Where there is a celebrity, there is an attorney, and in the case of the entertainment attorney profiled here, Ira Epstein, this Beverly Hills-based lawyer never lost the taste for show business he acquired as a kid growing up in Omaha, Neb. In a diverse life and career he’s touched many different aspects of the human condition, the legal profession, and the entertainment industry, working with some genuine legends along the way.
Entertainment Attorney Ira Epstein, Counsel to the Stars
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Veteran west coast entertainment attorney Ira Epstein, a counsel to high-profile clients in film and television, traces his show biz roots to growing-up in Omaha, where he and his brother, Arnold “Tuffy” Epstein, a well-known Omaha woodwind player, performed in area fairs and amateur shows during the Great Depression.
Born and raised here, the brothers, studied music at the prodding of their grocer parents, Harry and Jenny, the proprietors of their own mom-and-pop store, Epstein’s Grocery, originally located at 27th and Maple and later at 20th and Martha. The family lived above the stores. As kids, Ira and Tuffy were prevailed upon by their parents to entertain salesmen pitching wares. “Ira would play the accordion and I would sing,” Tuffy recalls, adding their stage mother booked them “wherever she could get us,” including two neighborhood movie theaters, the Roseland and Corby, where the boys were billed as Ruffy and Tuffy for amateur show performances. Their younger siblings, Allen and Gloria, also performed.
Graduating to the piano, Ira performed in music programs at his school, Central High, where he cut short his senior year in order to join a touring big band headed by Skippy Anderson. While he downplays his own musical talent, Ira was, in Tuffy’s estimation, “an excellent jazz pianist.” With the help of money his mother saved, Ira attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and took paying gigs to pay his tuition, room and board. “I worked my way through school playing in bands,” he says. Often, he and Tiffy found themselves jamming on the same stage.
By the time Ira started college, the Korean War erupted and the military draft loomed large. The then-social work major sought a field of study that would keep him in school. That’s when he and a pair of buddies decided “we’d take the law school exams. We didn’t have anything better to do.”
What began as “a lark” turned into a distinguished career nearing its half-century mark. But his frivolous attitude toward the exams nearly quashed his plans. Certain he’d failed, the silver-tongued Epstein proceeded to talk his way into law school with the personal chutzpah and charm that made him a natural for the courtroom.
As Epstein remembers, it happened this way: “The dean called me in and said, ‘Ira, you really didn’t do well on these tests.’ I told him why. That I left early every day to conduct cheerleading tryouts in my role as Yell King. That I was in every activity imaginable at Nebraska. I was a member of the gymnastics team, the student council, the Nebraska athletic board. I was active in Jewish activities, including AZA. I was president of the campus chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu. And the dean said, ‘Because of all your activities. we’re going to let you into law school.’ And that’s how I got started. I ended up enjoying the law and doing pretty well.”
In typical Epstein fashion, he ran with the opportunity, becoming editor of the campus law review and earning a law fellowship in trial procedure evidence. During his fellowship, Epstein got a chance to work with and learn under famous personal injury defense attorney Melvin Beli, who was trying a case in Omaha at the time. “He came into Omaha to try a medical malpractice case against a foot surgeon. Beli had a national reputation. He was the big man from the west coast up against a small town country lawyer, who was one of the best defense lawyers in the business. Beli took him to the cleaners…and back in those days you couldn’t easily recover against doctors. It was really tough. Beli brought me in to help do the research. He was a great scholar and a great guy. I was very impressed…I got some good experience and we got to be good friends.”
Coming out of college, Epstein harbored designs on working for one of Omaha’s prestige Gentile law firms, which he says then maintained an unspoken but nonetheless rigid country club policy barring Jews, regardless of their credentials. “When I graduated law school I was a pretty hot prospect with a lot of enthusiasm and I decided I wanted to break the barrier in Omaha and go into a non-Jewish law firm.” he says. “Well, I interviewed with most of the major non-Jewish firms…at least 10 of them…and I could not get hired. Here I was editor of the law review and, while I didn’t finish first or second in my class, I was in the top 20 percent, plus I was in all kinds of organizations, and yet I couldn’t break the barrier. That was anti-Semitism at its best. Now, it’s changed, of course.”
Then, in 1957, Epstein applied for and received a direct commission into the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General or JAG court. The recently married (to the former Noddy Schein of Omaha) JAG officer was first assigned to San Francisco, where he looked up Beli, who officed in the city on the hill, to see about joining the famed attorney’s practice and thereby supplement his low military salary. “I ended up working part-time for him while in the service. At that point I got a good flavor of personal injury law and decided that just was not my bag.” Meanwhile, his JAG duties helped him develop keen lawyering skills. “JAG was really a good experience for me. I tried a lot of cases…a lot of court martials. For being a closet introvert, I was a pretty good trial lawyer.”
He had no longer settled in his next station, cushy Long Beach, when a mid-air collision of Air Force and Navy planes over civilian air space caused severe property damage and personal injuries, resulting in a flood of claims he handled. This, too, proved a valuable training ground. “As a result of that very serious accident I spent a year settling claims for the government. It was a tremendous experience. By the time I joined a law firm in 1959 I was an experienced lawyer already.”
With his JAG commitment up, he interviewed with private L.A. law firms and got hired by an established entertainment law firm. It was familiar territory. “I felt comfortable from the very beginning,” he says. “I was always interested in entertainment. It was appealing to me.” Besides, as a former performer, he understood the fragile creative personality. “It’s not so much just temperamental artists, it’s temperamental producers, too. They’re all the same. They all have that mind set, which they’re entitled to. It’s an ego business. You have to have a particular kind of mentality to represent them. You have to be pretty patient. You have to be more of a psychologist, bordering on a psychiatrist, than a lawyer.”
Among his first clients was Larry Harmon Productions, whose stable of artists included TV’s Bozo the Clown. Another Harmon artist, animator Lou Scheimer, became one of Epstein’s closest friends. When Scheimer left Harmon to start his own animation shop, Epstein continued representing him. At the time, there were only a few independent animation companies, and when Epstein’s boss ordered him to drop Scheimer to avoid potential conflicts with competing animators, Epstein remained loyal to his friend. “I said, ‘Well, I’d just as well drop the firm than drop the client,’ which was a dumb thing on my part because the guy had nothing going. That was 1963. So, I went out on my own with this partner, and don’t ask me why, but we got a lot of clients. We were doing pretty well, only my friend Lou Scheimer was doing nothing.” That soon changed when CBS plunged into Saturday morning animation and a major player in comic books, National Periodical, sought somebody to animate their signature Superman franchise. Scheimer got the job and Epstein bought a piece of his studio, Filmation.
“Superman launched the company and really got me started in animation. After Superman we started doing all the action heroes. Batman. Aquaman. Captain Marvel. Then we branched into other animation series. We did Fat Albert. We did Masters of the Universe – that was a big series. We ended up selling the company in 1969 to a cable company called Teleprompter that was the predecessor of all the big cable companies. Teleprompter ended up selling to Westinghouse and as a result we made quite a bit of money for young guys at the time.”
Outside animation, a good share of Epstein’s early clients were in the music business. When he was still a law firm employee in the early ‘60s, he did work for Liberty Records, a kitsch pop label whose recording artists included Julie London, Bobby Vee and the Chipmonks. “I learned a little about the music industry, but I knew music anyway.” When he opened his own firm, he rode the wave of the soulful black music movement. “I set up the California corporation for Motown Records, which then moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. I worked with many Motown artists. My personal client from their stable was Hal Davis, who wrote and produced many Jackson 5 and Diana Ross hits.”
Then Cooper set about reinventing himself and his practice again. “In 1975 I left my then partner and went with another attorney, Jay Cooper, who was and still is the outstanding music lawyer in the country.” With the addition of a third partner, the firm of Cooper, Epstein and Hurewitz became a player in the entertainment law arena for 20 years. “We started with about six lawyers and built it up to about 60. We had one of the best entertainment law firms in Los Angeles,” he says. “We had a lot of good lawyers. We had a lot of good clients, It was really a major firm.”
Although Epstein did select legal work for legendary stars Marlon Brando, Barbra Streisand and Mary Tyler Moore, his biggest client during this time was Carroll O’Connor, the late actor forever identified with the role of Archie Bunker on the classic, ground-breaking CBS series All in the Family. “I represented Carroll through All in the Family, and all his battles with its producer Norman Lear, and up through his last series, In the Heat of the Night. I also represented him throughout all his problems with his late son and the lawsuits that evolved from that.”
More than a client, O’Connor was a friend, Epstein says. “We had great rapport with each other. We became extremely close. I shared all his joys and sorrows. It was a lasting relationship. I still represent the O’Connor estate.” Bigoted Archie Bunker was far removed from the man Epstein knew. “He was not that character. He was the antithesis of Archie Bunker. He was an extreme liberal. A champion of human rights.” Given that Epstein is a self-described “extreme conservative,” their friendship made for “an interesting relationship.” He says as different as O’Connor was from A.B., the actor struggled escaping the persona he so indelibly fixed in people’s minds. “I represented him on Broadway, where he was never able to have a successful play. It just wouldn’t work. He got so closely tied to the role of Archie Bunker that the public just wouldn’t buy him as a legitimate stage actor, where he got his start. But he was a great actor and a wonderful guy.”
The television landscape Epstein and his clients knew in the ‘70s an ‘80s was vastly different than the one that’s emerged today. Back then, the medium centered around the Big Three networks, monolithic television-focused businesses which got most of their product from independent producers. Today, technology has created an expanded television pie sliced up among dozens of networks and hundreds of channels while at the same time economic forces have seen a consolidation of power, programming and production among a few major multimedia giants. “The television business has been considerably impacted by consolidation,” he says. “An independent television producer today doesn’t have a chance because the majors have taken over almost all of the production. It’s all pretty much integrated vertically. It’s all just controlled by a very small group of people.”
Making television deals for clients today requires Epstein know more than just what the U.S. television market will bear. He must also be well-versed in foreign distribution and in the home video and spin-off markets. “The business has changed a lot. There was no such thing as a foreign television market in the early years. Now, foreign markets produce about 50 percent of the income for television series. With the advent of home video and product merchandising, I have to know these aspects. If you do a major animated show like Masters of the Universe, your income is coming out of merchandising as much as it’s coming out of television. I made a deal a couple years ago bringing the Japanese animated series, Yu-gi-oh to this country and it made all its money in the merchandising area.”
Other forces impacting his work include the ever changing home entertainment market, which has seen VHS and laser disk formats supplanted by DVD, and the proliferation of cable TV and its ever expanding programming menu to serve an insatiable viewing habit. In this wide open environment, anyone or anything can be a hit, as evidenced by the Reality TV phenomenon that makes people from all walks of life instant celebrities. In his quest to stay current, Epstein represents a professional gambler trying to make it on the popular TV poker playing circuit. He also represents Peter Funt, producer of Candid Camera and the son of the show’s creator, the late Alan Funt, who did Reality TV before it had a name. The growth of televised sports and the birth of sports celebrities is another sea change, says Epstein, who’s “done deals” for such figures as George Foreman and Hulk Hogan.
So. what’s the next big thing? Epstein says a mass-market, user-friendly technology to download movies off the Internet is sure to one day replace DVDs by virtue of the ease, speed and convenience of select-and-click home movie viewing.
By 1994, Epstein resigned as managing partner of Cooper, Epstein and Hurewitz and went into a semi-retired mode that saw him work some 10 years at Weissmann Wolf. Then, in 2002, at the urging of his former partner, Jay Cooper, Epstein joined the huge international firm Greenberg Traurig and its growing entertainment practice, where he’s rejoined his old friend. Epstein, who’s recently represented producers and distributors of mini-series and features, operates autonomously there. At age 72, he thinks of retiring, but remains too much in the game to leave now. “When I went into semi-retirement the whole idea was I would phase out and quit soon. Well, I’m still phasing out. I hope to quite real soon, believe me, but I don’t know, I seem to stay with it. I do very little of what is called the traditional practice of law. I advise my clients far beyond the lawyering. It’s fun.”
He also is a senior member of the board of directors for Image Entertainment.
A new challenge occupying much of his time these days is his presidency of the North Coast Repertory Theater in Solana Beach, Calif., whose move to a planned facility in a neighboring community he’s spearheading. His association with this theater company fulfills a dream to be “involved in the legitimate theater.”
