Whether you’re a Omaha resident who lives here year-round or part of the year, a native returning home, or a visitor here for the first or tenth time, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of some places to see and things to do in the metro. I prepared the following list for the Omaha World-Herald a few years ago. At least one of the attractions is now defunct (Project Omaha) and if I were making a new list today I would include some additional sites (including the House of Loom and TD Ameritrade Park). The point is, it’s by no means a comprehensive list but more of a sampler of, as the headline says, some of the obvious and not so obvious sites to check out.
Finding the Essence of Omaha in all the Right Places Leads You to Obvious and Obscure Sites
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha World-Herald
Loves Jazz & Arts Center
2510 No. 24th St., 502-5291
Steep yourself in Omaha’s rich African-American heritage through photographs, videos and other art/historical materials at this gem of a cultural center in the heart of the black community. See displays on the music and civil rights legacy of black Omaha. Catch lectures, panel discussions, poetry slams, live music jams, film screenings and other educational-entertainment programs.
South High School
4519 So. 24th St., 557-3640
Reminiscent of a visit to grandma’s attic, this one-of-a-kind museum in a public school setting uses artifacts along with student-made videos, books, games and other resources to explore Omaha history, including the stockyards. The collection’s size and depth will impress. Note the Brandeis department store Xmas window mockup. Call 557-3640 for a visit or a guided tour of historic city sites.
A Straight Horn – Dizzy Gillespie at Dreamland 1948 showing the unique Metal Pan Suspended Ceiling
The Jewell Building
Omaha Economic Development Corp. offices
2221 No. 24th St.
This National Register of Historic Places and Omaha Landmark designee was home to the famed Dreamland Ballroom, hosting scores of jazz/blues performing legends and overflow dance crowds. Now the offices for the Omaha Economic Development Corp., the restored Georgian Revival building features a large photographic display of those halcyon Dreamland nights of Basie, Ellington and more. A North O shrine.
The Nebraska Jewish Historical Society
Jewish Community Center
333 So. 132nd St., By appointment at 334-6441
Photographs and archival documents depict Jewish life in Omaha from the turn of the last century through today. Special collections highlight the Jewish American experience of local merchants, war veterans and figures of national prominence, including Henry Monsky and Rose Blumkin. Print/video interviews reveal an Omaha Jewish community that was once much larger but that remains vibrant.
Cathedral Cultural Center and the St. Cecilia Institute
St. Cecilia Cathedral campus
3900 Webster St., 551-4888
The history of Omaha’s Catholic archdiocese and its cornerstone edifice, St. Cecilia Cathedral, is revealed in artifacts, photos and interpretive panels. The life and work of Thomas Kimball, architect of the Spanish Renaissance worship site, is well-chronicled. The center, located just east of the church in midtown, presents temporary art exhibits, lectures, receptions and other programs. Free admission.
El Museo Latino
4701 1/2 So. 25th St., 731-1137
National touring art exhibits complement a Latino Presence in Omaha section with photographs-narratives drawn from local community founders and elders. Listen to these pioneers’ oral history interviews in Spanish or English. Learn how the current Latino immigrant wave echoes earlier migrations in transforming Omaha. The El Museo Latino building was the former Polish Home and the original South High.
801 So. 10th St., 444-5071
The former Union Station is a beautifully appointed, restored Art Deco railroad terminal now home to interactive Omaha history displays and major touring shows. The Smithsonian affiliate and National Register of Historic Places site exhibits train cars and engines and a model layout of downtown’s U.P. yards. Enjoy lectures, discussions and films. The Durham also holds the Bostwick-Frohart collection’s 8 X 10 view camera photos of early 20th century Omaha.
Sokol South Omaha
2021 U St., 731-1065
Omaha’s ethnic enclaves celebrate their own and the Czech community is no different. Aside from the classic gymnastics program that’s part of any Sokol facility, this site maintains a museum featuring photographs and other memorabilia related to the nearby Brown Park neighborhood as well as local Sokol history, Czech traditions and leading Omaha Czechs. Tours by appointment at 731-1065.
3902 Davenport St., 595-2199
Built on a 5.5 acre estate this ornate Gold Coast home of George and Sarah Joslyn reflects the grandeur of early Omaha. The John McDonald-designed 35-room Scottish Baronial castle, now being restored in all its splendor, features exquisite mosaic tiles, in-laid woodwork, a ballroom and a conservatory. A splendid backdrop for teas, receptions and dinners, the mansion’s an Omaha Landmark and National Register of Historic Places site. For tours and rentals, call 595-2199.
Joslyn Art Museum
24th and Dodge, 342-3300
Sarah Joslyn’s magnificent memorial to her entrepreneur husband, George, opened in 1931. Designed by John and Alan McDonald, with a 1994 Norman Foster addition, the stunning Art Deco temple showcases a comprehensive permanent collection. Enjoy exhibits, lectures, concerts, films and tours. The new sculpture garden provides a major new attraction. The pavilion atrium is a popular gathering spot.
Douglas County Historical Society
Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus
30th and Fort
Discover a vast repository of history pertaining to the city of Omaha and to Douglas County through archived newspapers, clipping files, maps, plats, atlases, documents, diaries, letters, books, artifacts, photographs and audio visual materials. Located in Building 11A on the historic MCC Fort Omaha campus. Call 451-1013 to schedule research visits.
General Crook House Museum
The restored 1879 Italianate quarters for Indian Wars campaigner Gen. George Crook includes Victorian era decorative arts, costumes and furnishings. Classes and a reference collection on the history/appreciation of antiques are available. Tea aficionado Mona Christensen hosts proper teas. Call 455-9990 to arrange tours or private functions. Located in Building 11B on the historic MCC Fort Omaha campus.
Orsi’s Italian Bakery
621 Pacific St., 345-3438
It’s a bakery/pizzeria not a gallery but walls of family and neighborhood photos depict Omaha’s Little Italy section through the years, including Santa Lucia festivities, Mason School graduation classes and local Italian-American sports icons. Orsi’s is an anchor business in the trendy nouveau residential urban community emerging in this historic district south of the Old Market.
Omaha Central High School
124 North 20th St., 557-3300
Omaha’s oldest all-grades public school dates back to 1859 but the stately National Register of Historic Places building on Capitol Hill was completed in four phases from 1900 to 1912. John Latenser’s Renaissance Revival design included an open courtyard. This school known for academic rigor boasts many distinguished grads. Exterior markers note the school-site’s rich history. Call 557-3300 to arrange viewing interior displays.
The Omaha Star
2216 No. 24th St., 346-4041
Since 1938 the Omaha Star newspaper has carried the collective voice of the local African American community in calling for equal rights and decrying bias. A beacon of hope on North 24th Street, the Star was a mission for its late founder and publisher, Mildred Brown. The apartment she kept in back has been preserved just as she left it. The National Register of Historic Places building is undergoing restoration.
Boys Town Hall of History
132nd and Dodge, 498-1300
The story of this fabled American institution is told in audio, video, artifact displays. Learn how Rev. Edward Flanagan’s original home for boys grew into a childcare leader at satellite campuses across the nation. See how the school’s band, choir and athletic teams helped put Boys Town on the map. View the Oscar Spencer Tracy won portraying Flanagan in the 1938 movie, Boys Town. Marvel at the many notables who’ve visited the Omaha campus.
W. Dale Clark Library
215 So. 15th St., 444-4800
Omaha history can be found in hundreds of books and videos as well as in decades-worth of local newspapers on microfilm. Inquire about Omaha history talks.
Omaha Community Playhouse
6915 Cass St., 553-0800
The Omaha Community Playhouse represents a significant portion of local live theater history. The original site at 40th and Davenport is where legends Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire got their starts on stage. At the height of their stardom they returned for benefit performances of The Country Girl that raised money to construct the current Playhouse, which contains a collage of famed players who’ve trod the boards there.
Livestock Exchange Building
4920 So. 20th St.
For nearly a century the Omaha Stockyards and Big Four meatpacking plants ruled the roost. The hub for the booming livestock market was the 11-story Livestock Exchange Building, an example of Romanesque and Northern Italian Renaissance Revival design. The stockyards are gone but the National Register of Historic Places structure lives on as an apartment-office site. The grand ballroom still in use today. Historical monuments outside the building describe its lively past.
Ford Birthsite and Gardens
32nd And Woolworth Ave.
Markers and descriptive panels commemorate the birthsite of the 38th President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, who was born Leslie King on July 14, 1913 in a Victorian style home at 3202 Woolworth Avenue in Omaha. The surrounding gardens in honor of former First Lady Betty Ford make the spot a popular choice for weddings, receptions and other events.
Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center
1326 So. 32nd St., By appointment at 595-1180
In addition to dedicated laboratories for examining, evaluating and conserving historical and art materials, the facility features a small exhibition on President Gerald R. Ford. The center’s state-of-the-art facilities include a microscopy laboratory and a digital imaging laboratory. There’s also a library of reference works on conservation and collections care.
Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame
Boys & Girls Clubs of Omaha, North Unit
2610 Hamilton St., North BGCOO 342-2300, NBSHF 884-1884
Until a permanent structure is built a wall of descriptive plaques honor Hall of Fame inductees, whose ranks rival that of any state athletic hall in the country. We’re talking history-makers in Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlon Briscoe, Don Benning, Johnny Rodgers and many more. Looking at the names and achievements arrayed before you a story of staggering dimensions emerges.
Malcolm X Memorial Birthsite
3448 Pinkney St., 1-800-645-9287
The struggle to build a brick-and-mortar memorial to the slain activist is symbolized by the stark 10 acres of land the Malcolm X Foundation has been trying to develop for decades at his birthsite. Only a simple sign marks the spot. Paving stones lead to nowhere. A fence encloses an empty lot. Dreams for a visitors center, museum and plaza remain deferred. A most forlorn National Register of Historic Places site.
