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Bill Cosby, On His Own Terms: Backstage with the Comedy Legend and Old Friend Bob Boozer

May 11, 2012 6 comments

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Bill Cosby with Bob Boozer, ©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

UPDATE: It is with a heavy heart I report that hoops legend Bob Boozer, whose friendship with Bill Cosby is glimpsed in this story, passed away May 19.  Photographer Marlon Wright and I were in Cosby’s dressing room when Boozer appeared with a pie in hand for the comedian.  As my story explains, the two went way back, as did the tradition of Boozer bringing his friend the pie.  This blog also contains a profile I did of Boozer some years ago as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness.  For younger readers who may not know the Boozer name, he was one of the best college players ever and a very good pro.  He had the distinction of playing in the NCAA Tournament, being a gold medal Olympian, and winning an NBA title.

My Bill Cosby odyssey continued in unexpected ways the first weekend in May.

After interviewing him by phone for two-plus hours in advance of his Sunday, May 6 show, I secured a face to face interview with him in his dressing room.  Photographer Marlon Wright accompanied me.  Only moments before our meeting, however, it appeared there would be no face time with the legend.  Word of our backstage interview somehow hadn’t reached Cosby and as we walked into his Orpheum Theater dressing room he was unsuccessfuly trying to confirm things with his PR handler.  That’s when I assured him I was the same reporter who had talked to him by phone at length.  When he gave me a look that said, “Do you know how many reporters I talk to?” I blurted out, “I’m the remedial man,” referring to our shared past of testing into remedial English in college, something that became a recurring joke between us during that marathan phone interview.  “Why didn’t you say so?” he said, and just like that we were in.

After 15 minutes or so I was prepared to thank him for his time when an assistant came back to announce that Cosby’s old Omaha friend, Bob Boozer, who was a college All-American. Olympic gold medalist and NBA titlist, was outside.  Cosby’s face lit up. Marlon and I exchanged a quick look that said, ‘Let’s stick around,” and so we did.  What played out next was an intimate look at how a King of Comedy holds court before going on. Boozer brought a sweet potato pie his wife Ella baked.

Cosby was obviously touched and kidded his friend with, “I appreciate you not getting into it.” These two former athletes traded good-natured jibes about each others’ ailments and at one point Cosby placed his hands on Boozer’s knees and intoned, like a faith healer, “Heal.”

Then the assistant popped in again with memorabilia fans had brought for Cosby to sign, which he did, and not long after that a contingent from Boys Town was ushered in to meet The Cos.  Family teachers Tony and Simone Jones, along with their son and nine young men who live with them, plus some BT staffers, all filed in and Cosby greeted each individually.  What played out right up until his curtain call was a scene in which Cosby peppered the adults and kids with probing questions, sometimes kidding with them, sometimes dead serious with them.  It turned into a mini lecture or seminar of sorts and a very cool opportunity for these young people, who might as well have been The Cosby Kids from Fat Albert or from his family sit-coms.

By the time we all said goodbye our expected 15 minutes with Cosby had turned into 45 minutes and we’d gotten a neat glimpse into how relaxed and down to earth the entertainer is and just how well and warmly he interacts with people.  I stayed for the show of course and it was more of the same, only a more animated Cosby was revealed.

 

 

photo©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

Bill Cosby, On His Own Terms: Backstage with the Comedy Legend and Old Friend Bob Boozer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the New Horizons

 

Holding court in his Orpheum Theater dressing room before his May 6 Omaha show, comedy legend Bill Cosby was thoroughly, authentically, well, Bill Cosby.

The living legend exuded the easy banter, sharp observations and occasional bluster that defines his comedic brand. He was variously lovable curmudgeon, cantankerous sage and mischievous child.

He appeared tired, having played Peoria just the night before, but his energy soared the more the room filled up.

With his concert start nearing and him blissfully unaware of the time, he played host to this reporter, photographer Marlon Writght, old chum Bob Boozer and the family teachers and youth residents of a Boys Town family home.

By turns Cosby was entertainer, lecturer, father-figure and cut-up as he shook hands, autographed items and told stories.

He’s made the world laugh for 50 years now as a standup comedian, though these days he performs sitting down. He said colleagues of his, including jazz musician Eubie Blake, have accused him of not having an act. Cosby simply tells stories, with occasional clips from his TV shows projected on an overhead screen.

“Eubie wasn’t angry when he said it, he was just jealous. He’s from the days of vaudeville where guys had set ups and then the punchline,” said Cosby. “I think he was looking for the set up and the punchline and all I was doing was the same thing when he’s at my house.”

By that Cosby means talking. He talks about everything and nothing at all. His genius is that he makes none of it seem designed, though his stories are based on written material he writes himself. What makes his riffs seem extemporaneous is his impromptu, conversational delivery, complete with pauses, asides and digressions, just like in real life. Then there are the hilarious faces, voices and sounds he makes to animate his stories. What sets him apart from just anyone talking, he said, “is the performance in the storytelling.”

His enduring appeal is his persona as friend or neighbor, and these days uncle or grandfather, regaling us with tales of familiar foibles. He invites us to laugh at ourselves through the prism of true-to-life missteps and adventures in growing up, courting, parenting and endless other touchstone experiences. Making light of the universal human condition makes his humor accessible to audiences of any age or background.

“That’s the whole idea of the writing – everybody identifying with it,” he said.

That’s been his approach ever since he began taking writing seriously as a student at Temple University in his native Philadelphia. He found his voice as a humanist observer while penning creative writing compositions for class.

“I was writing about the human experience. Who told me to do it? Nobody. I just wrote it. Was I trying to be funny? No. Was I reading any authors who inspired me? No.”

It’s not exactly true he didn’t have influences. His mother read Mark Twain to him and his younger brothers when he was young. Just as she could spin a yarn or two, he was himself a born storyteller amusing friends and teachers. He also admired such television comics as Sid Caesar and Jack Benny, among many others, he drew on to shape his comic alter ego.

He may never have done anything with his gifts if not for a series of events that  turned his life around. The high school drop out earned his GED, went to college, then left early to embark on his career, but famously returned to not only finish his bachelor’s degree but to go on and earn a master’s and a Ed.D in education.

 

 

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©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

 

 

 

He’s sreceived numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Kennedy Center Honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. There have been dark days too. His only son Ennis was murdered in 1997. The comic’s alleged infidelity made headlines.

Through it all, he’s made education his cause, both as advocate and critic. His unsparing views on education and parenting have drawn strong criticism from some but he hasn’t let the push back silence him.

He said growing up in a Philadelphia public housing project he was a bright but indifferent student, devoting more time to sports and hanging out than studying. He recalls only two teachers showing real interest in him.

“I wasn’t truant, I just didn’t care about doing anything. I was just there, man. I was still in the 11th grade at age 19.”

He describes what happened next as “divine intervention.” The high school drop-out joined the U.S. Navy., Cosby hated it at first. “That was a very rude epiphany.” He stuck it out though, working as a medical aide aboard several ships, and obtained his high school equivalency. “I spent four years revamping myself.”

He marveled a GED could get him into college. Despite awful test scores Temple University accepted him on an athletic scholarship in 1960.

“I was the happiest 23-year-old in the world. They put me in remedial everything and I knew I deserved it and I knew I was ready to work for it. I knew what I wanted to be and do. I wanted to become a school teacher. I wanted to jump those 7th and 8th grade boys who had this same idea I had of just sitting there in class.

“Being in remedial English, with the goal set, that’s the thing that began to make who I am now.”

Fully engaged in schoolwork for the first time, he threw himself into creative writing assignments. He wrote about pulling his own tooth as a kid and the elusive perfect point in sharpening a pencil.

The day dreaming that once hampered his studies became his ticket to fame. He said the idea for one of his popular early bits, “The Toss of the Coin,” came during Dr. Barnett’s American History class at Temple.

“I began to drift as he was talking about the Revolutionary War.”

Cosby imagined war as a sporting contest with referees, complete with captains from each team – the ragtag settlers and the professional British army. A coin toss decided sides. In the bit the referee instructs the settlers, “You will wear fur hats and blend into the forest and hide behind rocks and trees.” To the Red Coats, the referee says, “You will wear red and march in a straight line and play drums.”

The day dreams that used to land him in trouble were getting him noticed in the rights way. He recalls the impact it made when the professor held up his papers as shining examples and read them aloud in class to appreciative laughter.

“That was the kickoff. That’s when my mind started to go into another area of, Yes you can do, and I began to think, Gee whiz, I could write for comedians. And all my life from age 23 on, I was born again…in terms of what education and the value is. To study, to do something and be proud of it – an assignment.”

He’s well aware his life could have been quite different.

“Had it not been for the positive influence of this professor, without him reading that out loud and my hearing the class laugh, who knows, I may be at this age a retired gym teacher, well loved by some of his students.”

While a Temple student he worked at a coffee house and he first performed his humorous stories there. Then he began filling in for the house comic at a Philly club and warming-up the audience of a local live radio show.

 

 

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©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

Those early gigs helped him arrive at his signature style.

“When I was looking for that style I saw it a Chinese restaurant. It was a party of eight white people and there was a fellow talking and everybody was just laughing. Women were folding napkins up to cover their faces. This was not a professional performer. Upon analyzing it I noted three things. First of all, he’s a friend of the other seven. Secondly, he’s talking about something they all know that happened. Thirdly, it happened to him and they are enjoying listening to his experience from his viewpoint

“And so I decided that’s who I want to be, that’s the style, because my storytelling is the same thing, whether I’m talking about pulling my own tooth or sharpening a pencil until it’s nothing but metal and rubber.”

Or the vicissitudes of being a father or son.

Not everyone recognized Cosby’s talents.

“I showed this comedian working in a nightclub a thing I wrote about Clark Kent changing clothes in a phone booth. In the bit a cop shows up and says, ‘What are you doings?’ and Kent says, ‘I”m changing clothes into Superman,’ and the cop says, Look, come out of there.’ ‘No, I’m Superman, can’t you see this red S on my chest?’ And the cop says, ‘You’re going to have a red S and a black eye.’ The comic read it and said, ‘This is not funny’ Within a couple years it was on my first album.”

Cosby ventured to New York City and followed the stand-up circuit. Then came his big break on The Tonight Show. Sold out gigs and Grammy-winning recordings followed.

Along with Dick Gregory, Nipsey Russell and Godfrey Cambridge, Cosby was among a select group of black comics who crossed over to give white audiences permission to laugh at themselves. None enjoyed the breakout success of Cosby. Without his opening the doors, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy would have found it more difficult to enjoy their mainstream acceptance.

“I would imagine it was something brand new for an awful lot of people – to see this black person talking and making a connection and laughing because, Yeah, that happened to me.”

The iconic comic’s raconteur style has translated to best selling albums and books, where he mines his favorite themes of family, fatherhood and children. His warm, witty approach has made him a television and film star.

In his dressing room he appeared fit and comfortable in the same simple, informal attire he wore on stage: gray sweatshirt with the words Thank You printed on it and gray sweatpants with a draw string. The only thing missing from his stage outfit was his flip-flops. He spoke to us in his socks.

Totally in his element, with light bulb-studded mirrors, a soft leather sofa and bottles of Perrier water within easy reach, he captivated the audience of two dozen inside the dressing room just as expertly as he did the 1,500 souls in the auditorium.

For a few minutes photographer Marlon Wright and I had The Cos all to ourselves.

Two weeks earlier I conducted a long phone interview with the comic in which he discussed the “born again” experience that led to his path as a writer-performer. We hit it off and I struck a real chord when I shared that, like him, I tested into remedial English as a college freshman.

“Hey, man, we’re remedial,” became our running private joke.