Two days a week find Epstein in Los Angeles, attending to his law clients, and the rest of the week at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, a short drive from the theater. He and his wife Noddy are the parents of three grown sons and the grandparents of six — four girls and two boys. He rarely gets back to Nebraska these days, although he was here last fall for the 50th reunion of his Innocents Society pledge class. “We had a wonderful reunion…a lot of fun.” He stays in contact with family and “a lot of good friends in Omaha,” including former schoolmate Ben Nachman.
- Steve Rosenblatt, A Legacy of Community Service, Political Ambition and Baseball Adoration (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Allan Noddle’s Adventures in the Food Industry Show Him the World (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Food as a commodity is something most of us only think about as customers, when we go to our local supermarket or farmers market or restaurant or deli and pay dearly for the nourishment we cannot live without. If you’re like me, you don’t give a lot of thought to the food chain infrastructure that provides the meat, dairy, produce, canned, and packaged goods to the places we access it unless of course there’s a price spike or a shortage or else some FDA recall because of a food contamination scare. Allan Noddle of Omaha is a food maven right in the mix of the food chain. Today, he’s a highly paid adviser, but for decades he ran companies in the U.S. and abroad that sold food to consumers by the millions and billions of dollars worth annually. He has a local, regional, national, and global perspective on the processes and systems that get the food we all need from producers and distributors to consumers’ dining room tables. He comes from a family of entrepreneurs that had their humble start in Omaha, Neb. and that experience is never far from him as a reminder of how far he and his brothers came.
Allan Noddle’s Food Industry Adventures Show Him the World
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Three Omaha brothers. Three company presidents. What are the odds a trio of sons from a Jewish family of humble beginnings would realize the American Dream, and then some? But brothers Harlan, Allan and Jeff Noddle did just that, as one by one they rose to the pinnacle of their respective profession while giving back to their community. It’s an American success story times three, only the real foundation for this accomplishment is rooted in the example set by the brothers’ late parents, Robert and Edith Noddle, who stressed education and charity.
Eldest brother Harlan Noddle, who died last December, worked as an executive in the retail food industry until he founded his own real estate development company. Noddle Development is one of the Midwest’s largest developers of shopping centers and office buildings. His son Jay Noddle now runs things.
Baby brother Jeff Noddle is president and CEO of Minneapolis-based Supervalu, the nation’s third largest grocery retailer and the leading food distributor in the U.S.
Middle brother Allan Noddle, whose story is told here, has enjoyed the most far flung of careers. In the 1960s the University of Nebraska-Lincoln cum laude graduate went from being a U.S. Army officer to an IBM computer salesman to a Hinky Dinky supermarkets trainee. It was at Hinky Dinky, the now defunct Omaha-based chain, he discovered his niche. Within a decade he climbed the corporate ladder to become executive vice president and COO. Courted by other grocery retailers, Noddle left Hinky Dinky in 1980 for an upper management position with Giant Food of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Mega Danish food company Royal Ahold acquired Giant in 1981. Often referred to as the world’s most successful food provider, Ahold tapped Noddle to be president and CEO of its USA Support Services division in 1988. After building its U.S. market, an opportunity arose he never anticipated when, in 1998, Ahold named him executive VP and elected him to the corporate executive board. He became the first American board member in the company’s 114-year history. The promotion meant moving to Holland, whose culture Noddle embraced.
Based in Amsterdam, Noddle traveled the world to oversee Ahold’s operations in Latin-America and Asia. He retired and returned to Omaha in 2002 but he’s as busy as ever today between the teaching he does for Ahold and others around the globe, the many speaking engagements he makes at food industry forums and his duties as adviser and board member for various corporations.
He offices in the Noddle Companies suite at the One Pacific Place II building where his nephew Jay runs Noddle Development, but he’s as likely to be in some exotic locale as he is home. In May, he stayed put long enough to chart his journey from schlepper to titan.
Perhaps no one appreciated more what the Noddle boys achieved than their late mother. In 1991 the brothers, each having already reached the top, offered Edith anything she wanted for her 80th birthday. To their surprise, she told them she wished to visit the White House, the symbol for all the opportunities America afforded her and her Russian immigrant parents and her own family.
So, as Noddle tells it, he and his brothers set about to bring the family matriarch to the very seat of power. “It took a lot of doing, but we got a private meeting with then Vice President Dan Quayle,” he said. The boys were extra protective of mama as they escorted her through the White House. After all, Noddle said, “She’s this little old Jewish lady — 5’3, 90 pounds, dripping wet. She came from a poor, uneducated background. She was a checker at the old Central market downtown. We thought our mother would be intimidated.” They needn’t have worried, as she soon showed the moxie her boys got from her.
“When we were finally called into the west wing and then eventually into the Vice President’s office we were coming in just as he got up from his desk to come around and greet us,” Noddle said. “We were kind of shielding my mother to make sure she wasn’t intimidated and she pushes us aside, goes right up, puts her hand out and says, ‘Mr. Vice President, I want you should know I have three presidents – none of them are vice presidents.’ And he just laughed and we hit it off.
“He brought in the White House photographer and he took pictures of the whole family. This is one of them,” he said, indicating a framed photo on his office wall. “He gave my mother a special broach with a seal of the Vice President of the United States. He gave us tie tacks with the seal.”
That’s not the end of the story, according to Jeff Noddle, who spoke to the Press by phone from his Minneapolis office. “As we were leaving the White House and walking down from the north portico,” he said, “she turned to my oldest brother Harlan and said, ‘So what’s the matter, the President was too busy?’ Because the senior Bush was there that day and she just wanted to know why she didn’t get to see him. Yeah, she was quite a lady.”
Allan Noddle recalls the many lessons his parents provided. As a boy, his mother made the family home a haven for chabads, roaming members of the orthodox sect, who knew they would be welcomed there. “My mom would say, ‘We have to feed these people. We have to help them, and that’s what I’m here for.’ And so she always gave them a hot meal. It had to be kosher, of course.”
He “looked on in amazement” at these devout men dressed all in black and puzzled over how different ones always knew to come to their house for the good eats. It was only years later he came to understand that a red X stenciled on the curb in front of the house served as a marker for chabads coming through Omaha.
The brothers were expected to do for others as well. Their mother saw to that. She made sure the family home at 58th and Webster was never without a keren ami or charity box for donations to support the state of Israel. “We were expected at the end of the week if we had anything left over from our five or ten cents allowance to put something in the pooshkeh (piggy bank),” Allan said. “My mother would take it to the shul and, guess what, an empty one appeared the next day. So this was ingrained into us…the importance of charity and giving to others.”
Even as they carved separate paths for themselves, the Brothers Noddle shared some common education and work experiences in their rise to the top. All three graduated from Central High School. Their Lithuanian immigrant father, Robert Noddle, was an entrepreneur before the word had much currency. The family patriarch worked in the scrap metal business before opening his own small grocery store. Later, he had his own liquor store — Pete’s. Eventually he and a brother bought and managed rental properties. Robert’s two oldest sons helped out in the liquor store as young boys. Allan recalls using “a feather duster” to wipe all the bottles clean and pushing a broom to sweep the floor.
When Allan was older he went with his dad to collect rent from occupants of the apartments his father owned. The way his father dealt with people made an impression on him. “He treated everybody with respect,” he said. “He helped them if they needed money. If you couldn’t pay the rent he’d say, ‘Oh, I’ll get it next time.’ I learned some things that helped me later in my life and career.”
Allan feels it’s no coincidence the Noddle boys followed in their father’s footsteps. “I guess it’s the DNA we got from our dad,” he said. “Harlan went into the real estate business. My little brother and I went into the supermarket business.”
Life lessons outside the family circle also prepared Allan for the world and the anti-Semitism that’s a part of it. In grade school he would hear an occasional slur like “those dirty Jews,” but he really didn’t grasp the insidious nature of it all until later. For a high school project he set out to prove the Gentleman’s Agreement principle that denied Jews and other religious or ethnic minorities equal access.
“I wrote letters to ten very reclusive resorts in the United States requesting reservations for the same weekend, for the same dates, for two people I made up — one with a Jewish name and one with a Gentile name,” he said. “I got turned down by eight of the ten with the Jewish name and I got accepted by ten of ten with the Gentile name, despite the fact I sent these requests after I’d already gotten responses saying, ‘Sorry, no rooms.’ So, yeah, I got a glimpse of that experience.”
A more personal experience with discrimination came after he got of college. Despite graduating at the top of his class and with all kinds of extracurricular activities to his credit, when he applied for an entry level opening at Northern Natural Gas Company, they showed no interest in him. He couldn’t understand why. Then he spoke to a local Jewish community elder, Norman Hahn, chair of the Omaha Human Relations Commission, who looked at the application Noddle completed. That’s when Hahn saw the name of the Jewish fraternity Noddle belonged to, just the kind of red flag employers used to identify and exclude Jews.
Undaunted, Noddle applied with other employers and impressed IBM enough to land a job with what was then the gold standard among American businesses.
“My father was so proud that his son got hired by a company like IBM,” he said. “They were It. They were doing cutting-edge stuff that nobody else was doing. And they only hired, supposedly, the best and brightest.”
But the start of his IBM career would delayed until he completed a two-year military hitch. IBM was willing to hold the job for him. At UNL he’d completed reserve army officers training that made him “an obligated volunteer.” He earned a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army ordinance corps. Then he graduated with honors from “a tough boot camp for officers” that got him assigned to the 24th Infantry Division with NATO forces deployed in West Germany.
As this was a short time after the Cuban missile crisis, Cold War tensions ran high. The outfit he served with represented “the first line of defense” against a Soviet ground assault. The responsibility was enormous but he responded to it well. The Army gave him the leadership skills he would later use in business.
“It was a wonderful experience commanding troops,” he said. “I taught a lot in the army. I worked with people from all over the world.”
His superiors tried to get him to make the army his career. “I was told I was a five percenter. Of all the Army officers in the U.S. Army across the world I was in the top five percent,” he said. “But I had to come back and do something.” Besides, he said, “I had a job waiting for me.”
His preparation for leading others — in the army and in business — came at UNL, where he took “probably the single most important course in my life– business speech.” he said. “It taught you to go in front of people, collect and organize your thoughts, communicate a position, be understood and sum up what you said in a few minutes. It was a fabulous course. It changed my life.”
IBM kept its promise upon his return home, but after a short time on the job he realized knowing the ins and outs of computers “just wasn’t my cup of tea. It wasn’t people. It was board and wiring.” That’s when he “answered a blind ad in the newspaper” that turned out to be the start of his 40-year career in the retail food field. The ad was placed by Hinky Dinky, whom he broke in with as a trainee.
“They were looking to expand the company and they wanted to hire more college graduates. A great part of the industry, which had been built on the strong backs of guys who stocked shelves, was changing. Mom and pop grocers were being displaced by modern supermarkets with delis and bakeries and all that kind of thing and stores were becoming a helluva lot more complex to run,” he said.
He was learning the ropes out on the floor when suddenly promoted to be a buyer, which proved a gateway for his swift ascent to the top. “I came up through the merchandising-marketing side of the business as opposed to the store operations side of the business,” he said. Hinky Dinky, a staple of the area grocery scene under founder J.M. Newman and sons Nick, Murray and Bob, fit Noddle to a tee. “Yeah, I loved it,” he said, “and after 11 years I was the youngest vice president ever made in the company and four years later I was elected the executive vice president and chief operating officer.”
At its peak Hinky Dinky was “doing $300 million a year” in sales, he said. A new Hinky Dinky division Noddle helped launch operated grocery departments within major retail stores. JC Penny was the primary client and its management was so taken with the concept that Penny’s bought out the whole division. The resulting company, Supermarkets Interstate, which grew bigger than Hinky Dinky, went bust.
The stability of family-owned Hinky Dinky changed during that time when, in 1972, it was acquired by the Dallas-based Cullum Cos.
“That was not a good development because they were taking money that we made and sending it as fast as they could to Texas,” Noddle said, “where they had a real competitive battle on their hands. So, the money we needed to continue to grow our company and build new stores was going to help the Dallas company.”
Those actions, he said, spelled “the beginning of the end” for Hinky Dinky. “The suburbs were being formed and if you weren’t going to be a part of that growth you were going to die. I saw it right away.”
