo, New York as the only child of Greek immigrant parents, John and Irene Kafasis.
Where it all began
Born Mary Kafasis, she inherited determination from her folks, who ventured to America from Siatista in northern Greece. Her father arrived in the States at age 16 with $11 in his pocket. After a succession of menial jobs he worked on the railroad as part of a track maintenance crew. The work paid well enough but was miserable, backbreaking labor.
Her father and a buddy of his saved up enough to buy a candy shop. Greek-Americans up and down the East Coast and all around the U.S. used confectionaries and restaurants as their entree to the American Dream. She said her father was pushing 30 and still single when he wrote his parents asking that they find a suitable bride for him in the Old Country.
“My mom was from the same village in Greece as my dad. They married and he brought her back to the States, and she worked very hard with him in their candy store,” said Mary.
When Mary was about age 8 she spent an idyllic three months in Greece with her mother, visiting the village in which her mother was born and raised.
“It’s a beautiful little village surrounded by mountains. We stayed with my grandmother and I met all my aunts and uncles and I had fun playing with all my cousins. It was a lovely time.”
The small family carved out a nice middle class life for themselves. ”My parents did well, but they worked long hours and very hard.”
Everything revolved around the family business located in South Buffalo. The family lived upstairs of the shop.
“My mom would hand dip chocolate candies, such as nut and fruit clusters. Dad would make homemade ice cream and sponge taffy. For Easter and Valentine’s Day they would make candy bunnies, baskets, and hearts and fill them with delicious chocolates and decorate them with colorful flowers and ribbons. My job was to fill the baskets and Valentine’s hearts with the chocolates.”
Summers and after school found her working in the shop. She began as a dishwasher before she was entrusted to wait on customers. Her penchant for drawing surfaced early on.
“I remember when I was little I would get a pad, colored pencils or crayons or paints and start drawing figures and designing dresses. That’s when I decided I wanted to be an artist. My mom was so encouraging. She also had me take piano and dancing lessons.”
Mary went to great lengths to pursue her art passion. ”I was required to attend South Park High School. It didn’t have an art program, so after my freshman year I wanted to transfer to another school outside my district, clear on the other side of town – Bennett High School. It was renowned for its excellent art program. My girlfriend Shirley Fritz and I went to City Hall and obtained special permission to attend Bennett High. We really felt strong about it.”
Going to that far-off school meant waking up earlier and coming home much later. The extra time and effort were worth it, she said. ”My art teacher at Bennett was phenomenal. She had a great gift of teaching and got me involved in several national contests. I won national awards in poster design and an award from Hallmark cards for my design of a greeting card. I also designed the covers of two school year books.”
Then tragedy struck. Just two months before Mary’s high school graduation her mother died. “She had been ill for a long time and in the hospital. She was only 39.” Losing her mother at 17 was a terrible blow for the only child.
“I was scheduled to go to Syracuse University, but my dad would not let me go. He insisted I go to secretarial school instead of art school. He said, ‘You’re a woman, you’re going to get married, what do you need to go to art school for?’ It was an (Old World) Greek mentality. I know if my mother were there, she would have insisted I go to college and art school.
“He also said he would not pay for my tuition to college or art school. Luckily, my mother left a savings account in my name, so I used that for my tuition, and of course lived at home with my dad.”
She decided to attend the University of Buffalo in conjunction with the Albright Art School and graduated as a fashion illustrator. Her original intent was to be a magazine illustrator, but she was advised against that male-dominated field and steered into fashion illustration.
“One of the courses I took was life drawing, which teaches you the structure of the body’s bones and muscles. It’s very important to have that if you’re going to do fashion figures, to get the proportions and movements right, and to know how clothing is draped on the body.”
She learned, too, how elements like light and shadow “make a big difference” when sketching different fabrics and textures.
“After graduating I took my portfolio to all the department stores in Buffalo, where I kept running into resistance: ‘Do you have experience?’ ‘No, I just graduated.’ ‘Well, call me when you get experience.’
“So after several months of job hunting I took a job as a sign painter for the display department at a Flint & Kent department store, knowing that the fashion illustrator was pregnant and would be leaving in a few months. Lo and behold, they called me when she left and I got my first job as a fashion illustrator. I was in Seventh Heaven.”
Then John came into her life. They met as delegates at a Cleveland, Ohio convention of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, a service organization closely allied with the Greek Orthodox Church. Like her parents, John’s mother and father were from Greece, only from Athens. His family’s name, Mitsopoulos, was Americanized by his dad to Mitchell. His folks settled first in Kansas City before moving to the south central Nebraska town of Kearney.
John was a recent Georgetown University law graduate with an eye on practicing law in Kearney and plans for pursuing a political career. He wooed Mary from afar, the two got engaged, and in 1951 they married in Buffalo before starting a new life together in Kearney. Leaving home was bittersweet for Mary.
“Kearney in those days was a town of only 13,000, with no opportunities for me to work as an artist. With no family or friends, it was very difficult. So I decided to go back to school (at then-Kearney State Teachers College). I took two years of French, English literature, and psychology and during that time I would venture into the art department and talk to the art teachers. They said they needed more teachers and asked if I would join the faculty. I finally said yes and started teaching Art 101 and Art Appreciation.
“I was asked to design brochures for the college and I was also commissioned to redesign the interior of the student union.”
More interior design jobs followed in later years. Finally getting to apply her craft made her feel “a little better” about the move West.
While in Kearney Mary gave birth to her and John’s only child, John Charles Mitchell II, who is now a gastrointestinal physician in Omaha and married to M. Kathleen Mitchell of Red Cloud, Neb. They have two grown children, John Bernard Mitchell and Emily Suzanne Mitchell.
Meanwhile, her husband’s law practice flourished and his political career took off. He became state Democratic party chairman in the 1960s. It was a heady time.
“We got involved in local, state, and national politics. We got to meet Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy. When JFK came to Kearney for a political event we met him with our young son and he held Johnny. We met both Teddy and Bobby Kennedy. John was very close to Hubert Humphrey. It was a very busy and exciting time.”
Mary Mitchell’s halcyon fashion illustration days
Mary pined to work full-time and to have her own professional identity. John, by the way, “supported anything I wanted to do,” she said. The opportunity to fulfill her creative hunger finally came when the family moved to Omaha in 1968. Scouring the classifieds she saw an ad that read, “Fashion illustrator wanted, Nebraska Clothing.” A venerable clothing store then, “The Nebraska” was renowned for its quality brand name selections. She called, made an appointment to interview for the job, and got hired on the spot.
She enjoyed her four years with “The Nebraska” very much, but she reached a point where becoming a freelance artist made sense. She resigned from Nebraska Clothing in December 1971 and went into business for herself, calling her boutique design firm Mary Mitchell Studio. “Freelancing,” she said, “was the best career thing I did. It was a little scary at first, but people started calling me to design their ads and illustrate their garments. It was so wonderful to be independent and to work at my own pace. Each year kept getting better.”
Her client roster grew to include: TOPPs of Omaha; Goldstein Chapman; Herzbergs; Zoobs; Natelson’s; Parsow’s; Wolf Bros.; I. Eugene’s Shoes; Hitching Post; Crandell’s; The Wardrobe for Men, Backstage, Ltd.
“My general attitude is, whenever I sit down to create an ad or drawing I will try my best to achieve the attributes of the client’s business. I want it done as perfectly as possible.”
Creating a finished advertisement for a newspaper or magazine is a several step process. It begins with the client deciding the size of the ad, which determines its cost. Then the layout is made, the drawing of the garment is executed, and the ad copy written. Whether a suit, a dress, or a pair of shoes, there are usually instructions that go along with it. For instance, a client might want an 18 year-old look for one item and a 30 year-old look for another. A Girl-Next-Door vibe here, a sophisticated image there. A relaxed stance in one ad, a formal posture in another.
“The article was given to me to sketch and I created the look of the individual it would appeal to,” she said.
When doing fashion illustration ads, there is always a space limitation to work within, based on column inches. And, of course, there are always deadlines.
Once the parameters of the job were known, Mitchell arrayed the tools of her trade: pencils, pens, brushes, inks, paints, drawing paper. Her job then became animating the apparel and the figure wearing it to accentuate the fashion.
She started with a rough layout.
“There were two methods of drawing for reproduction at that time,” she said. “One used a fluorographic solution mixed with India ink to obtain various shades of gray and painting with a fine brush or drawing with a pen. The other used a No. 935 pencil to draw on textured paper to obtain various shades of gray to black. Different techniques produced different effects.
“If you have a dress with lace on it, you used a very fine quill pen, with a fine point. The way you handle the light and shade for materials and patterns depends on the amount of wash you use with your brush, dark to light.”
By mixing more water with a wash and by adjusting her brush stroke she approximated velvet, taffeta, fur or leather.
It’s all in the details, particularly in black and white. “The more you show the detail the better the garment looks. You try to approximate the article as close as possible.”
Depicting the essence of a garment requires great skill.
“The skilled fashion illustrator must be able to reduce the architecture of a garment to its essentials while amplifying its hedonic appeal. This is no small task when the means she has to do this are a few marks of pencil or pen or brush on paper. She must interpret the designer’s stylistic signature, but to be convincing she must render with her own authoritative style,” said UNL’s Michael James.
The dynamic sense of flow or movement in Mitchell’s work, then and now, is intentional. “I don’t want it just to be a static figure, I want it to be active.” Besides, to show off the clothes in their best light, she said, “you’re not going to draw the body straight forward, you’re going to give it movement.”
A file of fashion magazines offer her ideas to extrapolate from. Perhaps a certain facial type or expression that catches her attention. Or the way a model’s hair blows in the wind. Or the way a hand is gestured.
“Fashion illustration figures are always elongated,” she said. “We were taught that the human figure is eight heads high but illustrative figures should be nine heads high or tall because that gives a more dramatic and elegant look.”
When she did fashion illustration for her livelihood she made a habit of studying fashion ads. ”I certainly admired the Sunday New York Times fashion ads and those in the Chicago and L.A. papers as well.” Staying abreast of the latest trends meant she frequented local fashion shows. “I modeled, too, for some of the stores that I did ads for when I was thinner and younger,” said the still petite Mitchell.
As a freelancer she not only completed the artwork but the entire layout and the copy as well. All of it a very tactile, labor, and time intensive process.
“I would do the layout, then draw the article, type the copy, give it to a typesetter, and order certain fonts, and when I got it back I would cut it out with an X-acto knife and paste it up with rubber cement. It was the only way it was done then – no computers.”
From there, it went to the printer, and the next time Mitchell saw it, it was in print.
Then the industry changed and the services of commercial fashion illustrators like herself became expendable.
“Instead of retailers hiring a graphic artist to draw their clothes or their shoes or whatever, they began taking photographs. It was less expensive. And so they no longer used fashion illustrations. Not even in big cities like Chicago and New York.
“I would say it became a lost art.”
The timeless beauty and the scarcity of commercial fashion illustrations explain why they are collectible artworks today and featured in fashion books and on fashion blogs. The Fashion Illustration Gallery in London is devoted entirely to the work of master fashion illustrators .
Denied her fashion illustration outlet, she continued designing in a new guise as vice president and art director of Young & Mitchell Advertising and as vice president of Mitchell Broadcasting.
Mary said she and John sold their Nebraska stations, which included Sweet 98 and KKAR,, just “as the big boys started coming in, like Clear Channel,” adding, “We sold them at the right time.”
Another whole segment of her design work is interior design. John and Mary became part owners of Le Versaille restaurant and ran that for several years. They decided to change the decor and Mary redesigned it from a red velvet and mirrored interior to a black, green, silver, and white decor with large photographs of French vineyards. She also designed the Blue Fox restaurant. She executed the concept and theme for the Golden Apple of Love Restaurant.
“It was incredible,” she said of these all-encompassing projects and the large canvas they gave her to work on.
Her home is another epic canvas she has poured her passion into.
“It’s indeed a pleasure to create your own space,” she said, referring to her chic residence that reflects her “contemporary” design palette. “I like clean lines and not a lot of frills. Basically black and white with some beautiful colors.”
©photo Jim Scholz
A well-designed life comes full circle
She and John have traveled to Greece several times. They took their son there when he was 11. The couple have remained close to their Greek heritage in other ways, too. They are longtime members of Omaha’s Greek Orthodox Church.
“I do speak Greek on occasion, and with my Greek friends, and so does my husband. We cook Greek foods for special occasions, as does my son and his family.”
After the sale of the radio stations in 2000, her life proceeded like that of many retirees, as she divided her days between travel, shopping, decorating, and spending time with John and Kathleen and their two grandchildren, John B. and Emily. She never expected the work she did way back when to be the focus of an exhibition and a book.
When still active as a fashion illustrator, it never crossed her mind to exhibit her work, she said, because commercial art was generally not considered museum or gallery worthy. That attitude has turned around in recent years. She is very much aware that the graphic art form she specialized in is making “a comeback” with young and old alike.
She has a collection of fashion illustration books and has her heart set on one day visiting London’s Fashion Illustration Gallery.
“I’d love to see it.”
Her illustrations might never have seen the light of day again if Anne Marie Kenny and Mary Jochim had not persevered and shown so much interest to exhibit them. Mary Mitchell is flattered by all the interest in this art form from so long ago.
There would be no exhibition or book if she had not preserved the original illustrations. She held onto enough that her personal collection numbers about 1,000 illustrations. It adds up to a life’s work.
The way she had carefully mounted the illustrations on framed and covered poster board panels and in portfolio books indicates the importance they have always held for her. Just as there was nothing haphazard in the way she created the works, she took great pains in preserving them for posterity.
Still, the illustrations would likely have remained tucked away in her home studio if not for the unexpected series of events that led to the book and exhibition.
Now, these valuable artworks and artifacts have a second life and Mary Mitchell suddenly finds herself the subject of renewed interest.
Harper’s Bazaar editor Glenda Bailey writes, “I love that Mary Mitchell brought such a high caliber of artistry to the local level. I was in fashion school in London in the 1980s, but when I look at the work of Mary drew for the women of Omaha at that time, her level of detail puts me right into the moment. To the casual viewer, Mary’s work appears effortless. But when you look more closely you see the precision and intention behind each brushstroke. She elevates each drawing to a tactile experience. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a Mary Mitchell illustration is worth a thousand rustles of silk and crisp snaps of tweed.”
Mary never expected such a fuss, but she welcomes it. The timelessness of Mary Mitchell and her art now resonate with old and new audiences. The rediscovery of her work should ensure it lasts for generations to come.
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A few weeks ago I mentioned I would be posting a story about another photographer you should know about, and here it is. His name is Jim Krantz and he does work of the highest order, so high in fact that he was named Advertising Photographer of the Year by the International Photography Awards in 2010 and International Photographer of the Year at the IPAs Lucie Awards. Jim has an exhibition opening in his hometown of Omaha on Nov. 4 that has deep meaning for him because it displays his work alongside that of the man who first inspired and nurtured his artistic leanings and who gave him his first camera – his late grandfather David Bialac, who was an artist himself. Look for my story in next week’s The Reader (www.thereader.com). If you’re into photography and to stories about the journeys that photographers make in their life and work, then you’ll find plenty of captivating things to see and read on this blog. You’ll find stories here on such noted photographers as Larry Ferguson, Don Doll, Monte Kruse, Pat Drickey, Jim Hendrickson, Rudy Smith, and Ken Jarecke. You can choose their stories individually by clicking on their names in the Categories listing on the right or just choose Photography. Or you can search for my stories about them in the search box.
NOTE: The Krantz-Bialac show is called Generations Shared and it runs Nov. 4-27 at the Anderson O’Brien Gallery in Omaha’s Old Market.
Jim Krantz, ©photo by Susan Krantz
Photographer Jim Krantz and His Artist Grandfather, the Late David Bialac: An Art Conversation Through the Generations
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
An aesthetic conversation that began decades ago continues in Generations Shared. The Nov. 4 through 27 exhibition features work by internationally renowned photographer Jim Krantz alongside that of his late maternal grandfather, David Bialac, an Omaha painter, sculptor and fine furniture-maker who was Krantz’s first and perhaps most important artistic mentor.
Krantz, who assisted Bialac for a time, says, “My grandpa had a very good reputation.” Krantz believes Bialac (1905-1978) should be better known and more appreciated today. He views the new exhibition at Anderson O’Brien Gallery in the Old Market as a tribute to the man he credits with kindling his own creative passion.
