Native Nebraskans’ own many Hollywood-made-good stories. One of the best belongs to Gabrielle Union, who sort of fell into acting by way of modeling and hasn’t looked back since in building a significant career in television and film that shows no signs of slowing down and that in fact appears to be getting richer and deeper with time. Here’s a preview of my new story about her for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/). It will hit newsstands and the paper’s website Dec. 10-11. The Being Mary Jane star talks about her popular BET series, the hot new Chris Rock film Top Five she has a supporting role in, an upcoming Lifetime movie she produced, the impactful documentary series Half the Sky she participated in. Now married to longtime boyfriend NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, she is loving being a step-mother in addiiton to being a doting daughter and sister. You can find on my blog my earlier stories about Gabrielle, whom I’ve been covering since the early 2000s.
Gabrielle Union having it all between her own series, new film, producing, marriage and family
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
My, how time flies. It seems only yesterday Omaha’s own Gabrielle Monique Union first caught our attention on the big screen with her scene-stealing turn as the diva rival to Kirsten Dunst in the wickedly funny high school cheerleader comedy Bring It On.
Hard to believe that was 15 years ago.
Now 42 and firmly established as a Black Hollywood star, red carpet fashion plate and natural beauty spokesperson, Union’s at a career apex few native Nebraskans ever reach in the business. In 2014 alone she starred in her own hit BET series, Being Mary Jane, co-starred in the successful film Think Like a Man Too and produced a Lifetime movie. Oh, and on a personal note she married longtime boyfriend, NBA star baller Dwyane Wade in an American royals-style wedding.
A definite presence at her hubby’s Miami Heat games, she caused a buzz when she jokingly interrupted a recent live post-game interview Fox Sports did with him. He’d returned from the injury list to score 27.
“It was OK,” she deadpanned about his performance to the bemused sideline reporter and to viewers, while styling a black fedora over her long black locks to match her basic black dress. “I mean, a hamstring pull, wow, to come back with 27 points. We’re going to talk about the free throws (he was 5 for 9) later. But he did good for an old geezer.”
Wade appeared to take the upstaging and teasing in stride.
Gabrielle and her superstar husband Dwyane Wade
She’s lately been propping her new film, the acclaimed Top Five from Chris Rock. which has opened to strong box-office.
“I shot that movie last summer in New York right after we did Think Like a Man Too,” she says.
Originally titled Finally Famous, its story centers on Rock’s character Andre Allen, a standup comic-turned actor who, ala Joel McCrea’s idealistic director in the Preston Sturges classic Sullivan’s Travels comes unhinged after going all serious. With Allen’s pretentious new film a dud, he feels dislocated from his true identity. The recovering addict feels pressure, too, from a reality TV crew covering him and his celeb fiance Erica, played by Union, as their planned televised wedding draws near. Then there’s his instant relationship with a reporter, Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), with whom he finds In the space of a few hours more truth than the surreal media circus his life’s become.
“It’s really the story of the upside and the downside of fame and chasing fame,” says Union, who sports blonde hair, big glasses and gaudy bling in the role. “The story follows a day in the life of Chris’ character and it just happens to be when he’s got to kind of look at some hard truths and decide how does he really want to live and why that is and he kind of gets lost in himself.
“It sounds really deep and at times I think it very much is but it’s also really, really funny.”
Tracy Morgan and Cedric the Entertainer co-star and Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Whoopie Goldberg make cameos.
Despite going way back Union and Rock never worked together before the project.
“I mean, Black Hollywood is pretty small, so we all kind of run into each other and know each other and definitely Chris and I do. With him being such a huge Knicks fan I’ve run into him many times over the years (at Heat games). We have a lot of mutual friends as well,” says Union, who among basketball wives is the queen bee now that Eva Longoria and San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker have split.
Seeing Rock at work on the set gave Union a new appreciation for him.
“Chris was not only acting but he wrote it and directed it as well, so watching him put all those hats on was amazing and very inspiring. But honestly I felt bad for the man because it’s like he never got off work. But he handled it all very, very well.”
She says the the spirit of Rock’s free-wheeling, anything-goes standup act infuses the film, which has received glowing reviews since its September Toronto International Film Festival premiere.
“I think people are going to be surprised. It’s a different kind of role for him, even though it might seem playing a standup comedian would be easy for him. But I really watched him blossom as an actor and as a director as well on the set.”
She feels he brought out in her emotional notes and layers she hadn’t accessed before on screen.
“Sometimes when the leader’s been where you’ve been as an actor they know the right things to ask, they know how to finesse a situation, they know how to get the best out of you as an actor because they’ve been an actor. That’s really what Chris was able to bring to me that was unique from other directors. He had a different perspective of each scene I found very, very helpful. He also challenged me in a way other directors haven’t.”
Just as Rock didn’t need to research the capricious nature of fame, neither did Union. They both live it. The heat of celebrity for her is more intense than ever now that she and Wade are married. Just last summer, while the couple honeymooned, nude pictures of her and other female celebs were hacked and posted online. Where she’s taken a diplomatic stance about intrusions of privacy, she’s gone on the offensive this time. She penned a Cosmopolitan essay equating the pandering and profiteering of private nude images to sex crimes and called out feminist groups for not protesting their release. “The silence has been deafening,” she recently told Meredith Vieira, adding that celebs like her are subject to “victim-shaming,” something she can’t abide having survived rape as a college student.
Much like the characters she plays, Union can be bold in speaking her mind. Mary Jane Paul is very close to her in that way. In season one the trials and tribulations of her title character – a successful single black female struggling to balance work demands and romance issues – became the stuff of countless Tweets, chats, blog posts and Facebook shares. After a 5 million viewership pilot debut and consistently strong ratings over its 12-episode run, BET recently renewed the series. Season two premieres February 3.
“I couldn’t ask for a better reception to be honest,” Union says. “We knew we did great work but it doesn’t always translate and to have the audience respond so well and to basically blow up social media every week was awesome.”