Prospect Hill Cemetery
3230 Parker St., 556-6057
Omaha’s oldest cemetery was founded in 1858 and is the internment site for many early city leaders, their familiar names still adorning streets and structures today. Some notorious figures also lie there. Often referred to as Omaha’s pioneer burial ground, Prospect Hill remains an active cemetery as well as a historic site open for visitation daily. A state historical marker describes its rich heritage. Free admission.
Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters
3215 State St., 453-9372
A heroic, tragic chapter of the Mormon Migration played out in what’s now north Omaha when thousands of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spent the winter of 1846-1847 in an encampment. 325 died there. An audio-visual display details the struggles encountered in reaching this Winter Quarters, the camps’s harsh conditions and the arduous journey to the Salt Lake Valley. View a pioneer cabin, pull a handcart and visit the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery. Free admission.
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center
601 Riverfront Dr., 661-1804
Learn about the historic Corps of Discovery expedition led by famed explorers Lewis and Clark, including information about sites along the trail. A National Parks Service ranger can answer questions and help you plan a site trip. The Riverfront Books store offers an array of educational materials for sale that can enhance your experience on the trail.
Union Pacific Railroad Museum
200 Pearl St., Council Bluffs, (712) 329-8307
Artifacts, photos and interpretive panels chart the development of the transcontinental railroad and its role in helping pioneers settle the West. View displays about the heyday of passenger travel and innovations made by the nation’s largest railroad, Union Pacific, which is headquartered in Omaha. The museum’s housed in the Bluffs’ historic, newly restored Carnegie Library.
Historic General Dodge House
605 3rd St., (712) 322-2406
This restored 1869 Victorian home was the residence of Civil War veteran and railroad builder Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, a military, political, financial wheel whose counsel was sought by presidents. The 14-room, 3-story mansion commands a terrace view of the Missouri Valley. Note the exquisite woodwork and “modern” conveniences unusual for the period. The home is used for a variety of receptions and other events.
Western Historic Trails Center
3434 Richard Downing Ave., Council Bluffs, (712) 366-4900
Discover the history of four historic western trails — Lewis & Clark, Oregon, Mormon and California — through exhibits, sculptures, photographs and films at this State Historical Society of Iowa center designed and built by the National Park Service and local partners.
- A Synergy in North Omaha Harkens a New Arts-Culture District for the City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Exhibits on Display for the College World Series; In Bringing the Shows to Omaha the Great Plains Black History Museum Announces it’s Back (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha For Free (learningtoliveoutsidemybox.wordpress.com)
- Nebraska prizes its U.P. ties (omaha.com)
Generosity at Core of Anne Thorne Weaver’s Life, Giving Back to the Community Comes Second Nature to Omaha Woman Whose Live-out-loud Personality is Tempered by Compassion and Service
Generosity at Core of Anne Thorne Weaver’s Life, Giving Back to the Community Comes Second Nature to Omaha Woman Whose Live-out-loud Personality is Tempered by Compassion and Service
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in Metro Magazine
Anne Thorne Weaver has known privilege and pain but like a real-life Auntie Mame she views the world as a banquet to be sampled.
A giving heart
The adventurous traveler and enthusiastic hostess says, “I’ve had a really a good life. I’m one of these few people that would go back to the beginning and live it all over again.” The generous Weaver has spent her adult life volunteering with local service clubs and nonprofits in order to better her adopted hometown.
When most persons her age defer to the next generation, she’s still an active board member and patron with various organizations, including the Salvation Army, the Museum of Nebraska Art and the Nebraska Methodist Hospital Foundation. Her work on behalf of causes earned her the 2011 Junior League of Omaha Distinguished Sustainer Award and community service awards from the WCA and Methodist Hospital Foundation. On June 5 the Women’s Center for Advancement’s 25th Tribute to Women recognizes her community philanthropic efforts.
“It came as a big surprise to have been selected,” she says.
She’ll arrive at the program from her summer sanctuary in Okoboj, Iowa. As soon as the evening’s over, she’ll head straight back to her beloved lakeshore cottage. It takes a lot to get her to leave the retreat, where she’s known to throw a party or two. Not even weddings or funerals can pry her away, unless it’s a close friend or family member, “For this though I’m leaving Okoboji, that’s how honored I am,” she says.
Plaudits are not why she helps others but if her example can spur others to follow her lead then she’s glad to be in the spotlight. By responding to needs she gets something in return more meaningful than any accolades. “When you give, everything is given back,” she says Besides, she adds, “I enjoy the people with whom I work a lot, I really do. I’m not going to do something if I don’t enjoy it. I only work on it when it’s going to be fun.”
Some of her favorite things
Knowing first-hand the critical difference volunteers make in fulfilling the mission of nonprofits, she says, “just imagine what this town would be like without volunteers. I mean, everything would be closed – the libraries, the hospitals…” She credits the Junior League for its volunteer training and placement activities.
Refined in many ways, she’s also never outgrown her tomboy nature and love of nature. “My big passion is the Humane Society,” she says. Still an “Iowa girl” at heart, she enjoys the simple pleasures of the state fair.
Her appreciation for both fauna and the finer things is seen in her Loveland neighborhood home, where art objects share space with pets. She’s devoted countless hours to supporting the arts. “I am on the opera board and the symphony board and I love them both,” she proclaims. A relative newcomer to the Omaha Community Playhouse board, she says, “I’m finding it really interesting.”
She previously volunteered with the Joslyn Women’s Association and the Durham Museum, whose original board she served on.
“Another one of my great loves is the art center up there,” she says, referring to Pearson Lakes Art Center in Okoboj, where she supports several things close to her heart. Nearby Spirit Lake is home to a favorite worship place, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. “I really love that little church,” she says. Weaver belongs to Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Omaha.
A helping hand
She likes aiding people get where they want to go, too. In her work with the Patriotic Committee of the National Society of Colonial Dames she helps award scholarships to Native American nurses serving reservations and helps send an essay contest winners to a Congressional Seminar in Washington D.C. “It’s a wonderful opportunity and a life changing experience for these kids,” she says.
She chaired the volunteer bureau Junior League Omaha once co-sponsored. For JLO’s Call to Action program she served on a team of ombudsmen. “We had to learn where everything was in Omaha that could assist people. If somebody had trouble or a dispute, we would tell them where to go to get it resolved.”
Her giving back is an expression of the saying that to whom much is given, much is expected. Born into a Mayflower family of self-made and inherited fortunes in Des Moines and Chicago, she harbors deep respect for American history and ideals.
As a child she was immersed in history living at Terrace Hill, a circa 1860s mansion with 90-foot tower overlooking downtown Des Moines. The home was once the residence of the Hubbell family, whose late tycoon patriarch, F.M. Hubbell, is her great-grandfather. The National Historic Place home is now the Iowa governor’s residence. She’s pleased it’s well preserved. “They’ve done a beautiful job on the restoration. It never looked that good when we lived there. It was just home.”
After her folks split she was shuffled between two sets of grandparents. “They were two totally different worlds,” she says. “In Des Moines I could wear blue jeans and men’s shirts. But in Chicago I couldn’t leave the house without wearing a hat and gloves and having my nose powdered.”
Her grandparents set a model for philanthropy she’s followed.
Despite being an only child, she recalls Terrace Hill as anything but lonely. She had the run of the place and its extensive grounds. Adventure was everywhere.
“It was just a wonderful home to grow up in. My cousin Patty and I spent a lot of time together. We’d run up in the tower and hop out on the roof. We just jumped all over the place. We spent quite a bit of our time in the pool. We were like fish.”
For company there were also the servants, “and I loved them,” says Weaver. “Two couples had been there 40 years, so they were my family. I’d take my meals with them in the dining room.”
A life well lived
Not everything’s been rosy. Growing up, her parents were largely absent. Her only marriage ended in divorce, though she and her ex remained friends. One of the couple’s four children took his own life at age 21.
Today, she’s alone but hardly lonely. She entertains at home. She attends social and civic engagements galore. There’s her volunteer activities. Breakfast with the girls. Doting on her pets. She goes on excursions whenever she feels like.
“I don’t know where the time goes,” she says.
Her bucket list includes touring the American West’s national parks and Ireland.
A matriarch in age if not spirit, she recently celebrated her Almost 80 birthday bash with friends in Des Moines. The progressive party moved from the botanical gardens to an art center to a country club to Terrace Hill.
“The joy to me is, they say you can’t go home again, but I can.”
As part of an unbroken lineage of service she feels responsible “to prepare whoever follows you to do an even better job than you have done.”
For Tribute to Women tickets call 402-345-6555 or visit http://www.wcaomaha.org.
- Carole Woods Harris Makes a Habit of Breaking Barriers for Black Women in Business and Politics (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Nick and Brook Hudson, Their YP Match Made in Heaven Yields a Bevy of Creative-Cultural-Style Results – from Omaha Fashion Week to La Fleur Academy to Masstige Beauty and Beyond (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: Nancy Duncan’s Journey to Storytelling Took a Circutious Route (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- “Paco” Proves You Can Come Home Again (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Fashion Past (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Photojournalist Nobuko Oyabu’s Own Journey of Recovery Sheds Light on Survivors of Rape and Sexual Abuse (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Movie Maven Crawford Celebrates 20 Years of Classic Film Revivals that Bring Hollywood to Omaha, Special Guest Pat Boone to Appear at Screening of ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’
One of my favorite movies as a kid was the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth. I’ve seen it all the way through perhaps a handful of times but always on television, which is why I’m looking forward to an upcoming big screen revival of the Jules Verne sci fi adventure in Omaha, Neb. courtesy of film impresario and historian Bruce Crawford. Omaha has had a spotty hisory when it comes to opportunities for seeing classic films on the big screen. Aside from the occasional studio re-releases of classics that come here there’s been sporadic commercial and nonprofit screenings of classics, and I was involved with some of these myself as a programmer from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. When the university, independent, and museum-based film series I worked with went by the wayside in the early 1990s, Crawford was there to pick up the slack. What he’s done over a 20-year period now is give film lovers the chance to see old movies the way they’re meant to be seen, namely on a big screen, but he also takes great pains to make these presentations special events by bringing in cast or crew from the pictures along with reenactors and staging Hollywood premiere-like settings, complete with red carpet and all the trappings. This, combined with the emergence of the downtown Omaha art cinema Film Streams and its regular repertory series of classics, has given the city a robust classic cinema scene.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine
When film impresario Bruce Crawford presents the 1959 big screen version of Journey to the Center of the Earth May 19 with star and special guest Pat Boone he’ll celebrate three milestones.