He agreed to a photo shoot. Only when Marlon and I arrived at the Orpheum his  aide informed us the appointment wasn’t booked on “Mr. Cosby’s” schedule. Escorted to his dressing room, I found Cosby trying to reach his publicist to confirm things. I reminded him of our phone interview from a couple weeks back and he shot me an exasperated look that said, Do you know how many reporters I talk to?

Determined not to blow this opportunity, I blurted out, “I’m the remedial man.” “Oh, why didn’t you say so?” he said, smiling broadly and inviting me to sit down. Just then, the phone rang. It was the PR person he’d tried earlier. “Yes, yes, I got him here.” he told her. “He finally said the key word, remedial, so I let him in.”

In the weeks preceding his concert Cosby did a local media blitz to try and boost lagging ticket sales. Sitting across from him in his dressing room, less than an hour before his performance, he expressed disappointment at the low number of tickets sold but pragmatically attributed it to the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday slot.

Asked what it is that still drives him to continue performing at age 74 and he answered, “I am still in the business. I’m still thinking, I’m still writing, I’m still performing extraordinarily well, and in a master sense.” It echoed something he said by phone about going on stage with a plan but being crafty enough to go where his instincts take him.

“Once I pass that threshold from those curtains to come out and sit down I know what I would like to do but I keep it wide open. I don’t know which way it’s going to shift, and a part of it has to do with the audience and the other part has to do with me  – where am I at that time and what’s the brain connecting with in terms of being excited about something.

“I did a show in Tyler, Texas and I started out with enthusiasm talking about something and then I didn’t like what I was doing and I shifted the material to nontrends to trends until finally they began to click in. In other words, some audiences are and are not, and you have to go out there and find that, find what keeps and what works. It’s 50 years now. I know exactly where to mine and what to do.”

 

 

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Bob Boozer holds the sweet potato pie as Cosby prays over his knees©photos by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

He knows he’ll eventually hit the sweet spots. As an American Instiution he has the luxury too of having audiences in the palm of his hand.

“Now, we already have a relationship that’s wonderful because people already know I’m funny, so there’s no guessing there, but on a given day, they are or they aren’t. Are they trusting you? Do I feel that way? It’s very complex but because I’m a master at it I think you want me in that driver’s seat to turn you on.”

It takes confidence, even courage to go out on that stage.

“Yes sir, and you need that, no matter what, I don’t care if you’re a driving instructor or what. If your confidence goes bad in comedy…” he said, his voice trailing off at the thought. “Whether you’re writing or getting ready to perform or sitting with friends and talking you have to have that confidence.”

He can’t conceive of slowing down when he still has the physical energy and mental edge to perform in peak fashion. Besides, he pointed out he’s not alone pursuing the comic craft at his age. Don Rickles, Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl. Bill Dana, Dick Gregory, Dick Cavett and Joan Rivers are older yet and still performing at the top of their game.

He said he fully intends returning to Omaha and selling out next time.

“So there I am talking about coming back – see?”

Besides, comics never retire unless their mind goes or body fails. The way he looks, Cosby might be at this for decades more.

Asked if he has any favorite routines or rituals backstage, he said aside from resting and signing memorabilia, he generally does what’s made him famous – talk. He bends the ears and tickles the funny bones of theater staffers, promoters, personal assistants, friends, acquaintances, fans.

Then, as if on cue, his aide Daniel popped in to say Bob Boozer was outside. Cosby immediately lit up, saying, “Ahhhh, all right, bring Bobby in and tell him he cannot come in without my you know what.” Boozer, the hoops legend, lumbered in bearing a sweet potato pie his wife Ella baked.

“Here’s Ella’s contribution to 2012 Cosby,” Boozer said handing the prized dessert to Cosby, who accepted it with a covetous grin that would do Fat Albert proud.

“I appreciate that you didn’t get in it,” Cosby teased Boozer, who for decades has made a tradition of bringing the entertainer Ella’s home-made sweet potato pie whenever he performs here.

Boozer confided later, “He loves it. I never will forget one time at Ak-Sar-Ben he had the pie on-stage with him and somebody in the crowd asked if they could get a slice, and he he draped his arms over it and said, ‘Heavens no, this pie is going back on the plane with me…'”

The two men go way back, to when Boozer played for the Los Angeles Lakers and Cosby was shooting I Spy. A teammate of Boozer’s, Walt Hazzard, was a Philly native like Cosby and Hazzard introduced Cos to Boozer and they hit it off.

A coterie of black athletes and entertainers would gather at Cosby’s west coast pad for marathon rounds of the card game Bid Whist and free-flowing discussions.

“We usually would have a hilarious time,” Boozer recalled.

When the Lakers were on the road and Cosby was performing in the same town Boozer said he, Hazzard and Co. “would always show up at his performances and visit with him about old times and that kind of thing.”

Together again at the Orpheum the pair reminisced. They share much in common as black men of the same age who helped integrate different spheres of American culture. They were both athletes, though at vastly different levels. Cosby was a fair track and field competitor in high school, the U.S. Navy and at Temple University. Boozer was an all-state basketball player at Omaha Tech High, an All-American at Kansas State, a member of the 1960 gold medal-winning U.S, Olympic team and the 6th man for the 1971 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.

When Boozer entered the then-fledgling National Basketball Association in 1960 blacks were still a rarity in the league. When he retired in ’71 he became one of the first black corporate executives in his hometown of Omaha at Northwestern Bell.

Cosby’s such a staple today that it’s easy to forget he helped usher in a soft revolution. At the same time his good friend Sidney Poitier was opening doors for African-Americans on the big screen, Cosby did the same on the small screen. He became the first black leading man on network TV when he teamed with Robert Culp in the groundbreaking episodic series, I Spy (1965-1968).

Cosby broke more ground with his TV specials, talk-variety show appearances  and his innovative educational children’s program, The Electric Company (1971-1973). He was the first black man to headline his own series, The Cosby Show (1969-1971). But it was his second sit-com, also called The Cosby Show (1984-1992), that became a national sensation for its popular, positive portrayals of black family life. The series made Cosby a fortune and a beloved national figure.

The two men have know each other through ups and downs. So when these two old war horses reunite there’s an unspoken rapport that transcends time.

Like any ex-athletes of a certain age they live with aches and pains. At one point Cosby placed his hands on Boozer’s knees and intoned, “Heal, heal.” Later, I asked Boozer if it did any good, and he said, “No, I wish it would though.”

Pie wasn’t the only thing Boozer brought that day. The Nebraska Board of Parole member volunteers with youth at Boys Town. A family home there he’s become particularly “attached to” is headed by family teachers Tony and Simone Jones, who at Boozer’s invitation arrived with the nine boys that live with them. Cosby went down the half-circle line of boys one by one to meet them – clasping hands, getting their names, asking questions, horsing around.

 

 

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Cosby with Boys Town family teachers Tony and Simone Jones

Cosby with words of wisdom for Carvel Jones

photoBoozer and Cosby listening to Boys Town guests, ©photos by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

When told that Tony and Simone are in charge of them all Cosby saw a teachable moment and asked, “You live with them? Why? You were not drafted to look after these boys. OK, then tell me, why are you living there with them?”

“Because we feel it’s our responsibility to take care of the kids, not only our own youth but youth in society,” said Simone.

“But what made that a responsibility for you? They’re not your children,” probed Cosby.

Tony next gave it a try, saying, “Mr. Cosby I’ll answer just very simply: My mom passed when I was 12 years old, and I went to Boys Town to live…” Cosby erupted with, “Oh, really! Now you’re starting to tell me stories, you see what I’m talking about (to the boys), you guys understand me? Huh?” Several of the boys nodded yes. “The story is coming, huh? What did Boys Town do for him?” Cosby asked them. One boy said, “Helped him out, gave him a place to stay.” Another said, “Gave him a second chance.”

“Well, more than a second chance,” Cosby replied. “it took care of him,” a boy offered. “And made him take care of himself, because you can see he’s eating well,” Cosby teased the stout Jones. “And that’s why he’s living with you now – he’s trying to build you,” Cosby told the kids.

 

 

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©photo by Marlon Wright, mawphotography.net

 

 

The conversation then turned to what Cosby called “the hard knock life” these kids come from. He noted that youth today confront different challenges than what he or Boozer faced growing up and that Boys Town provides healthy mediation.

“We lived with our biological parents. Now my father drank too much and said he didn’t want any responsibility, which left the whole job on my mother, so we lived in a housing project.  Yet we didn’t have the pressures these guys have, the insanity that exists today, and by insanity I mean not normal. Yes, there is a normal. What is normal? Normal is, ‘Don’t do that’ – ‘OK.’ Abnormal is, ‘Don’t do that.’ ‘No, I’m going to do it because you said don’t do it.’

“When I was coming up we didn’t have Omaha, Neb. ranked high in teenage boys murdering each other. Am I making sense? We didn’t have the guns being placed in our neighborhoods. We had guys who made guns but you had better than a 70-30 chance that gun would blow up in his hands. But now we have real guns and good ones too. It’s in the home.”

Cosby said it comes down to caring and making good choices.

“The first black to score a point in the NBA, Earl Lloyd, wrote a book and he tells the story of being 14-15 years old and he comes home and his mother says, ‘Where’ve you been?’ He’s stammering, he knows he’s caught with something, avoiding telling her he’s been in a place she doesn’t want him. She says, ‘You were with those boys on that corner.’ and he says, ‘But Mama, I wasn’t doing anything.’  And his mother says, ‘If you’re not in the picture, you cant be framed,’ and if you don’t understand what I just said someone will explain it to you.

“But the idea is where are these boys coming from and what places they may have to get to. There’s a place called Girard College in my hometown. You need to look it up. Forty-three acres. I call it the 10th Wonder of the World.”

The college, where Cosby gave the commencement speech last year, has a largely African-American student enrollment and graduates a high percentage of its students, most of whom come from at-risk circumstances. He said it’s a shining example of what can be.

“What’s missing in this society for black people and people of color is to own something, a small business to build upon. Many of you because of your color you will get the feeling, Yeah I can study and I can be but once I step away from college and go outside of that there are too many people that look at my color and listen to my language and they wont really welcome me. And all of you here know exactly what that feels like.”

Then, turning to Tony and Simone and referring to the boys, he said, “We’ve got to do more with fellows like these for them to do shadowing, to find business people willing to allow the boys to not go get coffee or to tie their shoes but to shadow, and it can happen in hospitals, it can happen in factories, businesses, so that these young males begin to understand what they can do.”

Cosby clearly admires the difference that adults like Tony and Simone make, saying he can see “the joy of these boys knowing that you guys care.”

“It’s about showing them the possibilities,” said Simone.

And with that, the legend bid his guests goodbye. As the entourage filed out with smiles, handshakes and break-a-leg well wishes this reporter was reminded of what Cosby said about the possibilities he began to see for himself once his college English professor took notice.

“I knew I was on track with what I wanted to do.”

Things have come full circle now and Cosby embraces the each-one-to-teach-one position of inspiring young people to live their dreams, to realize their potential.