Mary Jane’s the latest in a long line of strong, smart, confident characters played by Union, who is a women’s rights advocate.
University of Nebraska at Omaha dean and professor of communication Gail F. Baker says, “Gabrielle Union occupies a unique position among African-American women in media – one she has carved out for herself. She has ‘quietly’ established an exceptional career across myriad platforms – movies, television, advertising – while playing a smart and independent woman. Union brings a special blend of savvy and sophistication to each role. She¹s a trailblazer on many fronts.”
Those qualities are precisely the ones Union says her mother, Theresa Glass Union, instilled in her and her two sisters.
“Having three highly successful daughters is a testament to the job she did,” she says.
Union enjoys how Mary Jane’s story speaks to her own life and the lives of many women she knows. Just like her character, Union knows what it’s like dealing with family pressures and expectations, the ticking biological clock, the dating scene, romantic commitment and standing firm to do the work and to follow the path you want, not what others want. Making the show relevant means a lot to her.
“I’m proud of it,” she says. “It’s the most I’ve ever worked in my life being the star of the show and having lots of other responsibilities but I love it, and I love doing it. I love the writing, I love the direction, I love how it looks stylistically. I’m really pleased.
“For us being their (BET’s) first original dramatic series we’re all sort of learning together and it’s been a great partnership. It’s not my way or the highway, it’s very much a collaborative effort and BET’s been pretty patient in launching this as their first dramatic series. So I think we’ve all kind of handled it well.”
She’s glad to portray a character and front a series that transcend black women stereotypes, which she feels have limited opportunities for female artists of color on screen and behind the camera She acknowledges “we’ve seen improvements,” noting the breakout success of Shonda Rhimes, producer-creator-writer of mega-hits Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal. But, she says, “it goes in waves,” adding, “Like right now we’ve got a lot of women heading up their own shows” – herself, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Jada Pinkett Smith, Taraji Henson – “so it’s improving, but if any of these shows fail then next year we’ll kind of be back at the drawing board.”
Mary Jane marks a major step for Union. For starters, its powerhouse creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil (The Game) developed it for her. Now that she and that husband-wife producing team have a popular series together they’re likely to collaborate again. Next, the show gives Union her first successful starring platform on TV after the misfire of her previous (ABC) series Night Stalker, in which she co-starred with Stuart Townsend, and her recurring roles in the equally short-lived Life and Flash Forward.
Then there’s the fact Union clearly carries this series. Its success rides almost entirely on her performance and on the writing.
“It’s tough to turn out 12 episodes of exciting, engaging material and we absolutely have done that. It’s been looking good and I’m pleased with the writing for sure.”
Mara Brock and Salim Akil with Gabrielle
The key to any episodic series enduring is developing different, deeper shades of its main characters. Union’s satisfied she’s getting to plumb the depths of one complex sister in Mary Jane, whose tough as nails exterior covers a fragile interior.
“The writers have been absolutely brilliant at pushing her buttons. They give me a lot of different places to go with the character. She’s definitely not Johnny-One-Note, which I’m excited about.”
Now that Union’s proven she can hold an audience week after week network and studio execs may be more willing to have her head-up a future series or movie. That’s important because until Mary Jane it’d been a while since she got top billing. She’s at an age, too, when actresses get passed over for younger women, though her youthful, glam looks – she’s fronted several beauty brands – are an asset.
It doesn’t hurt being part of a power black couple who by making it official in August consolidated their mad pop culture currency. During her series hiatus Union and Wade said their I-dos at a lush outdoor ceremony in Miami that saw John Legend perform. A much-seen photo released by the couple, who began seriously dating in 2009, pictured them with his two sons from his first marriage, Zaire and Zion, and a nephew, Dahveon, he’s been raising. They looked every bit a family.
Wade authored the 2012 book, A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball. He supports numerous programs for kids and families. Union wrote the foreword to Hill Harper’s 2008 book Letters to a Young Sister: Define Your Destiny. With both acutely conscious of their role model status, their party days may not be completely behind them but when not working these two are domestics focused on family.
Union, Wade and theri instant family at the couple’s wedding
After taking a time-out in their relationship a year ago or so, the couple worked it out and things culminated in the wedding Gabrielle’s mother describes as “wonderful, beautiful and poignant – full of both loving personalities,” adding, “I was happy that Gabrielle was happy.” Long before the marriage, Theresa saw her daughter’s maternal instincts kick-in:,
“Gabrielle has embraced the role of the adult female in Dwyane’s household to his two sons and to his nephew.” Now that Nicki, as her family calls her, is married, Theresa says, “I feel she has taken to parenting as the capable person I know her to be.”
Union had no children with her ex, former NFL player Chris Howard. Union’s hinted she and Wade plan having a child together.
Besides being a wife and mom, she’s branched out into producing. Her first project as an executive producer is the upcoming Lifetime movie With This Ring. Jill Scott, Eve and Regina Hall play three single friends who vow to get hitched after attending the wedding of a mutual friend. The movie’s adapted from the book The Vow, which Union optioned five years ago and sold to Sony Pictures Television for Lifetime.
After a long wait to get it made, she found the producing role fulfilling.
“I mean, to finally get things off the ground is very satisfying. Being able to be in a position where you can put talented people to work is incredibly satisfying. It’s just a different struggle as a producer than it is as an actor. It’s a different conversation. I’m still learning, I’m a novice, so I’m trying to say less and learn more.”
Union anticipates developing more projects, perhaps ones to star in. She’s only prepared to wear so many hats behind the camera though.
“I absolutely don’t want to direct. I want to produce though for sure. I’m definitely going to be up for opportunities that challenge me and inspire me and tickle my fancy. So maybe a year from now after we’re (Mary Jane) syndicated I can think about trying my hand at something else.”