The tribute subject owned Dave Bialac Builders in northeast Omaha. At his 52nd and Hamilton Streets home studio he developed an alchemy-like enameling process that involved arranging multi-colored glass shards and powder on glass and copper plates and then firing them in a kiln. The bonded-fused objects took on trippy abstract patterns. His distinctive work adorned custom kitchens and decorative installations and sculptures he designed for some of Omaha’s most distinctive homes and public-private spaces, such as the Mutual of Omaha lobby.
“He signed his pieces,” says Bialac. “There was a lot of pride and craftsmanship in what he did. He did custom woodworking for a living but his real passion was his artwork.”
Every Saturday morning Krantz, the devoted young grandson, joined Bialac in his home studio for what the old man jokingly called “baking cookies.” The self-taught abstract expressionist and his boy apprentice made this a ritual for years. After Bialac suffered a severe stroke he gave Jimmy access to an expressive tool all his own via the studio camera he kept to document his work: a Minolta SR-T 101.
Krantz recalls his grandfather’s wizened admonition: “Jimmy, I want you to work with this camera. Make some pictures, but remember the kinds of things we did in the studio.” It proved an irresistible invitation for the protege. Out of obligation to his elder and his own curiosity Krantz experimented. The camera might as well have been a new appendage as inseparable as he and the Minolta became.
Their contract called for Krantz to return the camera once Bialac recovered, so they could resume working together. Bialac never got better. “It was a shame because he was an amazing, vital, creative force trapped in his body after the stroke. It’s got to be the most debilitating thing because his mind was racing and there was no way to respond. So all I was left with was memories and a camera,” says Krantz, who went on to study photography and earn a design degree.
As a professional Krantz gained a rep as a visual stylist who makes any shoot, regardless of subject matter, a rigorous exploration of light, space, form, shadow. He conquered the Omaha ad market before moving to Chicago 12 years ago.
Today, Krantz enjoys a high-end career as a advertising, documentary and art photographer traveling the world for Fortune 500 clients and personal projects. His signature commercial work came on a Marlboro tobacco campaign. His post-modern The Way of the West imagery earned him International Photography of the Year prizes as 2010′s best advertising photographer and top overall photographer.
The Way of the West, ©photo by Jim Krantz
More recently his images from inside the forbidden zone of Russia’s Chernobyl nuclear disaster have captured attention via his book and exhibition, Homage: Remembering Chernobyl. His Chernobyl work comes to KANEKO in April.
The Chicago-based Krantz, who retains strong Omaha ties, loves the idea of showing his work with that of his Saturday morning studio session mentor. More than most exhibits, the show examines creativity as legacy, a theme much on Krantz’s mind as his career’s reached new heights and he’s recognized how indebted he is to teachers like his grandfather.
He speaks of feeling connected to Bialac and sensing his guiding hand. As a kid, he never considered those weekend idylls with “Poppy” as classes, but in retrospect they were. Among the lessons taught: focus and discipline.
“He was a very warm and loving guy but he was very concentrated on this stuff,” says Krantz.
As the boy alchemist’s helper, Krantz says he’d studiously watch his grandfather manipulating “threads of glass on a plate, then staring at it, and with tweezers moving it in such a nuance of a move” before transferring them to the kiln. “I had no idea what he was doing — all I knew was this was serious shit.”
“My grandpa was a very eccentric man, I have to say, doing very abstract, very unusual things. I’m telling you, this guy was out there, but he had this quality of craftsmanship. He’d take his copper enameling and then he’d build big huge installations of wood furniture and whatever and they’d all be applied to the furniture. His work’s amazing. Really quite strong. Really beautifully crafted.”
The Krantz family possesses a nice collection of Bialac’s work, but many pieces have been lost to time.
Krantz describes Bialac as someone who straddled the Old World and Modern Age as a creative.
“He was from another generation,” says Krantz. “I don’t even know where he got his initial inspiration because he came from working class type people and he got sidetracked somehow deep into very abstract thinking, concepts, art, color and design, and then it evolved into sculpture with natural elements and all of these things — brass, rock, metal, glass, enamel.”
The studio where he and Bialac bonded over art is fixed in Krantz’s mind.
“I remember it so well. It was an immaculately beautiful space, really organized. A very busy shop. You could just tell he was really meticulous and thoughtful about everything he did. I remember the work that came out of it was so different than the setting. I’m not saying clinical but it’s funny how the space did not feel like the product, which was kind of very free form and organic. That’s why process was so important to him.”
As time goes by Krantz feels ever more the reverberations of Bialac’s work in his own.
“Over the years I’ve been looking back at my work and his work and it’s like the parallels are so strikingly similar, even in our own visual vocabulary, and I know it’s all from just literally every Saturday standing by this guy’s side watching him work. It’s just part of me.”
Most of their communication was nonverbal, with Kranz observing his grandfather communing with pieces, responding to subtle variations, tweaking this or that. And while they never formally discussed methodology, Krantz gleaned some direction for his own artistry and field of vision. He realizes now he adopted, intuitively, from Bialac a way of apprehending the world.
“I did the same thing with the camera he did pushing those little things around. I was always aware of everything I saw in the viewfinder because he always told me, ‘What you see on this plate — how do all these things fit?’I put a camera to my eye and I see a rectangle. There’s a tree branch here and a rock there and a person over here. All of these things become abstract shapes.
“It isn’t so much documenting, it’s arranging. So I started to learn at an early age that I can look through this camera just like I looked at that plate. Once you have the shapes in the right spot then you can relate to them on a more personal level. The thing that was wired into me early was I knew how to put things on that plate and I could transfer it to the rectangle of a camera.”
He doesn’t know why his grandfather offered him the camera but suspects he noted in him a kindred spirit. “It’s possible he was predisposed to it, I was predisposed to it,” and the camera served as connective medium. Whatever the reason, Krantz found in photography what he’d never had before and gladly lost himself in.
In his artist’s statement he writes, “My camera became a part of me and I photographed everything I saw…and have never stopped.” Like Bialac’s work, photography is a process. It begins with a camera and subject, then knowing where to stand and when to shoot, taking the shot and finally developing and printing the image. Not so different than what goes into making a three-dimensional art object. Leaving oneself open to interpreting and discovering things is key.
As Krantz writes, “Photography, too, had the familiar quality of surprise I was accustomed to when the enameled ‘cookies’ would emerge from the kiln.”
Photography gave this “dorky kid” a potent process to call his own. “All of a sudden I had a little bit of an identity. Everybody loves to have something you do.” He says his open-minded parents (his family owns Allen Furniture) provided the freedom to pursue his passion “as far as photography could carry me. They knew I loved it. They encouraged me.” At 18 Krantz was so enthralled by the expressive possibilities he built his own darkroom at home and began educating himself.
He described his magnificent obsession to Rangefinder Magazine:
“I was amazed by the process in the darkroom and was swept up by the art and science of photography. I searched out books and images from every source and grew very attracted to the West Coast photographers, studying the work of (Ansel) Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Wynn Bullock, Minor White…”
A very young Jim Krantz with an iconic mentor, Ansel Adams, ©photo Jim Krantz
His parents agreed to his driving his Renault, alone, to Calif. to take a workshop from the great Yosemite documenter, Ansel Adams. Krantz had just graduated from Westside High. On his website, www.jimkrantz.com, is a picture of Krantz, looking even younger than his years, posed beside the icon’s home mailbox. Other pictures show the acolyte with the veteran imagemaker in candid moments.
The first day Krantz met Adams he ended up printing images with him in his state-of-the-art darkroom. “I was nervous, I was unsure of myself.” He recalls few details other than the bearded sage offering critiques of his beginner’s work.
Krantz felt compelled to learn everything he could and venturing off to seek a master’s advice was part of that. “I just had the sense this was something I had to do,” he says. In Adams he found a grandfather surrogate.
“It was very familiar. Adams talked about arrangement, shape, form, tonality. I thought, ‘This is the same thing I learned from my grandpa.’ Both were very passionate, focused, attached.”
The icon’s approach to nature informed how Krantz treated grand landscapes. Krantz repeated that 1970s trek west multiple times to work with Adams. “I’d drive out there, take a workshop, and come home all inspired. I was always the youngest one in the class.” “Now,” adds Krantz, who’s continued taking workshops from other photographers, “I’m the oldest guy in class.”
The workshops are intensive immersion experiences he throws himself into and comes out of reinvigorated. “I continue to go and I continue to learn.”
All the work he exposed himself to and all the photo grammar he learned early on emboldened him to try new things. Among those who’ve consciously influenced him, he says, is Wynn Bullock. “This guy worked on a totally different level. His work resonated with me on a much deeper level,” says Krantz. Bullock’s evocative Navigation by Numbers is embedded in Krantz’s mental file of essential images. As are images by Paul Caponigro, Fredrick Sommer and others.
“Sometimes people don’t really understand where ideas come from. The whole concept of the source of ideas and where they start in a person’s life and then how they manifest later, I find kind of fascinating. You don’t know where these thoughts develop and how they develop or why, but there’s catalysts in your life.”
It’s clear to Krantz his grandfather was a major catalyst. He couldn’t have known where it would all lead, saying, “I never had a clue any of this would kindle and turn into something like this.” He feels fortunate to have had a nurturing start.
“Between encouragement and interest and passion, it’s like a stew that simmers,” he says. “I had all the right tools at hand: the love of my parents, their approval, my interest, my grandpa’s input, my desire to do this.”
He’s never lost his enthusiasm.
“When I have a camera in my hand, and it’s no different today than before, it’s like a ticket to anywhere. It’s the damnedest thing. It’s such an amazing vehicle. It’s like, ‘I wonder what types of images are going to go through this thing this time?’ I’ve had some bad experiences and dangerous ones and some joyful and astounding ones…you just never know what you’re going to get. I just never want it to stop.”
He balances big budget ad projects with scaled down personal work, applying the same rigor to each while employing wildly different technical approaches.
Advertising shoots, like Way of the West, are at one end of the spectrum with their crews, talent, lighting rigs and set pieces. It’s then he works in “a transmedia” space. Using a RED digital camera he combines motion and stills, animating still frames and harvesting high output stills from motion. He works collaboratively with computer geeks and editors.
“All of this combined together transcends further than any of these by themselves are capable of really expressing,” Krantz says of the merging.
The possibilities are delicious and a bit delirious. “It’s funny because I feel like I’ve got more to learn now than I ever did before. I feel as though I’m starting from scratch because there’s a huge learning curve with this.”
To portray cowboys in Way of the West, he says, “I wanted to show this in a much more contemporary, edgy, urban, hip way,” much like snowboarders or skateboarders. “All these guys are cut from the same cloth. My vision of these cowboys isn’t sepia-toned. It’s a very cool, strong, hip energy. I don’t like the word techie but the processes I used are current — the way the film’s handled, the angles, the perspectives, the colors, the styling. I wanted it to have a style and a sense of fashion and yet the core of it be the Wild West.”
The other end of the spectrum finds him going to Chernobyl or Cuba or Cambodia, alone, with a single camera and a fixed lens. “It’s pure seeing and pure responding,” he says. “Not only is it poignant and important and talks to people on a very different level, it’s a lot more visceral, it’s a lot more about human emotion.”
All of it, from the epic to the intimate, he views as part of a bi-polar continuum.
“That’s how I visualize how these two things interact because, you see, one without the other doesn’t work. and it’s always been that way for me. The basis of all of this is having a very strong fundamental background. That allows you to take chances.
Technical proficiency will lead to artistic freedom. You first learn how to record but then you learn how to interpret. Then at that point you can do lots of things because a camera is basically an instrument and it’s played like anything else.
“A stylistic approach can only happen after you’ve developed enough to understand where you’re going, how you see the world and having the confidence to do it the way you see it. And quite frankly it’s taken me a long time.”
For all the “flattering” honors to come his way he says, “I don’t look back very often. I spend more time looking forward than backwards for sure. But more often than not I’m just looking at right now.” Generations Shared is a notable exception. “It’s important to me,” he says. Once he conceived the show he had to find a way to create companion images that echoed his grandfather’s abstract works.
“I had to develop a process I’d never even considered or heard of before in order to reinterpret what he did with copper and glass plates in a kiln. In essence I’m painting negatives and then these painted negatives become the positives which become the art. It’s the only way I could really figure out to communicate-express these same abstract sensibilities.”
He says the images he created may look photo-shopped but they’re actually “pure photography.” At its core, he says, the exhibition “is a dialogue about what a mentor is and how threads of knowledge and information are transferred — DNA or life experience, I don’t which one it is. But input equals output. What goes in comes out. And it’s like this river just flows.”
Anderson O’Brien Gallery is at 1108 Jackson Street. For hours, visit www.aobfineart.com or call 402-884-0911.
- From the Archives: Photographer Monte Kruse Works Close to the Edge (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Art as Revolution: Brigitte McQueen’s Union for Contemporary Art Reimagines What’s Possible in North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Photographer Larry Ferguson’s Work is a Meditation on the Nature of Views and Viewing, (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jesuit Photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University Documents the Global Human Condition One Person, One Image at a Time (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From Wars to Olympics, World-class Photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke Shoots It All, and Now His Discerning Eye is Trained on Husker Football (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Photographer Larry Ferguson’s Work is a Meditation on the Nature of Views and Viewing, (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jesuit Photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University Documents the Global Human Condition One Person, One Image at a Time (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From Wars to Olympics, World-class Photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke Shoots It All, and Now His Discerning Eye is Trained on Husker Football (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Former Husker All-American Trev Alberts Tries Making UNO Athletics’ Slogan, ‘Omaha’s Team,’ a Reality
THE LATEST: Requiem for a Dynasty will be the headline, if I get an assignment to write the story that is, for what transpired as expected with the UNO wrestling program. As anticipated and despite the most heartfelt efforts of the program’s coaches, student-athletes, alums, and supporters the NU Board of Regents approved UNO’s proposed move to the Summit League and NCAA Division I competition and with it the elimination of the wrestling and football programs. It’s a sad day for UNO when its administrators can discard history and tradition so easily for the sake of convenience. In this disposable culture two programs were thrown out as if they were useless refuse. Losing football hurts, but the rationale for excising it ultimately makes sense because it was never going to come close to making money. Dumping wrestling though to purportedly be in better alignment with the Summit League is pure hogwash. It’s really UNO and NU leaders saying that they don’t give a rat’s ass about wrestling, that they don’t really care about all the championships, the scores of All-Americans, the prestige, the community service, the lessons learned, the character built, the incredibly strong and tight family bonds built up across generations. They don’t care that UNO hosted multiple national championships and the largest single day annual wrestling tournament in the country. Why not give a damn about those things universities are there to provide its student-athletes and constituents? My take is that no matter how much UNO wrestling achieved, and it achieved so very much, it was never accorded the respect or due it deserved. Not by the regents, not by administrators, not by major university donors, not by the media, not by the general public. It was always considered marginal and therefore expendable. When things got tight, UNO wrestling was an easy target despite being a dynasty. That sends a disturbing, dysfunctional message to anyone really paying attention.
Getting rid of wrestling was painless for the regents because it was done in the abstract. By the time the UNO wrestling community appeared before them to plead their case that the program be retained, by the time all the appeals and messages had been made via email and phone, the regents had already made up their minds. The March 25 hearing was perfunctory. It was a show to merely let wrestling vent and have its say in an open forum. If the regents had bothered to actually visit the UNO wrestling room and to see first-hand the sweat and blood and tears and love and joy that went into making the dynasty, then the program might have had a fair day in court, so to speak. If the regents had seen for themselves the championship banners and the roll calls of All-Americans and soaked up the atmosphere of excellence imbued in that room, it might have been a different story. Or not. This was a business decision made by UNO and given the thumbs up by the regents. Cold, calculated business. The administrators and the regents simply didn’t get it or didn’t want to get it. They would not be moved by emotion or history. To the end, the UNO wrestling family fought gallantly, never breaking ranks, always showing class, the bonds that hold them together more powerful than any bureaucratic decree, extending beyond the now ended program. UNO wrestling may be gone, but its spirit lives on. The relationships between the men forged in that room and in those duals and tournaments and in all the time spent on the road and cutting weight and hanging out will endure.