The 7 p.m. event at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall benefiting the Nebraska Kidney Association marks Crawford’s 20th year of classic film revivals and 30th screening. The program also pays homage to the centenary of the movie’s late great composer, Bernard Herrmann.
Growing up in Nebraska City Crawford developed such a strong affinity for movie music and special effects he cultivated friendships with idol Herrmann and stop motion master Ray Harryhausen. He says he never imagined his film passion “would by my life and career and take me all over the country and the world.”
Boone’s the latest in a long line of legends Crawford’s brought to Omaha, following Harryhausen, Patricia Neal, Janet Leigh and Debbie Reynolds. Crawford’s rep as a movie maven and historian finds him contributing to documentaries and hosting movie music concerts. He and Kim Novak hosted a program at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival in L.A. Always a showman, he puts on the dog at his Omaha events with red carpet, searchlights and reenactors. For Journey he’s arranged for bagpipers in quilts and steampunkers in period costumes and gear to set the mood for the Jules Verne Victorian science fiction tale.
Boone or bust
The ultra square pop singer Boone was under a seven-year 20th Century Fox contact when he refused doing a Marilyn Monroe picture on moral grounds. That’s when the studio compelled him to make Journey. He initially balked, preferring romantic comedies and musicals like his idol Bing Crosby. Besides, sic fi movies were usually cheap, B program fillers then. Under threat of suspension he acquiesced when Fox assured him they planned a big budget production with A-list cast (James Mason) and crew director Henry Levin), plus top billing and backend profits for him.
A script rewrite also gave him a love interest and several songs to perform.
Things worked out for Boone when the Cinemascope Deluxe Color film became a hit. It reportedly kept a struggling Fox solvent.
A production to remember
Making the epic with its giant sets, exotic locations and esteemed co-stars is well-impressed on Boone’s mind.
“For me working with James Mason and Arlene Dahl was not only a privilege and a highlight but it validated me as a movie actor. It was a tremendous experience but it was a very tough picture to make.”
Among other things, there were several nights shooting in the subterranean reaches of Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Back at the studio he and his fellow players clung to a mock raft suspended on a soundstage that crew rocked and deluged with water to simulate a raging whirlpool scene. He says the look of panic on Dahl’s face is real.
In one shot Boone came close to being smothered on set when buried in an avalanche of gypsum crystals that covered his mouth and nose, pressing down on him with such weight he couldn’t move. As he struggled to breathe he says he heard director Henry Levin checking, one by one, with the four camera operators to see if they got the shot, but the crystals continued falling. Luckily, he says, someone on a catwalk saw he was in trouble and alerted Levin, who finally called cut, as crewmen rushed to get him out. Another time, Boone says he kicked what he thought was a paper mache rock that turned out to be real and broke his foot.
‘Journey’s’ place fixed, Boone’s Hollywood fling flags
The pains that went into making the film account for its enduring appeal. Crawford says, “The movie endures for several reasons – the music, the art direction, the whole way it was put together, the beautiful sets they created, the full use of the technologies of the time. It’s quite spectacular on the big screen and a lot of fun.”
Boone’s film career faded by the late ’60s. As censorship dissolved and new permissiveness emerged., he found fewer scripts conforming to his conservative Christian beliefs. He’s proud that Journey still holds up and entertains. He’ll speak before the film and sign memorabilia afterwards.
Tickets are $25 and available at area Hy-Vee stores.
- Fabulist Adventures in the Deep Blue Sea: Disney’s 1954 Version ofJules Verne’s ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ Gets the Full Technicolor-Cinemascope Treatment (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Filmmaker Steve Lustgarten Proves He Can Come Home Again (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Living the Dream: Cinema Maven Rachel Jacobson – the Woman Behind Film Streams (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Tempting Fate: Patrick Coyle Film ‘Into Temptation’ Delivers Gritty Tale of a Working Girl and an Idealistic Priest in Search of Redemption (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- ‘Out of Omaha’ (‘California Dreaming’) Project Adds to Area’s Evolving Indie Filmmaking Scene (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Film Festival Celebrates Seven Years of Growing the Local Film Culture (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Payne Delivers Another Screen Gem with ‘The Descendants’ and Further Enhances His Cinema Standing (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Dena Krupinski Makes Her Hollywood Dreams a Reality as a Turner Classic Movies Producer (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alexander Payne to Talk Cinema with Kindred Spirit Jane Fonda at Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Film Connections, An In-Progress Story of How a 1968 Convergence of Future Cinema Greats in Ogallala, Neb. Resulted in Multiple Films and Enduring Relationships; From the Melting Pot of Coppola, Lucas, Knight, Duvall, Caan and two Ranch-Rodeo Families Cam (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
NOTE: My apologies to those who read this post when I first put it up, as it was filled with typos. I failed to proof the copy and it made for a very rough read. It won’t happen again.
With this post I am starting a periodic series featuring favorite stories of mine from deep in my archives. The story below is from 1990 and profiles a charming man, Paul Schach, who has since passed. I got to know Schach just a bit when I worked as public relations director at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. My friend, then Joslyn western history curator Joseph Porter introduced me to Schach, who was engrossed in a multi-year translation project of a vast set of journals or diaries that German explorer Prince Maximilian of Wied kept of a historic expedition he made of North America. The 1832-34 expedition also had a fine artist along, Karl Bodmer, who made sketches and watercolor paintings of the vanishing West. The Maximilain diary and the Bodmer artworks are in the Joslyn’s permanent collections and I was struck both by how uniquely suited Schach was for the project and by how deeply connected he felt to Maximilian.
Also on this blog is a story I did a few years later about an artist who drew inspiration from the life and work of Karl Bodmer. That piece is titled, “Naturalist-Artist John Lokke – In Pursuit of the Timber Rattlesnake and in the Footsteps of Karl Bodmer.”
From the Archives: Cowboy-turned Scholar Discovers Kinship with 19th Century Expedition Explorer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Orignally published in Omaha Metro Update (now Metro Magazine)
In his 52 years as a language scholar retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Paul Schach has seldom strayed far from his German heritage and rough-and-tumble roots. It’s only fitting that Schach, who loves a good yarn, has lived a storybook life – from cowboying along the Arkansas River to doing top-secret intelligence work during World War II to forging a distinguished academic career.
Until his 1986 returement Schach held the Charles J. Mach professorship of Germanic languages at UNL, where he taught 35 years. The noted philogist has traveled widely to record and study ethnic languages and literary traditions native to Northern Europe. He’s published his work in scores of articles and eight books.
Schach’s work has taken hiim to Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Germany. A companion on some of his overseas trips was his late wife, Ruth, who was also a colleague. She typed and proofed all his work during their 48-year marriage. In 1956-57 the couple and their three daughters lived in Germany, where the children attended public school while Schach taught and worked on a book.
“Ruth typed the manuscript of the first book I ever published, during the winter of 1956 in Germany,” Schach said. “That was a cold winter and buildings were only heated two hours out of 24 because of fuel shortages. I would come back home at noon for lunch and she’d be at a little red Remington portable typewriter.
“She had a sweater, overcoat, woolen cap and scarf on. She’d type for awhile, stop, blow on her hands, put on gloves, blow on her hands a bit and then type a few more sentences. And that’s how that first book came to be typed. I’m just beginning to realize now she did about half my work for me. I got the credit for it – she did the work.”
Today, the 74-year-old is still busy writing and researching, only now his daughter Joan is his proofreader. Schach hopes to finish three books yet. But one project in particular has occupied much of his attention the past three years. It’s the translation of the diary kept by German explorer-naturalist-ethnologist, Maximilian Furst zu Wied of his 1832-34 expedition to North America with Swiss artist Karl Bodmer.
Maximilian’s chronicles, along with Bodmer’s paintings and sketches, document their historic journey along the Missouri River. The diary, artwork and related articles are housed at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Center for Western Studies, where Schach commutes from his Lincoln, Neb. home to work with the original manuscript. Scholars regard the collection as an unparalleled record of the early American West.
Translating the epic, 4,000 -page diary is painstaking work which Schach is uniquely qualified to do. He grew up speaking and reading a dialect very similar to Maximilian’s – one few are fluent in today. As a boy Schach reveled in stories told in German by his extended immigrant family.
Schach’s work is made more difficult by Maximilian’s tiny script, which can be read only with the aid of a magnifying glass. The diary will be published in four volumes by Joslyn and the University of Nebraska Press. Schach has only a final reading to do before volume one is published within a year. Work on volume two is nearing completion and by July Schach said the translation project should reach its halfway point.
His careful reading and meticulous translation of Maximilian’s observations have put him on intimate terms with the man, whom he feels a close kinship with by virtue of their shared dialect, heritage and interests. Strengthening the bond is the fact Maximilian spent a summer in Pennsylvania, where Schach was born and raised.
“I’m seeing parts of that state much more clearly now through his descriptions. So many of the things he describes are things I have experiencd in my life,” said Schach.