Besides being well-liked in the industry, Union’s well-connected. In addition to her association with the Akils, she’s aligned herself with another major industry player, Tyler Perry, two of whose franchise films, Daddy’s Little Girls and Good Deeds, she’s appeared in. Her best friend in the business is actress Sanaa Lathan, Then there are all the ensemble pieces she’s been in with Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, Taraji Henson and Kevin Hart from the Think Like a Man movies.
Union says it’s a bonus “anytime you can work with your friends and we’ve been friends, the vast majority of the cast, like for well over a decade. We just have a lot of fun. To get paid to do what we want and to hang together, well, it’s like stealing from the studio.”
In 2012 she stretched herself to serve as a celebrity advocate for the multi-platform PBS documentary series Half the Sky that examined the oppression of girls and women in developing nations.
The title came from the best selling book by New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn.
Union in the documentary Half the Sky
Union spent two weeks with Kristof and executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff for a segment set in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. The actress got close with two girls there, Duyen and Nhi, both of whom contend with barriers to try and further their education.
“Their stories are amazing and their overcoming adversity kind of puts everything in perspective,” says Union.
The actress got especially close to Nhi, whose father forced her to sell lottery tickets, a time consuming job that interfered with her education. Union came away inspired by “the perseverance of these young girls, who move hell and high water to get an education. If that means paying for it themselves, they pay for it themselves, if that means living away from their families they do that.”
She’s discovered that her segment made an impression on people and she leaves no doubt the impact it made on her.
“When people come up to you you never know what part of your work kind of resonates with them or that they connect with. But I’m always pleasantly surprised when people ask me about Half the Sky. They’re usually interested in if I know whatever became of any of the subjects. Since I left Vietnam Dwyane and I have sponsored Nhi’s education. I know you’re not supposed to get personally involved with the subjects but we couldn’t help ourselves. There was no way I could leave Nhi there with her dad, so Dwyane and I pay for her schooling.
“She’s a bright girl and she’s doing well, she’s thriving. We’re happy about that.”
Union’s passion for children extends to the new siblings she gained a few years ago when her mother adopted three children a relative could not care for herself. Keira (8), Miyonna (6) and Amari (4) are being raised by Union’s mother, who recently moved with the kids from Omaha to Arizona, where one of Gabrielle’s sisters lives and where more Union family members have since moved. Gabrielle’s enjoying the new family dynamic.
“It’s like we’re starting over and I’ve kind of come back to be in big sister mode again, trying to get another set of young people and mold them and try to provide as much as we can. It’s kind of like we’re going back in time and we get to do it over and fix some of the mistakes we made in the past. My mom very much believes in we are our brother’s keeper and you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and she refuses to let our family down. Where other people might say that’s the next man’s responsibility my mom feels like our family is our responsibility and you try to do your best for your family.”
Gabrielle and her mother
Union admits she enjoys spoiling her little sisters and brother.
“The gifts arrive and then my mom kind of filters them out, not as they arrive but sort of as good behavior happens, so they’re not fully getting all of my spoiling. They’re great kids, I really love them.”
About her daughter’s generosity, Theresa says, “She does a lot for us as a family. She has smanaged to make the birthdays for each child special. My daughter gave me the Kentucky Derby one year as a birthday present. That is the most marvelous party in the world.”
Now that her mother’s no longer living in Omaha, it’s an open question when Gabrielle might next make it back for the biennial Native Omaha Days or the annual Bryant-Fisher family reunion and its Dozens of Cousins. Union’s ridden in the Omaha Days parade. Union and Wade showing up, as they’ve done, would cause a stir. She says no matter how famous they get though it doesn’t change how they roll.
“Not to us, maybe for other people who aren’t expecting to see us at a restaurant or something. I’m lucky that my family’s really down to earth. They know that when we come to Omaha we don’t want to be treated any differently than any of the other cousins. I think it’s more how other people perceive us. But for us it’s just nice to get out and see family and catch up. We’re definitely not trying to make spectacles of ourselves by any stretch.”
Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm have individually and collectively made a positive impact on Omaha and together they form one of the most influential power couples in Omaha. Read about them in my New Horizons cover story.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons (http://www.database.to/assoc_admin/assocviewfile2.asp?53V9875VT96=1969&AP3126=9&C885I0=536&pagecase=2)
Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm each own such strong public identities for their individual professional pursuits that not everyone may know they comprise one of Omaha’s most dynamic couples.
Married since 1998, they were colleagues before tying the knot. After both went through a divorce they became friends, then began dating and now they’re entrenched as a metro power duo for their high profile work with organizations and events that command respect. Between them they have five children and one grandchild.
He’s founder-manager of the Omaha Summer Arts Festival, which celebrates 40 years in 2015, and of the popular Old Market and Ak-Sar-Ben Village farmer’s markets. He has deep event planning roots here. He also heads his own nonprofit management and consulting firm, Vic Gutman and Associates.
She’s past executive director of The Rose Theater and the longtime executive director of Girls Inc. of Omaha.
Their work usually happens separately but when they collaborate they have a greater collective impact.
Even though they’re from different backgrounds – he’s Jewish and she’s Christian, he trained as an attorney and she trained as an actress – they share a passion for serving youth, fostering community and welcoming diversity.
He’s involved in the Tri-Faith Initiative that seeks to build an interfaith campus in Omaha. She’s always worked for nonprofits. “Neither of us has been particularly motivated by money,” Gutman says.
Their paths originally crossed through consulting he did for the theater.
For transplants, they’ve heavily invested themselves in Omaha. He moved here in 1974 from Oak Park, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. She came in the early ’80s after graduating from the University of Kansas. Kansas was the end of a long line of places she grew up as the daughter of a career Army father.
Like many young men in the early ’60s Gutman heeded the call to serve issued by President John F. Kennedy. JFK signed into existence the Peace Corps as a program for Americans to perform international service. Kennedy’s envisioned domestic equivalent formed after his death as VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). Gutman was an idealistic University of Michigan undergrad when he signed up to be a VISTA volunteer. A year passed before he got assigned to Boys Town, whose first off-campus programs – three group homes – he managed.