NEW UPDATE: With each passing day any window of opportunity for UNO wrestling to be saved grows smaller. Unless something dramatic should happen between now and March 25th, it appears likely then that the NU Board of Regents will approve the plan advanced by University of Nebraska at Omaha Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts for UNO to move to Division I and to drop football and wrestling in the process. As a graduate of UNO, as a former Athletic Department staffer, as a UNO sports fan, and as a writer I have a perspective to offer many don’t. Football certainly has a longer tradition than wrestling at the school, but when it comes to sustained success there’s no comparison. Don’t get me wrong, I will miss UNO football. I variously kept stats at and cheered at probably a hundred home games over the years. Caniglia Field is a great venue to watch a game at and UNO consistently plays at a high standard . UNO football’s been one of the best entertainment bargains in the city. But the sad truth is the program rarely drew well and even if IUNO football came along for the ride to D-I there’s little reason to expect it would draw any better at that level. UNO football has had its share of winning but it’s never won a national title and generally failed in the post-season, on the biggest of stages. UNO wrestling is a whole different story. It has been an elite program for more than 40 years. It’s won multiple national titles, produced scores of All-Americans, and basically been the best D-II program over the past 20 years. No, it’snot a big draw, although by wrestling standards it does quite well, but in terms of national prestige UNO is one of the best things the university has going for it, period. The crazy thing is that the UNO administration makes clear it’s not finances driving the proposed elimination of wrestling and football, which gets at the heart of it: UNO administrators don’t care about the excellence that UNO football and particularly UNO wrestling represents. It’s inconceivable it is prepared to walk away from something so successful, but that is what is about to happen.
Therefore, it seems like a good idea to look back at the wrestling program’s early years in order to gain an appreciation for where it came from and the significance it had at a tempestuous time in the university’s and in the city’s and in the nation’s history. The story of what Don Benning and his wrestlers did to put UNO on the map and to make UNO wrestling a champion is one of the great legacies of the university, and one it has never really embraced or celebrated to the extent it deserves. Sadly, wrestling at the school has always been viewed as marginal and expendable, and the words and actions of the UNO administration today bear that out. So check out the story below — it’s my take on the tide of social change that UNO’s glorious wrestling program is built on. I wrote it early last year for The Reader, as UNO prepared to defend its national title, which it did, and did again this year. It’s sad to think the story may now be the Requiem for a Dynasty.
UPDATE: Trev Alberts has been putting his stamp on the University of Nebraska at Omaha Athletic Department since his from left-field arrival in the job of athletic director two years ago. Chancellor John Christensen hand-picked Alberts to lead a revitalization of UNO athletics and Alberts has surprised many by just how bold his moves have been — from hiring Dean Blais as head hockey coach to getting major donors whose support had waned to ante up big again for capital improvements. And now as the Omaha World-Herald is reporting Alberts and Christensen are about to shake the foundation of the school and the athletic department by moving UNO into Division I competition across the board — pending University of Nebraska Board of Regents approval — by joining the Summit League. The news of going D-I isn’t that big a surprise in and of itself, as UNO has made clear for more than a decade that is where it wanted to go, but what is is UNO doing it so soon and its decision that in order to make it work long-term it must sacrifice the school’s two winningest sports — football and wrestling. Alberts and Christensen say they and others have worked the numbers and the only way UNO can justify the leap into the big-time is by dropping the heavy financial burden of football, whose weight would only increase with the increased scholarships and improved facilities D-I necessitates. Besides, where football is a revenue generator at many schools it is not at UNO and even the prospect of D-I would likely do little for the program’s mass appeal given the shadow of Big Red. But the real shocker is that UNO is prepared to jettison its shining star, wrestling, whose program just captured its eighth national title over the March 11-12 weekend. UNO could choose to go independent in wrestling but the school is opting not to do that, which is odd because it’s perhaps the least financially onerous men’s program in terms of scholarships, equipment, travel, facilities. But more to the point — how do you just dismiss the incredible success that UNO wrestling has achieved? I would hope that UNO finds a way to preserve the wrestling program. For a look at some of its remarkable history, see my stories on this blog about Don Benning and about how the UNO wrestling dynasty is built on a tide of social change.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of the update I misidentified the new conference UNO is looking to join as the Horizon League, when it is in fact the Summit League. My bad. I was in too much of a hurry posting the update and failed to check the league name.
ANOTHER UPDATE: It may be a moot point in the end, but the UNO wrestling program is not going down without a fight. Coaches, student athletes, alums, fans, and boosters gathered at UNO Sunday, March 13 in the wake of the startling announcement that the wrestling program will be disbanded. Coach Mike Denney was seen calmly addressing the gathering and coalescing support. In an interview he gave a local TV sports reporter he pointed out that some schools in the Summit League that UNO has been invited to join do have wrestling programs. Denney asked the question a lot of people are asking: If they can be in that league and keep wrestling, then why can’t we do it? UNO Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts apparently came to this decision without consulting Denney or the UNO wrestling community or UNO student leaders. The two men are undoubtedly acting out of good intentions and in the long term interests of the school but to spring this decision without warning and without giving Denney and his assistant coaches and student-athletes the opportunity to weigh in and argue against it is cruel and ill-advised. I would not be surprised if Don Benning adds his voice to the chorus of disapproval over Christensen’s and Albert’s decision to throw away the history and tradition that UNO wrestling represents.
Like most Nebraska football fans I watched Trev Alberts play on some very good Husker teams in the early 1990s without ever seeing him in person, by seeing him play on television. I’ve been a Big Red fan since just before the dawn of my teens but I’ve only attended a couple games at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln in all that time. So, my relationship with Alberts remained a virtual one until I interviewed him for the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader,com). Alberts was a high draft choice of the Indianapolis Colts but repeated injuries cut short his NFL career before he could ever really establish himself. Then, the telegenic Alberts embarked on a successful career as an on-air college football analyst with ESPN. He left the network in a dispute that received a fair amount of attention. The, totally unexpected, he wound up as athletic director at Division II University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he’s in his second year on the job trying to right what had becomes a wayward department. Although some have speculated he took the post as a way to season and position himself for eventually replacing his old coach, Tom Osborne, as NU athletic director, an assertion by the way that both Alberts and Osborne deny, he seems genuinely satisfied to be doing a very unglamorous job at a very unglamorous institution. But as he reveals in my story, he is all about work ethic, seeing a job through, and teamwork, which I believe will keep him at UNO for the foreseeable future, not that I would rule out him one day moving over to NU.
Former Husker All-American Trev Alberts Tries Making UNO Athletics’ Slogan, ‘Omaha’s Team,’ a Reality
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
UNO athletics has always been the overlooked step-child on the area sports scene.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha is still primarily a commuter school, making athletics a hard sell to students and alums. Most have a distant relationship with UNO, whose athletic success rarely translates into fans in the stands save for Maverick hockey, a few football games and a couple wrestling meets.
Things got tenuous four years ago amid revelations the school hushed up athletic budget shortfalls and secretly funneled general university funds to make up the difference. Then-chancellor Nancy Belck came under fire for loose department oversight. The cash cow UNO’s tied its wagon to, Division I hockey, sputtered.
UNO quickly went through three athletic directors. The budget and staff absorbed cuts. Some major boosters criticized school leaders and pulled support. Things stabilized when John Christensen became chancellor in 2007. His April 2009 hiring of Trev Alberts, the former University of Nebraska football All-American (1990-93), Indianapolis Colt and ESPN analyst, turned heads. Getting the chiseled, charismatic Alberts was a bold, outside-the-box move to pump life, credibility and pizazz into a floundering, faceless enterprise.
Some questioned Alberts’ lack of sports administration experience. Not Christensen.
“I wasn’t looking for an administrator, I was looking for a leader, and those are very different things,” said Christensen.
The two have big plans for UNO, including new campus facilities for baseball, softball, soccer and hockey. There’s talk of one day going D-I across the board. UNO is being touted as “Omaha’s Team.” By all accounts, confidence is restored in the department. Alberts’ hiring last year of iconic Dean Blais as hockey coach signaled a sea change in how UNO brands itself. The pretender’s now the contender.
Alberts set the tone at the press conference introducing him as AD, saying, “I believe the potential for UNO’s athletic programs is unlimited.” He hasn’t backed off on that. He sent a message with the Blais hire.
“We wanted to make a statement we weren’t going to mess around anymore, we were going to get into the arena competition and we were going to win and we were going to win the right way. I have never been a part of anything that didn’t attempt to do excellence.”
The rub is that while UNO’s located in a much larger metro than most D-II competitors, it must contend with many more divided loyalties and attractions than, say, a Northwest Missouri State, which is the only game in town in Maryville, Mo.
Husker mania looms large here. Creighton athletic programs are fan favorites. The College of St. Mary, Bellevue College and Iowa Western Community College have their followings. High school athletic contests regularly outdraw UNO’s. The Royals, the Beef, the Lancers, and now the Nighthawks, have committed fan bases, too.
Still, UNO is convinced it can capture more fans and revenue through upgrades, a must anyway if the school’s to ever seriously entertain going D-I, said Christensen.
“Right now, are we Omaha’s team? No, not the way we’re currently structured,” said Alberts. “No, not when you ask your baseball fans to drive to Boys Town to watch a game, you drive your softball fans to Westgate, you drive your hockey fans to the Qwest (Center). Think about it, we’ve been doing everything we could to make it extraordinarily difficult and inconvenient to support UNO athletics. You’re supposed to bring people to your campus.
“Imagine if we had facilities that were convenient, that met market expectations and were on or near the UNO campus.”
Alberts can sound like a pitchman, and that ability to spin things, to charm, to energize, to win hearts and minds, is why supporters like David Sokol are back in the fold. For Alberts, though, the heavy lifting’s just begun.
“We’re still a burden on campus until we’re able to realize that revenue from hockey. Do we have the kind of players, coaches, teams representative of what the market demands? We’re getting closer. I mean, it’s about winning. You gotta win, you gotta win consistently. The moniker ‘Omaha’s Team’ is really a reminder to our staff and coaches of what we aspire to become.”
Alberts said UNO must meet “market expectations of excellence of Lincoln and Creighton and the College World Series.” In some respects, he said, UNO’s done so by winning 11 national championships, adding that feedback from the community, however, indicates UNO’s fallen short in most ways.
Then there’s the awkwardness of dual NCAA membership. Yes, UNO has a D-I hockey program, but it’s a D-II, school, making for a tail-wagging-the-dog scenario.
“At strictly Division II schools, their (athletic) budgets are about three-and-a half to four million. Our budget’s approaching nine million with one Division I sport. When you have dual membership one of two things happens: you either treat all of your programs like their Division II, which is problematic to NCAA compliance. or you end up running your whole department like you’re Division I. That’s equally dangerous, because now in our budget we have all the support units of a Division I department and our Division II programs are benefitting from it.
“We’ve got strength and conditioning staff, compliance staff, three full time sports information staffers, a marketing department – you don’t need a marketing department when you’re Division II. We have a ticketing office. A five-person athletic medicine staff I’ll put up against anybody. The point is, we’re a Division I athletic department whether we like it or not, but we compete at the Division II level. It’s naturally divisive. That’s why the NCAA views dual memberships as problematic.
“That’s why Dean Blais was so important. His personality, his humility — he doesn’t walk around here like…He’s just a Midwestern guy, he’s one of us. Now, he has expectations, don’t get me wrong.”
If other UNO coaches are upset by hockey’s anointed status, Alberts said they haven’t said so. Regardless, there’s no turning back.
“We’ve tried hard to communicate from the day I took the job that that’s the way it’s going to be. You can be frustrated, but if hockey is not successful, we are not successful.”
For now, he said UNO must balance the trappings of its lone D-I sport with the low corporate sponsorships and game guarantees of a D-II school.
“We simply didn’t have the ability and maybe still don’t to deliver the product this market demands, and that’s why this job’s so hard,” he said.
Much of his job is creating a culture of integrity that’s about “making the right decision, not the convenient one.” It’s why he and Christensen talk regularly and why Alberts seeks counsel from his old coach/mentor, Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne. He also keeps former UNO athletic director Don Leahy close by as advisor and watchdog.
“It’s transparency,” Alberts said. “You know, Nebraskans are a common sense group. Trying to fool people is simply not going to work. First of all you have to be honest with yourself, understand your limitations, your strengths, and show enough humility to welcome the input of others. The first thing we had to do was create a belief. A lot of our coaches have been promised things for years. I would never promise somebody something I couldn’t actually keep.”
He’s impressed by “the passion for this place” that’s kept several veteran coaches and staff members at UNO when they could have bolted for other opportunities. He feels UNO athletics is poised for growth despite a tough economy and NU system-wide cuts.
“We’ve never been in a more difficult position than we’re currently in. What’s encouraging to me is a lot of our problems are self-inflicted and they’re solvable, and we’re committed to finding solutions.”
- A Former Division II Doormat Has Taken Some Big Steps Up (nytimes.com)
- Penn State Starting A Division I Hockey Program (huffingtonpost.com)
- Howard, Morehouse may renew football rivalry (washingtonpost.com)
- UNO Wrestling Dynasty Built on a Tide of Social Change (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Dean Blais Has UNO Hockey Dreaming Big (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- College Hockey’s Seismic Shift Begins Today in Colorado Springs (pikespeaklife.wordpress.com)
Cities the size of Omaha or smaller have their local theater legends. Omaha claims many, including at least two figures, in Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, who became legends on a much larger stage. One of the local legends who stayed local but whose talent might have played well beyond these confines had she sought to try is the subject of this New Horizons story. As I was growing up, Elaine Jabenis epitomized glamour by the way she carried herself in theater, in fashion, in television, and at community events. She was a queen and a diva without the baggage. She seemed apart from yet wholly approachable. When I finally met her seven years ago I found she is still that charming mix of Grande Dame and down-to-earth hometown girl. She’s still full of vitality and curiosity. I must admit that I’ve never seen her perform in the theater, the domain where she perhaps made her biggest impact. But I saw enough of her on television to appreciate her expressive talents. And even interviewing her at her home I was captured by her magnetic charm. She gives off a positive energy that you can’t help but be energized by yourself.
As if I needed proof, not long after my story appeared Elaine appeared with Michal Simpson in the SNAP! Productions staging of Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, earning as usual rave reviews. She’s gone on to win a series of lifetime achievement awards. Look for a new story about Elaine and her unaging passion in a coming post.
Theater-Fashion Maven Elaine Jabenis
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
When considering her charmed life, Elaine Jabenis, that pert, pretty, petite bundle of energy Omahans have come to know as a well-versed radio-television personality, veteran stage actress, longtime fashion maven, seasoned author and perennial woman of style, has to admit it reads like “a storybook.”
Take the time she was waiting out a rain storm in the Times Building as a young newlywed in 1944 New York, where her husband Mace, a Kansas City native, was stationed as a flight crew member aboard Army Air Transport Command missions over the Atlantic, when she decided, on a whim, to put in an application at that bastion of American newspapering — the New York Times.
Mind you, she’d never worked on anything but the Omaha Central High School Register staff and had only taken a few courses at Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism before her money ran out. But, showing the penchant for imagination that would define her life, she bent the truth a little, well, a lot, by inventing from whole cloth a high-gloss work background, including a fictitious World-Herald reporting stint. What gave her the chutzpah to pull such a cheeky stunt?
“I was really doing it as a kind of lark,” she said. “I exaggerated, never in the world expecting to get a job. I was just playing this silly little game. This was the sense of drama in me” coming out, a vivacious Jabenis said in an interview from the home she shares with hubby Mace in Omaha’s exclusive Loveland neighborhood. The rich, tasteful decor of the home, featuring art objects from the couple’s wide travels to China and elsewhere, is a reflection of Jabenis, whose well-coiffured hair, stylish ensembles and trim figure, still make her every inch the fashionable lady.
After all, there wasn’t a chance in hell she’d get on at the venerable Times, right? Wrong. In a case of being at the right place at the right time, she was on her way out the building when a certain Mr. Tootle flagged her down and, much to her disbelief, offered her, on the spot, a temporary job filling-in for a secretary taken ill that day. She accepted and in typical Jabenis fashion she displayed such poise, industry and charm that at the end of her term she was kept on as an assistant in the high-octane city room. Thus, what began as a lark turned into a three-year whirlwind that provided invaluable experience and exposed her to the high-end creative world she would make her life’s work. “That application was probably the best piece of fiction I ever wrote,” is how she sums up the episode today.
Despite the frivolous attitude she adopted when applying at the Times and the fortuitous manner in which she got hired there, she really did have a hankering to write. Growing up one of three children of Sol and Ida Lagman, Russian immigrant grocers whose Laggie’s Market was a north Omaha fixture, she said, “I always had a pencil and pad under my pillow and I was always writing poems and stories.” At Central, she was encouraged to pursue writing by journalism department head Anne L. Savidge, who persuaded her to continue her studies at Northwestern.
At the Times Jabenis was first assigned to the Town Hall page and later as an aid to several experienced journalists under whose doting tutelage she learned a thing or two about writing, working under deadlines and trusting her muse. As a young reporter-in-training, she did a little of everything, from fielding phone calls to fixing copy, and sometimes accompanied beat writers on assignment, once to the first meeting of the United Nations security council.