“Hey, hey, hey…”

Bill Cosby Talks About His Life’s Turning Point

April 21, 2012 5 comments

 

 

I have interviewed a lot of celebrities in my time.  Alexander Payne.  Laura Dern.  Jaime King. Patricia Neal.  Robert Duvall.  James Caan.  Danny Glover.  Matthew Broderick.  Debbie Reynolds. Swoosie Kurtz.  Carol Kane.  Mickey Rooney.  Pat Boone.  Dick Cavett.  Martin Landau.  Gabrielle Union.  Cathy Hughes.  Isabel Wilkerson.  Johnny Otis.  Bill Dana.  Richard Brenner.  Edward Albee. John Guare.  Warren Buffett.  Bob Gibson.  Gale Sayers.  Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Johnny Rodgers. Marlin Briscoe.  And many more.  In my experience with public figures I have found it generally takes several days, sometimes weeks to arrange an interview and to have it come off.  One notable exception to that rule was Warren Buffett, whom I needed a quote from for a story related to the now defunct Sun Newspapers he owned.  I had procrastinated during the week and not called his office asking for an interview, which I suspected I wouldn’t get anyway, I found myselg facing the deadline on a Saturday morning and feeling a bit desperate.  What the hell? I thought, so I rang up his office and who should pick up the phone but Buffett himself.  He handled my few questions with aplomb and that was that.  I was later told by someone who knows him well that it was a one-in-a-million circumstance that Buffett just happened to be in his office then and that he got the phone himself.  All of which brings me to Bill Cosby.  Between the time I got the assignment to do an advance story on his upcoming Omaha gig, my making the request through his handlers for a phone audience with him, then getting the interview confirmed, and then actually conducting the interview with the legend, less than 48 hours elapsed, which aside from the freak Buffett occurrence, is record time for an interview with someone of his stature.  That’s not all that made my Cosby encounter memorable.  I was surprised when I was accorded an hour by his publicist because I only requested 30 to 40 minutes.  Near the end of that hour, a thoroughly enjoyable give and take with the comic whose answers to my questions sounded a lot like his storytelling bits, I asked a final question about his views on what public education in America needs to be doing better to capture more of the students being lost in the system.  He told me has a lot to say on the subject and would I mind calling him back later in the day for him to comment for a separate story. I agreed to do just that, of course, and that’s how it happened  I ended up interviewing him a second time, this time for more than hour, on the subject of education.  The question about education was a natural one since he’s a well known vocal advocate for the value of quality education and good parenting and an outspoken critic of what’s wrong with much of education and parenting today in certain quarters.  Also, throughout much of that first interview he spoke about the transformative power of education in his own life that set him on the path to becoming the writer-storyteller-performer we know today. So, below you will find my forthcoming article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) that previews his May 6 concert in Omaha.  Look for a follow up story sometime soon with his views on education.  And also look for a more extended profile of the artist.

 

 

Bill Cosby Coming Talks Abou His Life’s Turning Point 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Slow ticket sales are prompting legendary comedian Bill Cosby to do a media blitz promoting his 2 p.m. May 6 Orpheum Theater concert. It just wouldn’t do for the 74-year-old icon to play to empty seats.

Cosby’s handler has me call the artist’s home directly. The unmistakable voice answering on the other end hastily greets me before excusing himself with, “Hang on a minute.” It seems his wife Camille is heading out with the grandkids and he wants to confirm dinner plans before she goes.

“Hey, listen! Is anybody paying attention to what I’m saying? Camille, are you paying attention to what I’m saying?”

He’s channeling the exasperated Cliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show.

He holds the floor a moment before fumbling for a name that eludes him. His family assures him they’ve got it covered. As they exit, he says, “OK,” and returns to the phone.

“Hello, alright, what you got?”

I suggest the overheard exchange is like a scene from his show.

“Well, um, yeah, with grandchildren now who come by and visit and then things show up in their hands and you say, ‘Well, where’d you get that?” ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Go put that back.’ And you have to define to grandchildren what is not a toy.

“Before they’re broken we would rather you not pick them up and then put them on the floor and pretend they’re something, and then forget you put them down there, which is what I call dementia. While people are picking on old people, kids have dementia too , They put stuff down and then they walk away and leave it. You say, ‘You know you forgot to pick up…’ ‘Oh, yeah.”

The riff over, Cosby refocuses to ask. “So where am I going?” I reply, “You’re coming to Omaha.” “Oh, yeah, listen man, we need help there. Played Lincoln (October 7), did well, did very well. We’re sitting there (Omaha) anemically at 30 percent. I think we need to tell the people I’m coming and they will probably have close to an hour and 45 minutes of good old, gee whiz I-forgot-I-could-laugh-that hard-and-that-good fun.”

Later, when he repeats his plea for help, citing the 30 percent number, I express surprise he even knows a detail like that.

“Really?” he asks incredulously. “Well, you better erase that. I do know. Look, this is a business. And I do think there may be an awful lot of entertainers and performers who would not even care, I mean, at least not to do anything about it. But I just want the people to know I am here and they need to go on and get these tickets and quit fooling around.”

A personal appeal to his fan base is potentially huge. His audience is sure to include folks “when I used to play Ak-Sar-Ben, when that was a big to-do then,” he says, referring to sold-out Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben concerts he performed at the old coliseum, once memorably with Sammy Davis Jr..

I ask if he considers himself a storyteller or monologist and he interrupts with, “Don’t bother with all that stuff. I walk out, there’s a chair, a table, a box of Kleenex, a bottle of water and a waste paper basket. Draped over the chair is ‘Hello, friend,’ which is our late son’s favorite saying in greeting people.”

Then, in the warm, reflective intonations familiar from his stand-up act and film-TV roles, he launches into, what else?, a story about how it all started for him at school. It’s the reason he’s taken education as his cause, both as advocate and critic.

 

 

 

 

He says growing up in a Philadelphia public housing project he was a bright but indifferent student, devoting more time to sports and hanging out than studying. He recalls only two teachers showing real interest in him.

“I wasn’t truant, I just didn’t care about doing anything. I was just there, man. I was still in the 11th grade at age 19.”

He calls what happens next “divine intervention.” The high school drop-out joined the U.S. Navy. He hated it. “That was a very rude epiphany.” He stuck it out though and obtained his GED. “I spent four years revamping myself.”

He marveled a GED could get him into college. Despite awful test scores Temple University accepted him on an athletic scholarship in 1960.

“I was the happiest 23-year-old in the world. They put me in remedial everything and I knew I deserved it and I knew I was ready to work for it. I knew what I wanted to be and do. I wanted to become a school teacher. I wanted to jump those 7th and 8th grade boys who had this same idea I had of just sitting there in class.

“Being in remedial English, with the goal set, that’s the thing that began to make who I am now.”

I score points with him when I share I tested into remedial English myself, prompting this, “Hey, we’re remedial, man.”

Fully engaged in his work, he threw himself into creative writing assignments. He wrote about pulling his own tooth as a kid and the elusive perfect point in sharpening a pencil. He recalls the impact it made when the professor held up his papers as shining examples and read them aloud in class to appreciate laughter.

“That was the kickoff. That’s when my mind started to go into another area of, Yes you can do, and I began to think, Gee whiz, I could write for comedians. And all my life from age 23 on, I was born again…in terms of what education and the value is. To study, to do something and be proud of it – an assignment.”

Cosby found his voice and passion: humanist storyteller of universal themes.

“That’s the whole idea of the writing – everybody identifying with it. I write about the human experience.”

 

 

 

 

From the start he wrote what he knew. “Who told me to do it? Nobody, I just wrote it. Was I trying to be funny? No. Was I reading any authors who inspired me? No.”

It wasn’t long after enteringTemple he penned famous bits like “Superman” and “Toss of the Coin.” Hundreds more followed, mostly about family.

“I write all and have written everything I have ever performed on stage. So, when you look at a movie, when you look at a TV show, when you hear an LP, I am that writer-performer. Everything comes from that. But when you look at the body of the work you will see that school teacher still working it, still talking about the value of education.”

Even as his stand-up career exploded, setting the stage for many firsts, he focused on entertainment with a message.

“I would imagine it was something brand new for an awful lot of people – to see this black person talking and making a connection and laughing because, ‘Yeah, that happened to me.'”

He’s the author of several best-selling books.

He’s well aware his life could have been quite different.

“Had it not been for the positive influence of this professor, without him reading that out loud and my hearing the class laugh, who knows, I may be at this age a retired gym teacher, well loved by some of his students.”

Years later he did finish college and added advanced degrees.

Going on 50 years as a comic, he’s a familiar “friend” to audiences. “We already have a relationship that’s wonderful because they know I’m funny, so there’s no guessing there.” He walks out with an idea of what he wants to do but, he says, “I keep it wide open.” Once he feels out the crowd, he goes where “they are.”

“It’s very complex,” he says, “but because I’m a master at it I think you want me in that driver’s seat to turn you on.”

Tickets start at $49.50. To order, call 402-345-0606 or visit http://www.ticketomaha.com.


From the Archives: Peony Park Not Just an Amusement Playground, But a Multi-Use Events Facility

April 8, 2012 6 comments

Here is a story from the dusty past about a fondly remembered, now long gone amusement park in my hometown of Omaha, Neb. called Peony Park.  This story was originally published more than 20 years ago and painted a bright picture of a still thriving place, but within a very short time (1994) the park closed, unable to fend off mounting competition for leisure-recreation dollars.  Growing up, my family didn’t much go in for amusement parks and thus I have only a couple dim memories of being there as a kid.  I was there maybe a few more times as a young adult.  So it’s not like the loss of Peony Park meant much to me, although I did like the idea of this charming relic of Americana.  It’s laudable that it hung on as long as it did and I suppose it’s a shame it finally went under, particularly since a generic strip mall anchored by a supermarket went in its place.  My piece doesn’t go into the history of Peony Park, which no doubt saw millions of visitors during its three quarters of a century life.  To be sure, most of that history would be  nostalgic good fun, but an ugly part of it would be the fact that African-Americans were denied access to its large pool and man-made beaches well into the 1960s until a series of civil rights protests compelled the owners to change a policy that was in clear violation of a Nebraska statute guaranteeing equal access to places of amusement.  The protests, which followed a court decision against the park that the owners and law enforcement ignored, finally forced enough financial and political pressure on the Malecs that they had no choice but to open the pool to all.  For more on that regrettable chapter, check out David Bristow’s story about it at www.davidbristow.com/peony.html.

 

 

From the Archives: Peony Park Not Just an Amusement Playground, But Multi-Use Events Facility 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Midlands Business Journal

 

What is 40 candy-coated acres of rides, games and variety-filled nights that are bright and shiny all over? Why, it’s one of Omaha’s landmark entertainment attractions – Peony Park, whose amusement center opened last week. Despite two rainouts, the May 10-13 opening drew 3,000 patrons.

Since the late Joseph Malec Sr. opened a dance spot and filling station in 1919 across the road from a huge peony garden (hence the name) the complex has grown into a multi-use events center serving hundreds of thousands of folk a year.

Long before Ak-Sar-Ben initiated a liberal open-door policy in the late 1980s, Peony welcomed the community to hold meetings, seminars, fund-raisers, picnics and all manner of special events at its friendly confines. For generations the Peony Ballroom was a mecca for couples dancing to big band sounds. Who knows how many romances got started or rekindled under the Ballroom’s gleaming stardust ceiling? Although Peony no longer sponsors a big band program of its own, music and dance events are still booked there by outside groups.

A $3 million facelift begun four years ago expanded the ballroom added the Plaza Theater, beautified the grounds and improved access to the park. Improvements continue today, as Peony updates its campus and expands its services to corporate and nonprofit clients alike. Much of the operation revolves around booming banquet and catering services.

Despite civic outreach efforts Peony is usually thought of this time of year as simply that charming little amusement park tucked north of tree-lined Cass Street. And that’s just fine with park officials, who expect more than 300,000 visitors through the amusement park turnstiles this year. For comparison’s sake, that’s about the same number of fans the Omaha Royals Triple AAA farm club drew to Rosenblatt Stadium in 1989.

 

 

The old amusement park opened last Thursday, the start of 110 whirling dervish days and nights when the roller coaster, Wave Swinger, Black Hole and other gravity-defying rides propel people through space for the thrill of it all.

There’s also the many arcade games that carry with them the chance to win stuffed aninals or trinkets, the swimming pool and its half-mile of sand beaches, water slides, a minature train that tours the park and a new addition, go-carts.

A different live family show is held each week at the Plaza Theater – from country singers to mimes and monkey acts.

