Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald; Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Ella, the dramatic musical revue of the life of American songbook diva Ella Fitzgerald at the Omaha Community Playhouse, reveals the anguish behind the legendary performer’s sweet voice and carefree persona.
Call it kismet or karma, but the woman portraying her is veteran Omaha chanteuse Kathy Tyree, whose ebullient, easy-going public face has similarly disguised her own torment.
The high points surely outweigh the low points in their respective lives but Tyree’s experienced, much as Ella did, her share of failed relationships, including two divorces, and myriad financial struggles.
“I’m in a much better place now,” Tyree says.
Known for her bright spirit and giving heart, Tyree’s usually worked a regular job to support her and her son. Currently, she’s program manager at Omaha Healthy Start. A few years ago she used all her savings and 401K to launch her own production company and after a rousing start one bad show broke the business.
The enigmatic Fitzgerald died in 1996 at age 79 with few outside her inner circle knowing her private travails because her handlers sanitized her regal image as the First Lady of Song.
As Tyree researched Fitzgerald’s life for the role, which director Susie Baer Collins offered without an audition, she identified with what Ella did to separate, if not always reconcile, her private and public sides.
“She was very weak and very strong at the same time,” Tyree says of Ella. “She had all these secrets and these hurts, all this internal pain, but she always held it together. She was at the top, she was international, she was the goddess of scat.”
Fitzgerald was respected for her dignified demeanor, the purity of her well-modulated voice and her perfect elocution, though some criticized her for being too precise, too pristine, too white. All of it helped to popularize jazz.
Tyree says the adoration that flowed Ella’s way was due to her talent but also to “how she carried herself as a black woman,” adding, “She wasn’t Lady Day (Billie Holiday), she wasn’t drinking and popping pills and going through all these changes publicly. That takes a lot.”
Before getting the role Tyree was lukewarm about the singer. Her favorite female artists were Diana Ross, Patti Labelle and Cher. After months listening to the Ella canon, Tyree says ,”I have a completely different appreciation for her. Now I am a fan. This woman was a walking instrument. She could do just amazing things with her voice.”
Because the script peels back the layers of myth around Fitzgerald’s antiseptic image, Tyree now feels connected to the real woman behind the silky voice and prim and proper mask
“There’s so much more to her than was allowed to be shared with the world. She definitely has a story, she definitely was singing from a place of pain. In rehearsals I began seeing a lot of the parallels between us.”
Both grew up fatherless and both lost a sister. By their mid-teens both were mixed up in the wrong crowd. Just as performing saved Fitzgerald, it gave the “rebellious” Tyree a purpose and discipline she’d lacked. She began singing in church, at Morningstar Baptist, where she still attends today, and at Omaha Technical High School. Outside of her faith, performing is Tyree’s spiritual sanctuary.
“For me theater and music are my therapy but from everything I’ve learned about Ella it was more like her drug. For me it takes me to another place and it gives me a peace and a calm. I leave everything outside. It’s like this is a whole other world.”
Just as performing helped Tyree cope with insecurities, she guesses it did so for Ella, whose character in the show says, “I’m always OK when I’m on the stage. When I’m not working, I turn off, I get lost.”
Tyree’s usual reticence about her own turmoil isn’t to protect a well-manufactured facade, but a personal credo she inherited.
“I shared with Susie (Baer Collins) in a read-through that in my family we have a rule – you never look like what you’re going through. Though I’ve been through a lot, I’ve had a lot of heartbreak and heartache, I never look like what I’m going through, and that was Ella.
“It’s a pride thing. I was raised by strong black women. These women had to work hard. Nobody had time for that crying and whining stuff.
It was, ‘Straighten your face up, get yourself together, keep it moving.’”
She says what she doesn’t like about Ella is “the very same thing I don’t like in myself,” adding, “Ella didn’t have enough respect for herself to know what she deserved. She didn’t have those examples, she didn’t have a father. People always say little boys need their fathers, well little girls need their fathers. too. They need somebody to tell them they’re beautiful. They deserve somebody in their life that isn’t going to abuse them. When you don’t have that you find yourself hittin’ and missin’, trying to figure it out, searching for that acceptance and that love. That’s very much our shared story.”
That potent back story infuses Tyree’s deeply felt interpretations of Fitzgerald standards. Tyree’s singing doesn’t really sound anything like her stage alter ego but she does capture her heart and soul.