One of her mentors was education editor Benjamin Fine, who advised Jabenis on her ambition to be a serious writer with this admonition: ‘Go home and write a million words and then tell me you’re a writer. The only way to be a writer is to write all the time.’” And, like a good pupil, she took his sage advice years later when, writing “every single day,” she authored a suspense novel, The Burning of Georgia, set amidst the fashion world, an arena she knows well from her years as fashion guru for J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Stores. In the early 1970s she penned the first of her two long-in-print fashion merchandising college texts published by John Wiley & Sons. She’s also written the book for two musical plays. Her Generation to Generation, with music and songs by composer and producer Karen Sokolof Javitch, is “a celebration of life” about a dying Jewish woman passing on her legacy to the grandchild she won’t live to see. Generation won the best new script award from the Theater Arts Guild.
Two other Times staffers she worked for, drama critic Brooks Atkinson and film reviewer Bosley Crowther, were living legends whose printed words carried much weight, but none more so than those of Atkinson whom Jabenis describes as “the most feared theater critic of all time. I mean, if Brooks Atkinson put his thumb down on a show, it could close tomorrow. He didn’t pull any punches.”
Looking back on her Times experience, she said, “It was a wonderful training ground. I gained so much while I was there. I was like a sponge just soaking up all that knowledge.” Her association with Atkinson afforded privileged access, via her Times press pass, to stars, including rubbing shoulders with Rex Harrison at the swank Stork Club, and taking in scores of Broadway opening nights for such classics as Oklahoma and Moon for the Misbegotten. Her total Broadway immersion prompted her own passion for theater, until she knew her place was not in the audience anymore but on stage. “I began to think — I don’t want to be down here, I want to be up there. I just began to love it. It was always there, that desire to act or to perform. If that basic temperament is there, it only needs cultivation to bloom.”
With a hoped-for life in theater or journalism before her, Jabenis was in an envious position, but reality has a way of tempering dreams. It was, after all, wartime and she had more pressing concerns than what professional path she should take. She explains, “My husband was crossing the Atlantic on ATC missions and my mind was more on, Is he coming home safely this trip? than on what I would do” for a career.
A life in the theater did indeed come to fruition for Jabenis, only in her hometown of Omaha, where she and Mace moved a year after the war ended, not in New York, where she longed to study at the famed Actors Studio but never found the time and where she ached to trod the boards but never took the plunge. As she would soon discover, her destiny as an actress lay on the Omaha Community Playhouse stage, not on Broadway. But before launching her six-decade run of success with the Playhouse, which in July honored her with its Dick Boyd Award for lifetime achievement, she had an unexpected brush with Hollywood.
Elaine Jabenis and Michal Simpson in the SNAP! Productions staging of Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks
About the same time her thespian ambitions flowered in New York, she said, she was offered a screen test by a major Hollywood studio, she thinks Paramount, a heady thing to have happen to “a country girl” with stars in her eyes and greasepaint in her veins. Flattered and flummoxed by the offer, Jabenis sought the counsel of one of her Times mentors, Crowther, whose resulting bromide may have dramatically changed her life. “
He said, ‘Elaine, don’t do it.’ And I said, ‘Why, because you don’t think I have the talent or the warmth or something?’ He said, ‘No, you probably have both, but you don’t have a killer instinct and without a killer instinct they’ll destroy you. You don’t want to be a part of that world and those ruthless people.’” A deflated Jabenis heeded the warning, even though “it was very hard to hear,” at the time, she said. “He just decided I was a nice Midwestern girl” unsuited to the cruel vagaries of Hollywood or New York. “Later, I was so grateful because after I got back here (Omaha) I had the best of both worlds. Not only could I have theater as an avocation, I had New York through my fashion career and I was able to raise my children and have a decent life.”
In Omaha Jabenis wasted little time embarking on her entertainment career. “Almost immediately I got a job as a continuity writer at WOW Radio,” then aligned with WOW-TV. “I wrote commercials and copy for on-the-air people,” she said. Then, one day an unlikely chain of events propelled her into the performing spotlight.
As Jabenis recalls, “Shaver’s Food Mart wanted a commercial tailor-made for them” and she obliged with one, which the general manager had her put on tape. “I went in the announcer’s booth of a little studio and recorded it and they took it over for Mr. Shaver to hear and he liked the concept really well and bought the package.” Then, the story goes, when Shaver was told, “We’ll get you an announcer” to cut the spot, he balked, saying, “No, I want the voice I heard on that tape.” When pointed out to him the voice belonged to a writer, he persisted, “I don’t care, I like what she said and the way she said it.” Acceding to “the customer is always right” credo, WOW put Jabenis on the air and, she said, “before I knew it I had a show of my own” — Saturday’s Scrapbook — and a star was born.
Saturday’s Scrapbook, which Jabenis co-hosted with Ray Olson, was what she calls “a forerunner of the talk show.” She added, “We talked back and forth. We had music and special topics. We did it quite loosely, but I think that’s what made it work.”
The program was recognized by Billboard Magazine as one of the best of its kind. Soon, she joined the television side of WOW, serving as spokes-model for commercials on evening newscasts, as featured guest on local morning programs and as host of prime time special event broadcasts, such as the Ak-Sar-Ben ball. It was all live, too. “There was no such thing as teleprompters or idiot boards. You just got up there and talked. It was very stimulating,” she said of those halcyon days. “Back then, television was just coming in and none of us knew what we were doing. We just did it. It was, Let’s try this, let’s try that.”
Among the talents at WOW she worked with was a young fire brand named Johnny Carson. At the time he was hosting his Squirrel Cage TV show and one day she came on to read some prepared copy when Carson, already known for his free-spirited, anything-goes ad-libbing, forced her to improvise as she joined him on set.
“I came in scripted and he knew I was going to want to look at those notes and he just tore up the script and cleared off the desk, sending stuff flying across the studio, and he said, ‘OK, Lainie, what did you want to tell me?’ That taught me.” From then on, she said, she knew to be ready to just wing it. Lainie is what Carson always called her and the nickname, which no one else but her mother used, endeared him to her. “It was such fun. He was always doing silly things. We always had a good time together. We were good friends. I like him a lot.”
The rapport they enjoyed is evident in a 1966 interview he gave her during one of his rare Nebraska visits. On the tape, the two engage in the easy, intimate banter and horse play of old chums, as she playfully slaps him and they embrace like schoolkids. “It’s so funny to be in this position of interviewing you,” she tells him.
She and Carson stayed in touch over the years. Once, returning from the West Coast after having given himself a year to make it out there, he tried coaxing Jabenis to join him in L.A., where he predicted great things for her. But she declined. By then, she and Mace had started a family and well, just like the Hollywood opportunity before, who’s to say whether she really would have succeeded or not and whether it was right for her or not? “I wasn’t that adventurous to pack up and move my family and risk everything on that chance.” Mace was in business then with his brother Eli as owners of Travelware Luggage.
In her career Jabenis has had the privilege of working with major talents. There was Carson, who forever put his stamp on the late-night talk format as host of The Tonight Show, and, more recently, there was John Beasley, a top character actor in movies (The Apostle) and television (Everwood). “Absolutely. I have found that when you’re around very talented people it just brings your level up,” she said. “I know when I played opposite an actor of the caliber of John Beasley in Driving Miss Daisy at the Playhouse it was a thrill because John is such a perfectionist and a professional. He really brought me to places where I never knew I could go.”
Elaine Jabenis and John Beasley in Driving Miss Daisy
Jabenis got so busy working as a freelance commercial talent with Bozell and Jacobs and its stable of clients that some nights found her hurrying from station to station to pitch products on the evening newscasts.
“I would be booked into a commercial at Channel 3 for Peter Pan Bread, which I’d have to commit to memory and do live, and then I’d get in the car with the script for another spot beside me and as I drove up to WOW I’d be reviewing the lines I had to do for MUD and its new gas ranges. And then I’d go over to host a late-night movie show on Channel 7 and do the live cut-ins.” The excitement was intoxicating. “You just had to really move. But, boy, that really taught you to think fast on your feet. I loved the action. I loved the electricity of all those personalities and how ideas bounced off of each other. You began to pick up the pace of that kind of life. It was really wonderful.”
While her TV career flourished, she pursued a parallel career in drama.
“There was that pull to go into the theater,” she said.
So strong was the pull that in 1952, six weeks after giving birth to her second child, she played the ingenue in Father of the Bride at the Playhouse, then at 39th and Davenport. Years of award-winning lead and character roles followed, the most recent a 2001 supporting turn in My Fair Lady. Like a true calling found, the theater became her second home. “Yeah, I really loved it. I could just hardly wait to get into the next play, but it was very hard at first because I was raising our two children. I kept watching to see what was coming up next that had a good part for me.” Her passion extended to all aspects of theater. “There were times I worked backstage…props, costumes…I would do just about anything because I wanted to be in the environment of the thing I loved.” She could only pull it all off, she said, with “the support of Mace.”
Omaha Community Playhouse main auditorium
Whether as a radio-TV personality or theater actor, Jabenis proved a natural. Without any formal training, she simply took to it.
“I had an aptitude for it, I guess,” is how she explains it. “Nobody had to tell me. I just think it’s something you do and you know. I think it’s in here,” she said, patting her heart. Natural or not, Jabenis still battled stage fright. “I was terrified every time I went on camera, but the minute the light went on I was fine. That’s the same way it was with the theater. I’d stand back in the wings and feel like I was going to have a heart attack before the curtain went up, but once on the stage I forgot about Elaine and became whatever I had to become.”
Her absorption in her craft is complete. Take her approach to acting.
“What I think is important is to have a moment of truth with the audience…to give an honest interpretation of the author’s words. It’s exciting when it happens. It really is,” she said. Now, forget the glamour of the theater and consider the grind of working a full-time job, as she did 23 years at Brandeis, then coming home to shower and catch a bite to eat before spending hours in rehearsal or performance. “Once I got involved with the Playhouse it was totally consuming,” she said. “You have to be up every night.” Her devotion is such that one night during the run of Wingless Victory the trouper went on despite a high fever. “I was just going on sheer guts,” she recalls. “I just had to do it.” After her final exit she was delirious in the wings. “I didn’t know where I was. I was really sick. I was in bed the next two days.”
Broadcasting and acting success led Jabenis into another creative field — fashion. It happened this way. Having covered the Ak-Sar-Ben ball, Jabenis “got very well acquainted with the buyers and presidents of the stores furnishing gowns for the event. Brandeis invited me to be a guest commentator for fashion shows and this and that. Then, one day I got a call from Dick Einstein of Brandeis asking if I’d like to make it a permanent arrangement.”
As Brandeis fashion coordinator and, later, fashion merchandising director, she canvassed the designer market by reading the industry trades and by frequently visiting New York, Los Angeles and Europe to catch the biggest shows and identify the hottest trends. She met the top name designers — from de la Renta to Cardin — and worked with celebrities — from Irene Dunn to Vanna White. She recommended entire lines and styles of clothing for the store to purchase and pitched those fashions via all size and manner of shows.
“I was probably the first one to introduce theatrical pieces into fashion shows here when I started adding singers and dancers and that kind of thing,” she said, adding that she drew on her theatrical acumen in staging events. After Brandeis was sold she formed her own fashion production company and dished-out fashion advice as a TV and print commentator. Her biggest fashion forum has become the Woman of the Year Gala she created as a benefit for the Arthritis Foundation. As she said, “All stops are pulled,” for the extravaganzas. “That’s right up my alley.”
Reticent about revealing her age for professional reasons, it’s safe to say Jabenis is years removed from traditional retirement age, but she does not concede anything to mere numbers. “I haven’t retired from anything, honey,” she told a visitor to her home. “I don’t believe in that. I’m not going to let chronological years interrupt what I want to do.” What she wants to do is continue traveling, writing and acting. She’s already planning her next novel and she’s awaiting the next prime part to come her way.
“I’ve always felt there’s some kind of little angel sitting on my shoulder guiding me and taking care of me. I feel like I’ve led a charmed life.”
- Elaine Stritch and Other Matrons of ‘Night Music’ (nytimes.com)
- Theater Talkback: The Replacements’ Greatest Hits (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Canceled FX Boxing Show, ‘Lights Out,’ May Still Springboard Omahan Holt McCallany’s Career (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Fashion Show: VIP Spring Runway Show (thebrunetteone.com)
- Quiana Smith’s Dream Time (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Ushers in New Era of Omaha Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kevyn Morrow’s Homecoming (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Walking Behind to Freedom, A Musical Theater Examination of Race (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Q & A with Edward Albee: His Thoughts on the Great Plains Theatre Conference, Jo Ann McDowell, Omaha and Preparing a New Generation of Playwrights (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Playwright/Director Glyn O’Malley, Measuring the Heartbeat of the American Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Every once in a while, and not nearly as often as I’d like, someone will give me a lead on a story. That’s what led me to Click Westin. The one-time Writer’s Guild of America member wrote for episodic television and had one screenplay produced as a feature. He also owned and operated his own L.A, advertising agency that did work for national clients. He seemingly had it all but then his battle with the bottle cost him his Hollywood career and very nearly everything else. Long story short, he cleaned up his act and in his decades-long sobriety he’s been an active AA sponsor and speaker in his hometown of Omaha, where he headed the advertising for his brother Dick Westin’s successful international food business. Now, in his 80s, Click is back writing screenplays. He recently had one optioned. My story about this engaging man who licked a serious problem originally appeared in the New Horizons. Since it’s publication a year ago or so the irrepressible Click has begun writing songs at a furious clip, even getting Nashville producers to take notice. Go Click! He’s an example of how older individuals often make the most fascinating subjects if for no other reason than the sheer expanse of life experience they represent.
Click Westin, Back in the Screenwriting Game Again at Age 83
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
More than 40 years after writing a screenplay that became the low budget feature film The Nashville Rebel (1966) with country music star Waylon Jennings in the lead, Omahan Clifton “Click” Westin may have a new script made into a motion picture.
At 83, Westin’s original crime thriller Center Cut has been optioned by Steve Lustgarten’s LEO Films. That’s no guarantee it will ever get made. Even if it does we’re not talking Oscar-caliber work here. But it is another mark of progress on his comeback trail in an industry famously cruel to artists his age and with his baggage.
That comeback, make it recovery, is both personal and professional and is a long time in the making. His reaching the point of despair with alcoholism interrupted his screenwriting career in the 1960s. He’s worked his recovery program for half-a-century. He claims 40 years of sobriety under his belt. But he only surrendered to the unmanageability of his disease after hitting bottom and having lost everything, his home, his first marriage, his family, his savings, his career.
After piecing his life back together on the West Coast with the help of a pistol-packing woman named Wilma, whom he married and is still with today, he began doing consulting work back in Omaha for his brother Dick, owner of Westin Foods, and before long Click and Wilma settled here. He’s been here ever since as Westin’s vice president of advertising and as a speaker at area AA confabs.
But there was a time when Click once did enjoy a Hollywood career. Nothing major mind you, but he was a working hack and card-carrying member of the Writers Guild of America. As he likes to say he paid his dues and learned his craft in the sink-or-swim crucible of studio staff scriptwriting with producer-syndicator Ziv Television in the 1950s. He churned out script after script for such half-hour episodic action-adventure series as Boston Blackie and The Cisco Kid
“It was kind of disappointing if you were looking for glamour because it was an office set up. You had a desk. The studios were outside the door, where they were shooting, but you never got over there. Your quota was to write two half-hour scripts a week,” he said.
As soon as you’d get an assignment, he said, “you start dreaming up something and you put in on paper. You learn your trade no matter what the writing assignment is. If you were a staff writer I’m not sure you even got credit for what you wrote. You never did see the result of what you wrote. You just had to turn in those assignments every week.”
He’s written about everything a writer can at one time or another, with the exception of a novel. “A writer’s a writer,” he likes to say. If Westin has a niche, it’s terse, hard-boiled dialogue and one-liner jokes, which is how he ended up contributing material on a freelance basis to such popular programs as The Steve Allen Show, You Asked for It and This is Your Life. He’s always been able to write fast, a vital commodity in advertising and TV.
The first stars he met predated his Hollywood career. It was 1948 and he was a World War II veteran studying journalism at then-Omaha University on the G.I. Bill when he went out to the West Coast to visit an Army Air Corps buddy who attended the University of Southern California. Westin got invited along with his pal’s fraternity brothers to serve as extras on the MGM musical Easter Parade. He got to visit with stars Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, whose path he’d cross again.