Just as Maximilian spemnt a lifetime as both a rugged outdoorsman and rigorous scholar, so too has Schach. During his long career Schach has remaimed true to bedrock values learned as a boy gorwing up “mainly in mining camps and cow towns” during the Great Depression.
Despite harships, he enjoyed an arcadian youth in the fertile back country of eastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal mining region, where he developed a lifelong love for the great outdoors.
“Until I was about 20 I lived outdoors whenever I could – hunting, fishing and trapping. My father was a coal miner. Some days he’d strike it rich, and then for weeks he wouldn’t have any money at all. We spent quite a bit of our free time fishing and hunting for food. Yes, times were hard, but people in those times were hard, always shared things. Everybody helped everybody else. I was always being farmed out to work on different farms when someone got hurt or sick.”
Schach learned a healthy respect for nature and the land from his maternal grandfather, nicknamed the “Old Black Hessian” for both his dark features and horse-trading skills.
“When people came and wanted to buy soome wood on his farm, he refused to sell. They said, ‘We’ll pay you more money for those trees than you’ll get for the rest of your farm.’ ‘It belongs to the farm,’ he replied. ‘Well, the farm belongs to you, doesn’t it?’ He wasn’t quite sure,” Schach said, “because it would go to his son or daughter. It was his farm, but it was there for people to use and the idea was to make it a better farm then when he got it from his father.”
Schach laments, “There’s not so much of that (philosophy) “left anymore – people are mining the soil and destorying the forests.”
A Karl Bodmer watercolor from the expedition
He said Maximilian espoused the same Old World wisdom and was “shocked, even at that time, at the way Americans were destrorying their forests and their soil. In Europe, if you cut down a tree you have to plant two to replace that one.”
According to Schach, Maximilian’s enlightened environmental concerns were typical of a man who was ahead of his time. “There were so many ways in which he was so very modern, such as the idea of conserving the soil and forests. There’s so much to learn from a man like this.”
Far from a rural idyll, however, life for the Schachs was full of severe trials, just as Maximilan weathered blizzards, epidemics and other miseries on his trek.
Then there were the man-made problems the Schachs and their neighbors confronted.
“There was a lot of trouble in the coal mines,” Schach said. “The owners would shut down the mines so the miners wouldn’t ask for more wages. You couldn’t even buy coal in the coal regions – you had to go out to slag dumps at night, where we were shot at frequently. My father wanted to get out…there was just no future there because he didn’t own any land.”
The family pulled up stakes and headed west. They settled in Colorado, where Schach’s father hoped to dig for gold but was disillusioned to find “the gold mines had petered out just as coal had in Pennsylvania.” He opted for running a grocery store instead.
Schach helped support the family of eight by working as a hired hand on a cattle ranch along the Arkansas River, riding horseback in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. The full-fledged cowboy broke wild horses, drove cattle and lived a Western life most young men only dreamed about.
“I enjoyed working on the farm and especially on that ranch. Coming from the East to the West, I suppose, made it more romantic.
“We used to move the cattle up in the spring to a higher pasture in the mountains and then, in the fall, bring them down. When you brought them down they were just as wild as buffalo. you could handle them on horseback, but on foot they’d either run away from you or they’d come right at you, in which case you ran for the closest fence,” he recalled, laughing heartily.
“I liked working with horses, but I guess I was never too good at it because I’ve been banged up pretty badly several times.”
The last time he tried taming a horse was just 10 years ago. The result: three broken ribs. Years later he still feels the effects and carries the scars of his horse spills. He joked that it’s open to question whether he broke horses or they broke him. “But I still love them,” he said.
Schach passed on what little horse sense had to two of his daughters, who are “very good with horses.” He sometimes goes riding with them at a local stable. But to his daughters’ amusement a bronco buster’s old habits die hard. He’s been bucked, bitten and kicked enough times that he mounts any horse, even a tame one, as warily as if it were a time bomb.
“I set up close to the shoulder, facing the back, so he can’t get me with his foreleg. I pull his head away from me so he can’t bite me. And I watch his hind leg and am conscious to get my left foot in the stirrup and to swing into the saddle. Then I wait to see what’s going to happen. Of course, with these horses around here, nothing happens. He just sits there,” said Schach, who delights in telling the story.
A Karl Bodmer watercolor from the expedition
He exchanged a saddle for a school desk in the mid-’30s, when he enrolled at Albright College in Reading, Pa. Although he was a roughrider, Schach always found time for books and writing. He had as his models two older sisters who taught school.
“I always read a lot. I read German and English from the time I was 5. I used to keep notebooks with lists of all the words I could find in German and English of colors, for example. Or synonyms of all kinds.”
He was immersed in his people’s rich reservoir of culture and language. “The Old Black Hessian was a marvelous storyteller. I remember one story had two different endings. When I was about 10 I got up enough courage to ask him which of the two stories was the true one. He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Paulos, the one is as true as the other,’ which was a marvelous answer.”
Schach, who’s recorded German immigrant dialects from Canada to Texas, has collected Russian-German folktales handed down through generations. He cherishes both the grassroots education he got at home and his formal training in high school. He feels today’s students are shortchanged.
“If you intended to go to college you had to have a thorough knowledge of French, German and Latin. You took science and math courses straight through, including trigonmetry and geometry. I would say graduates of my high school in 1935 or so had a much more solid education than the average college graduate today.
“We’ve lost touch. I read European newspapers all the time…people all over the world are talking about what’s happened to the United States, how we’ve fallen behind in science and can’t make anything that meet their standards. The neglect of languages has been a terrible handicap to our country and we have suffered greatly from it, too.”
He believes language studies are vital “not only for what they tell us about language” but for what they reveal about culture, history and ourselves. As an ethnologist, Maximilian studied the cultures and languages of Native Americans from a humanist perspective rare for expolorers of the period. His progressive learnings helped him empathize with the Indians while his scientific training lent his descriptions great objectivity. He approached the study of Indians not as something strange, not as the savages we’re used to reading about in cowboy and Indian stories, but as human beings. He didn’t idealize them. He didn’t denigrate them. They were people – good, bad, indifferent – and he just portrayed them as they were,” Schach explained, adding that Maximilian’s accounts are treasured for their wealth of detail and accuracy.
Statue of Karl Bodmer and Prince Maximilian at the Castle of Neuweid in Germany
Maximilian, whom Schach described as “a very well-educated man,” had both a priviliged and liberal upbringing. A nobleman by birth, Maximilian’s inherited title was Prince of Wied. His grandfather had established the city of Newied, on the banks of the Rhine, as a refuge for victims of religious persecution. The family castle was located there.
“Early on, Maximilian was in contact with peoples of all nationalities, religions and so on,” said Schach. “I think this was a big help to him when he studied the Indians.”
Schach’s own educational pursuits have been diverse. After graduatiing from Albright in 1938 he began work on his master’s degree at the University of Pennyslvania. Before finishing his thesis, World War II erupted and Schach soon found himself putting his language skills to use in the U.S. Navy. He was the only U.S.-born member of a translation project team assigned the top-secret duty of translatiing captured documents on Germany’s jet propulsion and rocketry programs.
“As soon as they developed something, we knew about it,” said Schach. “The material was easy to read and understand, but we had no (compatible) terminology in English. We hadn’t done anything in those areas yet. We literally had no words to translate into English. That was a strange and a frightening situation.”
It was all the more frightening, he said, because “we knew the V-2 was designed for an atomic warhead. We also knew there were German engineers who could construct an atomic bomb.”
The stateside team based in Philadelphia did hands-on work as well – once reconstructing a Messerschmitt 262 from parts of three of the German jet planes that had crashed. It flew, too. “I guess that the first jet plane to every fly on this country,” he said.
After the war Schach taught at Penn, where he also earned a doctorate. He taught several years at Albright and at North Central Collge in Chicago. He joined the UNL staff in 1951, lured by the opportunity to study the area’s many varieties of German, Czech and Scandinavian dialects. Another factor was Lincoln’s close proximity to Colorado, where the Schachs often vacationed summers, roughing it in the outback.
“We never had much money. The salaries were miserable then. One summer we had $75 – I took the tent, a gun and my fishing pole and we all headed west in the car.” En route to Colorado their meager funds were cut by a third when a flat tire needed replacing. To conserve money that summer the family ate whatever Schach hooked or shot. “We ended up eating mostly fish that summer. At one point the children just sort of sat and looked down their noses at the fish, and Ruth said, ‘You better go to town and buy some hamburgers.’”
Until recently Schach still hunted regulalry, favoring the Nebraska Sand Hills for ducks and the Pine Ridge area for deer. He ventured as far north as Ontario, Canada for bigger game, including a bear he bagged with one shot.
Translating Maximilian’s diary leaves precious little time for the outdoors these days. “I’ve become perhaps too much interested in the man. This is one of only several major projects I’ve been working on. But it’s like reading a good book – you read it four times and you see things you didn’t see the first time. Maximilian was a very remarkable person.
Some would say Schach is no slouch himself.
- Smithsonian Archives unveils new website (gadling.com)
- A World We Have Lost (online.wsj.com)
- From the Archives: Opera Comes Alive Behind the Scenes at Opera Omaha Staging of Donizetti’s ‘Maria Padilla’ Starring Rene Fleming (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Eighty Years and Counting, History in the Making at the Durham Museum (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
I love writing about film, and several of my new posts will reflect that. The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in 2003 to report on an exhibition of Magnum photos and a screening of the classic film The Misfits at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. The connection between the photo agency and the film is explained in the piece, but suffice to say that my main interest was in writing about a film I always admired, even as a kid, when its adult themes were well beyond my years. But the melancholic work resonated with me even then, perhaps because I so strongly identified with its outsider characters and their vulnerability. Every time I watch the movie I glean new insights from it. Of course as I got older I learned that this was the last film of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, one of the last that Montgomery Clift made, and that the marriage between Monroe and the film’s screenwriter Arthur Miller was effectively over, all of which lends the performances a tragic certain patina. Kevin McCarthy, who played Monroe’s husband in the opening scene, was the special guest at the revival screening of The Misfits. I did an advance phone interview with him and he was just a delight to speak with. I saw on the news that he passed away the other day.