Seventy-one years after old man Malec staked a claim for his dance and gas emporium in what was then countryside, Peony president and namesake Joseph Malec Jr., the founder’s son, invites youths to kick up their heels at Thursday night shindigs.

While Peony has felt the effect of local funplexes that have sprung up, it has weathered the competition by combining its nostalgic charm with state-of-the-art facilities.

“Several years ago that type of competition really didn’t exist and it has had an impact on our business over the years, ” said Peony general manager John Gilroy. “But we offer a variety of choices that those places aren’t able to provide. We have amusement park rides as well as the pool and the water slides. The renovation that took place a few yeara ago outside has given Peony a new look that people who visit the park find very attractive.

 

 

Peony has also withstood the pull of such regional attraction as AdventuredLand in Des Moines, Iowa and Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Mo., which draw many area residents, by offering a less-stressful recreational outing. Often, Peony’s parking lots are less crowded, lines shorter and prices lower than the mega-theme parks.

“We recognize a lot of people in Omaha go to Worlds of Fun and AdventureLand and, in a sense, we think that’s good for us because with the exception of their major theme rides we have a lot of the attractions that both of those parks have,” said Gilroy. “If people have a good time at those places maybe they’ll want to come to Peony Park for an afternoon or evening.”

That’s why Gilroy said “the destination theme parks are not our competition in the real sense of the word. We offer people who live in Omaha and within an hour’s drive of here someplace to go when they don’t want to load up the kids and be gone overnight or make a two or three day event out of their entertainment.”

Jim Hronek, Peony sales and marketing manager, said, “Only about three or four percent of our audience comes from more than 60 miles away. We basically draw from Omaha, Council Bluffs and Lincoln and the small towns in the area.”

Contrary to the perception that Peony attracts a mostly teen crowd, Hronek said more than 90 percent of its customers are families. “Everybody thinks of Peony as being a teenage facility but the number of teens who come without their parents is only about three or four percent.” Youth attendance peaks Thursdays when radio station Sweet 98 and Mountain Dew co-sponsor a non-alcoholic live rock music and dance night. Otherwise, Peony promotes itself as a family place. That’s one reason why it junked the slogan “The place to party.” It sounded more like an invitation to young singles and adults than parents with children. This year’s new slogan is “Omaha’s premiere family entertainment center.” Peony has kept the catchy jingle sung at the end of its radio and television commercials that goes, “You’re gonna really love the way you feel.”

Because surveys show moms and kids are the real powerbrokers when it comes to making family recreational decisions, Peony targets its radio and TV spots at them.

“That’s why we aim some of our marketing at children’s television,” Hronek noted. “The particular radio stations we try to buy and the particular TV shows that we purchase commercials on are very family-oriented. Ninety-five percent of our TV commercials are bought on Channel 42 (KPTM). They run a lot of cartoons for children and family entertainment shows that we purchase advertising on. KPTM’s base is Omaha and Lincoln and that’s another reason we buy so heavily with them because we’re getting into both markets at the same time.”

 

 

With more leisure choices than ever before people are highly discriminating in spending their recreational dollars these days. To give families more bang for their bucks Peony has slashed prices. In particular, it’s hoped more patrons will attend during the week, the traditional dog days at amusement parks when the gate slows to a trickle of it’s normal weekend flood of visitors. On its busiest days Peony has upwards of 10,000 fun seekers on a Saturday or Sunday while most weekdays average about 4,000 to 5,000.

“We have to do more discounts, especially during the week,” said Hronek. “Our prices this summer are for a lot of things actually lower than they were five or six years ago. And people don’t always have a full day to come, so they want a special where they can spend three or four hours here without paying full price.

“On Mondays and Wednesdays it’s two-for-the-price-of-one both days. Pepsi Cola is helping us sponsor that promotion. They’re putting a coupon on the side of 15 million Pepsi cans.

Baker’s Supermarkets is backing a two-for-one bargain on Tuesdays. Hronek said the promotion with Baker’s is a deal made in marketing heaven. “Baker’s is probably the most family-oriented grocery store in Omaha and for us to tie-in with them is hopefully good for both of us. They will bag stuffers in grocery sacks and also buy some advertising. In turn, we also buy advertising to promote, ‘Go to Baker’s and get your discount coupons.'”

Peony’s gste admission has been reduced to $1 per person. For those who enjoy being all wet the pool-water slides combo has been lowered from $6.95 to $4.95. An all-day rides pass is $9.95. The whole kit and caboodle is $11.95.

“And for the first time we’re running a twilight special,” Hronek said, “which encourages families to come after mom and dad get home from work. It’s only $5 for the entire family and that includes all the rides.”

Accounting for an increasingly large share of Peony’s summer trade are company picnics. Peony provides full catering services for the events held on the park’s designated picnic grounds.

“We have expanded our banquet-catering business significantly.” said Gilroy. “A big part of our business is related to company picnics, and I use the term company picnics generically. It’s not just corporations, it’s civic organizations, schools, churches, hospitals and many others. We have over 100,000 people visit Peony Park every year to attend a company picnic. Most of these people also take advantage of the amusement park, the rides or the pool or the water slides, or a combination of all of those opportunities.

“We’ve worked to maintain and increase our picnic business during the summer. A couple years ago we hired Denise Fackler, whose job is to call on companies and organizations, large and small, both for the company picnic business as well as our year-round banquet business. We felt there was a need to call on people in the community and remind them of what Peony Park can do because not everybody really understands what is offered here.”

Hronek said Peony can cater picnics for 50 to 5,000. About 10 companies and organizations have already booked picnics this year, including such familiar names as the Peter Kiewit Company, First Data Resources, FirsTier Bank, the Omaha World-Herald and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

“I figure we’ll do approximately 150 picnics this summer,” said Hronek, who feels the events have become as popular as office Christmas parties. Nebraska’s volatile weather poses real challenges, he said, when “trying to move a picnic to a covered area at the last minute before a storm hits.”

Peony uses the same kitchen facilities and crew to prepare picnic suppers as it does for formal banquets. Up to 1,700 people can be served in the ballroom.

“The banquet business has been growing and we certainly hope it is going to contine to grow,” Gilroy said. “We have an excellent reputation for our service and the quality of our food.”

Hronek estimates 65 percent of Peony’s business is generated from group sales for banquets, picnics and the like. Indeed, many annual events call Peony home, such as the Omaha Press Club show and the Debutante’s Ball. “During the winter some 30 percent of our business is with charities. The Heart Association and others do major fund raisers here and have for years,” Hronek said. “Peony’s always been a part of the community.”

It also plays host to the annual La Festa Italiana, a Labor Day weekend celebration of Italian food and heritage.

The Plaza Theater addition has allowed Peony to handle more events than in the past. “It was built as a multi-purpose building,” said Hronek. “Because of the sound system, the lighting and the stage we host a lot of corporate meetings and business seminars for 75 up to 400 people.” It’s also home to variety shows, wedding receptions and other activites.

To appeal to an increasingly upscale, professional clientele Peony is trying to change its image. “Instead of the bright orange-yellow-green logo we had in the past our new logo is a little more of a corporate design, and that probably has to do with the corporations we serve because while we do advertise ourselves as an amusement park we also do many social and business functions,” Gilroy said.

Running the diverse operation’s daily affairs are about 20 full-time staffers. The payroll swells to 450 in the summer when the wear-and-tear of visitors keeps an army of workers busy.

“During the summer we add 50 to 60 kids whose job is to do nothing but polish rides, sweep the grounds and now the grass,” Hronek said.

A permanent maintenance crew of six inspects every ride before the park opens each day. “A lot of the rides have routine maintenance, like oil changes,” Hronek said. “The bearings are automatically replaced after so many hours the ride is run. It’s all part of our ongoing safety program.”

Getting the park in shape for this summer’s onslaught was a month-long process. Among the first priorities were the 21 rides, many of which had to be put back together after being disassembled for winter storage, and undego normal maintenance work. Prior to the amusement park’s opening May 10 Hronek discussed some preparations under way: “We’ve been putting together the rides for weeks. Now it’s a matter of checking them, testing them and making sure everything is put together properly. Then they have to be safety-inspected by the state of Nebraska. Next, all the rides are washed, waxed and polished.”

The rides are a major investment valued, Hronek said, ata nywhere from $75,000 to $400,000 per machine. The biggest ride, the roller coaster, is also the most expensive with an estimated price tag of $1 million.

Aside from fine-tuning the rides, the park’s grass was cut, weeds pulled, flowers planted, buidlings freshly painted, food ordered and kitchens and concession stands stocked. “It’s quite a project,” he said.

 

 

 

Peony has its own greenhouse on-site to grow flowers for landscaping and table displays. Yes, rows of manicured peony bushes adorn the premises.

“We give a lot of attention to the aesthetics,” Hronek said. “When we expanded the park a few years ago we hired a company called Leisure and Recreation Concepts, who designs amusement parks, and one of their jobs here is planting and working on some landscaping ideas so that the look of the whole park ties together.”

As far as Peony’s featured attractions, the rides. Hronek said, “We get some of our ideas from other parks around the country. Many of the ideas we use come from our employees and visitors who will tell us they stopped at an amusement park on their vacation and saw something they really liked. Often, we’ll look into it to see whether it’s something feasible for Peony Park and a city the size of Omaha.”

What are the most popular rides? “Our roller coaster and bumper cars are the ones that traditionally do well,” he said. “You haven’t been to an amusement park unless you’ve ridden the roller coaster.”

For Hronek, who’s worked at Peony 15 years, satisfaction is “seeing everyone have a good time. It makes the job enjoyable.”

Peony’s provided seven decades of uniterrupted fun for the area, all under the Malecs’ ownership. “There’s a consistency to our business,” said Gilroy. “People come to depend on the product. Knowing the Omaha community is a real advantage and a big part of our success. We intend to contine providing quality family entertainment.”

A Martinez Music Legacy: 311’s SA Martinez Takes a Music Tradition Laid Down by His Father and Grandfather in a New Direction

December 19, 2011 5 comments

Once in a while, and not nearly often enough, an editor or publisher will approach me with a story idea instead of the other way around.  In the case of this story The Reader and El Perico publisher John Heaston asked me to write about the music legacy of an Omaha Latino family – all three generations worth.  The star of the story is SA Martinez of 311 rock band fame. SA is a rapper and turntable artist.  His father Ernie is a jazz guitarist.  And Ernie’s later father Jose Bonificia was a jack of all instruments way back in the day.  It’s a short, simple, feel-good story with some meaty heritage attached to it.

 

 
photo

SA Martinez of 311

 

 

A Martinez Music Legacy: 311’s SA Martinez Takes a Music Tradition Laid Down by His Father and Grandfather in a New Direction

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and El Perico

Singer-songwriter-turntable artist SA Martinez is a cog in the successful rock band 311 that started in Omaha 21 years ago and is still going strong today from its Southern Calif.-base. Recordings and national tours keep the group, whose founding members remain intact, a popular draw.

While he’s reached musical heights, SA is not the first professional musician in his family. His father Ernie Martinez and late paternal grandfather Jose Martinez preceded him. SA feels part of “a legacy” that extends to his musical siblings.

“We always loved music. We all did it, sang it, performed, whatever…just always had nothing but great times with music. It was just a constant,” says Martinez.

He has only “vague memories” of his grandfather, but he does have his old mandolin as a link to the man and the music.

“I’ll look at the mandolin and wonder just exactly how he came into possession of it and what songs was he playing on this thing.”

Sure, SA’s, a rock star, but his elders made their marks on their own terms.