“My only scene is in the finale when everyone is walking down the boardwalk and I tip my hat to Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. That was the extent of it,” Click said in his clipped, just-the-facts delivery.
He said you can spot him at the end of the classic picture ”just for a moment. You gotta be alert. There’s really a lovely young lady on my arm.” To get costumed and made-up for the scene, he said, “we went in a tent and got our clothes changed. She had on this beautiful period dress with a hoop skirt and all, but underneath she’d rolled up her jeans,” giving lie to the carefully constructed illusion.
The whole Hollywood, big-studio moviemaking apparatus was an eye-opener for him. “I was just out of the service, still a kid. I was very impressed,” he said. Still, he had enough moxie to stand out, which is likely why he got selected to tip his bowler hat to the two stars. That and his six-foot-height and athletic good looks. It wasn’t the only time during the sound stage shoot he displayed his boldness.
“Onto the set came Peter Lawford and Liz Taylor. She wanted to climb up to the camera tower, and I was standing next to the tower so I took her up and on the way I thought, Why not?, and I said, ‘Listen, the boys at the fraternity are having a party tonight, I just wondered if…’ And she said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’m busy.’ I thought, Well, I gave it a shot.”
If nothing else, the experience gave him a glimpse into a world he’d never seen before and some good anecdotes to share. “When I got the check from MGM I didn’t cash it, I brought it back to the Dundee Dell, where us college kids hung out, and waved it around.”
He swears that early behind-the-scenes exposure to the world of movies didn’t influence his decision to try his luck out there just a few years later. But that’s just like Click, who deflects or downplays things, unless they touch on addiction or on events like the Great Depression, when he learned what it meant to survive.
During the depths of the Depression his father Clifton, a native Omahan who also went by “Click,” lost his regular sales job. He gathered up the family, including a very young “Click Jr.,” and they hit the road to scrounge up a living.
The Cisco Kid
It turns out Click’s old man was highly resourceful. Among other things, he was a pool shark who once toured with the great early 20th century straight pool champion, Ralph Greenleaf. The elder Westin would sometimes appear in town pool halls as The Masked Marvel, taking on all comers in promotional stunts sponsored by the Coca-Cola Company. The sport was huge then.
Unfortunately, Click said his father was also an alcoholic.
When hard times hit, the sharpie was married with kids in the Nebraska Panhandle, stranded without a job, and so he did what he had to do to provide for his family.
“Dad acquired an old Graham-Paige automobile, he cut off the back and rigged a structure onto it to make almost sort of a covered wagon out of it, and we headed south. A good place to go during the Depression. He showed a great deal of foresight,” said Click.
Not unlike the Oakies displaced by the Dust Bowl, the family packed up what they had in their makeshift “prairie schooner” and headed for greener pastures in Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico. “We were just itinerant. We would pick up bottles and containers out of the trash in every town we’d stop, we would clean ‘em and redeem ‘em for change. Mom would make soap over an open fire and we’d sell soap door to door. My dad fixed pool tables and hustled pool. Anything to make a buck.”
These self-made gypsies would stay put awhile in select spots. They stayed in New Mexico long enough for Click’s dad to operate a roughneck pool hall where he ran a poker game in back. There were some wild and woolly times — drinking, shouting, fisticuffs, knives, guns. Click heard first-hand tales from old cowboys of epic cattle drives, scraps with Indians, riding with outlaws and Pony Express exploits. For someone with a vivid imagination like Click it was a golden time. The hardships of growing up without a home or its creature comforts didn’t resonate then, the excitement did. To him, it was just one big fat adventure.
“Well, lifestyles don’t affect children, they don’t know the difference, it’s the way life is, but in looking back of course it was quite severe, quite tough,” he said.
But also quite a rich life experience. By the time he started school it’s safe to say Click had lived and seen more than any of his boyhood chums. All that moving around though meant never being in one school more than a few months. “I probably attended as near as I could figure out 30 grade schools,” he said.
The family subsisted this way for almost two years before coming to Omaha. The hopskotching didn’t end entirely then either. “Here in Omaha whenever the rent was due we moved,” he said of his parents’ attempts to stay one step ahead of creditors. Click’s dad eventually did well with his own insulation business
At Benson Click proved a bright student. His kid brother Dick was a sports hero and entrepreneurial whiz who’s now in the Benson and Nebraska athletic halls of fame and the Omaha Business Hall of Fame. Click’s talents lay elsewhere. Blessed with a creative mind, he exhibited a way with words, writing for the school paper and penning O. Henry-like short stories. But entry into the military at age 18 put a hold on his storyteller ambitions. All the eligible males from his class of ‘44 enlisted.
His World War II service saw him man a ball turret aboard B-24s assigned submarine patrol duty in the Caribbean. His group never saw action.
Like many returning vets, he was eager to make up for lost time. He wanted to be the next Fitzgerald or Hemingway. He got his first taste of being a professional wordsmith composing verses for a Kansas City greeting card company. In Omaha, he filed articles and press releases for Northern Natural Gas Company and created on-air promotional spots and bits at WOW Radio, a then regional broadcasting giant. He and a popular performer, Johnny Carson, hit it off, and were drinking buddies at local watering holes, where they discussed taking Hollywood by storm. Before long, Carson left to pursue the dream. Westin soon followed, young wife in tow.
Westin never did complete all the required credit hours for his degree, but he did find a career. Show business agreed with his temperament as a cocksure promoter and curiosity seeker. WOW became his early training ground.
“I contributed to writing the noon day show called The Farm Hour. It was an audience participation show. It had a full band and a full cast, it had skits. It was a big deal at the time.”
Even though he didn’t know a soul on the West Coast except for Carson and a few war comrades, Westin leaped at the chance when NBC offered a spot in promotions in L.A. Then came his trial-by-fire at Ziv and writing for all those TV programmers. He also wrote for a TV series called Squad Car. “I did a ton of those.” he said. In addition to his small screen credits, he did uncredited script doctor work on all kinds of feature films. He’d rarely be given the entire script, usually just a small section to tweak a page here or a page there, to punch up some stiff dialogue with a dose of humor or a bit of color. One of the many pics he doctored was the 1959 WWII drama Up Periscope with James Garner and Edmond O’Brien.
He was not picky about the writing gigs he got. There was no pretense about him. He was very business-minded about writing. “You’d do assignments as they’d come along,” he said. Sometimes, he said, he was hired purely as insurance, his material never utilized. He didn’t care as long as he got paid. Some writers threw a hissy fit if one word of theirs got altered, he said, “but not me. I was never much interested in what they did with whatever I wrote. I would be today but writing then paid the rent and when an assignment was through I was looking for the next assignment, not what the hell happened to it or shaking hands with some tight ass star. That didn’t put bread on the table. I wasn’t interested in that. Really, I looked at writing very pragmatically. I wrote for a buck, not for artsy-craftsy or for posterity. I just wrote for a dollar, that was my living. Once you sell it you don’t own it. It’s like selling a house, you get paid for it and you move on.”
But his real bread-and-butter came as a broadcast advertising copywriter, producer and director. He did so many commercials, perhaps thousands, he said, “I don’t remember them all. They are not difficult for me to do. That would be my forte if I really got down to it. I’m as good at that as anyone. I can’t say that about any of the rest of what I do.” He worked for ad agencies and owned his own agencies. National accounts he handled included Alka-Seltzer, Chevrolet and Mattel. “’You can tell its Mattel, it’s swell.’ That was our biggie,’” he said.
He fondly recalls a 30-second spot for sup-hose he wrote and directed.
“The establishing shot was a steel frame building under construction. We moved up the scaffolding, a whistle blew, a couple guys in hard hats sat down and opened their lunch pails, their legs dangling from 60 feet above. They start to take a bite and they freeze and we follow their look to an I-beam suspended by a cable, where we see this beautiful pair of legs walk all the way out, turn around and walk back. The only dialogue was, ‘Men always notice women who wear sup-hose.’ That was one of my favorites because the visual told the entire story. That’s kind of rare.”
He produced live promos for L.A. area Dodge dealers featuring Lawrence Welk and his orchestra from the Santa Monica Pier. He wrote and produced many industrial films. One, The Invisible Circle, is still used by the California Highway Patrol.
He prided himself on being a jack-of-all-trades and mediums, perfectly capable going from writing to directing.
“You do what the assignments call for and if you have common sense you can see if it isn’t going anywhere or if it is. You don’t have to be a genius, you just have to have common sense when someone’s not coming across or overacting.”
In the late ‘50s he partnered with a young UCLA Film School grad, Richard Rush, in producing some major TV spots. Their experimental application of subliminal perception techniques, a process called PreCon, attracted much attention, including some unwanted queries by a United States Congressional committee concerned about precognition’s mind-control or brainwashing implications.
Click prepared an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher that called for inserting subliminal shock images. Hal Roach Studios purchased but never produced the property. Rush went with the project and the partners amicably split. Rush went on to be an acclaimed feature filmmaker. His Getting Straight and The Stunt Man won many admirers among cineastes here and abroad.
By the end of the ‘50s and the advent of the ‘60s Westin was years into his active addiction. For a time, he continued as a functioning drunk, maintaining a modicum of professional success despite falling apart on the inside. His disease, he said, accounted in part for his many career moves. Sometime before he hit bottom he created a syndicated show, Star Route, TV’s first book or scripted country music series. Rod Cameron hosted and guest stars included the Who’s-Who of country western stars — Johnny Cash, Rex Allen, Tex Ritter, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell.
That led to other countrified projects, including a syndicated radio series, Turning Point, and his feature script Morgan’s Corner being made as Nashville Rebel. Star Route and Turning Point were cast in Nashville and produced in Canada.
When Westin conceived Nashville Rebel he intended producing it himself but he couldn’t raise all the financing. That’s when he sold the script for some $6,000. He ended up getting “story by” rather than “screenplay by” credit even though he swears not a word of his manuscript was changed other than the title. Also, his surname is misspelled in the credits as “Weston.” None of it, he decided, was worth going to arbitration over. Now the film’s being rereleased on DVD and he’s eager to finally view it. That’s right, he’s never seen the film. Ask why he didn’t attend the premiere and he replies: “I was probably drunk.”
He said there are many months, even entire years from his worst acting out days he cannot recall. “A lot of what I’m telling you,” he said to this reporter, “it comes back in flashes. I can’t tell you what led up to it or what followed it. It’s gone.”
He tried AA a few times but whatever spells of sobriety he managed never stuck. He fell so far off the wagon his earnings for several years didn’t even register with the Social Security Administration. He describes these lost periods as “blackouts.” He was so far gone that all he lived for was his next drink or binge or drunk.
“If you’re a drunk your best friend is the guy you met five minutes ago on the bar stool next to you. There’s only a couple of subjects I’ve encountered in any saloon anywhere — girls, sports and politics. What else is there to talk about?”
The more the addiction’s fed, he said, “then naturally it progresses.”
He finally bottomed out when he awoke on a curb outside the L.A. County Jail, “kicked out” for the umpteenth time after drying out on another drunk and disorderly arrest. “I was spending life on the installment plan. I must have been in six to eight jails — L.A., Pasadena, Hollywood…I remember my first one. Boy, that was traumatic. Whew! Oh, God, I didn’t want anybody to know. After that it got common. Anybody I could call for bail I would.”
That last time he was alone and broke. “I had the change in my pockets — that was the total amount of all my assets. I didn’t even have enough money to afford bus fare to go back out to the Valley…the last place I remembered I left my car. I was without a car, without a family, without two homes.” He was divorced by then, his three kids living with their mom. It was the end of the line. No where to go but up.
He said the AA meetings he went to then were full of desperate people just like himself who’d burned every bridge and lost every possession.
“It would be strange today but not when I came up. It was different then. If you had a watch you weren’t eligible in my day, you hadn’t hit bottom. You wouldn’t walk into a meeting, you’d crawl in. There were DTs and convulsions quite frequently. You’d stick a wallet in their teeth and go on with the meeting. They were really tongue-chewing, babbling, falling-down drunks. That’s not the case today. My God, they drive their own cars to meetings. I lost my car.”
He still recalls walking into an L.A. bar called the Admiral’s Dinghy, where he’d arranged to meet a striking Eurasian woman named Wilma whom he’d become smitten with upon their initial meeting some days before.
“I came in a little late and I said, ‘I’m an alcoholic, I’ve got to go back to AA. Will you come with me?’ She’d never heard of it. She put down her drink, put on her white gloves, slipped off the bar stool and said, ‘Sure,’ and she never had another drink. I did, I continued for close to another year.”
As Click made him way back to sobriety Wilma was there for him. She’s a strong woman with a life history that, he said, “reads like fiction.” He said the L.A. native left home at 13, ran drugs in Mexico, worked her way up to being one of the first female quality control managers at a U.S. manufacturing plant and became a courier running skim money for the Mob and a hostess for mafia gambling parties. “That’s just scratching the surface,” he said. “Wilma is the most remarkable lady on the face of the Earth. She is something.”
His friend, playwright Sumner Arthur Long (Never Too Late), was writing a feature script about her life when he died. Click may one day take up the project.
Click’s turnaround meant learning a new, healthier way of thinking and behaving. Kicking an obsession, any obsession, is difficult. “It wasn’t easy to shake the addiction, of course,” he said. Starting over from scratch, as he did, was humbling, but people in the business and out of it, like his brother Dick, were there for him. “It shouldn’t have been that easy for me.” Estranging yourself from family and friends and then making amends is a painful but necessary process. He’s done it.
Until recently the only scripts he’d written since Nashville Rebel were slide shows, power points and commercials. But a few years ago he began getting the bug again to write a dramatic script. Then he got intentional about it by attending a pricey screenwriting colony in Superior, Neb. conducted by noted script guru Lew Hunter. Charged with writing 30 pages, Westin completed the entire 117-page script for Get Grey, one of five scripts he’s written the last couple years.
Hunter, another Nebraskan with success writing for TV and film, also served as an executive and producer at all three major networks and taught screenwriting at UCLA. Until the workshop he’d never met or heard of Westin, and vice versa, but the two old pros are now like a pair of long lost colleagues. They talk frequently. It’s rare either can find anyone else of their generation who’s been on the inside of TV/film culture as they have. Hunter can certainly attest, as Westin can, to the dysfunctional lifestyle that culture breeds.
Westin said his problem-drinking began before he ever got to L.A., triggered by the ritualistic rounds he and other media types made at Omaha bars. He likes to say “I was suddenly struck drunk” to make the point it takes years of abuse to become one. Once out in L.A. the social imbibing only increased. He got into a pattern of medicating himself with alcohol. Better to be numb than to feel anything. He and his old WOW mate, Johnny Carson, would go at it. “There was a bar catty corner across the street from CBS on Fairfax (Blvd.) and we would get together a few times a week and have a couple of drinks, oh, for a long time,” said Westin, who added Carson was one way on stage and another way off it. “There were two Johnny Carsons — the one on television and the one in private life, a very shy, inward man who didn’t have much to say. He wasn’t a turned-on individual at all.”
While environment and heredity undoubtedly contributed to Westin’s own drinking habit, he said nothing excuses it. “That’s a cop out.” He also doesn’t ascribe to any book or regimen that offers a cure. “There is no cure. You can arrest the disease, but as far as a cure, give an alcoholic who has experienced a great deal of abstinence a drink and see what happens.” Relapse. He knows, he’s been there.
Part of the stability he’s found in life has coincided with moving back here in the 1970s. He’d commuted for a time between L.A. and Omaha. Then, after his brother purchased Roberts Dairy (since sold), Click came back to run one of its operations in Sioux City. Later, Click took over its Dairy Distributors home delivery division. Not much of a businessman, he brought in Wilma to help run things.
One day, he witnessed just how much she had his back when a disturbed driver who’d been fired wielded a knife in the office.
“Wilma had a .38 in her desk drawer. She pulled it out with the toe of her shoe, she reached down, held it in her lap just calmly and pointed it right at the sucker spinning around there. I thought, My God if he turns and takes one step towards her we’re all going to be in the paper in the morning. She just sat there and said, ‘That’s enough.’ That’s all it took. She meant business. Oh, there’s only one Wilma. They call her the Dragon Lady.”
The couple lived in Omaha together several years but Wilma’s now in Hawaii, where she has her own business. Click commutes to visit her but wants her to move back.
In Omaha Westin’s started seven 12-step meetings and a transitional facility, Beacon House. He’s cut back on his AA speaking but always honors a request. He volunteers much of his time sponsoring addicts. His experience guides others.
“I sponsor a lot of people in AA and I have found where people are concerned there’s work, there’s family and there’s AA, and to me that’s not much of a life. I mean, it’s a life like everybody else has I guess but usually I insist they develop an outside passion. I don’t care what it is, golf or bird watching or music or whatever.