My friend and fellow Omaha native Gail Levin, a documentary filmmaker, took the measure of the potent forces at work in the film and on the set in her film, Making the Misfits. Find other posts on this blog about Gail and her work, including her documentary about James Dean. One of her latest films profiled Jeff Bridges.
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It is only fitting a photographic exhibition at Joslyn Art Museum capturing candid moments of movie legends should kick off with a screening of the legendary film The Misfits, a picture resonating with so much of what makes the movies alluring.
From iconic stars who met tragic deaths to an enormously talented writer and director dealing in potent themes to a majestic Western landscape filmed in moody black and white and riddled with rich metaphors, The Misfits has it all. The film, apropos its title, is an evocative tale, sparely and honestly told, about the disenchantment and yearning of drifters and dreamers hanging on to an endangered way of life in the vanishing wild of the Nevada desert. It is a quintessentially American story about pursuing individual freedom and expression in a conformist world and following dreams, even if deferred, with the aid of a star.
Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford is presenting, in his usual boffo style, this one-night only tribute to The Misfits on Saturday October 11 in Joslyn’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The doors open at 6 p.m., the event begins at 7 and the film unreels at 7:30.
Among the Crawfordesque touches planned are searchlights, red carpet fanfare, horse riders, a trick roper and reenactors portraying the film’s two stars, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Special guests include actor Kevin McCarthy, who plays Monroe’s jilted husband in the film. McCarthy will speak before the picture. Legendary producer and former Paramount Studios exec A.C. Lyles was also to have appeared, but will instead be presiding at the memorial services of two Hollywood greats that recently passed away, Donold O’Connor and Elia Kazan.
As with past film events (including Ben-Hur, Psycho, King Kong, The Searchers, West Side Story), Crawford’s secured a restored print, from United Artists, for the show.
After the film, audience members may enjoy a cash bar, cash hors d’oeuvres and desserts in the museum’s atrium, get autographs or photos of McCarthy and Lyles and see a sneak preview of the traveling exhibition Magnum Cinema: Photographs from 50 Years of Movie Making. The exhibition, which runs through January 4, 2004, includes images that a team of photojournalists from Magnum, a renowned, worldwide cooperative photo agency started in 1947 by famed imagemakers Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour and George Rodger, took during the making of The Misfits. In all, the exhibit displays 111 works by 39 leading photographers culled together from Magnum’s archive of more than one million photos covering the breadth of human endeavor and experience.
For a long time, The Misfits, that elegiac tone poem to the passing of the American Wild, was regarded more as a morbid curiosity than a successful filmic drama. Besides being a psychologically-complex, symbol-filled, post-modern adult Western where the only “action” comes late in the last reel and where the only “hero” is a broken down cowboy in crisis, the movie has long been overshadowed by the looming, larger-than-life legacies of the three Hollywood idols who starred in the project and died untimely deaths after its completion.
Clark Gable, the one-time King of Hollywood, suffered a massive heart attack only 11 days after shooting wrapped. Gable, who was 59, lost weight in preparation for his part as a lean, laconic horseman. Plus, he did his own rigorous stunts, including wrangling wild mustangs on location in the unforgiving Nevada desert. About a year later, in 1962, Marilyn Monroe, the then and forever reigning sex goddess, died at age 36 of an apparent drug overdose. Montgomery Clift, the romantic screen idol who made male sensitivity sexy, passed away unexpectedly at age 45 in 1966.
Rounding out the supporting cast were dynamic Eli Wallach and Kevin McCarthy, Actor’s Studio veterans with Clift, and powerful character actress Thelma Ritter.
Then there were the on-the-set intrigues that played out amongst the rarefied company of creative titans that wrote and directed The Misfits. The script was authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, The Crucible), the towering intellectual icon of American theater, for his then wife Monroe. Directing the picture was Oscar-winning filmmaker John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, Moby Dick, The Man Who Would Be King), the great maverick adventurer-artist of American cinema.
By all accounts, the collaboration between Miller, Huston and the other artists involved was relatively congenial. Miller, the insular egghead, wore his pensiveness like a badge of honor. Huston, the unabashed sensualist, presided over the set like a lion on the hunt. Monroe, the bright but brittle star, variously charmed and confounded everyone with her child-like persona and neurotic flights of fancy. Gable, the macho, devil-may-care journeyman, bore all the distractions like the true gentleman and professional he was. Clift, the complex, introspective method actor riddled by insecurities, tried fitting into this dysfunctional family.
Adding to the tension were the personal dramas playing out during the project. Gable felt out-of-step with the times given the studio system he became a star in was dying, the pictures he became identified with were not being made anymore and the kinds of rebel parts he built his persona on were going to younger actors.
Hounded by the press since their headline-making marriage a few years before, the unlikely match of the serious writer Miller and the blond bombshell Monroe was falling apart by the time the movie began shooting. Monroe was at a personal and professional crossroads. Desperate to shed her sexpot image, she was finding studios and audiences less than eager to see her in a “serious” light. Already suffering from the emotional turmoil that defined her last years, she caused much disruption and many delays with her chronic tardiness, absences and blown lines.
In a phone interview from his Sherman Oaks, Calif. home, McCarthy recalled Marilyn’s difficulties in the brief scene they have together in The Misfits. In it, she rushes up the steps of the Reno courthouse where McCarthy, her estranged husband, is hoping she will rethink her decision to divorce him, but instead she brushes him off with the enigmatic line, “You’re just not there.”
What should have been a simple take turned into an ordeal.
“She was having trouble remembering her lines in sequence,” McCarthy said, “and John Huston was getting to the point where he didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t hear her. He’d ask, ‘Did she say all her lines?’ And I’d go, ‘No,’ or the guy running the boom would go, ‘No, she’s missing some of the stuff, Mr. Huston.’ She came running up the steps maybe 16 or 17 times. Well, finally, after a lot of procedures and wrangling, they put a microphone underneath my tie and ran a wire up my pants leg, all the kinds of things you didn’t do then…So, I was pinned to the spot where I was standing, and when Marilyn finally said everything, Huston turned the camera around and did a take with me. And I was through with the picture.”
Ironically, McCarthy said, “it was a film I reluctantly took because I was too vain to be playing a scene where I was gone in 28 seconds or something like that when my buddies Eli Wallach and Monty Clift were playing full-blooded, fully-written parts.”
The palpable strain caused by Marilyn was made worse with Miller always looking over her shoulder on the set. Then there was the script’s lack of any clearly defined narrative driving force or traditional happy ending and the demands on the players to drop all hint of vanity in portraying a motley crew of losers in emotionally raw scenes rare for that era of American cinema.
Miller came up with the story, which originally appeared in Esquire Magazine, after an extended stay in Nevada to establish residence in Reno for his divorce from his first wife. Besides the dissolution of his marriage and the bloom of new romance with Monroe, his plays were being dismissed and he was reeling from the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Washington, where he’d been called as a witness and refused to name names in the Communist witch hunt proceedings.
It was in Reno where Miller was introduced to similarly displaced persons as himself. Not surprisingly, the three major male figures in the film are cowboys who, as Bruce Crawford puts it, resist “modern civilization encroaching on them and their free-spirited way of life.” Gay (Gable) is an aging, spent, but still gallant horse wrangler, Purse (Clift) a sweet-natured rodeo rider and Guido (Wallach) a cynical war veteran turned bush pilot. The men prefer living a hand-to-mouth existence rather than “work for wages.”
Perhaps projecting himself into the characters, Miller has each stubbornly hold fast to some ideal of freedom and vision of happiness amid this harsh new era reining them in. When Monroe’s nurturing character, Roslyn, comes onto the scene she forms them into a loose family of misfits, each of whom is running away from something or towards something. Perhaps, as Gay says, they’re all trying “to find a way to be alive.” In Roslyn, who awakens promise and desire in the men but ultimately chooses the older Gay, Miller seemed to be imagining a hoped-for reconciliation with Monroe.
Unusual for Huston, The Misfits revolves around a female figure. With the exception of Katharine Hepburn’s turn in The African Queen, no actress so dominates one of his pictures as Monroe does in the part of Roslyn, the human equivalent of the wild mustangs the men try corralling. When, near the end, she expresses disgust at the idea the horses will be sold to the dog food factory, she makes the men question themselves and their methods. In using trucks and a plane to round up the animals for such an inglorious end, the men realize they’ve corrupted the very thing they love.
For Crawford, the denouement is “the end of an era…the end of the West as we once knew it. It’s the last roundup. The cowboys are left knowing they’re going to have to find another way of feeling alive and validating their lives.”
Anyone who knows Huston’s work can see the story echoes the recurrent theme of his pictures — a group of people banded together in search of some prize or goal that proves elusive amid the human conflicts and dramatic fates that arise. And, like much of Miller’s work, the story examines the uneasy gulf between ideals and reality, the challenge of remaining an individual in a corporate era of crushing anonymity and the need for and difficulty of maintaining human-family relationships in a world where people act, by nature, at cross-purposes to each other.
Fateful quests are not only intrinsic to Huston’s work, they operate on more than one level, said Michael Krainak, a professor of film history and appreciation at Metropolitan Community College and the man who headed-up Joslyn’s film series in the 1980s.
“Besides a material quest there’s a spiritual quest. His characters search for meaning in their lives. In many cases not all the characters are aware that is happening. So often, characters like Bogart at the end of Sierra Madre never even benefit from it. They’re oblivious to the changes taking place and to the lessons being learned. Huston equated that to the tenets of the existential philosophers. His films tend to end in material failure because for him the ends are irrelevant.