Jose Bonificia Martinez emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. in the early 1900s. He worked as a water boy on the railroad in Texas before migrating to Gary, Indiana, where he landed in the steel mills. In Sioux City, Iowa, he worked in a packing house and played music on weekends. Ernie marvels that his father learned to play the mandolin, fiddle, upright bass and guitar. Jose met his wife Helen, Ernie’s mother, in Sioux City.

After moving to Omaha in 1930, Jose worked the slaughter house kill floor and played in a band that performed South Omaha house parties.

“I remember him telling me they’d cross the river into Council Bluffs to play festivals in the Hispanic section,” recalls Ernie, who was born in Omaha.

Tired of the dirty, dangerous, backbreaking kill floor, Jose became a hired hand for a livestock producer in Gibbon, Neb., where Ernie and his siblings grew up. Jose found a measure of fame fronting his own band, The Kid and His Friends, on a live show broadcast by KGFW radio in Kearney, Neb. and sponsored by a feed store. The signal reached deep into the Platte Valley, bringing the band new gigs at festivals and fairs.

By the early 1950s Ernie began gravitating to music himself. “I listened to a radio broadcast out of New Orleans coming from the Roosevelt Hotel every Friday night — Tony Almerico and his (Original Dixieland Jamboree All Stars) band.”

 

 

photo
©photo by Phil DeSimone

 

 

Ernie learned to play “off the radio” — “I’d get the note from the first chord they played and I’d go from there. Somehow my dad had acquired an upright bass from a traveling salesman and he built me a little stool and I’d jump up on that stool and start messing around with my fingers, thumping away. Then he’d take me down, put the bass away and he’d show me a few chords on the guitar.”

Fast forward three decades later and Ernie, by then a journeyman jazz guitarist with local house bands, was schooling SA.

“We’d sit down on occasion and he’d try to teach me something, but he didn’t honestly have any patience when it came to instructing on an instrument,” says SA. “I remember setting his stuff up in the basement and kind of tooling around on it and just having fun.”

SA grew up steeped in his father’s sideman life.

“Come the weekend he was getting ready to go play somewhere. I just remember that whole era of the ‘70s — the polyester suits, the jewelry, the cologne. Before he’d go out he’d pat my face with some cologne.”

He came to respect his old man’s chops.

“My dad played bass growing up but he’s really a better guitarist and the style of guitar he plays is very wide actually. He can play like the Wes Montgomery, really dope jazz chords. cool and rich sounding, and then he can bust into some cool folk Mexican stuff. He definitely has a pretty deep memory.

“He had a couple buddies who’d come over from time to time. Johnny Vintore played keyboards. Another guy by the name of Charlie Davis played trombone. Just really cool dudes with loads of talent. They had their good times. It’s really cool thinking back on that whole scene.”

Ernie, who worked a regular job at a truck line, gigged at night spots when Omaha was still a hopping live music hub.

SA never saw his dad on stage, but often witnessed him practice or jam at home. He also absorbed the jazz tunes his pops spun, instilling an appreciation for the standards. Together, they “listened religiously” to KVNO radio’s Primetime Jazz hosted by Bill Watts

“Man, that was a killer show and he played like the bomb jazz,” recalls SA. “We loved listening to that show.”

 

 
photo

 

 

Immersed in music at home and at school, where he played viola and trumpet and sang, SA was destined for a life in music. “It’s weird, I always kind of knew in the back of my mind something like that would surface for me, I just didn’t know when or how.” 311 took off in the ‘90s here at the Ranch Bowl and the Peony Park Ballroom. He ascribes the group’s unusual longevity to “chemistry” and “just hard work.”

“It really is an experience I’m blessed to be a part of. It’s a never ending rock ‘n’ roll fantasy.”

Last July, 311 had its first homecoming show in a long time when it played the Red Sky Music Festival at TD Ameritrade Park. SA says entertaining family and friends after a show like that is more draining then the concert itself. “But it’s a lot of fun.”

His parents return the favor by visiting him on the coast, where father and son always find time to play a few licks. SA invariably breaks out the old bass his dad owned.

SA’s daughter shows signs of continuing this unbroken line of Martinez music makers. “She loves it. She lights up,” SA says. Ernie’s proud it’s lasted four generations, saying, “It amazes me what my dad started.”

Louise Abrahamson’s Legacy of Giving Finds A Perfect Fit at The Clothesline, the Thrift Store the Octogenarian Founded and Still Runs at Boys Town

December 5, 2011 1 comment

Even though I know better, I sometimes find myself making assumptions about people based solely on their appearance.  Pint-sized octogenarian Louise Abrahamson didn’t look like my idea of a dynamo not to be trifled with when I first laid eyes on her but as I soon discovered that’s exactly what she is.  This sweet little old Jewish lady has been running, variously with an iron fist and a velvet glove, a thrift shop at the Catholic run Boys Town for decades now and she shows no signs of slowing down.  This story of a Jew deeply embedded at Boys Town reminded me of the deep relationship that Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan enjoyed with Jewish attorney Henry Monsky – a story I wrote about and that you can find on this blog.  While Monsky’s contributions were more advisory, legal, and monetary, Louise’s are more cultural, charitable, and practical.  My story about Louise that follows originally appeared in the Jewish Press.

 

 

Louise Abrahamson’s Legacy of Giving Finds A Perfect Fit at The Clothesline, the Thrift Store the Ocotgenarian Founded and Still Runs at Boys Town

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press

 

Eighty-nine years ago, Omaha Jewish leader Henry Monsky befriended an Irish Catholic priest with whom he shared a dream of creating a safe haven for troubled youths. The priest found a site, but lacked funds. Monsky, a successful attorney and inveterate do-gooder, lent Rev. Edward Flanagan $90 for the first month’s rent on the original Boys Town building in downtown Omaha. Besides serving, pro bono, as attorney for both the home and the late Fr. Flanagan, Monsky was a member of the Boys Town board of directors from its 1917 inception until his death in 1947. His support of Fr. Flanagan and the youth care program got other civic-business leaders to follow suit. The rest is history. As Boys Town’s approach to serving at-risk children caught on, donations poured in and the organization expanded. Now, it’s become a much replicated national model and the names Fr. Flanagan and Boys Town are synonymous with youth care worldwide.

The role Monsky played in the then-fledging institution’s founding is even portrayed in the 1938 Oscar-winning film Boys Town.

Twenty-six years ago, an Omaha Jewish woman named Louise Abrahamson, a former legal stenographer, small business owner, retailer, grant writer, fundraiser and political advisor, got the idea of starting a thrift shop to outfit children at the home with new clothes and things. At the time, she was a secretary and much more at Boys Town. Struck by how little new arrivals had in the way of clothes or other possessions, she took it upon herself to solicit donations from clothing and sundry manufacturers. Donated goods began arriving at her home and were stored in her garage. She distributed the gifts to Boys Town residents and to other organizations helping families and children. Before long, the operation outgrew her garage and moved to new quarters on campus.

Today, she operates out of a retail store-like setting called The Clothesline. The volume of goods that comes in year-round is enough to keep the store’s neatly dressed shelves, bins and racks filled and to take up floor-to-ceiling sections of a warehouse storage area. At any given time the inventory — a typical shipment contains hundreds or thousands of items — includes everything from apparel to accessories to toiletries to toys. Each box must be unpacked, sorted and labeled. In 2005 alone she collected merchandise worth a combined commercial value of $1.3 million, a record year. And that’s only counting donations of $1,000 or more.

There, she applies her well-practiced people skills and business acumen — “I’ve done a lot of things in my life” — to sweet talk corporations out of in-kind gifts and to ease the transition displaced kids face miles away from home. All her considerable time on the project is given as a volunteer.

More than just a place where children get a new set of duds, The Clothesline is where kids find a friend in Abrahamson they can always confide in.

“She is so wonderful to all these kids. When they come in they get a hug and kiss,” said Betty Rubin, a friend and fellow volunteer at the store. “This is what makes it tick — the warmth of it. I mean, it’s very personal to her.”

“Louise is one of those rare people who flourishes by helping others,” said Fr. Val Peter, recently stepped down as executive director of Girls and Boys Town. “Her joy is in giving to others. She is an expert at human relations. She can talk major manufacturing reps into helping us and she has a way with the kids, too. She is an enormously happy person, and to be that happy you have to work at it.”

“This is my life,” Louise said by way of explaining why, at age 86, she still works at the store four days a week. “I get a lot of pleasure out of this. It’s just kind of a challenge to see if people remember me and send me stuff I ask for for the kids.”

Besides, the need that inspired her to start the store in the first place, is still there. Then, like now, newcomers arrive with few possessions and little trust. If anything, she said, kids today present “a lot more problems than when I first came here. I have just taken it into my heart to care about the kids. Generally, when they come in, I don’t settle for a handshake. I have a hug. I want them to know I truly care what happens to them. That, to me, is what sets the pace for a youngster. Rather than have them feel like a stranger or a truant, I want them to feel welcome,” said the former Louise Miller, an Omaha native and Central High graduate. “That’s why I tell them, ‘We want you here. It’s a great place to be. Make the most of it. If you take advantage of what we offer, we’ll never let you down.’ I love that about Boys Town. I like what we do for children.”

“Louise is a great ambassador for those kids,” Girls and Boys Town Public Relations Director John Melingagio said. “She manages to take some of the fear and anxiety away for them.”

On a typical day at the store, the pint-sized Abrahamson, crisply-attired in a pants and sweater suit and her hair nicely coiffured, is seated at her command center at the front of the shop, her phone, computer and files within easy reach. An adult man saunters in with a teenage boy trying hard to suppress his unease. The man’s a campus family teacher and the youth a newbie in need of threads to replace the banned gang clothes he’s come with.

She greets the teen. “Good morning. How are you?” He says, “What’s up?” “And you are?” “Tavonne,” he tells her. “Where you from?” “Baltimore.” “Baltimore, well you know cold weather then. You just pick out what you want, bring it up here and we’ll check it out. That’s all there is to it,” she explains.

A few minutes later, after trying on some pants, shirts and shoes, Tavonne’s back. Louise asks him, “Did you find what you’re looking for?” “Yeah.” “So now you’re all fixed up with dress clothes, right?” “Yeah.” “That’s good. How long have you been here?” “This is my second day.” “Second day, you’re an old-timer.” He smiles shyly. “Probably by the end of next week you’ll be sworn in as a Boys Towner. We’re glad to have you here.” The boy, warming to her, replies, “Thank you.” She tells him, “We hope you do well. It’s a great place to be. Now, I have these…if you want a watch,” she says, pushing a basket filled with nice men’s watches near him. He fishes through the bunch and finds one he wants. “I like this one.” “It’s yours.” “Thank you, I appreciate it.” “You’re very welcome. I want to wish you a merry Christmas.” “Same to you.” “And I hope things work out for you, dear.” “Thanks.”

It’s this kind of human exchange that keeps Abrahamson coming back day after day. “Yeah, that tells a story,” she said. “We get a lot of new kids in this time of year. Family teachers will come in with new children, most of them with little or no clothes other than what they have on their back. All our clothes are new and appropriate to wear at church and school. The kids pick out what they want.”

She said her empathy for them extends back to her own childhood. “I knew my folks loved me, but they were busy making a living and really didn’t have much time for me. I was lonesome. I needed somebody I thought cared. And I think that’s why I feel a special need to help children,” she said.

It was while working as a secretary in Boys Town’s Youth Care program she saw first hand the want and conceived the idea of a free clothing center. She got it up and running out of her home in no time.

“I’d see these unhappy youngsters come in carrying a grocery sack and I’d say, ‘Where’s your luggage?’ They’d say, ‘This is it.’ My husband and I used to be in retail — we had a shoes and clothing store — and I wondered if I called on our old dealers, would they help and send me what they have. So, those were the first people I wrote to. They were very giving and began sending merchandise to me.”