I always have some kind of a passion going outside what I’m doing. For example, I learned how to play a keyboard from scratch. Now I’m not a musician but I like to play songs. I did that for a long time. Then it was photography. I used to buy barn pictures. That got too expensive and so I cut that out.”
Other than writing golf may be his oldest passion. The Omaha Field Club member enjoys treating guests to lunch there, holding court with his rich reservoir of stories. On nice weather days a round of 18 holes is never far from his mind. When traveling to warm climes, as he often does, he tries working in a few rounds.
Ideas for movies come to him regularly now. On a “meditation drive” along Highway 6 in western Iowa the sight of livestock got him thinking about a modern-day cattle rustling scheme, which he developed into the feature script Center Cut. “I stick to very basic themes that are universal and can be adapted,” he said.
So, after all these years Click’s back in the game as a screenwriter again. Well, sort of. “It’s not the same. Now it’s more or less, oh, a hobby,” he said. “I remember the desperation of, Will this sell?, because the rent’s due. That is a whole different story. Now, I don’t give a damn if they buy it or not. My rent’s paid.”
Still, he’s grateful for what a comfortable position he is in that he can write at his leisure. He’s also keenly aware he’s been given a gift and a reprieve by having come out of his blackout with his mind and body intact. “Totally. I’ve gone to way too many funerals of people I knew then. I’m on borrowed time every day,” he said.
All of which explains his philosophy of living these days.
“If you want to do it, do it, because this ain’t no dress rehearsal. I’m in the third act and hopefully it’ll be a long act but I might not be around tomorrow. When you’re 83 things wear out. Nothing that I know of, but there’s parts that probably have about had it.”
His wit’s clearly not one of them.
- How They Write a Script: Walter Hill (gointothestory.com)
- “Screenwriters find work is dwindling” (gointothestory.com)
- Bond Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz Passes Away at Age 68 (cinematical.com)
Nebraska doesn’t have mountains or oceanfront beaches. What few iconic things it does have speak to the work ethic of its people. Omaha Steaks is a national brand, like Mutual of Omaha insurance or Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett, that people know and trust. It’s dependable, just like Nebraskans and the Nebraska family that founded the company and still run it today. This story, which originally appeared in the Jewish Press, is an appreciation for the history and growth of this food industry titan.
This Version of Simon Says Positions Omaha Steaks as a Food Service Juggernaut
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
First cousins Bruce and Todd Simon engage in the back and forth banter of media talk-jocks, except theirs isn’t idle chat but the dialogue of two men at the top of a food service industry company giant whose annual sales fast approach a half-billion dollars. In an interview at the headquarters of their family-owned Omaha Steaks empire, 11030 “O” Street, they revealed themselves as wry sophisticates with a knack for brokering deals, managing people and anticipating the next big thing.
After working together 20 years, their close familiarity finds each interrupting the other to complete a sentence or to make a point or to poke fun. They seem to enjoy the give and take. It’s all part of being the next generation, the fifth to be exact, to lead the corporate giant. Each apprenticed under his dad. Each holds fast to cherished lessons passed down from above.
For 89 years the company’s found innovative ways to market fine meat and other foods to residential and commercial customers around the nation and the world. Along the way the Omaha Steaks name has become such an icon synonymous with quality beef that its hometown enjoys crossover brand recognition.
Bruce is president/COO and Todd is senior vice president, but their bond supersedes titles or labels. They’re family. Two in a long line to lead the business.
“You know what we have? What we have here, we have an entire company of people who we trust — that we feel like we’re family with. That’s what we have here,” Bruce said. “That blood bond is really a family bond and it traverses not only the Simon family, it includes our executive committee, all the way down. There are guys I know in the plant that were there the day I started and I feel the same bond with them as I do to my cousin Todd. We all feel a responsibility to each other to make this place successful.”
As is their habit, Bruce turned to Todd, asking, “Don’t you think?” Whereupon Todd opined, “Well, I think it starts with the fact we’re a family business that allows us to really take those kind of family values into the whole business.”
“Not in a Bush sort of way,” Bruce joked. A nonplused Todd continued, “And it shows in the benefits we provide for our team in terms of family leave benefits or vacation benefits or day care. Scholarships.” “All that stuff,” Bruce interjected.
Legacy is never far removed from the Simons’ thoughts, as their fathers still take an active part in the company, always looking over their sons’ shoulders to ensure the family jewel is well-preserved. Bruce’s father, Alan Simon, is chairman of the board/CEO. Todd’s dad, Fred Simon, is executive vice president. The cousins’ late uncle, Steve Simon, died recently after years serving as senior VP and GM.
“My dad was and is pretty much the operational guy. He’s the guy who ran the meatpacking plant and who was the bean counter,” Bruce said. “Bought the meat,” Todd offered. “Yeah, bought the meat,” Bruce confirmed. “And Todd’s dad was the real marketing guy and Steve (Simon) was the sales guy.”
The three brothers — Alan, Fred and Steve — learned the business from their father Lester Simon, who in turn learned it from his father B.A. Simon. It all began when B.A. and his father J.J. Simon, both butchers, left Latvia for America in 1898 to escape religious persecution. With the meat business in their blood, J.J. and B.A. settled in Omaha, a meatpacking center, and worked in several area markets. In 1917 father and son opened their own meat shop, Table Supply Meat Company, downtown. Their niche was to process and sell beef to restaurants and grocers.
As the decades progressed Table Supply responded to the growing food service sector by supplying meat to Union Pacific Railroad in support of its large dining car services as well as to more and more restaurants here and in other parts of the country. Cruise lines, airlines, hotels and resorts became major customers. Lester Simon first took Table Supply to the public via mail order ads that enabled households to receive packaged shipments of cut beef. In 1963 the company published its first mail order catalog, whose product offerings soon extended far beyond beef steaks. Shipping-packaging advances improved efficiency, helping widen the company’s increasingly national and international reach.
By 1966 all this growth warranted an expansion in the form of a new plant and headquarters on South 96th Street. With the new facilities came a new name, Omaha Steaks International.
The 1970s saw Omaha Steaks take new steps in customer convenience by adding inbound and outbound call centers and a mail order industry-first toll-free customer service line. An automated order entry system was installed in 1987. The first of its retail stores opened in 1976. There are now 75 and counting in 19 states. Visioning the online explosion to follow, Omaha Steaks helped pioneer electronic marketing as far back as 1990. Omahasteaks.com became the banner web site for what is the company’s fastest growing business segment. A new web site, alazing.com. promotes the company’s convenience meals brand, A La Zing, which offers a line of complete frozen prepared meals.
Omaha Steaks underwent another expansion phase in the ‘80 and ‘90s, consolidating administration and marketing in two new multi-story glass and steel buildings whose sleek interiors abound with examples from the Simons’ extensive art collections and displays that tell the history of the family business.
If Bruce and Todd feel burdened carrying the legacy of a company that boasts two million-plus customers and employs some 2,000 folks, they don’t show it. Guiding their interaction in family and business dealings are the principles they picked up from their elders. By living those principles they fulfill their obligation.
“Our parents taught us to do the right thing. That’s really the only responsibility we have — just do the right thing. Do it all the time. Try to produce every single box of product perfectly. Try to satisfy every single customer perfectly. Do it right every time,” Bruce said. “It’s all about being honest. Everybody in our family has been impeccably honest. We don’t take advantage of people. We sleep good.”
“Right,” Todd said, “and I think it also extends to the environment we create. We could sit around and stress out about the fact we have 2,000 employees and their livelihoods in a lot of ways depend on the decisions we make. And I think we always have that in mind. I also think one of the things that makes it so we don’t stress out is that so many of those 2,000 people think the same we do and they take responsibility for what they need to take responsibility for. And because they do that the stress we carry is minimized.”
“But the whole thing is doing the right thing,” Bruce said. “I mean, if you’ve got building blocks and you set them up properly you’re going to have a very strong building. And that’s what we have and it’s because of every single block. Look, if spacemen came and took either one of us away there’s no question in my mind…this place would continue on because of the values that J.J., B.A., Lester, Alan, Fred, Steve and now Todd and I hold dear. It’s our whole corporate culture.”
The confidence they exude may be attributed in part to the up-through-the-family-ranks training the pair got and to the well-balanced team they form.
“It’s interesting,” Todd said, “because I think in a lot of ways we’ve both sort of followed in our fathers’ footsteps. You know, Bruce is very strong operationally, purchasing, finance…All the sort of back-office stuff is his forte. And mine is the out-front stuff — the marketing, sales. Managing the customer service aspect of that, motivating the front-line people to be people-people.”
“And somebody has to manage him, too,” kidded Bruce, before turning serious again. “Yeah, I think that when you’re a leader sometimes you’ve got to fake it. My dad used to say to me, ‘When in command, command.’ And that’s what I think we do. I mean, our dads built a helluva business and, you know, you always want to top it. I mean, George W. (Bush) just had to get Saddam and we’ve just got to sale a steak to every Chinaman,” Bruce said, smiling.
Unfazed, Todd said, “I think Bruce and I really complement each other well. I would say I’m an optimist and Bruce isn’t as much an optimist…in the sense that when we both come up with ideas I’ll see one side of the picture and he’ll see the other side of the picture. And since we’re both open too each other’s perspective on it, it really helps us balance it out.”
The way Bruce puts it, “I think our management styles complement each other as well. He is really detail-oriented sometimes and I am really detail-oriented when he’s not. And about different things. There’s some stuff that Todd goes, ‘Well, so, get it shipped.’ And I just look at him and I go, ‘OK…well, just sell it.’ He looks at me and says, ‘OK.’” Whatever the situation, they make it work. “Yeah, we do,” Bruce said, “and we get along, which is great, too.”
With two father-son teams comprising the ownership-executive ranks, the potential exists for family disputes that upset the company’s inner workings. The Simons diffuse those bombs with open dialogue and transparent dealings.
“For as long as I can remember the way we operate as a family is we get our ideas out,” Todd said. “We don’t bulldoze over each other. We’re all forceful about our ideas and our opinions, and we’ll raise our voices and we’ll do whatever we need to do to get our point across. But we basically come to consensus and we don’t leave the room unless everyone’s comfortable with the direction we’re moving in.”
“Right,” Bruce said. “We don’t fight about things. If there’s a reason to do something we discuss it and we figure it out. Because, hell, we’re all on the same page. What’s good for one is good for all. We’re never very formal, either. Usually we’ll discuss things over lunch.”
Talking business within the family doesn’t follow a 9 to 5 schedule. “Business doesn’t stop and start at the office for us,” Todd said. “I mean, Bruce could be on vacation and just decide to call me about something that’s on his mind.” “Well, technically, what will happen,” Bruce said, “is when you’re away from the place and the day-to-day that’s when you really get some good ideas and then we’ll call each other. I remember before cell phone were prolific I was in Italy and Todd was in Japan and we had this fax dialogue going on.”
Vision is important in any organization and each year Omaha Steaks holds an off-site brainstorm session with its top managers. Ideas and initiatives fly. “A lot of times those come not from me or Bruce but from the people out there in the trenches dealing with our customers every day,” Todd said. In the end, “Todd and I decide with our fathers where we’re going” as a company, Bruce said.
Two affiliate companies sprung from this visioning — the A La Zing line of convenience meals and OS SalesCo., an incentive division. Fred Simon entered the publishing world with The Steak Lover’s Companion, a cookbook co-authored with Mark Kiffen. Simon adapted classic dishes from recipes developed by James Beard, an Omaha Steaks consultant for many years. More cookbooks followed. Simon’s developed Omaha Steaks-affiliated restaurants. Many more restaurants exclusively serve the Omaha Steaks brand on their menus. The company’s also approaching 100 of its own retail stores nationwide.
Trust in themselves and in the team they’ve assembled explains why the Simons are open to new marketing avenues and new technologies that enhance the ability of the company to serve customers. A toll-free customer service line. Online ordering. In-store purchases. New product lines. Seasonings, sides, desserts. Whatever passes muster with the Simons or in the Omaha Steaks test kitchens gets rolled out.
“While we have innovated a lot here and we’ve developed a lot of proprietary tools and analysis and internal stuff, I wouldn’t say we’ve been on the bleeding edge of technology,” Todd said. “Because I think what we want to do is to use technology that’s going to help us to help our customers. We were one of the first companies to put in an 800 number because it made sense to help our customers communicate with us. When we implemented a centralized computer system one of the first applications was order taking.”
“We’ve had to do these things. The Internet was just very logical — Sure, we should have that. And the fact the entire world put a PC in their living room helped,” Bruce said. “But it was easy for us because when you think about it we were just bypassing the guy on the phone.”
As “easy” as he makes it sound, Bruce added Omaha Steaks has taken great pains to enhance its order-processing systems via the Web and the phone. “I’ve seen a lot of them and I’m proud of ours — I think it’s the best one I’ve ever seen. Our development team has done such an outstanding job with those products.”
“I still think what it gets back to is that we say to ourselves, How do we solve a problem for our customers? Whether that problem is placing an order quickly and efficiently or being able to log onto the web site and access their gift list or whatever it is. And then asking, Can technology help us with that? As opposed to implementing technology in search of a problem” to solve,” Todd said.
Online sales account for an increasing chunk of the company’s profits and Omaha Steaks will accommodate the dot com craze as the demand dictates.
“Our philosophy is be wherever your customers want you to be,” Todd said. “A lot of people love to shop online. I’m one of those people. But we’ve got a lot of customers today that don’t. People still fax orders in. People still mail orders in. People like to come into our stores. So, whatever works.”
The retail segment has “grown as fast as we’ve been willing to add resources internally to support it,” Todd said. Plans call for 15 more stores this year alone. That may seem an odd way to go with cyber commerce on the rise, but he said even a cursory look around town reveals a boon in retail development. “So the economy is alive and well for a number of different sales channels to prosper.”
Success may make some tycoons complacent but not the Simons.
“I feel like with this business I can be an entrepreneur. There’s always new challenges, new products to be developed or whatever. That gives me a lot of satisfaction,” Todd said. “What gives me a charge is just seeing the business grow, being successful in business, messing around with our dads in the business. And just the sheer volume of product we go through — it’s just staggering sometimes,” said Bruce, who figures Omaha Steaks processes up to 250,000 pounds of just top sirloin each week and close to 50,000 pounds of tenderloin a week. That’s tens of millions of pounds of beef a year.
They’ve been at Omaha Steaks a combined 46 years now — Bruce since 1980 and
Todd since 1986 — and there’s no reason to think they won’t be there 46 more. But it was never a lock they’d be there in the first place. University of Pennsylvania grads, like their fathers, each weighed other paths before falling in line. Bruce came aboard first. Right out of college. But not before he looked at “a couple other opportunities.” Neither his first nor only option, Omaha Steaks was a sure thing. He worked there as a kid. “I wanted to do it. I liked the business. I understood the business. When I was at school I thought about the business.” What finally swayed him, was the offer of $1,000 signing bonus his dad put on the table.
When it was time for Todd to graduate a few years later he faced a similar dilemma. “My dad was encouraging me. I think he wanted to work with me. I was a little bit hesitant,” Todd said. Like Bruce, Todd too worked at Omaha Steaks as a kid. But he and some college friends had started a sound production company (they later sold). He had other career choices. He turned to his cousin for advice, asking, Is this a good thing? Bruce assured him it was. The pull of family won out. “I kind of at the end of the day felt like I owed it to my family,” Todd said. “This family has provided so much for me.”
Neither is sorry he made the leap into the family pond. “Yeah, it’s turned out OK,” Todd said in a classic understatement. Working with their fathers has meant learning from the best. Their dads, along with their late uncle Steve, were recently inducted into the Omaha Business Hall of Fame. Todd’s dad Fred is an inductee in the national Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame. The company’s won awards and praise for its marketing and technology applications.
As for the cousins’ fathers retiring anytime soon, Bruce said, “We don’t say that word. They will never retire. They will never semi-retire. And the minute anyone would suggest such a ludicrous thing they would start coming into the office every day raising hell about every item on the balance sheet. They’ll never retire. They might go on vacation…” And that vacation may last for some time. But retire? No.
A sixth generation of Simons entering the business may be on the horizon. Todd
doesn’t have children and Bruce’s are still quite young. However, Bruce can see one of his daughters already thinking like a future mogul. On a visit to the zoo they waited in a long line at a concession stand, noting how the supervisor let the workers fall way behind, whereupon Bruce’s little girl said, “You know, Daddy, I don’t think that person is doing a very good job of managing that stand. That’s not a very good operation is it, Daddy?” He had to agree, his chest puffed with pride.