Tyree, a natural wailer, has found crooning ballad and scat-styles to conjure the spirit of Ella. Tyree makes up for no formal training and the inability to read music with perfect pitch and a highly adaptable voice.
“My voice is very versatile and my range is off the charts,” Tyree says matter-of-factly. “I can sing pretty much anything you put in front of me because it’s all in my ear. I’ve been blessed because they (music directors) can play it one time and I get it.”
She considers herself a singer first and an actress second, but in Ella she does both. She overcame initial doubts about the thick book she had to learn for the part.
“It’s a lot of lines and a lot of acting and a lot of transitions because I’m narrating her life from 15 years-old to 50.
But after months of rehearsal Tyree’s doing what she feels anointed to do in a space where she’s most at home.
“This is where I get to be lost and do what I do best, this is where I don’t miss. I think it’s because it’s coming from a sincere place. My number one goal is that everybody in the audience leaves blessed. I want to pour something out of me into them. I want ‘em to leave on a high. It’s not about me when I’m on stage. This is God-given and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it to deliver.”
This popular performer with a deep list of musical theater credits (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Beehive) feels she’s inhabiting the role of a lifetime and one that may finally motivate her to stretch herself outside Omaha.
“I’m still like blown away they asked me to come do this show. I still have goals and dreams and things I want to do. As you go through your journey in life there’s things that hinder those goals and dreams and they cause you to second guess and doubt yourself – that maybe I don’t have what it takes. I’m hoping this will instill in me the courage to just go for it and start knocking on some of those doors.”
Ella continues through March 30. For times and tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunity playhouse.com.
Charles Ahovissi and His African Culture Connection Enrich Nebraska Youth Through Performance and Teaching Programs
Thousands of miles from his homeland, Charles Ahovissi is living a dream to share his culture with the world. The native of Benin, West African resides in Omaha, Neb., where he fell in love while on tour and married and started a family here, and this acomplished dancer, choreographer, and drummer now exposes aspects of African cultures to student and adult audiences throughout this Midwest state under the auspices of his African Culture Connection. His small but mighty nonprofit is still basking in the glow of a major national award it was recognized with last year. It’s not the first significant recognition he and his performing and teaching troupe has received and it’s not likely to be the last either. My story about Charles and the ACC is still looking for a publication home but for now you can read it right here on my blog.
African Culture Connection Founder, Charles Ahovissi joins Victoria Beaugard, participant in African Culture Connection’s program at Girls Inc, in receiving the 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on November 19th, 2012
Charles Ahovissi and His African Culture Connection Enrich Nebraska Youth Through Performance and Teaching Programs
©by Leo Adam Biga
Between the beating drums and the whirling dancers the energy rises to a fever pitch during African Culture Connection performances like the one Sept, 5 at the Westside Community Conference Center.
Led by Benin, West Africa native Charles Ahovissi, a professional dancer and choreographer, the Omaha-based ACC is dedicated to presenting the vibrant rhythms, movements, colors and costumes of African tribal tradition and culture.
ACC performances are always dynamic but last month’s by-invitation-only event carried even more vitality because it celebrated a milestone in the young organization’s life. In late 2012 ACC became one of only a dozen organizations in the U.S. and the first ever in Nebraska to receive the National Arts & Humanities Youth Arts Award. It’s a major honor for any group but particularly one as new as ACC, which formed only in 2006.
Ahovissi, ACC’s high-energy founder, president and artistic director, accepted the award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on Nov. 19. Accompanying him at the ceremony was Victoria Baeugard of Omaha Girls Inc., an organization that ACC ofter serves. Baeugard is part of a troupe of Girls Inc. members who’ve learned to perform African dances under Ahovissi’s tutelage. In addition to the award, ACC received a $10.000 grant to support and expand its programming. This came on top of ACC winning the Nebraska Governor’s Arts Heritage Award.
All of it is more than enough reason to celebrate and so many of ACC’s board members, donors and supporters gathered for food, drink, conversation and congratulations last month. Even the beaming, ever-optimistic Ahovissi finds it hard to believe his little organization did what none of the state’s larger, more established arts programs managed doing.
“I just don’t know how we got here,” he says. “It was surprising.”