Disillusioned, he and president Chuck Monessy resigned the same weekend in 1980. It wasn’t long before Noddle said Cullum “killed” what had been “a fabulous business model” and an Omaha tradition.
Giant Food had wooed Noddle for years and now that he was out of a job he went to work for them. When Royal Ahold took over Giant he feared it was a repeat of what Cullum did to Hinky Dinky. “It turned out I was absolutely, one hundred percent, unequivocally wrong,” he said. “They admitted up front they didn’t understand the American market and they gave us what we needed to grow faster than we ever could have grown on our own.”
Grow Giant did, going from a 26-store, $260 million operation to a nearly 75-store, $1.7 billion operation. An assured public speaker, Noddle became Giant’s television spokesman in a series of commercials that made the corporate big-wig a familiar name and face back East.
From 1986 to 1988 Ahold assigned him to turn around the struggling operation of another of its U.S. holdings, Bi-Lo, a Greenville, S.C. discount store chain. He did.
His career took an international turn when he entered the executive ranks at Ahold. Then came the “stunning” news of his election to its senior board.
“That was something no American thought would ever happen,” he said. “When they asked me, I was bowled over.” There was one catch: the move to Amsterdam. “‘Well, that I’ve got to think about,’” he told them. “I slept on it for one night and I told myself, This is an opportunity you absolutely have to take. I talked to my brothers and they said, ‘Go for it. Go do it.’” He did and never looked back.
One factor that’s made his career moves less complicated is his single status. “I never have been married. I got married to the business,” he said. “The company was my family. I had a very wonderful family-family, but then I had another family where I worked 60-70 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, and that was the company. We shared our successes and we cried over our failures, but we were together.”
He called his time with Ahold “a wonderful experience. My satisfaction was being a mentor and watching the people that make the company go develop over time. It wasn’t much about fancy homes, big boats or any of that stuff. I didn’t care.” Working in Amsterdam he learned first-hand what makee the Dutch such master merchants. “They’re traders. That’s what they do. They have kind of a concensus management style that’s different than the Western style. They’re great people. I have friendships today that will last forever.”
Whether dealing with his Dutch colleagues or with his peers in any of the other 28 countries he’s traveled to, Noddle gained an appreciation for diversity.
Too often, he said, “Americans go to foreign countries but they want everything to be done in the American way as opposed to learning about the richness of other cultures and experiences. Our way is sometimes not necessarily the best way. There are different ways of doing things.” Doing business in a foreign marketplace, he said, “you need to be sensitive” to local cultures, “but you’ve got to be successful. So how do you create the best ways? Sometimes you take risks. And if they don’t work, what’s wrong with that? That’s not a mistake — it’s an experience. A mistake is when you know something doesn’t work and you continue to push, push, push thinking it will work anyway.”
He taught in Ahold’s advanced management school for up and coming talent. An instructor from Cornell University, the designer of the curriculum, caught one of his talks and was so taken he invited Noddle to be a guest lecturer at the prestigious institution, a role he still fills at Cornell today. “I give a talk once a year at a special course for graduate level students in the food management school,” he said. “It’s usually about globalization or marketing or the future of the industry.”
Today, the “retired” Noddle applies his vast expertise as an adviser to Ahold and other companies. Just don’t call him a consultant. “I’m not a consultant — I’m a teacher,” he said. “A consultant gets paid a lot of money to develop new projects and to show companies how to get from point A to point B. I do the bulk of my work without pay, helping to teach and train how to build a successful business model — the philosophies, strategies and tactics. I love it. I teach in the Netherlands, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Portugal.” Much of his time is spent with food industry managers in the field, evaluating store practices, making comparisons to competitors, trying to find the best practices and innovations and the best ways to implement them.
“It’s not theoretical. It’s on the book. I’m just thrilled with the opportunity to help people learn,” he said.
Having not one but two “high achievers” as older siblings “was a definite plus” for Jeff Noddle, who said his brothers “always put the bar very high for me. They were great role models.” He said Allan continues to be an inspiration. “Among many positive attributes, he has the highest integrity. His word is his bond.”
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Rosenblatt is a magical name in Omaha because of the popular mayor who belonged to it, the late Johnny Rosenblatt, who in his day was quite a ballplayer, and because of the municipal stadium whose construction he speerheaded. That stadium was named after him and became home to the College World Series. The subject of this story is his son Steve Rosenblatt, who inherited his father’s love for the game and followed the old man into politics. Fabled Rosenblatt Stadium is no more, replaced by TD Ameritrade Park as host of the CWS. The stadium, the series, and his honor the mayor are more than just tangential memories to Steve, they are lifeblood and legacy.
Steve Rosenblatt, A Legacy of Community Service, Political Ambition and Baseball Adoration
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jewish Press
Legacy plays a big part in Steve Rosenblatt’s life.
The Omaha native and his wife, the former Ann Hermen, live in Scottsdale, Ariz.
His late father, Johnny Rosenblatt, became an Omaha icon: first as a top amateur baseball player; than as a sponsor of youth athletic teams through the Roberts Dairy company he managed; and finally as a popular Omaha city councilman and mayor. The elder Rosenblatt, who served as mayor from 1954 to 1961, led efforts to build the south Omaha stadium that became the city’s home to professional baseball and to the College World Series.
The city he loved paid tribute to one of its greatest boosters when Omaha Municipal Stadium was renamed Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in 1964. The venue and the name have become synonymous with the NCAA college baseball championship played continuously at the stadium since 1950.
In a classic case of the apple not falling far from the tree, Steve Rosenblatt was a ballplayer in his own right and served on the Omaha Chamber of Commerce Sports Commission and the Omaha Royals Advisory Board. He followed his father’s footsteps into politics as well, serving two terms on the city council and three terms on the Douglas County Board of Commissioners.
The stadium that’s forever associated with his father played a key role in Steve’s early life. He was a bat boy for the inaugural Omaha Cardinals game played there, a duty he performed the first years the CWS took up residence. He regrets that the facility so closely tied to his family will be razed after the 2010 CWS in line with the planned construction of a new downtown palace slated to host the Series beginning in 2011. But the pragmatic Rosenblatt knows the decision is driven by the bottom line, which trumps nostalgia every time.
Sports and politics are inheritances for Rosenblatt, who is an only child. Just as his father used sports and charisma to forge a political career, the son used his own passion for athletics and way with people to become a player on the local political scene and to find success as an entrepreneur.
Bearing a name that has such major import in Omaha could have been an issue for Rosenblatt, but he didn’t let it be.
“You can take that and make it a burden,” Rosenblatt said, “or you can take it and have it be an asset, and I wished to take that route.”
Comparisons between he and his father were inevitable. “That’s fine, because we weren’t the same. First of all, he was a better ballplayer than me,” he said with his dry wit. “I was a better golfer than he was. Basketball might have been a toss-up, except he played college basketball — I didn’t.”
Growing up, Rosenblatt couldn’t help but notice what made his father a strong mayor and the sacrifices that job entailed.
“I was aware obviously of it and I learned as time went on how he operated and how he did things. Of course it was intriguing. He was a people-person who had an ability to communicate and to have relationships with his constituency and to make the tough decisions and still maintain a tremendous popularity. He had what I would call a broad-based support. He was well liked all over the community and one of the things that contributed to that — and it was what also helped me — was the background he had in athletics. That benefited him as I think it benefited me.
“He was well known as an athlete long before he was well known as a public official and his abilities as an athlete helped to project him into places.”
Rosenblatt said his father epitomized the “It” factor politicos possess. “All the people you see serve in the public sector as elected officials have in my opinion an attribute that goes beyond the norm,” he said, “in that they have the ability to speak and to be received in a fashion that projects themselves as leaders.”
Being an accessible mayor means never really having any down time.
“What was difficult about it was the fact you learned early on there’s a price to be paid as well,” Rosenblatt said, “because obviously with my dad doing what he did he was not going to be with you doing the things you might like to be doing all the time. He had public obligations to take care of as an elected official.”
The level of commitment required to be an effective, responsible public servant was not enough to dissuade Rosenblatt from seeking a seat on the city council and later on the county board. Even with the cachet of his name, his strong base in the business community and a groundswell of support to make a mayoral bid he never seriously considered running for that office. The same for a Congressional seat.
“I really was never interested in it. It was not aspiring to me. I’m as much a people- person as my dad was but at the same time I’m much more private. You cannot in my opinion be an elected official at that level and be as private as I would have liked to be. I want to do the job I was elected to do and when the day is over I want to go to the golf course, be with my family, watch a ballgame. You can’t do that in certain areas because you’ve given up that right and that time by your election to a particular office.”
He said it all comes with the territory.
“Make no mistake about it, when a person is elected to office, even at the city level, the county level, there’s a sacrifice to be made,” he said. “People may not realize it at the time they do get in but they will find out. I found out and I knew how much I wanted to give and how much I didn’t.
“People thought I should have run for mayor. The thing that used to scare me about that thought was I might get elected. Then I’d have to go do it and, you see, I knew too much about what a mayor had to give up and to do to be successful. I could have done it. I think I could have done a good job at it but it was not appealing to me because my (golf) handicap would have gone up.”
He never discussed with his father prospects for a public life nor went to him for political advice.
“Not really,” he said. “I first got elected in ‘73 and he was stricken with Parkinson’s disease in the latter part of the ‘50s, so he was really not able, but he didn’t have to because I learned from him when he was healthy, vigorous and in office, so I’d already got the lessons.”
Even though he never planned for it, Rosenblatt said he always assumed he would gravitate to public service.
“Well, I’d always thought that as a son of a former mayor and as somebody who had learned that life that perhaps some day I might get involved. I knew how to operate, so to speak. Actually, the way it happened is former Mayor Eugene Leahy said to me one day, ‘Steve, you need to run for the city council — we need to get some new blood in there.’ I guess he kind of triggered the desire.”
At the time he declared his candidacy in 1972 Rosenblatt was a salesman with Sterling Distributing Company, an alcoholic beverage distributor. He’d done some college work at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Only his mind was more on baseball than higher education.
“I was only interested in athletics and still am to this day as a matter of fact. I really did not have the kind of plan that I would hope my kids would have. I was not academically a good student but I think you could say I was more attuned to the practicalities of life. You might say I was street smart…”
A three-year varsity letter-winner at Omaha Central, he tried to play ball at UNL, he said, “but academically I wasn’t taking care of business and physically I was too young to have an opportunity to be successful.”
While school was hardly a home run, his experience trying to cobble together a college baseball career given him priceless insights. He also gained much from his friendship with two coaching legends — Eddie Sutton and the late Rod Dedeaux.
“I’m fortunate to have been very close to two of the greatest coaches in the history of sports.”
Rosenblatt got to know Sutton when the then-Creighton University head basketball coach and his family moved across the street from Steve and his folks. The families remain close to this day. He got to know Dedeaux when the University of Southern California head baseball coach led his powerhouse clubs at the CWS.
“If I’d have known then what I learned from Rod I would have had a chance to have been a better baseball player,” he said, “but at the time I didn’t have that coaching-mentoring.”
The ability to evaluate talent and to weigh options has made Rosenblatt a kind of scout and adviser for promising young athletes, especially Jewish athletes.
“I’m helping kids to try to get situated within athletics. I had a young Jewish kid and his father from Scottsdale, Ariz. go to Omaha to try to help him get set up collegiately. I’m making calls to some baseball people trying to help a young Jewish kid in Omaha who’s a good ballplayer. People call me. People know that I kind of understand. I try to offer guidance to both the parents and the youngsters as to what could be in their best interests. That, to me, is fun.”
Rosenblatt said it’s not an accident he’s drawn to strong, charismatic men like his father. After losing Johnny in 1979 Rosenblatt drew even closer to Dedeaux.
“He also was a people-person and a great communicator,” Rosenblatt said of Dedeaux. “He learned the baseball business from one of the smartest men in the history of the game, a fella named Casey Stengel. That was his mentor. The two games he played in the major leagues Casey Stengel was the manager.”
By the time Rosenblatt owned his own business — a sales and distribution outfit for corrugated package containers better known as boxes — Dedeaux and he were like father and son. They were also business associates.
“He was not only a good friend but one of my biggest customers. He had a trucking company with warehousing and distribution divisions. Multiple operations. It was really big. Make no mistake, he was a baseball person, but he was also a phenomenon in the world of business.”