“I really only planned on staying one year and 40 years later I’m still here,” he says.
He gained valuable experience as student organizations director on the massive Ann Arbor campus and as an arts festival organizer. He flourished in college, where he found free expression for his entrepreneurial and social progressive interests.
“I was at the university from ’69 to ’74. Ann Arbor was a hotbed for anti-war protests. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) started there. Its founder, activist Tom Hayden, went to school there. I would go to these demonstrations,” recalls Gutman,
At 19, he’d impressed university officials enough that they asked him to organize a campus arts festival. Little did he know it was the beginning of a four-decade run, and counting, of being Mr. Festival.
“We called it the Free Fair. We charged next to nothing to get in. It was very idealistic. We ended up having 400 artists from all over. Then we expanded from the campus to the main street downtown six blocks away. We had 700 artists my last year and 1,500 people belonging to the guild we started. The fair and guild are still going strong today.”
He started other arts festivals, including one in Detroit, as well as a crafts fair in Ann Arbor. The success of that first arts festival so impressed him that it changed his life.
“Before my eyes a community of 400 artists in a period of several hours just blossomed in front of me, and then all these people came over a four-day period to enjoy the art. It was like, Wow, this is really cool, I have to do this the rest of my life. It just touched something in me that I could create a community that would bring people together. That’s what really interested me.”
Only a year after moving here he launched the Summer Arts Festival because he saw a void for events like it going unfilled. However, he found local power-brokers skeptical about his plans even though the city was starving for new entertainment options.
“All there really was was the Old Market, at least from a young person’s perspective. There wasn’t much here. At that time this community did not embrace creativity and young people doing things. There was no young professionals association.”
The then-22-year-old was treated like a brash upstart. Nearly everywhere he went he got a cold shoulder. “It was like, ‘Who are you? What right do you have to do this?’ That was the mindset.”
Complicating matters, he says, “the city didn’t really have an ordinance to allow these events to go on downtown.” He had to get permits.
He moved the event to where the Gene Leahy Mall was being developed and the public came out in “huge numbers.” He saw the potential for Omaha adding similar events and branding itself the City of Festivals. The Chamber of Commerce rejected the notion.
In 1978 the fest moved to what’s been its home ever since – alongside the Civic Center and Douglas County Courthouse. He says Mayor Al Veys and City Attorney Herb Fitle threatened closing it after it’d already started. That’s when Gutman suggested he’d go to the media with a story putting Omaha’s elected leadership in a bad light.
“I said, ‘How would it look that we have artists from all over the country and tens of thousands of festival-goers having to go home because the mayor shut us down?’ Ultimately they let us stay open.”
If Gutman were less sure or headstrong there might not be the tradition of Omaha festivals and markets there is today. He also originated the Winter Art Fair and was asked to do the Holiday Lights Festival, Omaha 150, the Greek Festival and many more. He’s retained close ties to his native Detroit, where in 2001 he organized that city’s tricentennial celebration, Detroit 300. Two-years in the making, with a $4 million production budget, the grand event took place on the riverfront, in Hart Plaza, with a cast of thousands.
“We brought in for one free, outdoor concert all these Detroit performers – Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Take Six, The Spinners. Stevie Wonder did two hours. Unbelievable. People did The Hustle in the streets. A 900-member gospel choir performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on a stage 30-feet off the ground. We had historic sailboats on the river. Fireworks. Food. It was incredible. “
Planning it, he wondered if he’d taken on more than he could handle.
“It was so hard to put that together I told Roberta, ‘I’m going to regret this, it’s not going to work, it’s not going to come together,’ and it ended up coming together and it was so great.”
She jokes that Vic neurotically worries his events will fall flat, even though they always turn out.
In the ’90s Omaha stakeholders listened after surveys and media reports revealed young folks couldn’t wait to leave a city they viewed as boring, hidebound and unsupportive of fresh, new ideas.
|Some of the events Vic Gutman and Associates organizes|
“What started the change in the city is when the Omaha Community Foundation’s Del Weber hired this consultant. She did a report that talked about Omaha needing sparkle and the creative spark and that it should accentuate fun. That’s what Omaha by Design came out of. That’s when the city started embracing young professionals.”
Gutman, whose youthful enthusiasm belies his age, 62, likes the vibrant creative class and entertainment scene that’s emerged. This new Omaha’s made the timing right for a long-held dream of his: a year-round indoor public market. He’s secured the site, an abandoned postal annex building on South 10th Street, that will take $10 million to create. He’s raised part of the money.
The market will feature local food businesses and the building will house other activities to help make it “a destination” and “anchor.” He’s banking it will catch-on the way his farmer’s markets have.
“The farmer’s markets have been hugely successful and they’ve been a huge boon for local growers. We hope this becomes the same thing – a place people want to come to in order to socialize, support local businesses and add to the vitality of the community.”
“The thing about Vic is he always has multiple dreams on the horizon and he gets them done and they’re all things that make the community better and stronger,” says Roberta.
Creating-managing events is not the only way he engages community. There’s the work he does with nonprofits. Then there’s the work he does with youth. Following his Boys Town stint he earned a law degree at Creighton University. After passing the bar he was a public defender in the juvenile court system, where he represented troubled teens.
“It’s not supposed to be but it’s a bit of social work and a bit of law. I think it has to be almost.”
He despaired at what he found in that arena.
“Everything wrong with the juvenile justice system now was wrong then. It’s been broken forever. We were putting kids in 30-day psychiatric evaluations because it was better than having them sit in the youth center, which was even a worse place than it is now. Kids who committed no crime – status offenders – would be in the youth center longer because there were even fewer places to put them. I had one kid who committed no crime in the youth center for almost a year.
“They were placing kids in boys ranches out west where they were being abused.”
He encountered countless youth from broken families where alcohol and drugs, physical-sexual abuse and parental neglect were present.
“Some of their stories broke my heart.”
The gang problem was just emerging when he left in 1986.