Nebraska Arts Council director of programs Marty Skomal says “the award is given to an arts or humanities program for youth that takes place outside of the school day which also promotes youth development. No other arts group in Neb. has succeeded in demonstrating ACC’s masterful combination of high artistic quality with genuine and significant community engagement. Each time I see his troupe perform, I am impressed by the level of dedication, attention to detail and commitment. It becomes contagious. Kids can sense this authenticity, and they respond to it instantly. It is ACC’s unique way of inspiring youth by example that motivates kids to take pride in their own cultural heritage, whatever its origin. In brief, ACC is able to do what its name implies – make a connection.”
Ahvossi knows ACC is well thought of by the positive feedback he gets from teachers, administrators and program directors about the African immersion experience he provides. Ahovissi says the glowing evaluations and notes “confirm that after we work with kids they learn how to respect, they learn how to behave and some kids who were shy become engaged in the classroom,” adding, “All the teachers tell us thank you for making a big impact on kids’ lives.”
Then there’s the fact ACC offers programming that no one else does in this area.
“It is a very unique program,” he says. “You don’t see it in this state. You cannot get what we teach kids in a library. In schools kids barely get the cultural activities we provide them. That’s why it’s very unique, very special and engaging.”
Omaha Girls Inc. executive director Robera Wilhelm says Ahovissi “has helped girls learn about Africa in ways they simply never would in a classroom or from a textbook,” adding, “The girls connect to the lessons in a very visceral way. He and his team help the girls ‘feel’ Africa when they drum and dance. They prepare and taste African food, they create printed fabric to wear while they dance and they hear African stories. They also learn lessons about creativity, collaborative work, self-expression, delayed gratification, responsibility and pride of accomplishment.”
Ahovissi conducts residencies around the state through NAC. He brings not just the music and dance of Africa, but the stories behind them.
“I know all the cities and towns in Neb. I just pack my car with my costume and drum and travel one week, two weeks at a time. I cannot count how many places I’ve been to. I travel a lot through the Nebraska Arts Council. I’m grateful for that. I do love teaching, performing and sharing my culture.”
He’s also trains a group of teaching and performing artists to join him at some venues to immerse participants in various elements of African culture.
“Every life aspect in Africa has a specific dance, rhythm, music and all that, so at the same time I’m teaching kids a dance I’m also teaching them the culture, the tradition, the story behind that dance and music. For example, farming is a big deal in Africa. Before farming there is preparation, during and after farming there’s a celebration. That is like story. The way we farm in Africa is not the same as it’s done in America. How we pick the fruit, why we pick that fruit, that is dance movement that has a story.
“There’s a reason why we do any traditional dance and drumming.
“Another example is the initiation of youths. When you reach a certain age you need to go see the elders. They will teach you life skills, what is right to do, what is wrong to do. During an initiation in a village we play certain music and do special dances. So when I’m teaching kids the initiation dance I’m also teaching them this story, this culture, the way we do things.”
The dances performed at the Sept. 5 celebration included the Sinte dance. He exp;lains, “Sinte comes from the Boke and Boffa area in the northwest of Guinea. The Landonma, Nalo, and Baga ethnic groups, who have been living together in this region for many years, play it before the initiation of the youth.” Another number ACC performed at the event was the Djole dance. “Djole is a dance organized to showcase different masks,” says Ahovissi. “Djole comes from the region in the southwest of Guinea and the northwest of Sierra Leone. The Temine, Mandenyi and Soussou ethnic groups share this rhythm.” Finally, he says the Kete dance executed by the Girls Inc. members is from the Allada Region of southern Benin, adding, “The music and dance can be heard on many occasions and festivals, particularly at funeral ceremonies.”
Ahovissi says students who participate in his programs, including members of Girls Inc., learn rituals and lessons with deep, universal meaning.
“We say it takes a whole village to raise a child. That simple statement means a lot,. From generation to generation we pass on the culture. In Africa everything kind of ties together.”
He strongly feels that American children need to expand their knowledge of diverse cultures in this ever shrinking world.
“It is so important for them to learn about other cultures. They have to open their minds, they have to allow themselves to appreciate other cultures, they have to accept their friends who are not like them. Since Omaha is becoming more diverse we need to be more diverse, too. We all need to be together and move forward.”
He says as Omaha’s welcomed migrant populations from Sudan, Togo, Bhutan and several Central American countries “there is a need for global understanding in our community. It’s not just African culture. We need to be learning about all these different cultures.” He loves that America is still a melting pot. “You teach me about your culture, I teach you about mine, and we share it . That’s how we become open-minded and free and live in a peaceful way.”