Rosenblatt parlayed his background in athletics by serving on the Chamber’s Sports Commission, which had a similar agenda as today’s Omaha Sports Commission.
“It was a matter of trying to do the things that make Omaha an attraction for new athletic environments,” he said.
He described his work on the Omaha Royals Advisory Board as “an opportunity for the Royals management to hear from people that are looking at the franchise from perhaps a different standpoint.” He’s still tight with the Royals today. “The general manager of the Royals, Martie Cordaro, is a good friend. I meet with him literally every time I go back to Omaha to talk about what they’re doing and how we can help them be successful.”
Those enduring ties to the Royals keep Rosenblatt informed on the Triple AAA club’s uneasy status in town. Principal owner Alan Stein is in ongoing negotiations with the Omaha Sports Commission and the Metropolitan Entertainment Convention Authority that will determine if the Royals strike a deal to play in the new downtown stadium or go play ball somewhere else. La Vista and Sarpy County are among the Royals’ in-state suitors and Stein indicates out state communities are courting the team as well. Like any good businessman, he’s playing the field.
“Well, I think he has to have that attitude,” Rosenblatt said. “I’ve met with Alan and Martie. I know what they’re thinking is. I’ve offered them my opinion of the situation. It will be interesting to see what develops.”
Steve’s personal connection to Rosenblatt Stadium and to the pro and college baseball tenants that have occupied it rather uneasily in recent years have put him in a Solomon-like position. He loves the CWS and how it’s grown to become a huge event garnering national media coverage. His long association with the Series and his deep affection for the figures who made it special give him a unique perspective. He knows players, coaches, local CWS organizers and NCAA officials.
He sat in on negotiations between the city and the NCAA as a city councilman. “The city was a cooperative partner with the private sector in the production, basically, of the College World Series,” he said. He played a similar oversight role as a county board member.
On the other hand he appreciates what the Royals offer the community and the compromises they’ve made to placate the city and the NCAA and the proverbial 900-pound gorilla that is the CWS. Just as he still talks with Royals officials, he bends the ear of NCAA officials, acting as a kind of intermediary between the two.
It all came to a head when the political hot potato of the new stadium proposed by Mayor Mike Fahey, and subsequently approved by the city council, sealed the fate of Rosenblatt Stadium. The new downtown stadium is being built expressly for the NCAA and the CWS. If the Royals do play there they’d be the ugly step-child who has to accept the leftovers from the favorite son.
Rosenblatt equates a Royals move from Omaha a loss.
“Well, I would because the original concept of the stadium that has Johnny’s name on it was not initially for the College World Series, it was for professional baseball,” he said, “Because of what has transpired with the emergence of the College World Series, it’s now created what I would refer to as an unfriendly situation for professional baseball. There’s no other professional baseball team in America that has a competitor in town called the College World Series. So it’s awkward.”
Even though he now takes an indirect role in such matters, he’s keeping a wary eye on the downtown stadium project, whose estimated $140 million price tag he considers overly optimistic. He predicts it will end up costing $175-$200 million once all the dust settles.
Like many Omahans he’s concerned that if the Royals don’t play at the new stadium and no minor league franchise is secured in their place, the venue will sit empty 50 weeks a year and not be the economic catalyst or anchor for NoDo it’s intended to be. This longtime proponent of a CWS hall of fame said the stadium would be an apt home for it and an Omaha sports hall of fame.
A CWS hall would acknowledge those who’ve excelled as players or coaches or been responsible for the Series’ success. While he doesn’t feel that venue would be much of a year-round draw he sees an Omaha sports museum as a turnstyle magnet “because so many great athletes have come out of Omaha. That would be very interesting, and if you could incorporate the two, that’s a helluva an idea.”
He also has a vested interest in seeing his father’s name live on in the new stadium.
“In my opinion that would be wise and appropriate given the lengthy association that that name has had with college and professional baseball in Omaha. Hopefully the powers that be will have his name connected in some way,” he said.
The stakes are rarely as high as they are with the stadium issue but he makes a practice of using sports as an ice breaker with people.
“Almost everything I’ve done business-wise, athletics has been a tool of taking care of business. My involvement in athletics is an invitation. If I happen to be calling on new customers and if they’re knowledgeable in athletics, then I’m going to get their business, because I can talk it. If they’re interested in the opera and the theater, I’m in trouble. So athletics is a great tool in communicating.”
Athletics and business were not his only finishing schools for a political life. He gained valuable leadership experience as a Nebraska Air National Guardsman and as chairman of the Midlands Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“That was a very rewarding opportunity,” he said. “Hopefully we did some good there. I had learned, of course, with my dad being afflicted with Parkinson’s and my mother being afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis how devastating that can be. Being associated with the Multiple Sclerosis Society gave me an opportunity to contribute and to try to help people…”
Community service motivated his entry into politics.
“You try to get elected in my opinion to help people who perhaps don’t have the ability to help themselves,” he said, “because everybody needs help. Having the ability to collectively help people is the thing that gives you the most pleasure.”
His political life has taught him some lessons. One is to be “leery” of any candidate who makes promises. “The fact of the matter is there’s very little individually they can do because it takes a collective effort to get something done,” he said. Any rhetoric about reducing taxes is just that. “That’s folly,” he said. “They’ll be lucky if they don’t have to raise taxes.”
His action on some issues elicits satisfaction all these years later. One involved the Orpheum Theatre. Omaha’s then-mayor, Ed Zorinsky, wanted it razed. Rosenblatt, a fellow Jew and key ally, went against Zorinsky to side with preservationists who wanted it restored. The conflict came down to a close city council vote.
“The Orpheum Theatre would not be around today if not for Steve Rosenblatt,” he said. “I felt an obligation to the people of the city of Omaha to ensure that it remained for the use down the road. I was the swing vote on that. If that vote goes the other way it’s gone.”
A controversial decision on his council-county board watch was demolishing Jobbers Canyon to make way for the downtown ConAgra campus. “It was an emotional issue,” he said. “I don’t make decisions based on much emotion. I try to make them based on what I think is right.” He said the project “was an absolute must because we as a community could not afford for ConAgra to go to Lincoln or somewhere out in the suburbs — one of the possibilities at the time. It needed to be downtown to be the initial thrust for the redevelopment of that area.”
He encouraged then-mayor Bernie Simon to have the city match a financial commitment the county was making for the project. The city did. He said, “One of the things I had going for me was having been on the city council I retained a great deal of working relationships with people at city hall. The ability to transcend the workings of city and county government was helpful on a variety of projects.”
He credits ex-mayors P.J. Morgan and Hal Daub with driving forward Omaha’s growth by continuing city-county cooperation and public-private sector synergy. Under current Mayor Mike Fahey Omaha’s makeover has been “phenomenal.”
If Rosenblatt and his wife have their way, they’ll eventually live in Omaha half the year. The Rosenblatt name could once again be center stage in the political arena.
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‘The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story’ – Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman Team Up for a New Documentary Film
Silver was turned onto this story by noted food writer Matthew Goodman, author of the book Jewish Food: The World at Table and the former Food Maven columnist for The Forward. Co-producers on the project, Silver will direct Goodman’s script.
The bagel film project arose from a meeting Silver arranged with Goodman for his insights into the food of the Catskills, the famous East Coast Jewish resort that is the subject of a second documentary Silver is prepping. In the course of their Catskills conversation he mentioned his findings on the bagel and suggested it might make an interesting film.
According to Goodman, long an admirer of Silver’s films, she said, “’Would you like to work together on it?’ Of course, I was delighted. I think she has a wonderful literary sensibility when it comes to her work.”
As research by these first-time collaborators reveals, the rise of the bagel has strong reverberations with the greater immigrant story in America and the assimilation and discrimination that is part of it. “It came from Poland, it struggled and strained and went through everything most other immigrants do before it prospered,” Silver said. “That caught my imagination so totally when we figured that out that we decided, Okay, let’s do this.”
Immigrant tales have long fascinated Silver, whose parents, the late Maurice and Doris Micklin, came here in the wake of the Russian revolution. Hester Street explores turn of the century life for newly arrived Jews on the Lower East Side and their struggles to blend in. Crossing Delancey eyes contemporary Jewish life in Manhattan and the conflict of traditional versus modern values.
The now ubiquitous bagel was brought here by Eastern European Jews, among whose members were artisan bakers steeped in the closely guarded tradition of Old World–read: handmade–bagel baking techniques.
“This was artisanal baking. These guys were the holders of the keys of the kingdom, as it were, when it came to bagels. This was the knowledge of the correct way to bake a bagel that had been passed down from generation to generation, going all the way back. The way to do it was a pretty tightly held secret,” Goodman said.
“They took great pride in their ability. It was not easy to do. The ovens were not easy to work. The dough unwieldy. It took a long time. You had to apprentice awhile before you became a member. So these guys really were craftsmen,” he said.
Unfortunately one of the things lost over time is that sense of artisanship, he added. “They were masters at making bagels. There was an art to it,” Silver said. “They were artists and they really cared about the quality of the product.”
Old-style bagels, much smaller than the modern variety, were distinctive for their hard crusts, chewy interiors and savory flavor. The International Bagel Bakers Union Local 338 formed to protect the recipes, methods and interests of the master bagel bakers. Only sons or nephews of current members could join. Every bagel in New York City came out of a union shop.
With the advent of bagel-making machines that churned out bagels faster than any hands could, the oldways became obsolete and the bagel assimilated into the cultural melting pot, turning blander and fatter in the process.
“Part of the story we’re telling in this film is that the demise of the union really led to the demise of the bagel as well,” Goodman said. “The machine just couldn’t make as good a bagel as the men could, for a number of reasons. One reason being the traditional bagel dough was too stiff to go through the bagel machine. It kept breaking down the machines. So bakery owners started adding water to the dough so it would go through the machines better, but that ended up making the bagel softer. And bagels since that time have gone through all sorts of changes with the addition of dough conditioners, which most bakeries use now, to relax the gluten in the dough immediately so bagels don’t have to sit overnight. It’s a big money saver for the bakery owners, but it reduces the flavor of the bagel significantly.
“A lot of places don’t even boil their bagels anymore before baking them, which is the hallmark of the bagel — boiled before baked. They just sort of steam them because they don’t want that hard crust. They think people don’t want to chew that hard.”
Goodman said the bagel’s transformation from hand-crafted, ethnic food stuff to homogenized, mass-produced staple reflects “the American public’s taste. The American public likes big, soft, bland, white baked goods. But that’s part of the story, too — that as the bagel became less Jewish and more mainstream American it had to take on more of mainstream America’s tastes.” A similar thing happened with pizza and many other ethnic foods whose authentic characteristics were diluted or distorted on the path to Americanization.
The story of the bagel in America is also the story of the IBBU Local 338. Bagel bakers fought hard to improve the arduous conditions they worked in, using their union as leverage in negotiations with employers.
“The conditions were terrible. The heat of the bakery while they were baking got to be like 110 degrees. Bakers often slept on benches in the bakery. They went through a lot. After a great deal of effort, they built a strong union. It was a terrific thing,” said Silver, who is doing much of her studies at the famed Yivo Institute of Jewish Research in New York, where former Omaha resident Leo Greenbaum is associate archivist-acquisitions archivist.
Goodman “discovered” the IBBU while doing research for an essay on the history of the bagel published in the Harvard Review. He’d never heard of the union.
“I just thought it was a fantastic thing, you know, a union composed entirely of bagel bakers,” he said. “And the more I looked into it the more fascinated I became by the story of a union that for several decades controlled all of the bagel bakeries in New York City and then within a span of less than a decade had been wiped out. I thought this was a really poignant story. It’s a little-known story. And also a story that allowed the telling of a larger story about the way ethnic foods assimilate in the larger society and also the demise of the labor movement.”
The IBBU, whose exclusive ranks never exceeded 300-some members at any one time, reached beyond New York, although that’s where it was centered.
“My sense of it is if you were a bagel baker anywhere in the country you were a member…It happened that the vast majority of bagel bakers were in New York, but I believe there were members in places like Chicago and Boston,” Goodman said.