“My biggest regret is I was so aware of how dysfunctional the juvenile court system was and no one was advocating for change, If I thought law was going to be my career – and I never thought it would – that’s what I would have done. I would have put my energy into advocacy. I made a lot of noise but I was never working to change the system.”
Gutman’s also done mentoring, as Roberta has, and now they’re doing it together.
“I have mentored Arturo, age 14, for four years, first through Teammates and then through Big Brothers/BigSisters. I have mentored Elijah, age 12, for two years through Teammates. Roberta and I have become legal guardians of Arturo and his two brothers and they have lived with us since June 2nd.”
All the while Gutman’s served youth he’s continued doing festivals and consulting nonprofits. As his business and roster of clients have grown, so has his company, which employs 12 people.
He says early on he concluded “I never want to work for a corporation,” adding, “I wanted what I do in the community with projects and with my own company to be a reflection of what I feel the world should be.”
Finding a Home in the Theater and Omaha
His vision of a just world is similar to Roberta’s, whose work at The Rose and Girls Inc. has been community-based. Her many dislocations as an Army brat made settling down in one place an attractive notion.
“I moved almost every year of my life – I lived in Kentucky, Virginia, New Jersey (when her father was in Vietnam), New York – until high school, when I was in Iran three years. I went to the American School in Tehran.”
This was before the Shah’s fall and the Aaytollah Khamenei’s rise .
“When I was there it was relatively tame and calm. There were occasional incidents and American kids were told to keep a low profile,
but for the most part we went everywhere we wanted in the city, in the country with no problems. It was a really great experience. I loved being there.”
At the American School she did plays at the urging of her mother, a drama teacher who took Roberta to Broadway shows back home.
After her father was posted to Fort Leavenworth (Kansas), Wilhelm finished high school and majored in theater at KU in Lawrence. It’s where she met her first husband, playwright-director James Larson. When Larson came to Omaha to research his Ph.D. dissertation on the Omaha Magic Theatre’s Megan Terry, Wilhelm followed, working there a few months. She was not a happy camper.
“I told James, “We’re going to get the hell out of here.’ That was the plan. But then I ended up working at the children’s theater under Nancy Duncan and Bill Kirk and that really changed everything. I loved it. I changed my tune – I really liked Omaha, I wanted to stay.”
She enjoyed a classic rise through the ranks at the theater.
“I was hired as the assistant to the receptionist and the assistant to the bookkeeper. They fired the receptionist, so then I was the receptionist and the assistant to the bookkeeper. I was a very bad receptionist.”
She wasn’t much better at bookkeeping.
Wilhelm proved a quick read though. “I learned a lot. I loved being in the theater, even when I was the receptionist. I had a degree in theater but it was all very academic, so to be in a place actually producing theater was great. When I started, I didn’t know what a nonprofit was. I remember asking Nancy (Duncan), ‘Can I sit in on a board meeting?’ I wanted to know who were these people and what was it they do, I learned a lot about marketing, computers, mailing lists,”
From the start, she acted in plays there, too. She soon joined the artistic staff as a teacher and actor. “Being on the artistic staff was really great,” she says. “That was a lot of fun.”
Larson wound up being the artistic director. When Nancy Duncan left Mark Hoeger came in as executive director. In that transition, Wilhelm says, “Mark asked me to be the managing director and I said, ‘No, I really don’t want to do that.’ He said, ‘Well, just give me two years because I need you to help me through this transition.’ I accepted. It ended up a lot longer than two years. That took us into the renovation of the old Astro-Paramount into The Rose and our moving there.”
The former Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater had long outgrown its space at 35th and Center. When the Astro, a former movie house, was floated as an option, the theater’s leadership expressed interest. But Wilhelm and Co. needed the OK of Nebraska Furniture Mart founder Rose Blumkin, who owned it. Decades earlier her daughter Frances Batt won a talent show there singing “Am I Blue?” and so, Wilhelm says, “the building held a special place in her heart.”
Mark Hoeger and Susie Buffett, a good friend of Wilhelm’s, sought Mrs. B’s approval. She granted it and her family donated a million dollars.
“Mrs. B put her blessing on the project,” Wilhelm says.
Susie Buffett’s investor legend father, Warren Buffett, who by then owned the Mart, matched the gift.
Wilhelm will never forget moving to the new digs in 1995. The night before the theater held a rally at the new space to enlist volunteers for the pre-dawn move.
“One of our resident actors, Kevin Erhrhart, leapt up on a mantel at The Rose and recited the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V,” she recalls. “He whipped everybody into a frenzy with, ‘You’re going to be there and you’re going to be glad you were there to do it.'”
The requisite 100 or so volunteers were there the next morning.
Wilhelm says Frances Batt had promised that if the theater “got this done” then she’d sing “Am I Blue?” at the opening gala. Hearing this, Warren Buffett promised to accompany her on the ukulele.
“So at the gala he strummed and she sang and it was like a Fellini movie,” Wilhelm says. “It was so other-worldly. Just an odd little moment. But very cool. That was one of those peak nights. It was a stunning transformation (the restoration). We worked so hard for this.”
“It was great,” says Vic, who was there because he’d already been advising the theater.
Roberta admits she was less than thrilled when Vic began working with the theater. She says she actually tried talking Mark Hoeger out of hiring him even though she’d never met him at that point.
“I said, ‘I’ve seen his name on things around town. I have a bad feeling about him, I think he’s a slimy, not-to-be trusted guy. You can hire him but I’m just telling you I’m going to tell you I told you so.'”
She and Vic smile about it now. He says he was oblivious to her suspicions then. Her perception changed when she saw how good his ideas were and how much he cared. There was an event he tried talking the theater out of doing but they went ahead and it was a bust.
“He was so pained by it. He was more pained than I was, and I was pained. He takes things so personally. He was a consultant but he didn’t have that distance. It was his event, his failure.”
Another time, Gutman, who’s known to be intense on the job, was doing a work performance review with a female staff member when she broke down crying. Wilhelm chastised him for upsetting her.