- The Meat Lessons: The secret to beef striploin (life.nationalpost.com)
- $9 footlong? Subway teaches you how to raise your price. (thoughtgadgets.com)
- Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- *Knock* *Knock* Omaha Steaks! (localnourishment.com)
- Omaha Steaks Steak Time makes for a delicious iPad 2 experience (intomobile.com)
- Omaha Steaks App Comes to Android (appscout.com)
- Dick Holland Responds to Far Reaching Needs in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Chef Mike Does a Rebirth at the Community Cafe (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
The Storz Saga: A Family Dynasty – Their Mansion, the Brewery that Built It, the Man Who Loved It, a Legacy of Giving, the Loss of a Dream
The story that follows is a kind of sequel to the first story I did on Art Storz Jr., the beloved Omaha eccentric who had a magnificent obsession with his family dynasty and the mansion they built and that he tried to preserve as a lasting tribute. That initial story is also posted on this site. This follow up story was published in The Reader (www.thereader.com). Art fought the good fight to retain the mansion but in the end he had to give it up. The historic home was donated to Creighton University, which has since sold it to an Omaha couple who now reside in it and are restoring it. That would have made Art happy.
The Storz Saga: A Family Dynasty – Their Mansion, the Brewery that Built It, the Man Who Loved It, a Legacy of Giving, the Loss of a Dream
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Once the centerpiece of an Omaha German-American family’s brewing empire, the brawny Storz mansion at 3708 Farnam Street is the brewmeister house that beer built. Much like the Storz brewery ranked as a dominant family-run business for 90 years until sold by the clan in 1966 and shutting down five years later, the big gabled house was a high society icon during the 20th century but now, for the first time, it’s fallen out of the family’s hands.
This is a story about a house that defined an era in Omaha affluence and connoted the influence a family wielded in shaping the city. It is the tale of a magnificent obsession by one Art Storz, Jr., a third-generation heir and self-described black sheep of the family, who, with the aid of a gambling tycoon, warded off creditors in trying to make the house a brick-and-mortar tribute to the Storz heritage. It is a story of industry, intrigue, money, love, fear, desire, loss and legacy played out in public and private arenas.
A fitting symbol for a family enriched by their conspicuous manufacturing success and openhanded with their generous community support, the 27-room residence was built from 1904 to 1907 to the scale and opulence of the area’s affluent Gold Coast standards by Storz Brewing Co. founder Gottlieb Storz. The German emigre, an honored citizen in his native Benningenam, worked as a brewmaster before starting the company that bore his name at age 24. Boasting a third-floor ballroom serviced by an elevator, a sun room patterned after the solarium aboard the Bremen oceanliner, a music room, servants quarters, a grand foyer and a richly appointed decor featuring mosaic-tiled fireplaces, quarter sawn oak woodwork and stained glass windows, the mansion was designed by architects George Fisher and Harry Lawrie in the Jacobethan Revival style. The exterior includes relief panels displaying key ingredients in the brewer’s art: barley, hops, grain. A carriage house adjoins the mansion.
Guests were, by definition, members of the social elite and therefore feted in the Victorian era’s rich style. Family lore has it that as children Fred and Adele Astaire, son and daughter of Fritz Austerlitz, Storz Brewing Co. employee, often whirled around the ballroom at parties and recitals. Holidays were marked by extravagant celebrations and decorations. The house, which outside the Joslyn Castle has few local counterparts in its old-style grandiosity, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Preservation Magazine once featured it in a spread. “They’re not going to be building houses like that anymore,” said Art Storz, Jr., 82, the last member of the family to occupy it.
After the family patriarch, Gottlieb, died in 1939, the mansion was home to one of four sons, Arthur C. Storz, Sr., and his family. During his reign as master of the manor, Arthur, Sr., a brewery VP and president, made the home into what Art Storz, Jr., the eldest of Arthur’s two sons, called “a showplace.” A combination bon vivant and man’s man, Arthur C. Storz was a race car driver and World War I aviator, a rugged outdoorsman, an amateur gourmand, an astute business executive and a classic hail fellow-well met chap. He hosted lavish black-tie bashes, trimmed with elegant place-settings and floral arrangements, for an eclectic and gilded circle of friends.
For special occasions, the house was transformed into giant set pieces, once as a replica of a showboat and another time as an airplane. “They were just fantastic parties,” Art recalled. His father imported finely-trained German chefs and butlers to head the domestic staff. Art likes painting his folks as common people, saying, “My mother and dad were not ostentatious. If any of us kids would of showed any inkling of that, I think they would have kicked our butts.” Still, their privileged lifestyle set them apart. Art and his brother Bob actually grew up in a Field Club area home with an indoor boxing ring, rifle range and pool room.
A meticulous person who demanded order in everything he did, the old man ruled with an iron hand at home and at work. One who never suffered fools gladly, he could reduce anyone to putty with his withering stare and sharp tongue. “My dad scared a lot of people. He was a tough guy. He’d rip ya, but once it was all over, it was done. He’d never hold a grudge,” Art said. Expressions of affection were rare. “My dad knew the word love but he didn’t use it.”
With his charisma and connections the senior Storz became a powerful civilian advocate for the U.S. Air Force and the airline industry, using his abode and his storied hunting sanctuary, Ducklore Lodge, near Lisco, Neb., to court military brass, industry titans, politicos, celebrities and assorted movers-and-shakers. Among the who’s-who attending Storz sprees were cinema star Jimmy Stewart, a former flyer himself, broadcasting personality Arthur Godfrey, SAC commander Gen. Curtis LeMay, wartime hero Jimmy Doolittle, WWI ace and race car legend Eddie Rickenbacker, whom Arthur Sr. flew with and raced against, and various big-wigs, including Omaha moguls Peter Kiewit, W. Dale Clark and Leo A. Daly.
In son Art’s opinion, the mansion may be without peer locally as a historic residence: “I doubt if any home in Omaha can even come close to it as far as history and the significant people that have been in and out of there over the years.”
The same was true at the handsomely outfitted Ducklore refuge, where Arthur Sr. hosted everyone from Hollywood legends Wallace Beery and Robert Taylor to Air Force top dogs to the heads of General Motors and Union Pacific. But the place was not just reserved for blue bloods. Enlisted men were welcome there along with Storz employees. An annual Storz-led Armistice Day celebration in nearby Lisco fed and entertained thousands.
Also a strong advocate for the city and state, Arthur Sr. is credited with influencing the placement of the Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Force Base as a player in the Air Force Association and steering the early growth of Eppley Airfield as Omaha Airport Authority chairman. His staunch support of air power netted him the Exceptional Service Award, the highest civilian citation the Air Force bestows. With Arthur Sr.’s death in 1978, his son Art said Omaha “lost a real champion for this area.”
Two of Arthur Sr.’s brothers and Art’s uncles made names for themselves, too. Adolph, who headed the United States Brewers Foundation, was a noted breeder and exhibitor of show horses. Through his two marriages he merged the Storz’ with two other preeminent American families, the Haydens, owners of the former Hayden Brothers Department Store, and the Anheusers, of the St. Louis brewing company fame.
Robert Herman Storz’s many interests included raising prized cattle, serving on such community boards as the Chamber of Commerce and Ak-Sar-Ben, spearheading the building of Clarkson Hospital and the development of Memorial Park, whose dedication President Harry S. Truman attended, and donating millions to the Joslyn Art Museum and Omaha Community Playhouse. Also a media baron, in 1949 he joined his son Todd in purchasing Omaha radio station KOWH, which anchored Storz Broadcasting Co., a chain of radio stations Robert Herman Storz became president of after the tragic 1964 death of his son, at age 39, of a cerebral hemorrhage.
As a long-standing family brewing dynasty, the Storz’ moved easily in the high society echelons of the brew world, where many German emigres made their fortunes. While the families socialized together, their empires engaged in fierce fights for consumer preference. “My folks were very close with the Coors’, the Metz’s, the Millers, the Strohs and others,” said Art, “but they were awful competitive, too.” At its peak, he said, Storz didn’t take a back seat to anyone. “We were an old-line company. We’d been successful, like the other companies, in selling the family name and been a leader for year after year after year.”
Art Storz, Jr. assumed his role in the brewery in the 1950s, directing its marketing and advertising. After its sale and the death of his parents, he dedicated his life to preserving the mansion. His late brother, Robert Hart Storz, was also a brewery executive. When World War II erupted each brother, like their father before them, became a flyer in the service of their country. But where Bob served with distinction, leading the famed 1943 raid on the Romanian Ploesti oil fields, Art got dressed-down for a stupid stunt. It would always be that way — with Bob, the dashing chip-off-the-old-block, seemingly doing no wrong and Art, the insecure one, never measuring up to their father’s “stringent yardstick.”
Besides making the house his residence, Art rented it out for receptions, gave tours and led an effort to turn the residence into a museum. His life there was a contradiction. Amid all the opulence, he lived austerely after renouncing his inheritance in a dispute with family members over the disposition of the home. He handled much of the house’s and property’s upkeep himself. He had no car. He dressed like a handyman, preferring corduroys, jeans or shorts, a t-shirt and a cap. Despite acute shyness, he often opened the home to guests and visitors.
Despite his near pauper status the Storz name gained him entry into powerbroker circles. While unable to raise sufficient funds for the house’s restoration or rebirth, he did make it a kind of living-working museum by keeping its possessions largely intact and displaying memorabilia relating to his father’s exploits. Eventually, he ran into financial difficulty, owing some $70,000 in back taxes, and came close to losing it all in the late ‘80s, but was bailed out by a family friend, Michael Gaughan, the son of Art’s former Creighton Prep-Creighton University classmate, Jackie Gaughan, who made millions as a Nevada casino-hotel owner. The younger Gaughan, also a well-monied Las Vegas casino-hotel magnate, paid the back taxes, bought the property and subsidized its upkeep. In an oft-quoted assessment of why he intervened Gaughan, who once worked at the brewery, said it wasn’t so much historic preservation as it was “to preserve Art” (Storz).
When, last June, Art took a bad fall at home, breaking a hip, his nieces convinced him it was no longer safe for him to be cooped-up all alone in such a massive place — there had been break-ins and items stolen — and moved him into the Westgate assisted living facility, where he remains today. He resisted the move. He wanted to return home. But since he was a tenant, not a title-holder, he had little say.
Meanwhile, the house he made into a shrine was donated to Creighton by its owner and his benefactor — CU alumnus Michael Gaughan. The university has not announced plans for the house, although it will likely host tony alumni affairs. Family members offered up a variety of objects and furnishings from the house in an estate sale last December at Collectors Choice. Storz, who hates being separated from the place he fought very public battles over, is upset with himself for not securing it as a permanent memorial to his family and their deeds.
“I saw this coming,” he said. “I get pretty down on myself over the home because I feel I didn’t do the job I should have done. I was in over my head with this thing, but I couldn’t walk away. I was in love with the whole damn place. And, well, now I guess Creighton’s paying the bills.” His mind often rehashes his fight to hang-on to the home. “I think it was kind of crazy, you know, trying to do what I was doing because I didn’t have this,” he said, rubbing his fingers together to indicate money. “I let my love get involved with it. It hurt me, too, boy. I feel bad because a lot of people helped financially, none more than the Gaughans, and I failed.”
Hardly a failure. After all, it still stands as a proud symbol. Since moving he’s received an outpouring of notes and cards from people expressing cherished memories of the home and admiration for his fight to save it.
As for the home itself, he hopes something of the Storz legacy is “retained” in whatever new life Creighton decides for it and that, under no circumstances, it be converted into a frat house, the fate of another vintage Storz mansion, at 40th and Dewey, also owned by Creighton. A third old Storz dwelling, at 39th and Harney, has found new life as the Renaissance Mansion. Two other Storz homes were long ago razed by the University of Nebraska at Omaha to accommodate parking and new construction on campus.
During his travails to retain the house Storz was dogged by the irony that he, of all his polished relations, should be carrying the Storz banner given youthful indiscretions that brought unwanted attention to the family.
There was the “buzz job” he pulled during World War II when, as an Air Force pilot he flew his Flying Fortress low over a wide swath of Omaha, just for the thrill of “showing off.” At one point he maneuvered the four-engine B-17 bomber close to the old Blackstone Hotel, right across from the mansion, swooped by the spires of St. Cecilia Cathedral and roared over the homes of an uncle and aunt. A general panic ensued and, once his superiors got wind of it, he was court-martialed, never rising above the rank of captain.
There was also his penchant for speeding in cars. “I was a rebel,” Art said of his heller days. “I took some tremendous chances.” Then, in the early ‘50s, a breech-of-promise suit surfaced weeks after his only marriage, which ended in divorce. His wife, a member of a Nebraska ranching family, got custody of their two kids. He’s had little contact with them over the years, especially after fighting-off his adult children’s attempts to claim the house in the ‘80s.
Being a Storz has often been a burden.
“I felt terribly intimidated by it all,” he said. It didn’t help that his milquetoast personality was no match for his father’s and uncles’ domineering presence and the looming shadows they cast. “I’ve always been very insecure because I’ve known there’s no way I was ever going to walk in any of my family’s footprints,” he said from the one-room apartment he’s turned into a mini-Storz hall of fame at the Westgate care center he resides in. “I just wasn’t cut out to be what they were. My family left some big footprints, you know.” They were, he said sheepishly, “a hard act to follow.”
Still, his devotion to his family never wavered. Perhaps it was his desire to still measure up in his father’s eyes, but he wanted the Storz’ many contributions to the community remembered. In a sense, they are. The Storz Expressway is named after his father and everything from a hospital wing to a museum gallery is named in honor of his uncle, Robert Herman Storz, and his wife Mildred, whose $1 million gift renovated the Joslyn fountain court.
“Our family played such a prominent role,” Storz said. “When you think of the economic contributions Storz Brewing alone meant and then how my family always got involved in so many civic things, I think we’re an awful important part of this area. It makes me proud.” The family keeps giving, too. The Robert Herman Storz Foundation, with assets of more than $7 million, supports a wide range of community organizations.
The thriving business that provided the capital to pay for the Farnam Street Storz mansion along with the other palatial Storz estates, and that made possible the family’s well-known civic philanthropy is largely unknown today except by oldsters. Only the red brick smokestack and a scattering of buildings, now in disrepair, still stand as reminders of this industrial juggernaut. Spread-out over a multi-acre site along North 16th Street, the Storz Brewing Co., which operated from 1876 to 1966 under family ownership, employed anywhere from 300 to 500 workers and produced more than 350,000 barrels of beer a year. A strong regional and select national brand in Nebraska, the Midwest and on Air Force bases (courtesy the family’s Air Force ties) Storz was the most prominent player in what was once a booming local brewing scene and a name that prompted strong loyalty among consumers.
Its state-of-the-art production and packaging operation, occupying more than 15 buildings, featured spotless red tiled floors and walls, burnished stainless steel and copper fixtures, millions of dollars worth of gleaming equipment, ranging from mashers and brew tubs to bottling and labeling machines, along with massive cellars for storing beer and huge garages for sheltering and maintaining the company’s large fleet of delivery trucks.
Railroad tracks ran right up to the back of one building to allow for direct box car access — with imported hops, barley and grain off-loaded and cases of beer on-loaded. A hospitality room, patterned after a brewhause and hunting lodge and adorned with the stuffed heads of big game bagged by Arthur C. Storz, treated employees and customers alike to food and beverages. A Storz-owned tavern, one of many the brewery had, was adjacent to the plant.
The whole works ran with the Prussian-like precision and efficiency demanded by the Storz’, who oversaw every step. To assure quality, early brewmasters were brought over from Germany, where Gottlieb himself learned the brewing arts, and later brewmasters trained under their fathers. It was, as Art likes to put it, “a class deal. Everything was immaculate. All I can say is is that everything was of the finest quality. We had a top-level operation.”
That quality extended to Storz marketing-advertising campaigns, which spared no expense in using the finest materials and devising the most discriminating images for positioning its beer as the purest brew around. Outdoors themes became a Storz trademark. A classic ad pictured snow-capped mountain peaks and green Douglas firs in the background as cowboys on horseback ford an icy-cold river and make their way to a big frothy mug of Storz beer in the foreground with the pitch — “Refreshing as the whole outdoors…take some home for your weekend pleasure” — scripted below the idyllic scene.