“What gives the quest meaning is the process itself, and you take something from that or you don’t. The ones who don’t often die physically or spiritually and the ones who do are able to carry on. It’s like Syndey Greenstreet’s great reaction to Peter Lorre when they discover the falcon is immaterial in The Maltese Falcon — ‘Well, what are you going to do?’”
Consistent with Miller’s ideology, The Misfits is replete with references to the impermanence of things.
“Gay speaks a line that’s very Milleresque,” Krainak said. “He says, ‘Well, nothing’s it,’ meaning nothing lasts forever. And Miller seems to be saying, Well, if that’s true, then that’s a guarantee of change. A theme of Miller’s has always been this idea of rebirth and reinventing yourself. The humanistic ideas in Miller’s work that are also evident in Huston’s work is this final goal of self-acceptance. To survive the wreckage of your life by seeking shelter in relationships and, more than anything else, by carving out your own meaning in life. The successful characters in Huston’s movies seem to confront the element of choice, You either choose to live an authentic life or an anonymous life. In this movie, becoming anonymous is to ‘work for wages.’”
In The Misfits Gay finally concedes the passing of his ways, but goes out on his own terms (or sword). He utters a line summing up his defiance and regeneration: “A man who’s afraid to die, is afraid to live.”
At the end, he and Roslyn drive off at night in search of a new path. They look out to see the mare and her colts running free, and they smile. She asks, “How do we get home?” He looks up at the night sky and says, “We’ll follow that star and get there.” As Krainak said, “What they’re left with is the quest — to get back on the trail. Instead of the the sunset, they ride off into the evening star. It’s a very Hustonian ending in that there’s promise for redemption or rediscovery or self-knowledge, but no guarantee.” In Crawford’s mind, “That has to be one of the most beautiful, haunting endings in film history.”
Krainak, a Huston buff, said that for years a running argument among cineastes has centered around the question of whether The Misfits is more a Huston film or a Miller film.
“It’s clearly both, but ultimately I think it’s Huston’s film,” he said. “In typical Huston fashion there’s this physical, larger-than-life task that a bunch of ne’er-do-wells on the edge of society attempt and fate somehow intervenes. In The Misfits it’s not so much tempting fate, as in Greek tragedy, but more of an Anglo-Saxon fatalistic attitude that says, If there’s a worst thing that can possibly happen, it will happen. The Anglo-Saxons had a wonderful word for it — weird. It’s indeterminate. It’s a more modern existential attitude toward fate. The character Guido even says something like, ‘I didn’t know that could happen.’ I think that’s so much what The Misfits is about.”
According to Krainak, the Miller-Huston pairing was more than a philosophical fit, but an artistic one. “One thing Miller’s got in common with Huston is a minimalist approach,” he said. “With Huston it was always a minimalist shooting script, shooting style, choice of film language, use of camera and editing. With Miller it was simple sets, lighting and everything focused on characters. Huston had to work very hard to create a visual dynamic when working so close with the figures of these characters in a setting and landscape that is so specific and very important.”
From his extensive reading about The Misfits, Krainak found Huston, with Miller’s blessing, eschewed color cinematography in order to bring out certain dramatic-symbolic points. “Huston definitely wanted stark black and whites in the background and the setting, with the characters, at least as I interpret it, as the shades of gray. That’s how it plays out in the imagery. It’s really a beautiful black and white film.” The atmospheric photography is by Russell Metty and the neoclassical jazz score is by Alex North.” Krainak added that, unlike most films, The Misfits was shot chronologically in order to capture a sense of “immediacy and spontaneity,” vital qualities in a story about impulsive free spirits.
Krainak said the film came at “a very self-indulgent” point in Huston’s career when, in addition to working with Miller, he was collaborating with such artists as Truman Capote (Beat the Devil), Ray Bradbury (Moby Dick), Jean Paul Sartre (Freud) and Tennessee Williams (The Night of the Iguana). “It was a very psychologically-charged period where he was exploring interior adventures or the landscape of the mind as opposed to exterior adventures or the landscape of nature.”
Why The Misfits was, until recently, dismissed as an interesting failure rather than a singular achievement can be explained by its “dense, cerebral, ‘European’ feel and by its star-crossed history, said Krainak, who puts an intriguing spin on the theory by suggesting “a killing off of a Hollywood era” took place with the deaths of Monroe, Gable and Clift and with the way Huston and Miller “underplayed these icons.”
He explained, “These were aging, wounded icons. Monroe was so vulnerable. Gable completely falls apart in a scene that everybody refers to. Clift takes a bad fall and wears bandages the rest of the film. Their audiences were not used to seeing them that way. What Huston and Miller did with these stars was a precursor of the American cinema renaissance of the late 1960s. The drama, thanks to Miller’s screenplay, and the imagery, thanks to Huston’s direction, made it a film dominated by character as opposed to pure action or star persona.”
- Nevada town remembers Marilyn Monroe’s last movie (omg.yahoo.com)
- Actor Kevin McCarthy Passes Away at 96 (pamil-visions.net)
- Academy to honor Alex North with a screening of ‘The Misfits’ (hollywoodnews.com)
- Clark Gable — Hollywood Star and Male Style Icon (rubylane.com)
- Naomi Watts Marilyn Monroe Biopic “Blonde” (popcrunch.com)
- From the Archives: Alexander Payne, an Exclusive Interview Following the Success of ‘Sideways’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Hail, Hail ‘The Descendants’ – Alexander Payne’s First Feature Since ‘Sideways’ a Hit with Critics, and the George Clooney-starring Comedy-Drama is Sure to be an Awards Contender (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Yolonda Ross Takes It to the Limit (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Clark Gable — Hollywood Star and Male Style Icon (rubylane.com)
- Naomi Watts Marilyn Monroe Biopic “Blonde” (popcrunch.com)
- From the Archives: Alexander Payne, an Exclusive Interview Following the Success of ‘Sideways’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Hail, Hail ‘The Descendants’ – Alexander Payne’s First Feature Since ‘Sideways’ a Hit with Critics, and the George Clooney-starring Comedy-Drama is Sure to be an Awards Contender (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Yolonda Ross Takes It to the Limit (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
UPDATE: As some of you who have recently come to this post know already the subject of this profile, Isabella Threlkeld, passed away March 4, 2012. I met her just a few years before. By the time I met her she was quite on in years and living in a retirement community, but her passion and curiosity for life were undiminished. She will always be one of the more unforgettable characters of my journalistic career. Rest in peace, dear Isabella.
Someone, I don’t remember who now, told me about Isabella Threlkeld, suggesting she’d make an interesting profile subject. To say the least, she did. My New Horizons piece about Isabella follows, and I believe it’s a case in point of how people all around us have fascinating stories if we only take the time and show the interest to search out and learn their tales. As a journalist, I am in a privileged position to seek out people’s stories and to share them with others. For every great story I come upon and end up writing, I can only imagine there are dozens, hundreds, thousands, that I miss or will never have the time to get to. I am only one writer, one storyteller, after all. I am glad I found Isabella and her story. As you’ll read, she is my prototypical profile subject in that she has a great passion and magnificent obsession that permeates every fiber of her being. During the course of several conversations I had with her before the interview and then during the interview and in subsequent conversations, she described an unlikely association with Albert Einstein that I wanted to believe but that I couldn’t find any confirmation of. I still want to believe it happened the way she tells it, but even if it didn’t it’s just another manifestation of her passion and magnificent obsession, which are qualities I find irresistible.
Isabella Threlkeld’s Lifetime Pursuit of Art and Ideas Yields an Uncommon Life
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Isabella Threlkeld could feel sorry for herself. She chooses not to. She’s too busy enjoying life. The Omaha artist, art enthusiast, collector, instructor and art therapist is still very much engaged in her passion and work at 86. Still a vivacious force of nature whose brassy personality is the life of any gathering.
Opinionated, curious, quick-to-laugh, Isabella loves the stimulation of a good conversation, book or artwork.
Despite compromises to her age she still paints/draws every day, her precious sketchpad never far from her lithe hands. She even has a new exhibition opening Dec. 5 at the Hot Shops Art Center in NoDo.
The show’s Futurism theme perfectly expresses this dynamo’s focus on energy and states of being. Always reading, always exploring, she’s more attuned to the here-and-now and things-to-come than the past. Not that she doesn’t think about her much-traveled, event-filled past. She does. She has a keen appreciation for history and what it teaches. She savors her visits to Mexico, England, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Greece, Egypt, Morocco, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, all locales she studied in, all cultures she immersed herself in.
She also dips into the past to inform her work, like a commissioned mural of Albert Einstein and comets she completed for her show. Einstein’s work inspired the international Futurism movement, which incorporates science in art. She’s been an adherent since the 1960s. When her thoughts turn to Futurism, she considers big bang theories, black holes, space-time continuums and parallel universes the way the rest of us do sports or politics. She reads Scientific American cover to cover.
Her Einstein piece is more than an idle fan’s rendering of an icon. It displays the deep stirrings of a woman who claims to have spent time with the famed theoretical physicist. As she tells it, she was barely more than a girl when she found herself taking notes for not only Einstein, whose theory of relativity changed the world, but other leading physicists, including Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi. Scientists were embroiled in discussions over peaceful atomic energy use. She said these meetings took place at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. in the mid-1940s.
The story of how Isabella, a Wellesley art student from Omaha, may have come to be associated with the fathers of atomic energy, must wait. First, there’s more to know about her uncoventional life, one in which Einstein and Co. are but a few of the famous people with whom she’s crossed paths.
Spend any time at all with Izzie and you soon realize she’s far more than the sum of her considerable parts. It all combines to make her one of those “most unforgettable characters” the Reader’s Digest features. Eclectic to the core.