“I remember he felt really bad. He didn’t mean to make her cry and he sent her flowers.”
“She now works for me,” Gutman says of that former theater staffer.
Roberta says he was so intense she couldn’t imagine being romantically involved with him at the time. That changed as she got to know him and as he mellowed. He still has high expectations and standards he holds people accountable for. Roberta acknowledges the theater lacked a certain professionalism he instilled.
“We were ragtag,” she says.
“It had transitioned from almost all volunteer. They didn’t have an experienced marketing and development staff and they were just resource poor,” he says. “They worked on a very small budget.”
“Mark Hoeger used to say we were like a bumble bee that scientifically shouldn’t be able to fly, but flew,” she says.
As his changes took root, Vic became part of the theater family, though staff were not above teasing him as “our highly paid consultant.”
“They trusted me, they were extremely supportive. I never felt like I was a consultant and I don’t feel that way with most of the clients now,
but especially the theater,” says Gutman, whose association has continued long after Roberta’s leaving.
When they were together at the theater, the couple made a formidable team, along with James Larson.
“When Mark left I really wasn’t that hot to be the executive director but I also wasn’t really that hot to be the right-hand person to someone new. I enjoyed working with Mark very much and really was sad to see him go. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this for someone else, I had to think about moving up or moving on. I finally put my hat in the ring for the position and I got the job,” she says.
By then, she was divorced from Larson. The two continued working together without problems, she says. The situation mirrored that of Carl Beck and Susan Baer Collins at the Omaha Community Playhouse, who were married, then divorced, but successfully worked as co-artistic directors. When Roberta and Vic married and Larson stayed on, the trio made what could have been an awkward situation comfortable. Vic says, “We still got along just fine.”
Realizing its potential
The little-theater-that-could became a major arts organization locally and a big deal among children’s theaters nationally. Its budget and membership expanded with its reputation.
“It grew so fast. It was sort of explosive,” Wilhelm says. “There were a lot of planets that aligned. Mark was really good for the theater. He networked really well. James had a lot of educational vision for the organization and was very good packaging programs for schools.”
The theater attracted big name guest playwrights (James Still, Mark Medoff, Joe Sutton, Robert Bly) and produced world-premiere shows (Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, Where the Red Fern Grows). It developed a national touring program and cultivated a diverse pool of youth participants. The theater was recognized with a national achievement award from its peer professional alliance.
Not to be forgotten, Wilhelm says, was the “really great ensemble of performers there” who formed a tight-knit cadre. “It was kind of a cult,” she adds. “You don’t need sleep, you don’t need money, you don’t need worldly goods – you live off the passion. It was very fun, intense, A lot of hard work. The people were dramatic, melodramatic, storming in-and-out of offices, spilling their guts out.”
Vic got swept up in it, too, even relaxing his buttoned-down demeanor.
“The theater’s just an amazing place and honestly it’s the people who make it. The people were so interesting and passionate. I just loved being there. To this day I love the theater.”
He even found himself on stage, in costume and makeup, in a singing and dancing pirate role in Peter Pan. He was in some good company. His director, Tim Carroll, is now a Broadway director. His then-child co-stars included Andrew Rannells, who’s gone on to be a Tony nominee and Grammy winner, and Conor Oberst, now an indie music star.
Both Vic and Roberta say it was exciting being part of the theater’s transformation.
Moving on, Serving girls
Roberta wasn’t necessarily looking to exit the theater when an opportunity she decided she couldn’t pass up suddenly came open.
“A good friend suggested the position at Girls Inc. She said she thought I would be good at it and that I should give it strong consideration. She then told me they were closing the application process ‘tomorrow at noon,’ so I didn’t have very long to think about it. I think I was ready for a life change.
“One of the things I enjoyed most about the theater was the accessibility of the programming to children regardless of their ability to pay and partnering with community agencies to help make that happen. Through that work, I grew to know about Girls Inc. I had been directing the all-girl production Broken Mirror at The Rose for several years. I liked working with girls. It seemed like a logical progression.”
When she left the theater and her replacement didn’t work out, Vic assumed the E.D. role himself. He stepped down after three years having built its community outreach and membership-donor base. He’s continued consulting ever since. He says it’s a different organization today “but the most important thing about The Rose is the continued emphasis to make the theater accessible to everyone, whether you can afford to pay or not. That started under James, Mark and Roberta. Not all children’s theaters are. But that is in the DNA of this theater.”
Leaving The Rose wasn’t easy for Wilhelm.
“I do miss the camaraderie of theater and the family that is created through the production process. I made great friends there and I had amazing experiences. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to do what I did at the theater.”
She’s found a new family at Girls Inc., where she’s been since 2003. Some of the girls come from situations like the ones Vic experienced as a public defender.
“We have girls who have a lot of serious challenges, who have behaviors that might get them expelled from school. Twenty-two percent are in the foster care system. Some are involved in the juvenile justice system. We also have girls who don’t have any of that – they’re honors students. But its a place where all girls can go and find support.
“There are a lot of heartbreaking stories, but there’s also a lot of success stories and good things that happen.”
When Roberta started only three alumnae were in college. Today, there are dozens as well as several college graduates.
Girls Inc. Omaha won the outstanding affiliate award from its national parent body and thanks to Roberta’s connections, she’s brought in a who’s-who of guest speakers for its Lunch with the Girls gala: Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Madeleine Albright, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Warren Buffett, President Clinton, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton. This year’s event, on October 29th, features sisters Barbara Bush and Jenna Bush Hager.
Just as her hubby has a dream project in the works with his public market. Wilhelm’s overseeing construction of a $15 million addition to the Girls Inc. north center. It will feature a wellness focus with a gym, clinic, yoga-palates fitness room, elevated track and kitchens for health cooking-culinary arts training. She says it fits the organization’s holistic approach to produce girls who are, as its motto reads – “strong, smart and bold” – or as she puts it, “healthy educated and independent.”