A cursory web search finds Storz memorabilia bringing prices comparable to bigger brand names. “It says to me we did things very well,” Art said. “Our material never looked ma-and-pa. It held its own against anybody.” He has the awards to prove it. Storz also got in on the ground floor of tying their product to sports, as the company hired gridiron legend Red Grange and diamond legend Leo Durocher as spokesmen for early network telecasts of NFL football and major league baseball, respectively, that Storz helped sponsor.
Almost from the start, the brewery enjoyed fat times. Then, when Prohibition went into effect in 1920, lean times hit. The company laid off much of its work force but unlike other breweries continued operating, making near beer, ginger ale, soft drinks and ice. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Storz picked up where it had left off. Over the years the Omaha-brew won medals in Paris and Brussels and gained increased market shares.
By the early 1960s Storz controlled 51 percent of the Nebraska market, outselling all its competitors combined. It finally met its match when national brewers began selectively underpricing their beer in Storz home markets.
“The national brewers never could make any inroads in our markets, but then they started playing dirty,” Art said. “It was pretty obvious they were trying to get us. That always burned me up, too. I will always wonder how they got away with that. That had to be a bitter pill for my dad. My father had great love for the business and he wouldn’t have sold unless” declining profits and rising expenses forced his hand.
In 1966 Arthur Sr. and one of his brothers, who together owned all the stock, sold the brewery to Iowa Business Investment Corp., a consortium of Iowa investors that then leased the operation to Grain Belt Breweries of Minneapolis, under whose management the brewery lasted a few more years before finally closing for good in 1972. The former brewery buildings have found some reuse in the years since.
Art rues that he and his brother Bob “never had the opportunity to carry-on the family business.” Art tried getting his father to meet the nationals “head-on, but he wouldn’t go for that,” opting instead to sell rather than fight. Art used to visit the old brewery site, but it’s too painful for him to see the ruins left behind.
“I could cry when I look at it now. It’s all torn to hell. My family worked very hard to make the Storz name whatever people think of it today. My family was one of Omaha’s very few industrialists. We made our own product and we marketed it successfully against the biggest names in the land.” As for the imposing family mansion that sits empty and that no he longer has a key to, he said, “I would have gone to hell for this house. I know it sounds crazy, but I would have died for this house. It was a love affair.”
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The late Art Storz Jr. was a strange, lovely man whose fierce devotion to his family and to their legacy as successful beer brewers, as civic leaders, as philanthropists, knew no end. He was a mass of contradictions. Generous to a fault. Shy, unassuming, and eccentric to the end. Getting him to give me an interview the first time was like pulling teeth, and then when he did what should have taken an hour or two became a marathon session of three or four hours, followed by another, before he finally got comfortable with me. The following story, which appeared in the New Horizons, was the first I wrote about him. I did a subsequent piece, which I have also posted. The mansion in the headline or title of the story offered here really was Art’s magnificent obsession. He finally did have to leave there for a nursing home, where I visited Art a few years ago. He was as sweet and squirrelly as ever. A little broken-hearted, too. He’s gone now but hardly forgotten. He will always remain one of the most unforgettable characters in my life.
The Magnificent Obsession of Art Storz Jr., the Old Man and the Mansion
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
First-time visitors to the historic Storz mansion are unsure what to make of the shy, self-effacing old man greeting them at the front door. In his ball cap, T-shirt, baggy trousers and sneakers, he might be mistaken for hired help or an overripe guest when actually he’s a reluctant heir to the Storz Brewing Co. fortune.
The 77-year-old eccentric is Art Storz. He lives austerely in the brawny, brick Farnam Street mansion that his beer baron grandfather, Gottlieb, had built in 1907. While the sole occupant of the imposing, gabled, gargoyle-adorned home on Omaha’s fabled Gold Coast, he’s never quite alone there. Not with a well of precious memories to tap. Memories of a golden bygone era that, for him, is never far away or forgotten.
Anyone familiar with his oft-troubled past must find it ironic that this one-time “heller” ended up master of the mansion after committing some highly publicized indiscretions. The most infamous episode came in 1943 when, as a U.S. Army Air Forces pilot, he guided his four-engine Flying Fortress dangerously low over a wide swath of Omaha for the thrill of “buzzing” his hometown.
During the brazen stunt, which he describes today with both sheepish regret and cockeyed pride, he used St. Cecilia Cathedral’s spires as pylons to angle the massive B-17 bomber right past the Blackstone Hotel and over the mansion. Then he repeated the maneuver. The sight and roar of a low flying bomber caused a minor panic, including a stampede of pedestrians and rash of auto pile-ups.
“Thank God nobody got hurt,” he said in a recent interview at the opulent mansion. “If I would of ever hit anything, I’d of wiped out things for blocks. I could have killed a lot of people. I think I was a good enough pilot that I didn’t have to worry about that, but it’s easy to say that now.”
Amazingly, after causing all that commotion mid-town he headed west to “buzz” the homes of an uncle and aunt. “My uncle was shaving with a straight-edge razor when I went through his backyard. He damn near became Robert “Van Gogh” Storz because he nearly clipped off his ear,” the nephew recalls impishly, adding that his aunt, who liked imbibing, was so shaken that she “was fishin’ bottles out of the chandeliers.”
The stunt got him in hot water with civilian and military officials and he was ultimately given a general court-martial. He remained in the service, but never went overseas and never rose beyond the rank of captain during a 29-year Air Force reserve career. His punishment might have been more severe if not for his late father, Arthur C. Storz, a former flier and well-connected aviation supporter.
It was a scandal the family found hard living down. There were to be others, including a divorce. Always, Storz most acutely felt the disapproval of his father, a stern family brewing chief and taskmaster. “My dad used to like to put me down because I was kind of the Peck’s Bad Boy of the family,” he said. “But I deserved to be put down. I was an embarrassment to the family – and he didn’t like it. And he didn’t let me forget it. He really was a good guy, but boy, was he tough. He’d really take it out on you if you got out of line. He had a stringent yardstick.”
Storz also lived in the shadow of his younger brother, Robert Hart Storz, an Abel to his Cain and the apple of their father’s eye. Art suffered by comparison. Where he was a self-described “rebel,” Bob was a model citizen. Where he disgraced his uniform, Bob was a decorated hero. Where he was barely tolerated at the brewery, Bob was made a top executive.
Controversy followed Art in later years too, most notably in the battle he waged in the 1980s to hold onto the mansion in the wake of foreclosure proceedings. Despite his black sheep image, he has a genuine personal stake in the Storz success story. He was, after all, the brewery’s advertising director during some of its fattest years – designing multi-media campaigns that won numerous awards, even if his father discounted them.
Inside the 27-room home today, he’s surrounded by mementos that recall an era when his family’s empire still reigned – before national brewers’ predatory pricing strategies forced the sale of the company in 1966. “It was like cutting my heart out when Storz Brewing Co. was sold,” he said, “because I’d always hoped my brother and I would get a chance to run it. I loved the brewing business.”
For three-quarters of a century Storz beer dominated the Nebraska market, flowing from taps like pure gold. At peak capacity, the firm’s north
Omaha plant employed hundreds of workers, ferrying its own fleet of refrigerated box cars and trucks. The Storz name carried enough clout to open doors and get things done.
Storz likes nothing better than immersing himself in such sweet remembrances of things past. Of rich old times at the mansion – when the family entertained on a grand scale with lavish parties, fancy balls and sumptuous feasts. When prominent industrialists, politicians, military officials and screen idols were feted there and well-trained servants manned each of its three floors. When it wasn’t just a home, but a showplace. If its walls could only talk, oh, the stories they might tell. Of back room business deals and garden romances. Of juicy gossip and heated debate. Of late nights filled with music, laughter and lively conversation.
Fortunately, Storz is around to serve as storyteller and guide, even if it comes hard for someone so shy. He’s never been comfortable being the son of industrial titans and society mavens.
“I was terribly intimidated by it all. My family left some big footprints and I’ve always been very insecure because I’ve known I was never going to walk in any of their footsteps. I just wasn’t cut out to be what they were.”
To avoid meeting people he’d make himself scarce at social functions. “It was so painful for me that I would take a powder. My brother and sister were just the opposite. They were polished and self-assured. I never had that. I just always felt very inadequate. And I still deal with that to this day.”
Yet for all his insecurity, he loves showing off the home. It’s held special meaning for him as long as he can remember. After his grandparents’ deaths, he moved there with his siblings and parents in 1939. He’s lived there continuously since the mid-’50s. His father died at home in 1978, and his mother, Margaret, lived there until shortly before her death in 1981. He helped care for his parents in their final years. Near the end, his father finally uttered the words he’d always craved: “He said, ‘Art, I love you,’ and he kissed me on the side of the face. I always knew he loved me, I’d just never heard him say it,” he emotionally recalls.
A promise he made to himself in 1981– to stay in the home and care for it – still drives him today. His fondness for it runs so deep that he’s risked everything to save it. He nearly lost it several times in the face of legal challenges and financial crises. His fight to retain the home even pitted him against family members. What made him persevere and pay such a steep personal price?
“It’s been a love affair,” he said. “It really is a deep feeling of love for the place and for the history of the Storz family. I doubt if any home in Omaha can even come close to it as far as its history and as far as the significant people that have been in and out of here. There’s too much history here for me to walk away…I’d go to hell for this house today. I would give up anything for it – anything. I’d even give up my life.”
Some say it is his life. When people arrive for tours, his dour demeanor visibly changes. His eyes brighten, voice lightens, posture straightens and step quickens as he swells with pride at the prospect of telling the Storz saga again. And what a saga it is. A dynasty marked by entrepreneurial spirit, philanthropic generosity, civic boosterism, visionary deeds and fabulous bashes.
Gilded memories are among the few luxuries Storz has allowed himself since renouncing his inheritance during a 1981estate dispute with his siblings. Aside from straining his relationship with his brother and sister, he said, “That wasn’t hard, because money’s never been important to me. What hurt really bad was when my kids got control of the money and tried selling me down the river.” He alludes to when his two adult children, from whom he’s now estranged, tried ousting him from the home.
Since the early ‘80s he’s subsisted almost entirely on his monthly Social Security check, a small pension and the largess of friends. He has no car and can often be found pounding the pavement many blocks from home. Except for a part-time helper, he maintains the extensive, well-manicured grounds himself. While recent hernia surgery has slowed him, his passion for the home and its vibrant history remains unabated.
Only with the help of friends has he nourished his dream for the mansion. A dream for this Omaha landmark and National Register of Historic Places designee to be preserved as a museum and lasting monument to the Storz legacy.
He has indeed made the home a kind of shrine to his family’s storied past. Throughout are displayed photos, paintings, letters, awards and assorted other memorabilia that document far-ranging activities and accomplishments.
He’s turned a basement room into “The Eagle’s Nest.” There, framed photos and newspaper clippings salute his father’s prominent role in aviation, which had its beginnings in World War I flying alongside ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Over the years, the elder Storz kept in touch with the flying fraternity and keenly followed aviation advances. As WWII dawned, he counted among his close friends such Air Force luminaries as Gen. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, Gen. Curtis LeMay and Brig. Gen. James Stewart, the late beloved actor. During the Cold War, he played a key role in selling top military brass on the idea of locating the Strategic Air Command here and he spearheaded the development of Eppley Airfield. He was awarded the military’s highest civilian honors.
Another passion of Papa Storz’s was the great outdoors, and his son has converted a basement room into a mini-“Ducklore Lodge” – the family’s beloved hunting resort near Lisco, Neb. – whose walls practically sag from the weight of so many trophy fish and fowl the old man hooked and bagged. Family brewing patriarch Gottlieb Storz built the home and two equally impressive family palaces nearby as conspicuous symbols of Storz success. Edifices to the American Dream made good. While all three homes survive, only the Farnam mansion remains in the family. Nothing was spared in its design or construction, which took three years. Much of it appears as it did in its heyday. A glaring exception is the interior’s painted-over walls and ceilings, which obscure their original quarter-sawn oak finish. Storz one day hopes to have the paint stripped and the wood restored, but that project – like others on hold – awaits needed funding.
The mansion’s Old World craftsmanship survives in leaded-glass doors, stained-glass windows, Tiffany lamps, ornately carved woodwork, mosaic tile fireplaces, exquisite murals and countless other fine details. The pale brick facade includes limestone panel carvings depicting the stuff of the brewmaster’s art – barley, hops, corn.
The third-floor ballroom, where the legendary Fred and Adele Astaire began dancing, is off-limits while awaiting renovation. The main-floor solarium is a sublime replica of the sun room aboard the famed Bremen oceanliner his grandparents sailed on. The study, music room, parlor and dining room are arranged and decorated in period detail.
Storz can offer insights about every room, antique and feature and recall anecdotes of stars (Wallace Beery, Robert Taylor, Arthur Godfrey) and dignitaries (Doolittle, LeMay) who dined there.
Those close to him agree his near obsession with the home is a Prodigal Son’s symbolic attempt to win his father’s approval. Storz himself said hopefully: “I think my father would probably say, ‘Art, you did a helluva job.’ I think he really would be proud of me.”
The demands of maintaining an elaborate old home have strained his own meager finances and those of the Storz Preservation Foundation he created in 1982. Things have gotten so tight at times that the utilities have been shut off. “I was in some terrible messes,” he recalls. “I was totally broke once, and I was petrified.” When he first took on the project, friends and family members considered it Art’s latest folly. “I felt that way, yes,” said his brother. “I felt it was too much. There was too much involved to preserve it.”
Art said he was tempted to sell the home – “to take the money and run” – rather than keep it. “The reason I wanted to run is because I was afraid I would embarrass the family name. I really couldn’t visualize managing this operation. It’s a helluva big job. I knew it was going to cost a lot of money. And I thought, ‘Where the hell is it going to come from?’”
But he stubbornly stayed on. “I never did run because the love’s too great,” he said. He takes satisfaction in the fact he eventually kept the mansion despite the many hurdles, long odds and nagging doubts. “I gave it everything I had – my heart and soul – because I love the place. I think I’ve really been tested. There were times when it felt like I’d been in the ring with Muhammad Ali. I hung in even when I was whipped.”His brother, with whom he’s grown close again, has come to respect his devotion: “I give him credit. I don’t know how he did it. I have admiration for him. He loves that house. It’s a love affair – it really is.”
Others still marvel he pulled it off: “I was afraid he was going to lose the whole shootin’ match and end up on his rear out in the cold,” said Omahan Dick Deaver, a fellow flier and lifelong friend. “I give him credit for seeing it through.”
The constant struggle did take its toll. As Art explains, “The pressure was just tremendous. That kind of stress had a disastrous effect on me. I got really depressed. I was just browbeat so bad that I didn’t even want to be around anybody. I let the place go. And I hate to even admit this, but I got suicidal.” He purchased a gun for the deed. “I was really going to knock myself off, but I never could pull the trigger,” he said. Storz, who still suffers from depression, adds, “I’d rather take a good whippin’ physically then take one that emotionally tears you into little pieces.” In the end, he couldn’t bear disgracing his family that way. Besides, he still had his mission – the home.
Retired Omaha World-Herald reporter Howard Silber, who’s known Storz for years, said, “I don’t think he’d be alive today if it weren’t for that mission and that zeal. He lives for that.”
Storz survived his darkest days with the aid of friends. “When I look back and think about the people who helped me, I just thank God I had friends like that. I’ll never forget what they did for me. And don’t think it wasn’t hard for me to accept. I feel a great debt.”
His lowest point came in 1988 when, due to delinquent property tax payments totaling more than $73,000, the home was auctioned off at a forced sheriff’s sale. It was purchased by a bidder who planned turning it into a restaurant. A judge gave Storz two years to redeem the taxes and allowed him to remain in the home. When an effort to raise the needed money failed, things looked bleak. With the deadline only weeks off, a father-son tandem of Las Vegas gambling magnates came to the rescue. The father, Jackie Gaughan, was a classmate of Storz’s at Creighton University, and when he heard his old chum was in trouble he enlisted his son Michael’s support. Once the taxes were paid and the home reclaimed, Michael Gaughan became its legal owner and Storz its chief trustee. A trust fund helps defray the property’s operating costs and taxes.
“If the Gaughans hadn’t bailed me out, I would have gone down,” said Storz. “They were my biggest benefactors.” He’s also grateful to the local media for its sympathetic coverage of his plight. “The media made me sort of like David and the people trying to knock me out like Goliath,” he said. That depiction suits him fine. “I’m a staunch competitor. I would never quit.”
Even with the home’s immediate future secured, he frets what will happen after he dies. “I’ve got 16 years here of fighting for my life and I don’t want to lose it now. Everything I’ve done has come from my heart. When I’m gone I hope somebody says, ‘Well, he’s carried it far enough – it should be kept intact.’”