Not that her life’s been a bed of roses. Despair and regret have touched her. She lost the love of her life, husband Harry Threlkeld, decades ago. She’s never remarried. Childless, she has no son or daughter or grandkids to visit her at Mable Rose Estates, the Bellevue assisted living facility she resides in. She’s outlived most of her oldest friends. About a year ago Isabella was forced to move from the house she made her home and the base for her Threlkeld Art Studios. It’s a sore subject.
She misses her independence as well as the invigorating salon scene she presided over at her home/studio, where art was always being made, discussed, appraised, appreciated. A Mable Rose office doubles as a studio. Isabella and other residents set up easels to make art. But it’s not the same as having her own space.
She misses, too, being surrounded by young people. Her old place was often filled with her students. Some even stayed with her. Her proteges became her children.
Don’t feel sorry for Isabella though. She’s still a surrogate mother to people who studied under her, like Mary Harrington, and still a friend to old cronies, like Jack Latenser. Young and old alike, they make the pilgrimmage to Bellevue to bask in her infectious enthusiasm. All who come under her influence receive the gift of her sharp wit, throaty laughter, aesthetic musings and philosophical beliefs.
“I have known Isabella since the mid-1980s when I began taking classes at Threlkeld Art Studios while in high school,” said Harrington. “Since the day I met her, she has been a driving force in my life similar to Rosalind Russell’s famous Auntie Mame character. ‘Isabellaism’ pops into my life to this day. She continues to challenge me to do more, travel, read, think more deeply and incorporate art into my life. My life would not be remotely the same without her.”
Auntie Mame’s credo — “life’s-a-banquet,” so catch all you can “before the parade passes by” — perfectly expresses Isabella’s credo: Flaunt it, baby, flaunt it.
Ask Isabella to describe herself and she arches her eyebrows and voice to say, “Who is she? Uh, she’s a funny little white-haired lady that’s overweight and loves life.” Oh, c’mon, Iz, you can do better than that. OK, try this on for size: “She’s a little old lady who’s still trying to be an artist,” she said of herself. If there’s anything art’s taught her, it’s to never give up.
“You know what it gives you? An appreciation of the need for failure, because you fail and you try again.” she said, “and each time you have to try again. Without failure, we wouldn’t get up and do it again.”
Spirit. She overbrims with it. So much activity, so many interests. Such a rich life.
“Well, I’ve just lived a lot, you know,” she said by way of explanation.
Perhaps the best way to understand the Isabella experience is to look at what’s gone into shaping her. Born into a prominent Omaha family, the Byrnes, she was the oldest of three children of her insurance executive father and homemaker mother. She grew up in Dundee, where neighbors included Omaha’s elite. Life in their well-appointed home was the kind of never-ending banquet Mame sings about.
“My dad and mother were always very active in the community. My dad was always bringing somebody for dinner.”
Some dinner guests were living legends. Polar explorer Richard Byrd. Aviatrix Amelia Earhart. Others were simply neighbors who became icons, including a young Henry Fonda. Dodie Brando, the mother of future superstar Marlon Brando, was a frequent guest. Marlon’s mom was an Omaha Community Playhouse fixture and like many society families the Byrnes were supporters, too. “Every time there was a new Community Playhouse director he came to dinner,” Isabella recalled. “They all came for dinner. Did Dad remember to tell mother? Uh, sometimes.”
She said, “A cousin once commented, “Your father thinks he’s the chamber of commerce, and mother said, ‘You’re right.”
As the big sister it was Isabella’s thankless task to keep her young siblings in check while exciting personalities discussed their record-setting adventures. “It was hard to hold down my little brother. He would get bored at Admiral Byrd and throw a butter pad. How do you keep a 5-year-old quiet when Amelia Earhart is trying to speak? I was the oldest and I had to control these monsters.”
She admits she wasn’t old enough herself to appreciate the distinguished company her folks kept. “No, I didn’t get it.”
Weekends found the family at their Idelwild farm near Nickerson, Neb., right on the Elkhorn River .“The best part of all,” she said, “it had horses, milk cows, pigs, turkeys, guinea hens. Oh, yes, we looked forward to it. Every weekend we got to go and gather the eggs. It was a lot better than going to Dundee School.”
The farm’s still there. She visited recently and rued the disintegrating shoreline. “It just breaks your heart to see the erosion that’s went on,” she said.
Education then wasn’t a priority but she did discover her calling for art under Dundee teacher Dorothy Gray Bowers.
“I didn’t really excell until I got to Brownell Hall (Talbot), where I think I realized I was really serious about art and would major in it when I got to college. Everybody said, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that.’ The practical one in the family was Dad. He said, ‘You’re never going to make a living. How are you going to eat? How are you going to live?’ Mother said, ‘Oh, let her go with it.’ Then I got a scholarship to Wellesley out of it, so it was well worth it.”
Wellesley. Right across the Charles River from Harvard and MIT. “Pretty good location wouldn’t you say?” commented Isabella. Attending there was “a big tradition” with women in the family. Her mother was class of 1911. A legacy school.
A rude awakening made Iz want to leave as soon as she got there.
“It was rough, I’ll tell you, very rough because I wasn’t prepared. Let’s face it, I was still with the pigs at Idelwild farm. My first letter home in 1940 said, ‘I cannot stay here. Everywhere I go there are big signs that say, ‘No Irish need apply.’ My dad was Scotch-Irish. I had never seen discrimination before. So I wasn’t going to stay in school. My parents got so upset they called me and said, ‘Don’t come home, you’re going to stay there and change the system.’”
She stuck it out but not before things got tougher.
“My sophomore year my grades went down and I was called in by the chair of the art department. She said, ‘I’m taking away your scholarship.” I told her, ‘You can’t do that — I’m the oldest of the family. This is the Depression.’ No luck. I went to the dean — a very straightlaced New England lady, who said, ‘I’m so sorry, there’s nothing we can do for you.’ And I lost my scholarship.
“‘Well, I can’t go home,’ I said. The dean said, ‘We’ll get you a job.’ I got two jobs. Best thing I ever did.”
In true Yankee fashion Isabella worked at a campus soda shop and in the school’s Italian library, where she “got to handle original Italian manuscripts. So then I decided to minor in Italian. I learned more on those jobs than I did in the classroom. I loved those jobs. I had a lot of fun.”
Half-way through Wellesley America entered the war. Her life would change in unimaginable ways. Everything accelerated and concentrated. She furthered her studies at the Cape Anne School of Art in Rockport, Mass. “A wonderful experience. It was all studio,” she said, versus the art history diet pushed on her at Wellesley. “Every morning we painted in the studio and every afternoon we painted outdoors, on the ‘rocks.’ And I got to meet some fantastic artists there. A lot of these were New Yorkers vacationing in Rockport. They’d come up and make comments on your work. I turned around once and said, ‘Aren’t you Joan Miro?’” Yes, I am, came the reply by the Spanish surrealist painter/sculptor.
Around the same time Isabella also studied at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where, she said, “I learned the most.”
She graduated Wellesley in ‘44. She took her first paying jobs in art at summer camps in Hackensack, Minn. and on Orcas Island in the Pacific Northwest.
“My parents were impressed. ‘Well, she’s proving that art will pay,’ Dad said.”
She said her association with Einstein began around war’s end when her uncle, Walter Wohlenberg, dean of the Yale University School of Engineering, called to ask if she had Friday afternoons free. She did. At his request, she said, she agreed to take notes and make sketches for meetings in Princeton, N.J.
The arrangements made, Uncle Walter picked her up in his car the next Friday and drove them to Princeton. As the pair walked across campus, she said, “along came little old Albert (Einstein).” She recognized him instantly from newsreels and press photos. “He embraced my uncle, which shows you some intimacy, and spoke to him in German, and I was totally left out. And we walked along to the little white cottage where he lived with his sister.”
Meeting Einstein, she said, came as a complete surprise. She knew little about him except he was a preeminent scientist from Germany. “That was about it,” she said. She later gathered from her uncle the two were colleagues on an atomic energy committee Einstein led at the Institute for Advanced Study. It was this committee, she said, for whom she began taking notes-making sketches that very afternoon.
“He (Einstein) went into the little cottage and sat there with a few others and I took notes. It was that simple,” said Isabella.
Einstein, a one-time avowed pacifist, begged President Franklin Delano Roosevelt not to militarize atom splitting research. After the war he led groups of like-minded scientists. Isabella said the exploratory committee she sat in on met “to discuss the problem of atomic energy for peaceful purposes.” The participants varied, she said, but at one time or another included Oppenheimer, Fermi, Niels Bohr, Leo Szilard and other luminaries. Einstein and Wohlenberg were fixtures.
Marcia Tucker, librarian for the Historical Studies-Social Science Library at the Institute for Advanced Study, has been unable to confirm Isabella’s experience. Neither has Barbara Wolff with the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University of Jersusalem. Is it possible the committee was a precursor to the Emergency Committee for Atomic Scientists Einstein headed after the war? Nobody knows. “I hope that this mystery may be solved,” said Tucker, whose search continues.
For a time, Isabella said, committee meetings were unsupervised. No security clearances or secrecy oaths. “We were a bunch of academics. We were all civilians.” Still, precautions were taken. “We never got to keep the notes. They were always collected at the end of a session. They confiscated everything,” she said, including sketches she made of the participants. Then it got more restrictive.
“Things changed,” she said, once Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the secret Manhattan Project already under way, began sitting in on the proceedings. “It was so hush-hush then. Gen. Groves sat right here (indicating next to her). Very military. How much he knew about atomic physics, I don’t know. He scared the hell out of me.”
Einstein biographies have established the eccentric genius as a womanizer. So, did he ever come on to Isabella? “No, no, no, no, he was preoccupied in outer space,” she said. “You won’t get any tittilation there.”
She does offer a few Einstein anecdotes that reveal aspects of his peculiar self.