Long before bagel machines replaced them and broke their union, Local 338 brethren faced challenges from bakery owners, who, Goodman said, used “strikebreakers and scabs” to try and crush their solidarity. Resistance to the union included the emergence of “non-union shops,” said Goodman, “many heavily subsidized by organized crime. So, there was certainly a lot to deal with.”
By the mid ’70s the union was no more.
“The older guys retired. Some ended up working in non-union shops, working in much poorer conditions than they had been working in previously. Some joined the general bakers union and went to work in other union shops, not necessarily baking bagels. A lot of the guys left New York and took off around the country to open their own bagel shops. That’s how bagels really got introduced to different parts of the country that had never known bagels before. That’s the first time places like Albuquerque or Sacramento had seen fresh baked bagels,” he said.
Goodman and Silver say a fair number of IBBU bakers are still around, but no one’s quite sure exactly how many. The filmmakers’ plans call for on-camera interviews with many of these men, some quite aged now. There’s a sense of urgency to record and preserve the bakers’ stories before the legacy of their craftsmanship and union is irretrievably lost. For his Harvard Review essay on the bagel Goodman interviewed some of the men, tapping memories of long ago.
Memories of favorite foods, especially aromas, are known to be among the strongest our brains store. As the bagel is a food bound up in ritual, whether along family ethnic lines or urban lifestyle lines or breakfast staple lines, it is a food that serves as a nostalgic “touchstone,” Silver said.
“People think about it and it’s sort of like Proust’s (Marcel) madeleines. It has kind of ringing memories for people.” Her own remembrances of things past take her back to when she was a little girl and her father brought her to a downtown Omaha bakery for “the best rye bread you can imagine and wonderful bagels.” Goodman too recalls the traditional bagels of his childhood.
The filmmakers are counting on the public’s bagel nostalgia, including memorabilia, to help illustrate their story. In a letter recently emailed to Jewish newspapers nationwide, the filmmakers made an appeal: “As part of our research for the film, we are interested in obtaining all manner of visual material concerning the history of bagels in America: old photographs of bagel shops or bagel bakers, home movies that include bagels, newspaper or magazine advertisements for bagels, etc.”
Readers with materials are asked to respond to email@example.com. The filmmakers’ letter ends with, “We would be very grateful for any assistance you might provide. We look forward to hearing from you.”
The pair hope to start production in late fall. They must first secure funding.
In a new immigrant twist on the bagel’s evolution in America, the filmmakers say the rare bagel made today in the traditional manner is usually crafted by…Thais. Oy vey!
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Walter Reed: From Out of the Past – Former Hidden Child Survives Holocaust to Fight Nazis as an American GI in World War II
About nine years ago I was given the opportunity to meet and profile Walter Reed, whose story of escaping the Final Solution as a Hidden Child in his native Belgium and then going on to fight the Nazis as an American GI a few years later would make a good book or movie. Here is a sampling of his remarkable story now, more or less as it appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com). You’ll find many more of my Holocaust survival and rescue stories on this blog.
Walter Reed: From Out of the Past – Former Hidden Child Survives Holocaust to Fight Nazis as an American GI in World War II
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Imagine this: The time is May 1945. The place, Germany. The crushing Allied offensive has broken the Nazi war machine. You’re 21, a naturalized American GI from Bavaria. You’re a Jew fighting “the goddamned Krauts” that drove you from your own homeland. Five years before, amid anti-Jewish fervor erupting into ethnic cleansing, you were sent away by your parents to a boys’ refugee home in Brussels, Belgium. Eventually, you were harbored with 100 other Jewish boys and girls in a series of safe houses. You are among 90 from the group to survive the Holocaust.
Relatives who emigrated to America finagle you a visa and, in 1941, you go live with them in New York. You abandon your heritage and change your name. Within two years you’re drafted into the U.S. Army. At first, you’re a grunt in the field, but then your fluency in German gets you reassigned to military intelligence, attached to Patton’s 95th Division, interrogating German POWs. If this were a movie, you’d be the avenging Jewish angel meeting out justice, but you don’t. “The whole mental attitude was not, Hey, I’m a Jew, I’m going to get you Nazi bastard,” said Walter Reed, whose story this is. “I had no idea of revenging my parents. We were really more concerned about our survival and getting the information we needed.”
By war’s end, you’re in a 7th Army unit rooting out hardcore Nazis from German institutions. You don’t know it yet, but your parents and two younger brothers have not made it out alive. You borrow a jeep to go to your village. Your family and all the other Jews are gone. You demand answers from the cowed Gentiles, some you know to be Nazi sympathizers. You intend no harm, but you want them scared.
“I wasn’t the little Jewish boy anymore,” said Reed. “Now, they saw this American staff sergeant with a steel helmet on and with a carbine over his shoulder. At that point, we were the conquerors and those bastards better knuckle under or else. I asked, What happened to my family and to the other Jewish people? They told me they were sent to the east into a labor camp. That’s about all I could find out.”
It is only later you learn they were rounded-up, hauled away in wagons, and sent to Izbica, a holding camp for the Sobidor and Belzec death camps, one or the other of which your family was killed in, along with scores of friends and neighbors.
Walter Reed, now 79, is among a group of survivors known as the Children of La Hille, a French chateau that gave sanctuary to he and his fellow wartime refugees. A resident of Wilmette, Il., Reed and his story have an Omaha tie. After the war, he graduated from the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism and it was as a fund raising-public relations professional he first came to Omaha in the mid-1950s when he led successful capital drives at Creighton University for a new student center and library. “Part of me is in those buildings,” he said.
More recently, he began corresponding with Omahan Ben Nachman, who brings Shoah stories to light as a board member with the local Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation. A friend of Nachman’s — Swiss scholar and author Theo Tschuy — led him to accounts of La Hille and those contacts led him to Reed. In Reed, Nachman found a man who, after years of burying his past, now embraces his survivor heritage. With Reed’s help, Tschuy, the author of Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz and His Rescue of 62,000 Jews, is researching what will be the first full English language hardcover telling of the children’s odyssey.
On an April 30 through May 2 Hidden Heroes-sponsored visit to Nebraska, Reed shared the story of he and his comrades, about half of whom are still alive, in presentations at Dana College in Blair, Neb. and at Omaha’s Beth El Synagogue and Field Club, where Reed, a Rotary Club member, addressed fellow Rotarians. A dapper man, Reed regales listeners in the dulcet tones of a newsman, which is how he approaches the subject.
“I’m a journalist by training. All I want is the facts,” he said, adding he’s accumulated deportation and arrest records of his family, along with anecdotal accounts of his family’s exile. “I’m simply overwhelmed by the wealth of information that exists and that’s still coming out. In the last 10 years I’ve found out an awful lot of what happened. I don’t have any great details, but I have vignettes. So, my feeling when I find out new things is, Hey, that’s terrific, and not, Oh, I can’t handle it. None of that. Long, long ago I got over all the trauma many survivors feel to their death. I vowed this stuff would never disadvantage me.”
As he’s pieced things together, a compelling story has emerged of how a network of adults did right amid wrong. It’s a story Nachman and Reed are eager for a wider public to know. “It shows how a dedicated group of people, most of whom were not Jewish, coordinated their actions to prevent the Nazis from getting at these Jewish children,” said Nachman, who paved the way for the upcoming publication of a book by a La Hille survivor. “They chose to do so without promise of any reward but out of sheer humanitarian concern. It’s a story tinged in tragedy because the children did lose their families, but one filled with hope because most of the children survived to lead productive lives.”
It was 1939 when Reed made the fateful journey that forever separated him from his parents and brothers. Born Werner Rindsberg in the rural Bavarian village of Mainstockheim, Reed was the oldest son of a second-generation winemaker-wine merchant father and hausfrau mother. His was among a few dozen Jewish families in the village, long a haven for Jews who paid local land barons a special tax in return for protection from the anti-Semitic populace. Reed said Jews enjoyed unbothered lives there until 1931-1932, when Nazism began taking hold.
“I was aware of the growing menace and danger when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I recall constant conversations between my parents and their Jewish peers about Hitler. The Nazis marched up and down our main street with their swastika flags and their torches at night, singing their songs. This was a very close-knit community of about 1,000 inhabitants and you knew which kid had joined the Hitler Youth and whose dad was a son-of-a-bitch Nazi. Pretty soon, the kids began to chase us in the street and throw stones at us and call us dirty names. Then, the first (anti-Jewish) decrees came out about 1934 and increasingly got stricter.”
Pogroms of intimidation began in earnest in the mid-1930s. Reed remembers his next door neighbor, a prominent Jewish entrepreneur, taken away to Dachau by authorities “to scare the hell out of him. It saved his life, too,” he said, “because that hastened his decision to get the hell out of Germany. This stuff was going on in other towns and villages where I had relatives. In those places, including where my mother’s brothers and sisters lived, the local Nazis were more rabid and…they hassled the Jews so much they left, and it saved their lives.”
Things intensified in November 1938 when, in retaliation for the assassination of a German diplomat by an expatriate Polish Jew outraged by the mistreatment of his people, the Nazis unleashed a terror campaign now known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). Roving gangs of brown-shirted thugs attacked and detained Jewish males, vandalizing, looting, burning property in their wake. Reed, then 14, and his father were dragged from their home and thrown into a truck with other captives. As the truck rumbled off, Reed recalls “thinking they were going to take us down to the river and shoot us or beat the hell out of us.” The boys among the prisoners were confined in the jail of a nearby town while the men were taken to Dachau. Reed was freed after three nights and his father after several weeks.
In that way time has of bridging differences, Reed’s recent search for answers led him to a group of school kids in Gunzenhausen, a Bavarian town whose Jewish inhabitants met the same fate as those in his birthplace. The kids, whose grandparents presumably sanctioned the genocide as perpetrators or condoned it as silent witnesses, have studied the war and its atrocities. Reed began corresponding with them and then last year he and his wife Jean visited them. He spoke to the class, and to two others in another Bavarian town, and found the students a receptive audience.
“Frankly,” he said, “I find these encounters very worthwhile and uplifting. I was told by the teachers and principals it was quite a moving experience for the students to come face-to-face with history. My visit is now on the web site created by one class. On it, the students say they were especially moved by my stated conviction that the most important lesson of these events is to hold oneself responsible for preventing a repetition anywhere in the world and that each of us must bear that responsibility.”
When his father returned from Dachau, Reed recalls, “He looked awful. Emaciated. He wasn’t the same man. When we asked him what it was like he just said he’s not going to talk about it.” It was in this climate Reed’s parents decided to send him away. He does not recollect discussions about leaving but added, “I recently found a letter my father wrote to somebody saying, ‘I finally persuaded Werner to leave,’ so I must have been reluctant to go.”
A question that’s dogged Reed is why his parents didn’t get out or why they didn’t send his brothers off. It’s only lately he’s discovered, via family letters he inherited, his folks tried.
“Those letters tell a story,” he said. “They tell about their efforts to try and get a visa to America. My dad traveled to the American consulate in Stuttgart and waited with all the other people trying to get out. They gave my parents a very high number on the waiting list, meaning they were way down on the queue. There are anguished letters from my father to relatives referencing their attempts to get my brothers out, but that was long after it was too late. In no way am I castigating my parents for making the wrong decision, but they could have sent my brothers (then 11 and 13) because in that home in Brussels we had boys as young as 5 and 6 whose parents sent them.”
Home Speyer, in the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht, is where Reed’s journey to freedom began in June 1939. Sponsored by the city and afforded assistance by a Jewish women’s aid society, the home was a designated refugee site in the Kinder transport program that set aside safe havens in England, The Netherlands and Belgium for a quota of displaced German-Austrian children. Where the transport had international backing and like rescue efforts had the tacit approval of German-occupied host countries, others were illegal and operated underground. Reed said the only precautions demanded of the La Hille kids were a ban on speaking German, lest their origins betray them as non-French, and a rule they always be accompanied outside camp grounds by adult staff. Despite living relatively in the open, the children and their rescuers faced constant danger of denouncement.
The boys at Home Speyer, like the girls at a mirror institution whose fates would soon be mingled with theirs, arrived at different times and from different spots but all shared a similar plight: they were homeless orphans-to-be awaiting an uncertain future. Reed doesn’t recall traveling there, except for changing trains in Cologne, but does recall life there. “For a young boy from a small Bavarian farm village,” he said, “Brussels was an exciting city with its large buildings, department stores, parks and museums. We made excursions into the beautiful Belgian countryside. And there was no more anti-Semitic persecution.”