Growing up in Benin he absorbed dance and drumming through repeated exposure to it.
“My mom took me from village to village to the ceremonies,. I just picked it up from that,” he says.
In his early teens he joined a local arts group. “They taught me how to be more professional,” he says. He then won a competition that enabled him to perform with the National Ballet of Benin beginning in 1984 at age 16.
“That allowed me the opportunity to travel and perform with that company. I was very honored to be selected.”
Later he joined the Super Anges dance troupe. He was touring the U.S. with that company when he met the woman who is now his wife. The former Karen McCormick, an Omaha native, did a Peace Corps stint in Africa, including service in Ahovissi’s native country, Benin. In Omaha she volunteered with the La Belle Afrique presenting group that brought Ahovissi’s dance company to Omaha in 1999. The two met, fell in love and married. They have two children together. Ahovissi moved to Omaha in 2000 and became a Nebraska Arts Council touring artist in 2001.
Ahovissi sends money back home every month to his large family – he has 21 brothers and sisters living in Benin. “I’m they’re hope,” he says.
- The African Cultural Renaissance Movement (theiamvibration.wordpress.com)
- Elements of African Traditions and Culture (africa.answers.com)
- African Dance and Drum Festival at Little Haiti Cultural Center Aug. 3-5 (bloggingblackmiami.com)
- Drum Dances (vcharlesworth.wordpress.com)
- Interesting Articles About True African Culture (africa.answers.com)
If historic highways could speak, oh, the stories they would tell. That’s one of the appeals of the Old Lincoln Highway to Omahan Nils Anders Erickson, whose love of old things extends from highways to automobiles to buildings to music. This musician, sound engineer, and owner of Rainbow Music, a combination retail store and recording studio, has indulged his Lincoln Highway fascination by writing a song about the roadway and erecting signage about it outside an old mill he owns that sat on the highwway’s Omaha route. My story about Erickson and his magnficent obsession appeared The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Goin’ Down the Lincoln Highway with Omaha Music Guru Nils Anders Erickson
by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in early July Omaha music guru Nils Anders Erickson takes me for a ride in his PT Cruiser to opine about his magnificent obsession with old things.
The singer-songwriter-musician owns Rainbow Music, a combined recording studio and music store at 2322 South 64th Ave. that features vintage sound equipment and instruments he’s passionate about.
He’s also into Golden Oldie songs, historic buildings, classic cars, and early roadways, especially the old Lincoln Highway. His Cruiser’s adorned with a chrome hood ornament from a 1951 Chevrolet he saved to repurpose in just this way.
The self-styled preservationist opposed CVS building a pharmacy at 49th and Dodge that took out old structures he deemed historic for lining the Lincoln Highway during its Jazz Age heyday.
The highway was not just a practical conveyance when there were few reliable roads but an expression of America’s new liberation, ambition, optimism and restlessness. He advocates saving whatever remnants stand from its active years (1913 to 1929), whether grain elevators, feed mills, silos, barns, office buildings, churches, homes, signs.
He owns what may be the oldest surviving structure still in use on the highway, John Sutter’s Mill, a circa 1875 Mormon-built structure where Saddle Creek Road and Dodge Street meet at 46th. “I just knew it was kind of a magical building and I didn’t know why,” he says. “My building is the last of the Nelson B. Updike empire.” Updike was a feed, grain, lumber and coal magnet and publisher of the Omaha Bee.
“Mormons used to refer to it in diaries as ‘the mill west of Omaha.’ It was painted bright orange a century ago to attract the attention of cross-country travelers.”
His says the site began as a water wheel grist mill before being turned into a planing mill and an outfitters store. He admires its construction.
“When I realized that behind all the crappy two-by-fours and dry wall were 10-by-10 solid chunks of cedar 50 feet long I had a new found respect for the building.” He hopes it one day becomes a Lincoln Highway museum or antique shop or coffeehouse.
The huge billboard Erickson erected above his Sutter’s Mill in midtown Omaha
The two-story 4,000 square foot building most recently housed National Cash Register, whose machines he would gawk at as a kid.
“When I was little I’d walk by it and be fascinated with the weird stuff in the windows – those mechanical things and different colored cash registers. So I was always drawn to the building.”