Her husband led the fund drive for the addition. “It was an easy sell because the funders in this community have such high regard for Girls Inc. and what they do and for what Roberta does,” he says.
Another dream project of Gutman’s, the Tri-Faith campus, is one he’s been reticent about until recently he says because “I absolutely can feel for the first time it will be a reality.”
“It’s one of the more complex things I’ve ever been involved with because we have three faiths – Jewish, Muslin, Christian – and very idealistic people. The odds of it succeeding are hard. The politics are hard. You have to build relationships and trust. You really want every one moving together along the same path. It’s never happened before where there’s been an intentional co-locating. We’re building a campus together and we have to overcome prejudices and cultural differences.”
Gutman, a self-described “practical, by-the-numbers guy,” says the project’s “actually a spiritual thing for me – it comes from the heart or else I wouldn’t put this much effort in. For me, idealism is not passe.”
Temple Israel Synagogue, which he belongs to, has already built its new home at the proposed campus in the Sterling Ridge Development. The American Institute for Islamic Studies and Culture is next in line. Gutman, a Jew, heads up fund-raising for the mosque.
“We have $6 million raised and of that $5.2 million came from Christians in this community,” he says. “What other city in the country could say that? That’s special about this community.”
Roberta agrees Omaha’s “very generous” and gives to things it believes in.
Countryside Community Church is weighing being the Christian partner in the interfaith troika.
“I do believe it will be built but the story is yet to be told because it’s what happens afterwards. That’s going to be the interesting thing,” Gutman says.
“It will be like a blended family,” Wilhelm observes. “We’ve been there – it’s hard.”
The couple’s tackled many hard things in realizing legacy projects that have their imprint all over them. Their ratio of success to failure is high.
How are they able to get things done?
“Passion, persistence and some luck,” Gutman says. “We’re very fortunate. In the years we’ve been here we’ve developed a lot of relationships. If we weren’t committed to what we were doing and we didn’t have the skills to do it then there are certain people who would never have believed in us and it would never have been possible. If you take some people out of our lives we couldn’t do everything we want to do, that’s just the truth.”
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo is a big deal. We’re talking one of America’s Top 100 attractions with annual attendance near two million and a large gallery of state of the art indoor exhibits to complement its outdoor viewing areas. In the next year the zoo will introduce a huge new outdoor African Grasslands exhibit that should boost attendance to a whole new level. As my new story for thr Metro Magazine describes, the grasslands project’s natural habitats, diverse species, intimate observation points, and built-in education components will give visitors an upclose experience with and appreciation for an African wilderness environment that comes as close as possible to the real thing.
JOURNEYS: African Safari
JOURNEYS: Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo calls African Grasslands Project The Next Big Thing
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium calls its coming African Grasslands project the next big thing for Omaha. It’s certainly that and then some in terms of the $70 million it will cost to transform 28 acres into an equatorial savannah experience in the Midwest.
The exhibit will open in two phases in 2016. Omaha-based Kiewit Construction, which realized the Zoo’s existing big ticket immersive exhibits, will lead construction. Work begins in earnest this fall.
The project’s the next big step for the Zoo in educating visitors about the conservation research work it does here and around the world. Ongoing education efforts include classes for youth ages 3 to 18, day camps, interpretive tours and safari-eco adventure trips.
The Zoo’s Jungle, Desert Dome and Aquarium exhibits are indoor immersive experiences that recreate ecosystems within four walls. The Grasslands will be a sprawling natural mosaic that puts you in an open-air expanse where elephants – slated to return after a long absence – rhinos, impalas, giraffe and other iconic African animals roam.
“For the first time we’re going to transport you outdoors to another world,” executive director and CEO Dennis Pate says. “What you’re going to see and feel is going to come closer to understanding what the savannah is like without us saying a word.”
Pate says the Grasslands will come as close as an urban zoo can get to replicating the experience of exotic mixed species inhabiting the wild.
OUT ON SAFARI
A group from Omaha recently returned from a two-week Zoo-organized safari to Botswana and Zambia, one way the institution tries building awareness and appreciation of endangered habitats and species.
Participants of the May safari, which featured former Zoo director Lee Simmons and his wife Marie as escorts, won’t soon forget the breathtaking scenes they witnessed.
“What I brought home is the sacred peace of sounds that come only from the inhabitants of Africa, the interconnectedness of all creatures for survival and seeing the variety of animals,” Ann Pape says.
The trip satisfied a Bucket List wish for Jean Bell, who says the experience impressed upon her “how very important” it is these wild environments and species “be preserved and that humans “are really the only ones who can make that happen.”
Ellen Wright says, “People often take for granted these majestic and remarkable creatures will always be with us but when you are exposed to the devastating toll of poaching and to the human effect on the land you realize all this beauty could disappear unless we act now.”
BRINGING IT ALL CLOSER
As most folks will never go on an actual African safari, the Zoo tries giving visitors increasingly authentic, intimate experiences in their own backyard. The goal is to display how these animals function in the wild as well as how they are cared for and protected. Interactive demonstration areas in the Grasslands exhibit will allow the public for the first time to observe staff conducting animal welfare maintenance, such as checking the condition of teeth and feet.
Interpreting the natural world indoors is one challenge but doing it outdoors, at scale, is a whole other challenge.
“It’s harder to do because you can’t control everything,” says Pate.
Construction will move many tons of dirt to reconfigure hilly old grounds and contour them into the gradually sloped savannah. Buildings will be recessed behind trees and landforms to obscure them, with the exception of a new African game lodge-inspired structure. Overlooks will provide visitors with panoramic views.
It’s all part of the evolution of zoos.
“For the past 25 years what we’ve been doing as opposed to simply displaying animals in cages or pens is to try to present animals in their ecosystems and give people a chance to actually experience that ecosystem,” says Simmons, now chairman of the Zoo Foundation. During his long tenure as Zoo director he initiated the institution’s staggering growth that shows no signs of stopping. “Anytime you get people in the same environment with the animals it does make a difference. To see an animal from a distance through bars, a fence or glass is a lot different than being able to get up close and personal.