With the chutzpah all doers possess, she just thought it up and went ahead. “I did this strictly on my own. I didn’t ask anybody’s permission. I just started doing it,” she said. “Once I’d get the merchandise in, I’d open up the boxes and I’d send out a memo and invite the family teachers and the kids to come over my house.”

By then, Louise and her late husband of 58 years, Norman Abrahamson, lived alone. Their two sons, Hugh and Steve, were grown. She credits Norman for her success. “He taught me everything I know. He taught me how to greet people. He taught me how to go for the product. He taught me that being kind is unusual. He was very supportive. He encouraged me. He said, ‘Go for it, honey. You can do it.’ He was there when I asked for advice and when I faltered.” A former Edison Brothers shoe salesman, he opened his own retail men’s apparel and shoe stores, Hugh’s. He later became a real estate builder-developer.

 

Louise Abrahamson, second from left, and family

 

 

 

Soon, the amount of donations was too much for the couple’s garage. “My husband said, ‘Don’t you think Boys Town would give you a spot?’ So, I went to Fr. Hupp (the late former executive director of Boys Town), who knew I was inviting the teachers and kids over to my house to get clothes, and he said, ‘We’ve got space down in the boiler room (of the Youth Care building). Can you hack that?’ ’Any place would be good,’’ I said. So, we had our stuff delivered there, and this is pretty much the way it started.”

She wore a mask to protect against fumes in the cramped boiler room. It was under Fr. Peter’s watch the operation moved from that dank place to its pleasant environs today — in the building that houses the U.S. postal station on campus.

“When Fr. Peter came aboard, we just went on from there. He and I worked very closely, especially at Christmas-time. The store grew and grew, as did the demand.”

She’s done it almost entirely on her own, too, running things the way she sees fit. “There’s nobody that’s been put here to watch me.”

Generations removed from Henry Monsky helping make the dream of Boys Town a reality, fellow Jew Louise Abrahamson is helping Boys Town fulfill its nonsectarian mission of providing a caring environment to homeless and abused children of all faiths and creeds. She’s familiar with Monsky’s legacy, too, as she helped organize a touring Nebraska Jewish Historical Society exhibit on him in collaboration with Boys Town. Fr. Peter said that if Monsky is the grandfather of Boys Town, then Abrahamson is “the grandmother. She is loved and appreciated here.”

Playing the role of matriarch to kids with severed family relationships appeals to her. “While they’re here, I am like their grandmother,” she said. “A lot of the young people come in and tell me their problems, and I’ll listen very carefully. They’re welcome to come in anytime. They don’t have to make an appointment.”

Louise and her family

Her contact with the children often extends well past their graduation and departure from the home. “Even two or three years later,” she said, “kids can have hard luck. I’ll get a call that says, ‘Louise, so and so is going out on a job interview and doesn’t have a thing to wear.’ And I’ll say, ‘Send ‘em over.’ Now, where else can you go and get that kind of a feeling that you’re needed and wanted?”

The ties go well beyond that. Her desk at the front of the store displays photos sent by former Boys Town students, many pictured with families they’ve begun. She exchanges cards and letters, just like any good grandma does. “I keep in touch with a lot of the children after they leave,” she said.

Just don’t assume her kindly ways and diminutive stature mark her as a pushover.

“Louise is a very pleasantly, disarmingly assertive little old lady,” said Dan Daly, Girls and Boys Town’s Vice President and Director of Youth Care. “You see this pleasant looking, smiling, tiny person and pretty soon she’s got her hand in your right back pocket. That’s how Boys Town was founded. Her and Fr. Peter, made a very, very potent tandem. He knew what kind of talent she has at doing this sort of thing and he was very supportive of her. It’s grown and proliferated because of her personality and her keen business sense.”

So savvy is this nice little old Jewish lady in sizing up people, Daly said, that he and other Boys Town officials would steer family teacher candidates by her desk, so she could observe them. Her assessment factored into new hires. Her counsel was also sought ought off-campus by candidates for mayor, governor and senator. She even wrote a booklet to help prospective candidates weigh bids for public office.

Using her political skills, she routinely contacts corporate giants like Target, Wal-Mart, Dillards, Lands-End, Johnson & Johnson and Colgate, and gets them to donate surplus items. Her personal appeals, scripted herself, are laced with tug-on-your-heart pathos and practical let’s-do-business talk. She tells them, “We have so many young boys and girls who…desperately need clothing…I am asking for your help. If you have any donation department of your discontinued styles, over-stocks, irregulars or out-of-season merchandise, could I ask that you place us on your recipient list? Any merchandise sent can be a tax write-off…Thank you. I hope you will share in Boys Town’s grand mission.”

She doesn’t stop there, either. She follows up with phone calls and letters, always gently reminding potential donors of the need. Her persistence often pays off. “I’m after them all the time. I don’t take no for an answer. I keep pitching, and pitching kindly.” Every donor receives a personal thank you note from her.

 

 

 

 

Melingagio said the donations she brings in help Boys Town “leverage our dollars. Those in-kind gifts she gets from corporations allow the monies we get to go to things that help the kids get better.”

When she approached Fr. Peter with her concept for the store, he embraced it. “I knew that if we let Louise loose at The Clothesline, that it would become very big,” he said. “The best thing to do is to let Louise do her work. She does it better than anyone else.” He said the store’s proved a winning venture. “Oh, yes, it’s a great idea. We needed it badly. It helps everybody. The best ideas come from people like Louise who have talent and a willingness to make their ideas successful.”

He added there’s never been any thought of taking it out of her hands. “It has been Louise’s baby from the get-go. What we do here is we give people a job and say, You’re in charge of making it a success, and she’s made it a success. We’re all proud of her.” He confirmed there’s also been no talk of what will happen once she’s gone. “We don’t want to think about that. We tell her, Take your vitamins. Stay healthy. We need you for years to come. She’s it.”

 Louise with a Clothesline volunteer

Before she came on the scene with her business-like practices, Daly said, the home didn’t have a formal apparatus for processing donated goods: “There was a day when, without Louise, you would have walked in and seen just big piles of stuff, and Louise moved the organization away from that way of handling donations to a very effective, modern way where things are very attractively displayed to the kids and to the adults.”

Daly said Abrahamson is quite adept at “networking with family teachers. She alerts people when new stuff comes in. She’s always pushing the product, so to speak. Louise has her favorites. If she gets something in that she knows one little girl would like, she makes sure that little girl gets the first crack at it.” He said it’s not only the 500-some kids on campus who benefit from the fruits of her labor. Another 200 or so in foster care settings also have dibs on what she collects. When supplies or shipments exceed the Boys Town demand, she places the extra goods with places like The St. Francis House and the Salvation Army.

Her office is also the base for a whole other category of gifts she acquires for children. Daly said she manages to get kids passes to movies, concerts, athletic events, skating rinks and many other activities. She gets donated food for parties. She ensures every Boys Town resident has gifts at Christmas and graduation. “It’s a lot bigger than just The Clothesline,” he said.

Service to others is a lifelong habit. Whether advising politicos such as Kay Orr and Hal Daub, or helping run their campaigns for public office or volunteering with the American Red Cross, the Arthritis Foundation, the March of Dimes, Hadassah, the Special Olympics and the United Way or serving as a member of the credit committee of the Boys Town Federal Credit Union or as president of the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, she gives her time in many ways.

Then there are the two years she devoted to caring for her son Steve after he was left a paraplegic as the result of an auto accident. He now lives independently. She became a vocal advocate for the rights and abilities of the handicapped. She was also careprovider for her husband after he contracted cancer.

Her good works have been recognized. Under her watch the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society won the Federation’s Achievement Award. She was nominated for  the National Council of Jewish Women’s Humanitarian Award for “her great compassion for the needs of others.”

Nothing slows her down, either. A bad back that laid her up last year only kept her away from the store a few months, during which time she did all her business from home. The flow of merchandise never stopped. But she knows she can’t do it forever. That’s why she’d like to work out a plan for a successor — ideally someone like herself who, as Melingagio put it, “goes the extra mile.”

“I worry what’s going to happen to this place when I no longer can do it,” she said. “My hope is that there is somebody who has pretty much the idea that I have. That they’re caring and want so much for the kids that they know how to express that caring. Because that’s the bottomline. That’s what it’s all about.”

A Young Artist Steps Out of the Shadows of a Towering Presence in His Life

September 3, 2011 1 comment

Legacy is a powerful thing, and when the shadow cast by a an older, highly accomplished figure looms large it can be a paralyzing specter of expectation to live up to for a young person following in those footsteps. In the case of the late celebrated realist figurative artist Kent Bellows, his larger-than-life presence in life and in death has not stymied the emergence of his talented nephew, Neil Griess, who is very much charting his own path as an artist to be watched. The following piece I did on Griess for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared three years ago, fast on the heels of Griess, then a high school senior, winning the same national award his uncle Kent Bellows had won 40 years earlier. Now, Griess is a college senior at the University of Nebraska, where he’s a studio art major, and is once again making waves with his work. Griess, who like his uncle did creates elaborate sets for his hyper-realistic paintings, had a work selected for a show at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha in early 2011 and another of his works has been selected for a new show, The Fascinators, the inaugural Charlotte Street Biennial of Regional BFA/MFA Candidates at La Esquina in Kansas City, Mo. You can read a short piece I did about Neil’s famous uncle, Kent Bellows, on this blog.

 

 

Painting by Neil Griess, Placemats (Charrette), 2011, 25 x 32.5 inches, oil on panel.

Painting ©by Neil Griess, Placemats (Charrette), 2011

 

 

A Young Artist Steps Out of the Shadows of a Towering Presence in His Life

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the The Reader (www.thereader.com)

If 18-year-old award-winning visual artist Neil Griess of Omaha feels pressure to live up to the legacy of his maternal uncle Kent Bellows, he doesn’t betray it. Work by Bellows, the late American master of figurative realism, is in major private/public art collections. We’re talking the Metropolitan Museum of Art here.

In 2005 Bellows died at age 56 of natural causes in his Leavenworth Street studio/home, now preserved by the Bellows Foundation as an education center. The Omaha iconoclast was a player in New York art circles via his association with the Tatistcheff and Forum galleries. His paintings/drawings sold out wherever they exhibited. Interest in his work continues high.

A May Westside High School grad, Griess has far to go to reach such status, but perhaps not as far as you’d think. With his parents Jim and Robin Griess and his Westside art teacher Shawn Blevins on hand at New York City’s Carnegie Hall on June 15, Griess accepted the Portfolio Gold Honor in the national Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which included a $10,000 cash prize. Griess, one of 12 Portfolio Gold winners from around the nation, trod onto the hallowed stage to accept the award. The presenter draped a large gold medal over him as the full, black tie-attired house applauded.

Forty years earlier Bellows won in the same competition. Other name artists have won, too, including Richard Avedon and Andy Warhol. The recognition brought Bellows scholarship opportunities at prestigious art schools. Griess too has been deluged with offers. Bellows studied at then-Omaha University. Starting in the fall, Griess will study at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln under realist painter Keith Jacobshagen, a friend of Bellows.

What makes the prospect of Griess’s future development alluring is that he works in the same style as Bellows did — meticulous realism. Their dense work renders persons, objects, settings in such rigorous detail that it draws viewers into an infinite space invested with meaning. With almost any Bellows, Griess said, “it feels like you can get lost in it.” Even up close, he said, “you can’t really derive how he did it.” The technique and the process are as invisible and ineffable as Bellows was enigmatic.

Griess said he’s always been drawn to realism. “Yeah, I always thought realistic work is the direction I would want to go if I continued art,” he said. He can’t exactly pinpoint why. “I don’t know. It’s interesting,” he said, “because you’re not trying to reproduce this object or this person…but more capturing it, I suppose, in a specific moment, a specific point in time.” Or as Bellows once put it in an interview, the goal is to capture what’s beyond the photograph to “what is actually happening…to capture the subject’s soul…the subject’s inner life.”