This idyll ended in May 1940 when German forces invaded Belgium. Reed said the director of the girls home informed the boys’ home director she’d secured space on a southbound freight train for both contingents of children.
“We packed what we could carry and took the streetcar to the train station,” he notes. “Late that night two of the freight cars were filled by the 100 boys and girls as the train began its journey to France.”
Adult counselors from the homes came with them. The escape was timely, as the German army reached Brussels two days later. En route to their unknown destination, Reed said the roads were choked with refugees fleeing the German advance. Unloaded at a station near Toulouse, the children were trucked to the village of Seyre, where a two-story stone barn belonging to the de Capele family quartered them the next several months. It appears, Reed said, the de Capeles had ties to the Red Cross, as the children’s homes did, which may explain why that barn was chosen to house refugees.
“It lacked everything as a place to live or sleep,” he said. “No beds, no mattresses, no running water, no sanitary facilities, no cooking equipment. Food was scarce, Pretty soon we ran out of clothes and shoes. Everything was rationed. A lot of us had boils, sores and lice.”
With 100 kids under tow in primitive, cramped conditions, the small staff struggled. “They were trying to manage this rambunctious group of kids, who played and fought and caused mischief. The older kids, myself included, were deputized to sort of manage things. We taught classes out in the open. We worked on nearby farms in the hilly, rolling countryside, cutting brush…digging potatoes. For compensation we got food to bring back. It was like summer camp, except it was no picnic,” he said. “We all grew up fast. We learned about survival, self-reliance and cooperation for the common good.”
It was not all bad. First amours bloomed and fast friendships formed. Reed struck up a romance with Ruth Schuetz Usrad, whose younger sister Betty was also in camp. He also found a best friend in Walter Strauss.
The barn’s occupants were pushed to their limits by “the harsh winter of 1940,” Reed said. They got some relief when the group’s Belgian director, Alex Frank, got the Swiss Children’s Aid Society, then aligned with the Swiss Red Cross, to put Maurice and Elinor Dubois in charge of the Seyre camp, which they soon supplied with bedding, furniture and Swiss powdered milk and cheese.
With the Nazi noose tightening in the spring of 1941 the Dubois relocated the children to an even more remote site — the abandoned 15th century Chateau La Hille, near Foix in the Ariege Province — where, Reed said, “they were less likely to be detected.” It was here the children remained until either, like Reed, they got papers to leave or, like others, they dispersed and either hid or fled across the border. Some 20 children came to the states with the aid of a Quaker society.
As chronicled in various published stories, Reed said that in 1942, a year after he left, 40 of the children, including his girlfriend Ruth, were arrested by French militia and imprisoned at nearby Le Vernet. Inmates there were routinely transported to the death camps and this would have been the children’s fate if not for the intervention of Roseli Naef, a Swiss Red Cross worker and the then La Hille director, who bicycled to Le Vernet to plead with the commandant for their release. When her entreaties fell on deaf ears, she alerted Maurice Dubois, who bluffed Vichy authorities by threatening the withdrawal of all Swiss aid to French children if the group was not freed.
The officials gave in and the children spared. Reed said he has copies of records documenting Naef’s termination by the Swiss Red Cross for her role as a rescuer of Jews, the kind of punitive disapproval the Swiss were known to employ with other rescuers, such as diplomat Carl Lutz.
In getting out when he did, Reed realizes he “was one of the lucky ones,” adding, “Others had to use more extraordinary means to escape, like my friend Walter Strauss. He tried escaping across the Swiss border with four others. They were caught. He was sent back and was later arrested and killed in Auschwitz.” Ruth left La Hille and led a hidden life in southern France, joining the French Underground. She reportedly had many narrow escapes before fleeing across the Pyrenees into Spain and then Israel, where she helped found a kibbutz and worked as a nurse.
It was at a 1997 reunion of Seyre-La Hille children in France that Reed saw Ruth and his former companions for the first time in 50-plus years. Keen on not being a “captive” of his past, he’d dropped all links to his childhood, including his Jewish identity and name. Other than his wife, no one in his immediate family or among his friends knew his survivor’s tale, not even his three sons.
For Reed, the reunion came soon after he first revealed his “camouflaged” past for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History project. Then, when his turn came to tell his biography before a Rotary Club audience, he asked himself — “Do I step out of my closet or do I keep hiding from my past?” Opting to “go through with it,” he shared his story and “everything flowed from there.” After attending the ‘97 La Hille reunion, Reed and his wife hosted a gathering for survivors in Chicago and another in France in 2000.
On the whole, the survivors fared well after the war. Two Seyre-La Hille couples married. A pair enjoyed music careers in Europe — one as a teacher and the other as a performer. Nine of the adult camp directors-counselors have been honored for their rescue efforts as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel. Reed has visited many of the sites and principals involved in this conspiracy of hearts. The Chateau La Hill is still a haven, only now instead of harboring refugees as a rustic hideout it shelters tourists as a trendy bed-and-breakfast.
For Reed, taking ownership of his past has brought him full circle.
“Even though our lives have taken many different paths all over the globe, nearly all my surviving companions feel a strong bond with each other. Many have strong ties to the places and persons that gave us refuge during those dangerous and turbulent years of our youth. I think a lot of things happened then that shaped me as a whole. It inculcated in me certain attributes I still have — of taking responsibility and running things.”
Above all, he said, the experience taught him “to resist oppression and discrimination,” something he and his wife do as parents of a child with cerebral palsy. “For me, recrimination and anger are not a suitable response. It’s important we strive for reconciliation and understanding. Then we live the legacy.”
- Art Trumps Hate: ‘Brundinar’ Children’s Opera Survives as Defiant Testament from the Holocaust (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- David Kaufmann: A Holocaust Rescuer from Afar (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Women feature filmmakers were fairly abundant at the start of motion pictures but by the time the sound era took off in the early 1930s they were pushed out of the male-centric industry’s directing ranks, save for Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, and really didn’t return again, except for underground or art house filmmakers like Shirley Clark and Barbara Loden, until well into the 1970s. Elaine May made a big dent in the boys only network with her early 1970s films The Heartbreak Kid and A New Leaf. Joan Micklin Silver followed with her own breakthrough, courtesy her 1975 feature debut, Hester Street, whose unexpected success helped open doors to more women filmmakers the remainder of that decade and especially in the 1980s. Silver and Hester Street are of particular interest to me because she is a fellow Omaha native and her film stands as a landmark screen portrayal of the immigrant experience in early 20th century America alongside Elia Kazan‘s America, America and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather II. As the following story details, the film overcame all odds in just getting made and released and then defied all expectations by becoming a darling of critics and audiences, earning a then-astounding box office take for a small indie film – $5 million, plus a Best Actress Oscar nomination for star Carol Kane.
I have been following Silver for many years – you’ll find some of my other stories about her on this blog – and I recently had the pleasure of interviewing her again in the aftermath of Hester Street being included in the National Film Registry. I also interviewed Hester Street star Carol Kane, though I won’t have a chance to post anything from my conversation with her until a later date. Silver, by the way, is one of the most underrrated filmmakers of her or any time. Her body of work in the 1970s and ’80s, though quite small, can stand with nearly any director’s. I highly recommend Hester Street, the rarely screened Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter (also known as Head Over Heels), Loverboy, and Crossing Delancey, which for my tastes is one of the best romantic comedies ever made.
The grapevine tells me Silver may be coming back to Omaha (a rare occurrence) for a Film Streams program that Alexander Payne is arranging. After years of interviewing her by phone and writing about her, I hope to finally meet her. Stay tuned.
Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic ‘Hester Street’ Included in National Film Registry
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in the Jewish Press
With her 1975 directorial debut Hester Street she joined a mere handful of women directors then. Just completing the film and getting it released was a major feat. The low budget, black-and-white independent told a period Jewish immigrant story partly in Yiddish with English subtitles.
“With great effort we made the film,” says Silver.
Her script adapted the Abraham Cahan novel Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. As the eldest daughter of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, the story held deep reverberations for Silver, who says she gloried in her father’s tales “of what it was like in Russia and what it was like coming over and his first banana.” Hester Street allowed her to commemorate on screen the immigrant experience she sprang from. “I cared a lot about the ties I had to that world,” she once told a reporter.
That the film became a sensation was a small miracle.
“One thing I thought as I was making the movie, ‘Well, who knows if I’ll ever get to make another film,’ and I say that because things were pretty dire for women directors and I really wanted to make one that would count for my family. The immigrant experience was a very big part of my family’s experience.”
Silver feels the film strikes a chord with viewers because “it tells an immigrant story in an interesting, believable and honest way.”
Last November Hester Street’s impact was confirmed when the National Film Preservation Board included it among 25 new selections in the National Film Registry, a U.S. Library of Congress-curated archive of significant American movies. Its citation notes the film’s been “praised for its accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process.”
The honor took Silver by surprise.
“I was really pleased, I had no expectation, and I was delighted to be on the same list with a John Ford movie (The Iron Horse) and a Charlie Chaplain movie (The Kid). It’s pretty exciting,” the longtime Manhattan resident says.
The recognition is doubly satisfying given the difficulty of getting the movie made and released. She recalls one Hollywood executive who rejected the project suggested she change the story to Italians. When no studio would finance the story of early 20th century Eastern Jewish immigrants, her husband Ray Silver, who worked in real estate, raised the $350,000 to do it. He also produced the picture and made sure it got seen.
“Certainly he’s the hero of my story,” she says.
Much of the film was shot where the film is set on New York’s Lower East Side. The tight production schedule meant added pressure. “It was really scary” says Silver. “I remember one day when I went to shoot a scene and the location had not been secured and it took two hours to secure it, so I was two hours behind, and the whole time I was directing the scene I was thinking, How do I make up the two hours? It isn’t what you should be thinking about when you’re directing a scene.”
She’s forever grateful to her collaborators.
“I had a chance to work with such good people. I had a wonderful cameraman and production designing team and costumer, and that makes all the difference in the world to somebody just starting out. And I had such a good cast (Steven Keats, Paul Freedman, Doris Roberts, Mel Howard, Dorrie Kavanaugh) and I’m still really close and friendly with Carol (Kane).”
Silver first saw Kane in the Canadian drama Wedding in White and thought her perfect for Gitl, a naive new immigrant wife-mother whose painful assimilation leads to her emancipation. As Silver assumed Kane lived across the border she despaired her meager budget could not afford putting her up for the shoot until learning the actress resided in NYC.
The two felt a connection as Kane came from a Jewish immigrant family not unlike Silver’s and grew up in Cleveland, where Silver once lived. The filmmaker recalls Kane as “a very conscientious, serious, careful, lovely young woman” who went home to rehearse in the sheitel and period jewelry provided for the part.
After all the hard work to finance the film, meticulous research to ensure authenticity and stress to complete the project on time, no studio wanted to distribute it. Silver was heartbroken.
“I went through a bad period thinking, I’ve made this film nobody will distribute, what am I going to do? how are we going to pay the money back?”
On the advice of maverick filmmaker John Cassavetes, the couple distributed it themselves through their own Midwest Films company. And then a remarkable thing happened. Ray entered the film in the Cannes Film Festival and it was accepted. More prestigious festival showings followed. As the film proved a critical and popular darling more theaters screened it. Hester Street became a surprise hit, earning $5 million at the box office and gaining enough industry notice for Kane to be Oscar-nominated, both unheard of accomplishments for an indie pic then.
Silver had the thrill of informing the actress she’d been nominated.
The project established Silver’s reputation as a bankable director. Her subsequent theatrical films include Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter. Perhaps her crowning achievement was Crossing Delancey, when she revisited Lower East Side Jewish culture in a modern love story poised between Old and New World values. She later directed many made-for-television movies (Hunger Point).
The Central High graduate left Omaha in the early 1950s to pursue a love for writing, theater and film nurtured here. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College she settled in Cleveland, where plays she wrote were performed. In New York she wrote and directed educational films
Her dream of a Hollywood breakthrough was partly realized when her story about the wives of American POWs, Limbo, was optioned and she worked under veteran studio director Mark Robson adapting it to the screen.
“In the end I was replaced as the writer (sharing screenplay credit with James Bridges) on the film. Not knowing very much, I disagreed with the director in meetings and he said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and replaced me, which is the privilege of the director.