Erickson’s mounted an enormous billboard on site to commemorate his beloved highway’s legacy and Omaha being mid-point on the coast-to-coast route. The billboard replicates the L logo design and red, white and blue motif of the highway’s signage. An arrow pointing east informs eastbound travelers they have 1.353 miles to go to New York City. An arrow pointing west alerts westbound travelers they are 1,786 miles from San Francisco. Generations ago a large Welcome sign with Lincoln Highway above it greeted travelers at 18th and Farnam.
He’s also erected a Lincoln Highway marker that replicates the official markers that once dotted the side of the road every mile along its entire 3,400 mile path.
He feels Omaha could do more to celebrate its highway heritage.
“Before I put a sign up outside my building there was no Lincoln Highway sign in the whole city designating its history.”
Metropolitan Community College’s Elkhorn campus has a photo display of the highway under construction. The Boys Town archives traces the highway’s connection to the home. There are highway displays at the Great Platte River Road Archway in Kearney. “They’ve done a wonderful job with the exhibits,” Erickson says of the attraction..
If Erickson had his way every building the highway ran by would sport a sign or plaque about it.
“There’s car nuts, there’s building nuts, there’s highway nuts, and I find it aggravating that I’m all three and no one else is,” says Erickson, who could have added music nut to the list.
Given his musical bent it’s not surprising he wrote a theme song for the Lincoln Highway Association’s recent centennial celebration in Kearney and took photos of landmarks along the Omaha route to accompany the music. His countryesque ditty set to images is on YouTube.
I’m goin’ down the Lincoln Highway, I’m goin’ down the Lincoln Highway, Ga ga golly, I’m going down the Lincoln Highway.
“My song and video are trying to raise awareness of the Lincoln Highway all over the United States.”
He’s also created a website about the highway and his mill.
When it comes to motor vehicles and roads he prefers some age-worn history and character to them. Memories attach themselves to places and things and the Lincoln Highway carried the hopes, dreams and experiences of people. Road trips are part of the American DNA. Beat writer Jack Kerouac captured this spirit in his existential On the Road:
“In no time at all we were back on the main highway and that night I saw the entire state of Nebraska unroll before my eyes. A hundred and ten miles an hour straight through, an arrow road, sleeping towns, no traffic, and the Union Pacific streamliner falling behind us in the moonlight. I wasn’t frightened at all that night; it was perfectly legitimate to go 110 and talk and have all the Nebraska towns – Ogallala, Gothenburg, Kearney, Grand Island, Columbus – unreel with dreamlike rapidity as we roared ahead and talked.”
Built entirely by private interests to be the nation’s first coast-to-coast thoroughfare, the highway opened at a time when most roads, including many sections of the highway itself, were unpaved. As more folks sought the freedom a motor vehicle promised it was obvious the country’s roads needed improving.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower cited the arduous cross-country convoy he took on the highway as a young military officer with motivating him to authorize the creation of the U.S. interstate system.
As the first of its kind the highway owns a romantic mystique among history buffs and nostalgia fans. Much fanfare attended its October 31, 1913 dedication. Burgs across America celebrated with torchlight parades, bonfires, speeches, auto races, fireworks and cannon volleys. Some credit Omaha with the biggest celebration of all. A crowd estimated at more than 10,000 gathered outside city hall for a giant bonfire fueled by three train carloads of railroad ties from Union Pacific Railroad. Smaller bonfires lit up the sky in towns along the Platte River.
Long before the fabled Route 66 and decades before heavily traveled Interstate 80 was even imagined, Lincoln became known as America’s main street because it connected so many cities and towns all the way from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The highway spurred much development along its route.
“I think it’s basically a national hidden treasure,” says Erickson. “You can actually drive the Lincoln Highway and there’s parts of it where the original brick surface is still intact and you can reexperience what your great-grandfather did. It’s America the way it used to be without the bad parts.
“My dad would be out selling grain elevators all over the country and he’d throw two or three of us in the back seat of the car and half the time we were on the Lincoln Highway in our family’s Pontiac. No air conditioning. When you finally got to a little cafe it was heaven. You’d eat at these special places on America’s hIghway.”
The pull of those times is still great 60 years later.
“I don’t know, it’s in my blood.”
His fixation has something to do with his first love, music. He likes that big bands on the Midwest circuit traversed the highway “in those torpedo-shaped trailers” to get from gig to gig. Decades later he did the same, only in trucks, to run sound and lights for national acts.