“And that’s something I wanted to try to do with the eight paintings for my portfolio,” Griess said. “I think if something’s rendered so fully and to its ultimate height, it feels like you can enter the work and like feel that draped cloth in a piece,” he said, referring to a Bellows print on the wall of his home, the image’s tactile realism begging to be touched.

 

 

Neil Griess

Neill Griess, ©Photo by Andrew Dickinson

 

 

Naturally, Griess aspires to reach the mastery of Bellows, but by no means does he intend to be an imitator.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve tried to emulate him, although in certain instances I was when I was like really young, drawing based off some of the nudes he had done,” a smiling, nearly blushing Griess said, wiping his soft brown bangs from his face.

He’d especially like for his work to attain the openendedness that Bellows captured. In a Bellows work no single prescribed meaning is imposed on the viewer; rather the image invites viewers to glean their own meanings.

“That’s a quality I want to develop myself,” Griess said.

The process Griess uses to create his own work, much of it completed in a small, well-lit downstairs home work space he calls “thrown together” but that is neatly arrayed with brushes, pencils, acrylic paint tubes, is in the vein of photo-realism. He first photographs his subjects and with the resulting image as a guide he uses a pencil to map out the canvas before painting.

“I always paint based off pictures (photographs),” Griess said. “I grid everything out. I take that approach. Laying out a painting you still need to draw. It’s an important skill for getting things right when you finally start painting.”

The artist applies a clear plastic grid over a printed out photo of his subject and with a pencil divides the surface into squares running the length and width of the image. He transfers his grid to a board, which is what he paints on these days. He begins by drawing the major shapes or forms contained in each square onto the board before applying brush to paint and brush strokes to board.

“I pretty much just figure out where one square in the picture would be on the board and then from that one square I go to the next one” and so on, he said. “I add the smaller details later.”

Griess shares many predilections his late uncle indulged, including a love of film, a fascination with the fantastic, a passion for creating elaborate sets or backdrops for his work, although to date Griess has only employed sets to stop motion animation, and an interest in action figures and miniatures. Then there’s the fact Griess is left-handed, just as Bellows was.

“A lot of things line up like that,” Griess said. “Because I know he’s done all this great work it’s kind of like me now trying to discover what things I’m interested in beyond his work…to decide what I’ll ultimately be doing in my art. Of course this is an influence I’ll always keep while doing it.”

“Untitled” oil painting ©by Neil Griess

 

The art strain runs deep, as Griess’s maternal grandfather was a commercial artist and watercolorist, his mother is a watercolorist, one brother is a ceramicist/sculptor and another brother writes computer video game programs. “So I come from a long lineage of artists or creative thinkers,” Griess said.

Growing up, Griess was exposed to dozens of Bellows prints that adorn the walls of the family home. One of the nephew’s favorites, Nuclear Winter, is displayed in his bedroom. He felt drawn to Bellows as any adolescent would to a cool adult doing his own thing. “I admired him so much. He was probably the most charismatic, funny, interesting person that I know or probably will know,” Griess said.

The parallels between the two were obvious two weekends ago in New York City. It was the kid’s first time in the Big Apple, where in a whirlwind few days his path intersected with the path Bellows took in setting the art world on fire.

Just as Bellows attracted notice beyond his years, once cultivating Warren Buffett and his late first wife Susan Buffett as patrons, Griess, too, found himself the center of attention from older admirers at a post-awards dinner. The scene was the ritzy Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. There were congratulations, even autograph requests. “I got some very great compliments,” Griess said. Among the well-wishers was New York thespian Jason Butler Harner, who hosted the awards.

“He seemed very enthusiastic and impressed by my work, so that was great,” Griess said of Harner. “One of the guys that asked for my autograph said everyone was kind of talking about my work specifically, and that was nice. One woman actually came up to me and said my work brought tears to her eyes because of how young I am and I’m able to produce work like that.”

The plaudits began the night before, at Reeves Contemporary gallery in Chelsea, where selections of work by Griess and other Portfolio gold winners were shown. It was then, Griess said, that Alliance for Young Artists & Writers Chairman Dwight E. Lee “told me how much he loved my work.” At dinner the next night, Griess said,  “he gave me his card and said if I should ever want to sell art work I should contact him.” Westside teachers and others have expressed interest in buying Neil’s work.

“I’m actually selling paintings this summer,” Griess said. “I’ve sold one already, so I’m starting to learn how it feels to part with something.”

As if that wasn’t enough, the June 14 issue of USA Today reproduced one of his paintings to illustrate a Life Section story on the awards. “The one picture they chose was mine — my painting Pool Boy,” Griess said. “That was a really nice surprise. My dad ran up and down the floors in the hotel acquiring more” copies.

Pool Boy is one of many self-portraits and portraits Griess has executed. Portraiture was a favorite form for Bellows as well. One difference is that while Bellows was known for a dark, brooding nature that made him look severe if not downright scary, Griess has a sweet face and demeanor. That’s not to say there wasn’t whimsy in Bellows or his work or that Griess and his art is all peaches and cream.

The award, the praise, the contacts, Griess said, “are obviously great exposure for me and a great thing I can put on the resume. I would say it’s probably the best recognition I could have received operating within a high school.”

Griess submitted eight works to the Scholastic competition but gave little thought to winning, as he photographed his entrees himself and the images he submitted were less than flattering to the works themselves.

“Because of the fact I did not have great pictures of these paintings I submitted, I kind of dismissed the idea that anything would happen with this,” he said. “But then I got the call (saying he’d won) and I couldn’t really believe it for a good amount of time. I was basically sitting at home on a Friday night when I got this call out of the blue. I was pretty unprepared…Surprisingly. I think I handled it well, although afterwards I was like shaking in disbelief for 15 minutes.”

The artist created his winning series for Westside’s Advanced Portfolio class, which he said allows student artists rare autonomy in finding their vision-voice.

“Not many high school classes give you that much freedom in developing your own line of thinking for a series of paintings…I think it kind of helped me develop my own thinking for how I want to approach my art,” he said. “In the typical class you kind of just think in terms of the assignment and what they’re expecting you to see as the outcome, not how you would best display your own ideas or get your own point across.”

Griess hit upon the theme of high contrast at night, playing with different light sources. Some of the inspiration for what’s depicted in the work, he said, comes from Russian fairy tales — “I’ve always been interested in fairy tales” — and some of it comes from what was going on in his life at the time. His girlfriend, Erica, a film studies major at Northwestern University, is the subject of more than one work. She’s a casual portrait study in a piece called “Home Again” and her absence informs another piece in which an anxious Griess cowers on his front porch, alone at night, a doll seen inside a window providing no solace.

“With some of my paintings I first kind of get like this mental image and then when I’m painting it, even weeks after, I start to think about why I needed to do that or what was the significance of it,” he said.

©Kent Bellows’s self-portraits

 

 

Just as Bellows sought out great art in his travels, Griess spent his weekend in New York soaking up treasures at the Met. He and his folks also made special visits there and to the Forum gallery to see Bellows’ work in each venue. The splendor of it all, Griess said, “made me want to go back home and start working again.”

Griess didn’t need all the hype to feel an artistic kinship to his uncle. He just wished Bellows could have been there. “I was probably more wishing he could have been involved in this with me and seen the work I did to win this award,” he said. He regrets too never discussing their shared sweet affliction. “I was a shy kid and probably still am. I wouldn’t have necessarily been ready to talk with him about art or these other interests we shared,” Griess said. “Now I would say I would definitely be ready to talk to him about things.”

It’s probably unfair to say Griess lived in the shadow of Bellows, but Bellows was a giant among artists and a looming presence in the life of the the sensitive young artist-nephew. A legacy he could not escape. Griess wasn’t necessarily a slacker before Bellows’ death, but then again he acknowledges he didn’t exactly apply himself to his art. When Bellows passed, Griess suddenly got busy, approaching his own art with a greater sense of urgency.

“After his death is when I really started to get serious about drawing and painting and that’s when I started to do better things and win awards,” Griess said. “I realized he would no longer be there to kind of give me advice or look at what I’m doing, so in some strange way that pushed me, It was kind of a way to deal with it. I mean, also I realized I need to be doing this for myself, too.”

War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horrors in Song and Dance that Make Plea for Peace

August 18, 2011 2 comments

Here is a story I did in 1996 in the flood of refugees coming to America from war-ravaged Bosnia and Serbia. I tell the story of two families from Saravejo whose lives were turned upside down when the city fell under siege. Rusmir and Hari stayed behind to fight, as their wives and children narrowly escaped, eventually to the West. The men were eventually reunited with their families and ended up starting new lives in America. In my hometown of Omaha no less.  I came across this story when I learned about a music and dance performance that a local choreographer organized as a way of commemorating the experience of these Bosnian refugees.  The cathartic performance served as a bridge between the war that changed everything and the peace they had to flee their homeland to find.

 

 

 

War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horror’s in Song and Dance that Make Plea for Peace

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Even with United States peacekeeping troops stationed in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the war-ravaged nation and troubled Balkan region remain a shrouded mystery to many Americans.

But on two successive nights in October, audiences packing a Creighton University theater came face-to-face with the tragic, ultimately triumphant odyssey of Omaha’s Bosnian war refugees.

The forum for this unusual intersection of cultures was the finale of an October 25-26 Omaha Modern Dance Collective concert. The closing piece, “Day of Forgiveness,” featured a melting pot of dancers and musicians, but most poignantly, local Bosnian refugees performing as a five-piece band

The work incorporated vigorous Bosnian folk dances and songs symbolizing the relative harmony in Bosnia before the war and the healing so sorely needed there now. Ironically, a dance whose context was an ethnic war, joined Croats, Muslims and Serbs in a unifying celebration.

The refugees are among a growing, diverse Bosnian colony that has sprung up in Omaha since 1993. They say the Bosnia they knew was free of ethnic and religious strife until Serb nationalism began rearing its ugly head. Many are natives of Sarajevo, where they enjoyed an upscale, Western European lifestyle. Since escaping the carnage to start over in America, they’ve forged a tranquil Little Sarajevo in Omaha.

“Bosnia was like a small United States, where many different cultures, many different religions lived together,” says the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist, Rusmir Hadzisulejmanovic, 41, formerly a marketing manager with a Sarajevo publishing firm. Today, he works as a handy man and attends Metropolitan Community College. “We prepared a good life in our country. We had nice jobs. We made good money. But somebody from outside tried to destroy that. And we lost everything in one day.”

Fellow refugee and musician Muharem “Hari” Sakic, 39, a friend of Rusmir’s from before the war, was an import-export executive and now works odd jobs while attending Metro. Hari says, “In Sarajevo we never cared what religion you were. And none of us care about that now. It doesn’t matter. We only care what kind of person you are.”

Both men are Muslim. Rusmir’s wife is Serb; Hari’s, Croation-Catholic. They say mixed marriages such as theirs were typical.

The two men fought side-by-side defending their beloved Sarajevo, the besieged Bosnian capital devastated by Serb aggressors. Talking with Rusmir and Hari today, surrounded by loved ones in their safe, comfortable southwest Omaha apartments, it’s hard to imagine them as fierce soldiers engaged in a life and death struggle with forces who outnumbered and outgunned them. But then Rusmir passes around snapshots of he and Hari in camouflage fatigues, armed to the teeth, outside the burned-out shell of a train station. A later photo shows Rusmir, usually a burly 240 pounds, looking pale, drawn and shrunken from the near-starvation war diet.