“But he then invited me – because he knew what I really wanted to do was direct as well as write – to come to the shoot and stay as long as I wanted to avail myself of anything I wanted to learn about. Of course, I felt very upset I had been let go but I got past it and I said, ‘OK, I’m coming,’ and that was a tremendous learning experience for me.”
Robson’s largess was rare in the misogynist, male-dominated movie field. Besides, Silver notes, “Who wants a disgruntled screenwriter around? So that was very generous of him. He let me look through the camera, he let me review the film’s budget, he let me talk with any of the actors, and I did. It was marvelous. I gained a real understanding of how one sets up a budget for a feature film.”
For Silver, who never formally studied filmmaking, it was her film school. Confident in her abilities, she vowed her work would never be compromised again.
“I think almost everybody who gets along in film seems to have experiences like that because it’s a pretty tough field and you need guidance and you need friendship and generosity, and I was very lucky to have it myself.”
In a sense Silver prepped all her life to make Hester Street. The stories she absorbed from her father previously led her to make The Immigrant Experience for the Learning Corporation of America. For her first feature she again fixed on subject matter close to her heart.
“My father was ill during my teenage years and he was home a great deal, so I spent a lot of time with him. He was looking for somebody to talk to and believe me I was there and I was really happy to talk to him. I’ve always thought immigrants fall into two experiences: those who don’t want to talk about it at all and those who want to talk about it all the time and that was my father – he loved reminiscing about it. As a very bright, questioning man, he was also interested in the world, politics, current events and books. I was so lucky to have talk after talk with such a wonderful father at a time when it was unusual for fathers to talk to their daughters.”
He father died before she became a filmmaker, but her mother lived to revel in her Hester Street triumph. “One of the first things she did when Hester Street came out was make the cover of what would be a scrapbook. Yeah, she loved it and she was thrilled for my success.”
Silver’s interest in immigrant tales continues with her in-progress documentary The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story. She has a feature script in development. Meanwhile, she’s struck up a friendship with fellow Omaha native filmmaker Alexander Payne. The two are discussing a possible Film Streams program with her and her work.
- Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings on the Symbiosis Behind His Film and Her Novel ‘The Descendants’ and Her Role in Helping Him Get Hawaii Right (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Vincent Alston’s Indie Film Debut, ‘For Love of Amy,’ is Black and White and Love All Over (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Cut Man: Oscar-Winning Film Editor Mike Hill (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
In 2009 I wrote this story about an Opera Omaha production of the children’s opera Brundibar, whose back story and very existence is remarkable given the fact the original piece was written and performed amid the throes of the Holocuast. The engaging work is all the more remarkable for being a serious social-political critique of Nazi and Hitler in the guise of a metaphorical children’s story. The aching humanism of the fable is palpable.
Art Trumps Hate: ‘Brundinar’ Children’s Opera Survives as Defiant Testament from the Holocaust
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha area youths performing the children’s opera Brundibar this week find themselves linked to some potent history and to a spirit of defiance transcending even the most horrific circumstances.
Czech composer Hans Krasa scored the operatic fable in 1938. With a libretto by Adolph Hoffmeister, it was first staged at a Prague Jewish orphanage. Germany’s 1939 invasion brought anti-Jewish decrees. By late ‘41 the Nazis’ forced Jews into ghettos, dispossessing them of their homes, belongings, livelihoods and freedom.
Amid the chaos, Krasa’s score went missing. He and other artists ended up in Terezin, a fortified garrison town. Homes and barracks meant for 4,000 housed 60,000 men, women, children. The unsanitary conditions, scarcity of food and harsh treatment made a perilous, hopeless life for inhabitants targeted for death camps.
One respite was the music, theater and dance prisoners were allowed to perform. Art flourished in this dead zone. When Krasa’s found score was smuggled in, Brundibar became a show piece for the Nazis, who cruelly used Terezin’s creative culture as “proof” its inmates were well-treated. Infamously, the Nazis paraded Brundibar for an International Red Cross team and a propaganda film.
But for Jews Brundibar took on symbolic meaning in direct opposition to such distortions. The fable’s Pepicek and Aninku try buying milk for their sick mother. They’re foiled by Brundibar, a loud, evil, buffoon-like bully patterned after Hitler. The allegorical community unites to defeat the hateful tyrant. Just as the themes of oppression and resistance took on added import then, the opera’s tragic context and fate give it deeper meaning today. Krasa, the musicians and much of the cast went to their deaths at Auschwitz.
Brundibar’s past and present are joined in the current Opera Omaha and Institute for Holocaust Education (IHE) co-production at the Rose Theater. Bass-baritone David Ward portrays Brundibar. Area students comprise the rest of the cast. Tying things together is guest Ela Weissberger, the original Cat in all 55 Terezin productions. She’s speaking before each performance this week.
More than 9,000 Omaha school kids are expected to see the opera by week’s end. The lone public performance is this Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
Ela, now one of only two Terezin cast members still alive, said by phone, “After the last performance my friends were taken to their deaths to the gas chambers. It feels sometimes to me a very long time ago, but sometimes I feel like it happened yesterday. I always thought this little opera went with them but if it’s performed here it will never be forgotten. I think Brundibar has became a memorial for those children and with every performance people are reminded that something like that happened, that they are not here, and I feel a duty to speak for them.”
“You need to know about what was actually happening and why this show was put on before you can actually put it on. That’s very important,” said Elizabeth Lieberman,. 17, who plays Cat. As helpful as that education was, Liebermann said, “I don’t think we can possibly imagine like it really was.” Scott Goldberg, who plays Pepicek, said, “We can think, we can try, but it’s so much different.”To inform the student cast of Brundibar’s heavy back story, IHE director Beth Seldin Dotan gave them a power point presentation.
Seldin Dotan, whose Institute is celebrating its 10th year, said, “These kids get it. They understand that even under the most dire situation there were people who presented a show like this within the ghetto. When they sing the victory song on stage the hope is they feel they can make a difference as an individual and as a group, and hopefully they present that to the audience. One of the most important things we do at the Institute is educate people about what happened and how we can make a difference to change that.”
Some Brundibar principals have personal stakes in the story. Sarah Kutler, 12, is the grand-daughter of Holocaust survivor Bea Karp of Omaha. Stage director Helen Binder lost many elders in the Shoah. Binder said, “The one thing I felt I couldn’t do as a director is direct the history. I can’t direct the piece with the history looming over it. If the audience knows the history it makes it that much more poignant but I can’t direct it as somber, sad, they’re-all-going-to-their-deaths. I have to direct it the way Krasa wrote it and intended it, so I’ve tried infusing it with things that make kids laugh and really go for the joy in it.”
“It’s very much a children’s piece. I think the music is very original and very appropriate. It’s sophisticated, but it’s just right for a young cast and for its audience,” said conductor Hal France, “and I think that in a way is what makes it powerful, because it is quite bright.”
For Seldin Dotan, this collaboration is “very meaningful” because it realizes a long-held dream of putting on Brundibar. It’s also a coming out for the Institute. “I feel after 10 years we’ve grown up. The response of 69 schools bringing their students and 70 volunteers and tons of sponsors is just magic. What we’ve found is that people wanted to get to close to this.” An Institute-devised guide was provided schools in preparation for students seeing the opera.
- A story of hope amid the horrors of Holocaust (pbpulse.com)
- A mission to revive lost notes from the Holocaust (boston.com)
- The schoolgirl who survived the Holocaust by fooling the Nazis (guardian.co.uk)
- From the Archives: Opera Comes Alive Behind the Scenes at Opera Omaha Staging of Donizetti’s ‘Maria Padilla’ Starring Rene Fleming (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
‘Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores, Omaha, Lincoln, Greater Nebraska and Southwest Iowa’
I contributed to a new book out by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society that is an appreciation of the Jewish Mom and Pop grocery stores that once dominated the landscape in Omaha. From time to time I am posting an excerpt from the book to give provide a sample of the robust story it tells. For this post I chose a front section essay I wrote about the long defunct wholesale market that operated just southeast of downtown and that today is home to the popular historic cultural district known as the Old Market. While the market didn’t contain grocery stores, its many wholsalers serviced grocers. It was a bustling center of commerce abd characters that is no more.
For additional information or to order a copy of the book, contact Renee Ratner-Corcoran by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 402.334.6442.
Excerpt from the book-
The Old Market: Then and Now
©by Leo Adam Biga
Omaha’s Old Market is a National Register of Historic Places district abuzz with activity. Bounded by 10th Street on the east, 13th Street on the west, and extending from Leavenworth Street on the south end to Howard Street on the north end, the character-rich area is an arts and entertainment hub. Restaurants. Speciality shops. Art galleries. Performance spaces. Many venues housed in late 19th and early 20th century warehouse buildings.
Street performers and vendors “set up shop” there. Horse-drawn carriages transport fares over cobblestone streets. Streams of shoppers, diners, bar patrons, art lovers, theatergoers, sightseers, and residents file in and out, back and forth, all day long, through the wee hours of night. Summertime finds folks relaxing at restaurant and bar patios. Fresh flowers adorn planters arranged all about the Market.
Fifty years ago and for a half-century or more before that these same streets and warehouses were equally busy, the commerce transacted there just as brisk. Only instead of trendy eateries, boutiques, galleries, and studios, the urban environs contained Omaha’s wholesale center for fresh fruit and vegetables. Whatever was in season and sellers could lay their mitts on, the market carried it. Now and then, owing to untimely droughts or freezes in prime growing areas, certain items were in short supply. During wartime, rationing made much produce scarce. But most of the time the Market offered a great variety of fresh produce at reasonable prices.
In an earlier era, the Market, along with the Jobbers Canyon complex of wholesale and mercantile warehouses, meat packers, and outfitters a bit further to the east, supplied surveyors, land agents, speculators, railroad workers, steamboat crews, military personnel, trappers, and pioneers with the stores needed for settling the West. Jobbers Canyon, however, went the way of the wrecking ball, a fate that could have easily befallen the Market if not for a few interventionists.
The Way It Was
The Omaha Wholesale Produce Market House Company was an officially incorporated consortium of wholesalers and the Omaha City Market the city designated marketplace where the local produce industry concentrated. This American equivalent of the Middle Eastern bazaar or Old World farmer’s market consisted of two fundamental parts.
Multi-story brick buildings housing warehouses, mercantiles, and offices were where the major produce wholesalers and brokers did high volume, bulk business with major buyers. A single wholesale deal might have moved 40,000 pounds of watermelons, for example. At street level, the warehouses featured a system of docks and bays where trucks carting loads of produce parked, their contents emptied out onto sidewalk pallets for immediate resell to buyers or into storage for later resell.
Perhaps the biggest Jewish wholesaler in terms of volume handled was Gilinsky Fruit Company, whose two-story warehouse and offices became home to the French Cafe. When Sam Gilinsky’s business closed in 1941 several former employees, many of them Jews, opened their own wholesale businesses and wrote their own chapters as successful Market entrepreneurs. One of Omaha’s most recognizable and nationally branded businesses, Omaha Steaks, owned by another Jewish family, the Simons, did business in the Market when still known as Table Supply Meat Company.
An open air market located in a paved lot at 11th and Jackson Street saw vendors and peddlers doing business with neighborhood grocers and retail consumers. The merchants selling there rented stalls, where they displayed their wares in bushel baskets, barrels, crates, boxes, and bags arranged on benches. The hawkers benefited from a sheet metal canopy overhead. Tarps were stretched out for additional protection. Old-timers who worked there will tell you the conditions made for long days during the heat of summer, when the canopy and tarp would get burning hot to the touch and make it like a sauna underneath. Standing on the hard cement was tough on shoes and feet.
Across from these vendors were local truck gardeners and farmers, who turned an alleyway into a market of their own, selling bed loads of produce.
These were small family businesses. Men made up the vast majority of Market workers, but some women and children worked there, too. For most, it was a humble living, but more than a few sons of immigrant vendors and peddlers went on to become doctors, lawyers, educators, and to enter many other professions. In this way, the Market was an avenue to the American Dream for first and second generation families here.
The marketplace attracted a small army of workers and customers. Suppliers included farmers, gardeners, and greenhouse owners. Wholesale produce dealers ranged from giant operators buying and selling in train car lots or truckloads to smaller operators. The middle men included brokers, jobbers, and distributors.