“What we’re really interested in is the experience and what people come away with.”
Omaha Zoo Foundation director Tina Cherica says, “We’re trying to create an experience that will make people actually care about the realties these animals face in their natural habitats.”
“Zoos have become kind of giant classrooms,” Simmons says, “but we preach this two dollar Sunday sermon by osmosis. We want people to come in and have a really good experience, realize they suddenly know something more than they did, and come away feeling they need to support conservation of habitat.”
Simmons says the state of wildlife conservation is a mixed bag.
“The good thing about a lot of places in the world is that the locals on the ground have realized eco tourism has a very important economic and political impact. There are areas we go back to that are being managed significantly better than they were when we first started leading safaris 30 years ago. There are some that are not and we don’t go to those anymore.”
He says in addition to the destruction of habit by human encroachment, poaching of elephants and rhinos is “rampant.”
Pate says zoos like Omaha’s are perhaps best positioned to educate the public about these challenges.
“On average 96 elephants a day are killed in Africa and one really large bull was just poached in a national park, and so it’s a huge problem. The decline in elephants has been pretty radical. Rhinos are in even worse shape. If we as zoos don’t bring this to the public then there’s very little likelihood they’re going to appreciate the diversity of species alive in the world today.
“I think these problems are being day-lighted through what zoos are doing. People learn that the zoo they support is playing a role in trying to stem some of those problems.”
Cherica says, “I think it brings it home to people. When you see a news story, you’re so far removed from that reality. When you come to your zoo and see these animals and learn about the work we’re doing, then all of a sudden there’s more of a personal connection. This is an opportunity to take a venue with 1.7 million visitors a year and use it as a learning experience to create that personal connection.”
“The new move is to not only show people these animals but to talk about their plight and what the local zoo is doing to assist them,” Pate says. “That makes us really unique. There’s a lot of conservation organizations but very few have a place to be able to talk about it with the public. We have a place where we educate millions of people.”
Pate says the Omaha Zoo “has a strong record of conservation and we’re going to begin talking a lot more about what we do in the wild.” He adds, “A modern zoo does more than just take care of its own animals, it takes care of animals wherever they are in the world. That’s evolving and we’re going to be at the point of that sphere. It’s part of feeling a greater responsibility toward animals in general, whether they’re in zoos or in the wild.”
Simmons says, “We’ve been doing our bit, not just in Omaha. We’ve had a very active conservation program going for the last 30 years.”
The Center for Conservation Research based in Omaha employs several PhD scientists who spend months at a time in the field.
“We’ve had people actively in the field doing conservation in South Africa and East Africa and particularly in Madagascar,” he says. “We’ve got permanent and temporary establishments in Madagascar all focused on conservation, lemurs primarily, but also habitat, reforestation, turtles, frogs, bats and a whole lot of other things. We send people to many places. We’ve contributed a lot to the conservation of Siberian tigers and Amur leopards in far Eastern Russia, both by sending people to do training there and bringing Russian biologists to do training here. We’ve also brought Chinese and Vietnamese here. We have also trained scientists, researchers and interns from over 40 countries here.”
Pate says tying all the threads of this story together “starts with not necessarily the science or the slaughter, it starts with an emotional attachment to a living being – not ones you see on television or read about in a newspaper.” “That’s why it’s important for us to have kindergarten kids through here. It’s why we do day camps. It’s why we have a high school,” he says. “That emotional connection starts early. Then we can build on it with the science. It’s nice to go a little deeper with these animals and talk about what’s affecting them in the wild and how our zoo is helping them and their counterparts in the wild. That’s the exciting part – the whole interpretive story.”
A quarter million youth annually participate in Zoo education programs.
Ellen Wright, a longtime donor and Zoofari volunteer, says the need for conservation education cuts across all ages. “The African Grasslands project is crucial for engaging the widest possible audience and building awareness of the conservation challenges here and around the world.”
Her passion’s shared by many. Much of the work Cherica and Simmons do through the Omaha Zoo Foundation is to cultivate donors to make a wish-list of major projects possible. When pitching projects Simmons knows he’s struck a chord when “the donor’s eyes light up” and that’s happened enough to realize a string of multimillion dollar undertakings.
Another indicator of people’s embrace of the Zoo is the mass of humanity that streams through its gates – enough to make it the top tourist destination in the region. It also boasts a membership of 72,000 households, which translates to about a third of the metro’s population.
“We’ve got way, way more zoo than you would remotely expect in a community this size,” Simmons says. “It’s because the community has been supportive. We have had the highest attendance and membership in North America (among zoos) as a percentage of our metro population base.”
Cherica says that same loyalty is born of trust.
“The community has a lot of confidence in us because we deliver on what we say we’re going to deliver, so over time that’s instilled not only community pride but donor confidence to continue reinvesting in what we’re doing here.”
Being a well-run venue helps.
“Since 1970 we’ve never run an operating deficit,” Simmons says. “We had our first positive year in 1970 and we’ve been positive ever since.
And we’ve brought every project in on time and on budget.”
No endeavor has been as big as the Grasslands project.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge,” Cherica says. “It’s twice as much as any project we’ve done to date but we’re confident in the donor community and in their ability to push this forward. We fully expect the project will be funded by the end of the year.”
“The community support here is unusual and it makes it a highly attractive place to work,” says Pate, who came to Omaha five years ago from the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. “The opportunity to affect that many millions of people is pretty incredible. There’s space, there’s money, there’s its place in the community, there’s the conservation research and welfare of animals. It all comes together.”
Follow Grasslands progress at http://www.omahazoo.com.
“A modern zoo does more than just take care of its own animals, it takes care of animals wherever they are in the world. That’s evolving and we’re going to be at the point of that sphere. It’s part of feeling a greater responsibility toward animals in general, whether they’re in zoos or in the wild.”
~ DENNIS PATE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AND CEO