“This man had a wonderful sense of humor — like Warren Buffett (a lifelong friend of hers). He (Einstein) had a chain hanging down in this little cottage’s living room, and he would say good evening to my uncle in German and good evening to me in English, and he’d pull this chain and a step-ladder would come down. He’d go up and pull it up after him. She ascribed the behavior to his focus “on outer space, on planetary changes, on other universes than the one you and I live in.”
This is the first time she’s spoken publicly about her brush with the atom men. She’s longed to talk about it all this time. She never told anyone. Not even Harry.
“Well, you can tell by my intensity you just took the cork out of my bottle,” she told a pair of guests who came to hear her story. “I don’t know how I stayed silent all these years. I sure poured it out to you.”
She said the thought of defying Gen, Groves was enough to muzzle her. “He kept my mouth shut for how many years? Oh, I was scared to death. I didn’t want Gen. Groves back here or his ghost,” she said, laughing. She said she’s still nervous about it all. “You wanna’ go to Guantanamo Bay with me?” she joked.
So why’s she talking now? “The information has just been released. It’s been sitting there all along,” she said, adding that someone from a national archives, she’s unsure who or which one, called in August to say her materials are now declassified. The New Horizons was unable to determine what archives may have them. Is it a case of Isabella, who keeps a biography of Einstein near her, wishing herself with people in places? Or might there be a perfectly good explanation for it all? Either way, it’s a good story.
Top secret described some of Harry’s work in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. After retiring as a Navy commander he practiced international law.
As the war wound down Isabella joined the American Red Cross. “I wanted to serve and I found a way to serve,” she said. “They kept sending me back to school for art therapy,” a then-new discipline. Her duty saw her assigned to military bases in Virginia. At one of these she met Harry, then a lieutenant. They married in ‘46. Her final RC stint was at Walter Reed General Hospital in D.C. — in the psych section. She worked with male and female patients suffering from both physical and psychological war wounds. She trained for it at American University.
She embraced the work. “Art therapy really works,” she said. “It’s a great field.” She found the work so gratifying she’s “done it off and on ever since. We have three hospitals in this area that work with art therapy.” Overall, she noted, the discipline’s “still not accepted” here as in some other cities. “The healthcare institutions that don’t use it are ones whose people have never been exposed much to art. There’s the problem. So they just can’t see that art therapy would be of any benefit.” She said she’s some trained area art therapists.
She left Walter Reed after butting heads with officials she felt ignored concerns WAC/WAVE patients received inadequate treatment. She was “a wreck”. Her own therapy came working as a stewardess aboard a Great Lakes cruise ship.
Soon after a three-month honeymoon in Mexico, Harry left to serve on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff for the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which convened war crimes trials in Tokyo from 1946 through 1948.
The newlywed pined to go but Harry had her rejoin her family. “I never made it to the Orient. He did come back twice (over three years) and each time he was sick.”
Upon his return the couple moved to Seattle, Wash. Isbella worked at the Seattle Art Museum. Back in Omaha in 1950, she began her Joslyn Art Museum career as education director, instructor and extension services director. In her outreach role she was an art appreciation ambassador. It suited her outgoing personality.
After leaving the Joslyn in the early ‘60s she filled a series of art teaching posts at Duschene College, the College of St. Mary and Bellevue University. By the late ‘60s-early ’70s the counterculture movement was in bloom and Isabella was caught up in it. She encouraged students in helping make the Old Market a happening scene.
“College kids built that thing,” she said, referring to the transition from wholesale produce to arts center. “I sent all my students there. I drove them down there after school. Oh, I was really impressed with what kids could do. They learned to mix cement, lay bricks, to use the tools I was hoping they’d use. Lee Leubers (the late artist and art teacher) was a driving force and leader. He was the key to getting them down there and going to work. They worked like mad.
“I really got to love those kids. I did not love them when teaching art history and they were marching (protesting) outside the window.”
It was in those halcyon times she met Ree Kaneko (then Schonleau), who went on to found the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art and to marry noted artist Jun Kaneko. Isabella and Ree once had an exhibition together.
During this time Isabella wrote an Omaha World-Herald art column. Then, as now, she made and exhibited her own art, filtering life experiences through her work. Inspiration came from the many travels she and Harry made outside the country. They preferred seeing the sights on their own and doing as the natives do.
“We were never on a tour,” she said. “We were alone. If you’re that outnumbered, baby, you have to go with the flow. I didn’t need a tour. I had read all the stuff before I went. While he was busy doing his legal stuff as an international lawyer, I had time to draw and paint.” Or visit museums-galleries. Meet the people. Her fluent Italian and servicable French went a long way. Harry knew five languages.
On a ‘58 European excursion she studied at the Louvre in Paris. The couple met Pablo Picasso. “We were watching him make a disturbance at an outdoor cafe.,” she recalled. “I wanted to go over and say hello but my husband couldn’t stand it and said. ‘We are leaving.’ So we left, and on the way out he (Picasso) came to us and said hello.” In Avignon, France in the early ‘70s she saw the last exhibition Picasso had before his death.
Once, Isabella nearly got her hubby arrested over art. After visiting a Cairo gallery she said she discovered Harry had removed a necklace from a sarcophagus on display. What he thought a lark — “I think he was showing off, ou know, look what I can do — offended her orthodox art sensibilities. So she snitched.
“Oh, yes, I turned him in in Egypt,” she said. “The average wife would not have, I realize that, but I’d been trained at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. You never touched anything in the Boston Musuem of Fine Arts, let alone take something…”
Harry was detained by a gallery guard. “This could have been really bad,” she said. “Oh, it was so awful. I was so scared. I thought I’d lost my only husband.” All turned out well in the end, as Harry used his gift for gab and, she suspects, a cash bribe, to talk his way out of the jam and keep the artifact. Said Isabella, “They didn’t turn him in. I would have lost him. He would never have gotten out of an Egyptian jail. He came back speaking Aarabic and drinking tea. But he never let me forget it. Oh, he was so angry at me. Whenever he’d get upset with me he’d say, ‘I’ll take you back to Egypt and turn you in.’” She still has the necklace.
By ‘68 she was engrossed in Futurism, That whole year in Europe she researched in Italy, where the movement began. “We lived on the Mediterranean outside of Rome,” she said. “Oh, was it beautiful.” She studied at modern art museums and the University of Rome. Her work fed the master’s degree in art she earned at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in ‘71. Her thesis subject? Futurism, of course.
Reflecting the turbulent times in her work, she created an anti-war piece called “Vietnam Fortune Cookie.” In the wake of Watergate, she made a large painting symbolizing “the disillusion of the United States into pure energy. Wait till you see this painting,” she said. It’s in her new show.
When Harry died in ‘73 Isabella reinvented herself again. She and a friend, photographer Mae Louise “Hinky” Hamilton, bought a house together at 324 So. 68th St. that became their creative base. “I went in business for myself,” is how Isabella puts it. “I couldn’t have done it without Hinky Hamilton’s help. She put in $25,000, I put in $25,000. I helped her in photography, she helped me in art.”
Threlkeld Art Industries employed artists to create commissioned murals, many for area schools. That business became Threlkeld Art Studios, which found Isabella giving private art lessons to youths and adults and providing professional appraisals. She’d often lead students on field trips to local-regional museums: the Joslyn, Lincoln’s Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, the Des Moines Art Center, the Nelson Atkins in Kansas City, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Denver Art Museum. Several students, such as Paul Otero and Stephen Roberts, have enjoyed successful careers as artists. Already established artists sought refuge at her salon.
Over the years she hosted UNO graduate exchange students from Japan, China and Nepal. Interacting with young folks from around the globe invigorated her. “The one from Nepal changed my life. I mean, she really changed my life,” she said. “Her name was Amoura Lohani She was from Katmandu.” The political major introduced isabella to Hindu traditions. Isabella, who took in Lipani’s family, always thought her Asian guests were compensation for her never visiting the Orient.
She stopped hosting international students awhile ago but she was still doing everything else out of her home up until January, when relatives prevailed on her to give up the large studio/residence. That’s when she moved into Mable Rose Estates. “It was not my idea,” she said. How much does she miss her own place? “A lot,” she said, her voice breaking. “A lot.” She appreciates all that staff do to make her feel at home. “They spoil me. They invent things to make me happy. Well, they’ve never seen anybody like me. You can believe that can’t you?”
An October estate sale liquidated a lifetime’s worth of fine artworks, books, furniture, decorative objects. Many of her prized possessions went to Collectors Choice. Sad to see it all go. As usual, she learned something in the process.
“Because of that estate sale I sold thousands of dollars worth of art to men, to corporations, to businesses, not to little old ladies with pretty little houses. The point I’m making is I’d never been in a gallery where I sold art. It taught me about the buyer and where the money is. I had so much to learn and boy did I learn a lot about money. Men control the money.
“We had 400 people at this the first day, 500 the second day, 400 the third day. Can you imagine the amount of art?”
The sold art included works in various mediums by local artists she’s championed.
Just because she’s moved doesn’t mean she’s retired. She continues doing appraisals right out of Mable Rose Estates. She jumps on the Internet to research items. Some real treasures have surfaced. “It’s wonderful the things they bring to me,” she said. “A lot of times they (clients) don’t know what they have.”
Making art remains her main escape. Her show has her all “revved up,” she said. “I want people to see this show on Futurism. It’s big. I don’t mean just in area. It’s big. You’re going to see outer space, the energies of outer space. E-equals-mc-squared. Super novas. Other universes. You’re going to see the future in my work.”
Forever an artist and searcher. “My life has been a mess of dirty smocks,” she said.
- 19 reviews of Albert Einstein (rateitall.com)
- Blog – Using Einstein’s Relativity to Speed up Supercomputer Simulations 10,000% (technologyreview.com)
- Inpsired by Einstein: Monday Morning Mantra and The Continuum Conundrum (chicagonow.com)