Most of the vendors and peddlers were immigrants, including Jews from Russia, Poland, and Germany, along with Syrians and Italians. Yiddish was among the many languages heard wafting through the Market. The foreign-born merchants’ raised, heavily-accented voices mixed with various American accents to create a music all their own. Then there was the sonorous strain of the district’s very own Italian tenor, “Celery John” (Distefano), who would serenade the marketplace when the mood struck.
Veteran produce marketer Sam Epstein said Celery John “had a voice like you’d hear in an opera house,” adding, “It was absolutely marvelous to hear him.” Epstein said he would stand outside Celery John’s place and kibbitz as the erstwhile Caruso made up “soup bunches” and “plant boxes.” “His personality and his demeanor were just the same as his voice,” said Epstein “Just a wonderful human being.”
Don Greenberg, whose family’s wholesale Greenberg Fruit Company had a decades-long run in the Market, recalled Celery John once leading a group of workers in a rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song. The occasion celebrated the birthday of a veteran, well-liked merchant. The guys even got up enough dough to go in on purchasing a rather extravagant gift then — a television set.
It was a place where men in smocks, aprons, overalls, or dungarees and with nicknames like Dago Pete, Crowbar Mike, Montana, Shoes, Red Wolfson, and Popeye rubbed shoulders with men in suits. Brothers George and Hymie Eisenberg became known as the Potato and Onion Kings for the considerable nationwide market share they held supplying spuds and onions to large food processors.
The Eisenbergs had a much humbler beginning though as a family of produce peddlers. Many immigrants had established routes in neighborhoods around Omaha and on back country roads, where in the early days they traveled by horse and wagon before modernizing to trucks. Peddlers often operated stalls in the Market, too. Some peddlers and vendors, like the Eisenbergs, eventually became wholesalers.
The primary buyers at the Market were grocers, restaurants, hotels, institutions, and major food processors. Just like today’s Omaha Farmers Market, the general public went to get their pick of fresh produce during the summer from the open air market that operated there. Day in, day out, the Market saw a flow of people, trucks, and goods. George Eisenberg can attest to “a lot of hustle and bustle, a lot of competition” that went on.
The Market thrived as a produce center from at least the first decade of the 20th century, when it was incorporated and a city appointed superintendent of markets or market master put in place to collect rent, enforce rules, and settle disputes, through the late 1950s. By the early ‘60s the Market declined as wholesalers either disbanded or moved west, the peddler trade disappeared, and many neighborhood and country grocers went belly up. The emergence of supermarket chains had a ripple effect that drove the small independents out of business, thereby eating into the Market’s trade.
But the real death knell came when large grocers pooled their resources together to form their own wholesale cooperatives. The combined purchasing power of coops let them buy in huge quantities at bargain rates that smaller wholesalers and coops could not match. Grocers or supermarkets naturally bought from their own coop because they owned shares in it and any profits were returned as dividends.
The same few blocks comprising that wild and woolly marketplace then and that make up the more cultivated Old Market today were, by comparison, virtually barren of people by the mid-1960s, the huge warehouse structures largely abandoned and fallen into disrepair. The open air City Market was closed by the City of Omaha in 1964.
The overall Market district was saved from the wreckage heap by the vision and action of a family with longstanding business and property interests in the area, the Mercers, and by other enterprising sorts who despaired losing this vital swath of Omaha history.
During the late ‘60s-early ‘70s what was once the produce center of Omaha began undergoing a transformation, building by building, block by block. The renovations continued to take hold over the better part of a decade. The labor intensive, working man’s market that revolved around fruit and vegetable sales gave way to head shops, galleries, theaters, and restaurants that appealed to the counter culture and sophisticated set. What is known now as the Old Market emerged and the area gained landmark preservation and historic status designations in 1979.
By the late ‘70s, people began moving into loft-style living spaces above storefronts, an update on an old tradition that increasingly gained new traction. So many Old Market buildings have since been converted into mixed uses, with apartments and condos on the upper floors and businesses on the ground floor, that today the district is more than just a commercial center and tourist destination, but a urban residential neighborhood as well.
Not every remnant of the early Market disappeared. At least one old-line vendor, Joe Vitale, hung on through the 1990s.
Character and Characters
Old-time sellers were usually loud, animated, sometimes gruff, and by any measure assertive in trying to reel buyers in for themselves and thus steer sales away from competitors. If a vendor thought a rival was out of line or infringing on his turf or undercutting prices or, God forbid, stealing sales, there might be heated words, even fisticuffs. Customers did not always get off easy either. Some old-time vendors took exception if someone fussily handled the merchandise without purchasing or questioned the quality or price of the goods.
Sam Epstein recalled the time that Independent Fruit Company partners Sam “Red” Wolfson and Louie Siporin had just unloaded a batch of tomatoes when Tony Rotollo walked up to pick over the goods.
“Old Man Rotollo apparently asked Sam the price of tomatoes and he told Sam it was too high. Sam, who was loud and had a temper, started raving. He had a voice you could hear from miles away. Sam yelled, ‘Too high, you SOB I’m treating you right. You get out of here and don’t ever come back.’ And Louie, the refined guy of the business, came running out and said, ‘For God’s sakes, Sam, don’t talk like that out here. You gotta call him an SOB, take him in the back room.’ And Sam said, ‘He’s an SOB out here, he’s an SOB in the back room.’ Well, Old Man Rotollo went on his way and about a half hour later was back buying tomatoes from Sam, the two of them getting along just fine.”
Another hot head Epstein treaded lightly around was a banana house operator known to chase out persons he disliked with a sharp, curved banana knife.
Vendors had to be more brazen then because: (1) for most of them this was their single livelihood and so every sale mattered; and (2) most merchants followed the tradition practiced back in the Old Country, where markets were more expressive, the competition more cut throat, where decorum was put aside and survival meant outshining and outshouting the vendor next to you or across from you. You had to have some chutzpah and some get-and-up-and-go initiative in order to make it.
The give-and-take haggling, bartering, and bickering, good-natured or not, that was part and parcel of the classic marketplace is largely a thing of the past these days. For the most part, people today pay whatever price is set for goods without making a fuss. It’s all very polite, all very pleasant, all very banal.
George Eisenberg and his brother Hymie worked with their father Ben in the Omaha City Market in the years before, during, and after World War II. The brothers’ father went into the wholesale business with Harry Roitstein and the Eisenberg and Roitstein Fruit Company survived into the 1950s and beyond.
One of the few other Jewish wholesalers to last that long was Greenberg Fruit Company. Don Greenberg joined his father Elmer in the family business in 1959. He said when he got involved most of the company’s buyers were small independent grocers, many of them Jewish and Italian. Even as late as ’59, Greenberg recalled, “parking places were at a premium” in the Market. Over time, the traffic trailed off, so much so that Greenberg Fruit left to build a new warehouse, in tandem with another Jewish wholesaler, Nogg Fruit Company, in southwest Omaha.
“When we moved out of the Market,” said Greenberg, “parking spaces were no longer at a premium and there were very few independent grocers left.”
The Eisenberg family’s produce dealings nearly spanned the arc of the Market, as the patriarch, Ben, went from peddler to vendor to wholesaler. Son George then took the business into an entirely new realm by specializing in the wholesale potato and onion field. He found a lucrative niche selling directly to food processors. But it all began with Ben and his horse and wagon, later his truck, and then the stalls on 11th and Jackson Street.
“My dad didn’t speak really sharp English because he came from the Ukraine. He didn’t speak any English when he got here, but he learned to speak survival English. Either you spoke the language or you starved to death. You had to make a living,” said George. “My dad was a really good salesman. He was very polite, businesslike, very fair. His word was his bond. He used to tell us when we were kids, ‘Don’t lie, cheat or steal.’ It pays off — people are happy to do business with you.”
Legacy, Heritage, History, Memories
As the proud son of a successful immigrant, Eisenberg is glad to see his old stomping grounds active again, filled with people jabbering, jostling, buying, and selling. But you cannot blame him for being a little wistful at the loss of the colorful, boisterous characters and antics that populated the Market back in the old days.
With sellers noisily touting their goods like carnival barkers, all packed tightly together in a kind of vendors row, each vying for the same finite customer base, there was an every-man-for-himself urgency to the proceedings. There was no place Eisenberg would have rather been.
“I felt that’s where all the action in Omaha was — in the Market,” he said. “I mean, people were shouting like, ‘Watermelon, watermelon, get your red, ripe and sweet watermelon.’ ‘Strawberries, strawberries, get your strawberries.’ ‘We’ve got Idaho potatoes here, 25 cents a basket.’ It was fun. They were all shouting to people walking in the Market to bring attention to their location. That was our advertisement — our voice.”
Occasionally, things would get a little too rambunctious for some tastes.
“The city had a market inspector, and he’d come down and tell us, ‘You guys are going to have it to hold it down. People are complaining that you’re making too much noise hawking the merchandise.’ Some people used to say that was the charm of the Market, yet some complained.
“So we’d tell him, ‘Well, we can’t sell the stuff unless they hear what we got to sell.’ And he’d say, ‘I know, but just keep it down.’”
Eisenberg said he and his mates would then talk in muted tones, at least while the inspector was still around, but once he went on his way they would go right back to shouting. It was the only way to be heard above the din.
A typical day on the Market was not your average 9-to-5 proposition. Most vendors arrived by 4 or 5 a.m. to sell to commercial buyers seeking the best, freshest picks of the day. “If we thought we were going to be busy we might open the doors at 3 a.m.,” said Don Greenberg. “It was not unusual to work until 5 or 6 in the evening.” Some wholesalers and vendors stayed even later if business was good or if they had an excess of product they wanted to turn over before the next business day.
Greenberg remembers card and dice games as popular distractions among some Market workers, who had their favorite hangouts in surrounding cafes and other creature comfort joints. Sam Epstein, whose family bought Nogg Fruit Company from Leo Nogg, recalled that the owner of Louie’s Market often sat in on a standing card game, leaving instructions that anyone who called the Market inquiring after him be told he had not been seen. Epstein recounted how a broker known to have dalliances with women at work worked out a system whereby a friend would “pound like hell” on a metal pole downstairs as a signal someone was coming to interrupt his latest conquest.
Epstein’s business dealings in the Market began as a supermarket buyer. He made the rounds down there selecting and buying quantities of produce from truck gardeners or farmers, including a Jewish man named Herman Millman. Epstein worked for Nogg for a time and later became a part owner, eventually buying him out. Epstein said he and his family kept the Nogg Fruit Company name intact because “it had 60 years of name recognition.”
He said in a market the size of Omaha’s word got around fast about who you could and could not trust in business dealings.
“There’s no secrets around the Market,” Epstein said.
Everything was done on a handshake and verbal basis then. All the transactions figured in ledger books or in people’s heads.
As the independent grocers were dying off, Nogg Fruit got into the food service and frozen food business and flourished in this new niche.
The Market’s band of brothers hung on as long as they could before the business faded away. As the big operators and small entrepreneurs left, one by one, and then all together, soon only photographs, articles, and memories remained.
The brawny Industrial Era buildings that survive in new guises today are physical testament to what once went on there. But aside from a few signs on building walls, some produce scales, and maybe some hooks for hanging bunches of bananas, tangible evidence is hard to see.
If you just close your eyes, though, perhaps you can imagine it all: the dance and ritual of shipments coming and going out; displays of produce being loaded, unloaded, handled, and haggled over; the jabbering commerce playing out from pre-dawn to past dusk between men in jaunty hats, their cigarettes, cigars or pipes ablaze. It was a colorful, lively place to work in and to shop at.
And maybe, just maybe, if you happen by the Omaha Farmers Market some Saturday, in your mind’s eye you can picture an earlier scene that unfolded there, and know that all of it, past and present, is part of an unbroken line. Just like it has always been, it remains a place where people come together to buy and sell, bargain, and trade. The memory of what once was and what still is brings a smile to George Eisenberg’s face.
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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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
- Steve Rosenblatt, A Legacy of Community Service, Political Ambition and Baseball Adoration (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Leo Greenbaum is Collector of Collectors of Jewish Artifacts at YIVO Institute (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Customer-First Philosophy Makes the Family-Owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare Stand Out from the Crowd (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)