War Hits Home

Although Serbia invaded Croatia by late 1990, beginning the pattern of pogroms and atrocities it repeated elsewhere in the former Yugoslav Republic, most Bosnians never suspected the conflict would affect them. But it did, beginning, shockingly and viciously at noon, April 4, 1992, when Serb artillery units dug in atop the hills overlooking Saravejo launched an unprovoked, indiscriminate attack on the city’s homes, streets and businesses.

Rusmir was eating lunch in a cafeteria when the first explosions rocked the city. He was trapped there until morning. “I saw many, many damaged houses and cars and dead people in the streets. It was the first time in my life I saw something like that,” he recalls. It was the start of a three-year siege that killed thousands of civilians and soldiers.

 

 

 

 

At the family’s apartment he found his wife Zorana, 39, and their children Ida and Igor, then ages 8 and 2, respectively, unharmed, but “very scared.” He immediately set about finding a safe way out for them. Escape was essential, since Ida suffers from a serious kidney disease requiring frequent medical treatment, and his family’s Muslim surname made them targets for invading Serbs. As for himself, he had no choice but to stay – and fight.

The roads and fields leading out of town were killing zones, manned by roaming Serb militia. Air service was disrupted. With the help of Jewish friends he finally got his family approved for a flight to Belgrade, Serbia several days later. On the day of departure Zorana and the kids boarded a bus for the tense ride to the Serbian-held airport. As it was too dangerous to be seen together, Rusmir followed behind in a car.

The scene at the airport was chaotic. Hundreds of people milled about the tarmac, frantic not to be left behind. When a mad dash for the plane began, Zorana, carrying Igor in one arm, felt Ida being pulled away by the surging crowd. She grabbed hold of her daughter and hung on until they were aboard.

From a distance Rusmir watched the plane lift off safely, carrying his family to an uncertain fate. It was the last flight out for many months. Three-and-a-half years passed before he saw his family again.

While in Belgrade, Zorana and the kids stayed at a hotel. Zorana made Ida promise (Igor was too young) never to say their Muslim name aloud, but only her Serb maiden name, Vojnovic. Zorana says she felt “shame” at denying her true identity and “guilty” for what some Serbs were doing to Muslims. “It was very hard.”

“You had to say some Serb name to save your life,” notes Hari, whose family took similar precautions. Like Rusmir and Zorana, Hari and his wife Marina were desperate to get their daughter Lana out, as she has a kidney condition similar to Ida’s. Marina and Sakic’s kids eventually fled to Croatia.

In Belgrade Zorana often confronted Serb enmity, such as when a hospital denied Ida treatment fate learning her real name. From Belgrade, they fled to norther Croatia, staying with relatives and friends.

Life in Croatia had a semblance of normality until Croat-Muslim hostilities erupted. Then Zorana was denied work and Ida expelled from school and refused care. A human rights organization did fly Zorana and the kids to London, where her brother lived, but they were denied residency and returned to Croatia. Growing more desperate, she pleaded her family’s case at every embassy, to no avail.

With few resources and options left she heard about the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a humanitarian agency offering visas based on medical need. After her first entreaties were rejected she went to IOM’s offices “every morning for three months,” before finally getting the visa that eventually brought them to Omaha in October, 1993. Zorana was among the first group of Bosnian and Croatian refugees to arrive here.

Omaha – A New Home, A New Life

Why Omaha? Dr. Linda Ford, a local physician affiliated with IOM, was matched with the family as a medical caseworker and mentor. Zorana says Ford was her “main moral support” when she first arrived. “She showed me how to live on my own. She was a great help.”

Ford arranged for the family to live at the home of Dr. Dan Halm and at her urging Zorana, an attorney in Saravejo, earned a para-legal degree at UNO while working part-time jobs. Zorana now works full-time at Mutual of Omaha. Ford says the contacts Zorana made here as a result of her own refugee experience have aided other Bosnians in settling here, including Rusmir’s sister and brother-in-law. Since moving her family to the Woodcreek Apartments, Zorana has guided 12 other refugee families there.

Barbarism, Heroism and Sacrifice

Meanwhile, Rusmir, who as a young man served in the Yugoslav equivalent of the CIA, had joined Hari and others in mobilizing the local Bosnian Army, It was a civilian army comprised of Muslims, Croats and Serbs, They lacked even the most basic supplies. Uniforms were improvised from sleeping bags. Many soldiers fought in athletic shoes. Shelling and sniper fire continued day and night. The streets and outlying areas were a grim no-man’s land. The only respite was an occasional cease-fire or relief convoy.

 

 

 

 

As the siege progressed conditions worsened. Rusmir’s and Hari’s homes were destroyed. But life went on. “In war it’s not possible to keep a normal life, but we tried,” says Rusmir. For example, school-age kids who remained behind still attended classes, and Hari’s wife Marina gave birth to their son, Adi, on May 22, 1992.

“At that time the situation was terrible, especially for babies. No food, no water, no electricity , no nothing,” Hari recalls.

Somehow, they hung on. Marina and their two children got out as part of a Red Cross convoy that fall.

Hari and Rusmir fought in a special unit that took them behind enemy lines to wreak havoc, do reconnaissance, collect intelligence and capture prisoners. Miraculously, neither was wounded.

“I was many times in a very dangerous position,” says Rusmir. “I know how to use a gun and a knife. That helped me to survive. I’m lucky, you know? I survived.”

Two of his best friends did not – Dragan Postic and Zelicko Filipovic.

Rusmir witnessed acts of barbarism, heroism and sacrifice, An artillery shell landed amidst a group of school kids during recess, killing and maiming dozens. “That was very awful.” In the heat of battle, a comrade jumped on an enemy tank and dropped hand grenades inside the open turret, killing himself and the tank’s crew. Despite overwhelming odds and losses the city held. “We stopped them…we survived,” Rusmir says.

By the time a United States-brokered and NATO-enforced peace halted the war in 1995, Rusmir, who’d stayed gallantly (“Stubbornly,”says Zorana) on to protect his homeland and care for his ill father, felt very alone. Except for his father, there was nothing left – no home, no job, no family, no future. Hari was gone, too, escaping on 1994 on foot via a tunnel dug under the Saravejo airport, and then over the mountains into Croatia, where after a long search he was reunited with his family.

The Sakics emigrated here in January, 1995.

Music – Celebration and Mourning

Every refugee has a story. The Bosnians’ story is of suddenly being cast as warriors and wanderers in an ethnically-cleansed netherworld where borders and names suddenly meant the difference between freedom or imprisonment, between living or dying.

 

 

 

 

It all happened before – to their parents and grandparents in World War II. It’s a story burned in their memories and hearts and told in stirring words, music and dance.

Their music inspired choreographer Josie Metal-Corbin to create “Day of Forgiveness.” The professor of dance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha first heard the music when a former student and Bosnian emigre brought the band to her class. They played about 10 minutes and right away I knew I had to do something with this music,” Metal-Corbin recalls. “I was very taken by it, I’m part Italian and part Slovak, and this music really spoke to me. It’s very passionate.”

After months of working with the musicians and UNO’s resident dance troupe she directs, the Moving Company, Metal-Corbin grew close to the refugees and their families, particularly Rusmir, Zorana and their children, now ages 12 and 6. Zorana acted as the project’s interpreter and cultural guide.

During the Creighton concert, which marked the dance’s premiere, Rusmir and the other, all-male musicians exuberantly accompanied the rousing dance from a rear corner of the stage.

Rusmir, who grew up singing and playing the romantic tunes that accompanied the dance, says, “I feel the songs in my heart, in my soul, in my blood.” Song and dance are a big part of Bosnian celebrations, which can last from evening through dawn.

A Gypsy song – “Djurdjevdan” (“Day of the Flowers”) – was chosen by Metal-Corbin to give the dance its thematic design. The song, like the dance she adapted from it, tells of a holiday when people go to a river to cleanse themselves with water and flowers as an act of atonement and plea for forgiveness. According to Rusmir, the song and dance reflect Bosnians’ forgiving nature.

 

 

 

 

“What is very hard about the war is that we lost so many friends. We lost neighbors. We lost family members. And for what? Really for nothing. We tried to keep Bosnia in Bosnian borders. But I can forgive,” Rusmir says, “because my wife and kids are alive. My father is alive. It’s time for forgiveness, for one reason – the war must stop, always, I cannot live with hate. My people are not like that. You can kick me, you can beat me…I will always find a reason to forgive you. That is the Bosnian soul.”

Hari, though, cannot so easily let go of the memory of Marina and their two children barely escaping a direct artillery hit on their Sarajevo apartment. “Forgive, yes, but forget, no,” he says. “I must try never to forget.” Even now, the whine of a siren and the clap of thunder are nervous reminders of incoming artillery rounds. “That is the kind of sound you can never forget,” Hari says.

He still wakes up in a cold sweat at the thought of the three-finger sign used by Chetnik Serbs in carrying out their terror campaigns. “When they started to use that sign,” he says, “the poison came. It meant. ‘You are not with us.’ Then the killing started.”

As a haunting reminder of what the dance was about, an enlarged news photo in the background pictured the tearful reunion of a Bosnian refugee family. The image had special meaning for Rusmir and Hari, who had only recently reunited with their own families. For them, the dance was their own personal commemoration of loss, celebration of survival, offering of thanks and granting of forgiveness.

Adding further resonance, virtually the entire local Bosnian refugee colony attended out of a deep communal sense of pride in their rich culture, one they’re eager to share with the wider Omaha community they’ve felt so welcomed by.

 

 

Josie Metal-Corbin

 

 

Zorana was there. “I was real proud, but at the same time I was kind of sad,” she says. “It was the music of our country – but in a different country. I was real touched when I saw Americans feel the same we do. I wanted to cry.”

Zorana, whose journey with her children across the war-torn region took a year before she found safe passage to America, adds that forgiveness must never come at the price of wisdom. “I would not let anybody to that to us again. Yo can trick us one time, but just one time.”

Yes, these Bosnians, are remarkably free of bitterness, but they do feel betrayed by the European community’s delayed, timid intervention. Zorana says, “You cannot wait so long and be so passive. You cannot say, ‘Oh, this is not my war. I don’t want to be bothered – they’re not killing me.’ Because tomorrow they may come to your house and try to kill you.” Hari says, “All the time we waited for a miracle.”

Rusmir decries the Serbs’ targeting of civilians. Hari hopes “world justice catches the war criminals, so that they will never sleep good again.”

New Pioneers

With the aid of Neb.Republican U.S. House of Representatives member John Christensen Rusmir finally got permission to immigrate and was reunited with his family last November. Once here there were many adjustments to make. Igor didn’t remember him. Ida was slow to warm to a father she hadn’t seen for so long. Rusmir spoke no English. The family barely got by. But in classic immigrant tradition they’ve adapted and now call Omaha – a city they’d never heard of before – their home.

“It is hard. But step by step, day by day, we make connections, we make new friends we make a good life, too. We feel like Bosnian pioneers in Omaha and Nebraska,” says Rusmir, who hopes to start a construction business with Hari.

Zorana

The Bosnians like America and feel sure they’ll thrive here. Their children already have, with many earning top grades in school. Ida and Lana are both healthy and doing fine. The Bosnians are deeply grateful to America, which Hari calls “a dream country” for its warm reception.

Hari says, “In America I can once again live like a normal person. There’s no fear that somebody will knock on my door and ask, ‘Who are you?’ and say, ‘You’re guilty.’ We are safe here. Many Americans have helped to give us a chance. Thanks America. We are sure that we will be a success.”

Zorana downplays their heroic struggle, saying, “You need to go on if you think ou have some tomorrow. You need to believe in yourself. Then nothing is impossible.”

America is, after all, the land of opportunity.

“You give me a chance to be equal,” she says. “To work. To be a citizen. I wanted my children to be Bosnian, but now I want them to be American. Here, you can be proud of your last name. You don’t have to feel ashamed.”

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