“So it ties back to Omaha and to my recording studio and my background in music.”
For our Lincoln Highway sampler we make a circuitous 18-mile trek from the Omaha riverfront’s Lewis & Clark Landing to Elkhorn, where a three-mile stretch of brick survives, With nearly each landmark we pass Erickson offers historical tidbits and traces his fascination with the highway that long ago was rerouted and renamed US 30.
“In Omaha most of the Lincoln Highway is still there. It’s just under two or three layers of asphalt. We have a few things in Omaha that are one of a kind and the only ones left.”
The route starts on Douglas, snakes to Farnam around midtown, cuts over to Dodge, then jumps to Cass before resuming on West Dodge.
The former Hupmobile dealership in downtown Omaha
When it comes to highway landmarks, Erickson’s prefers old ones but appreciates new ones as well. “To me the Holland Center is a new landmark on the Lincoln Highway,” he says of the performing arts venue at 12th and Douglas.
“One of the most famous (old) landmarks is the Brandeis Building,” he says of the flagship for the J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store empire that reigned at 16th and Douglas for most of the 20th century.
He considers St. Mary Magdalene Church at 19th and Dodge a distinctive site for having “a door to nowhere” after downtown was lowered by dozens of feet.
A beautiful ballroom is among the distinguishing features of the Scottish Rite Masonic Center at 20th and Douglas.
He admires the “beautifully restored” former Riviera and Paramount theater, later known as the Astro and now The Rose at 20th and Farnam.
He likes that the Fraternal Order of Eagles building at 24th and Douglas hosts swing nights. “It’s kind of fun being in a historic building with the jitterbug,” he says.
Two of Omaha’s most impressive edifices, Central High School and Joslyn Art Museum, are only a block north of the highway.
He feels one of the most significant highway buildings is the former Hupmobile dealership at 2523 Farnam. The Hupp Auto Company built the popular car before being squeezed by the industry’s major players. He says the vacant building’s original showroom floor is intact as is the freight elevator for moving cars from floor to floor.
“I hope someone that cares will do something with that building. It would make a great auto museum,” he suggests.
The dealership was part of Omaha’s original Auto Row.
The All Makes Office Equipment and Barnhart Press buildings on the north side of Farnam are handsome structures housing multi-generation family businesses but what really makes Erickson excited is “a wonderful one-block stretch of brick north of them that enables you to actually experience what it felt like,” he says.
Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church at 2650 Farnam is one of Omaha’s oldest worship places.
He says hungry, weary highway travelers found eateries (Virginia Cafe, Tiner’s Drive-in) and hotels (the Fontenelle, the Blackstone) up and down its eastern Omaha route, Motorists would have gawked at Gold Coast mansions such as the Storz mansion at 3708 Farnam.
The Tudor-style building housing McFoster’s Natural Kind Cafe was once a White Rose gas station. Erickson recalls, “We’d be coming back from church and I’d always want Mom to get gas at that ‘castle’ across the street from the Storz mansion with gargoyles and trolls leaning out of the windows. These buildings were right out of children’s books I read. White Rose built odd buildings and this was one of their prettiest. I think it’s one of the few of its type left in the country.”
The Welcome to Omaha and Lincoln Highway sign that greeted motorists
The Admiral Theater sat at 40th and Farnam until it was razed.
Erickson says. “My slogan in Omaha is, ‘…and then the bastards tore it down.’” Jutting over to Dodge, he notes the Joslyn Castle is worth a stop a block north on Davenport. Continuing west on Dodge we arrive at his building. Since acquiring the former mill he’s used it as a staging space to assemble sound and lighting equipment for installs.
“That business has sort of fallen off, so I need to do something with the building now,” says Erickson.
As we reach 49th and Dodge he says, “Up until two years ago all four corners were intact from the Lincoln Highway. The Hilltop House duplicated a Bavarian restaurant. It was all pine inside. Reniers Piano was the Dundee Hotel and the Sunset Tearoom. The three buildings CVS tore down were all historic because they were on the Lincoln Highway. The 49er was a bakery. The coffeehouse was a pharmacy, The third was one the first self-service grocery stores in Omaha.”
He anoints historic status to the Dundee Theatre. The same to the Saddle Creek underpass and the pedestrian tunnel at 51st and Dodge.
He says long ago “there was a camp grounds at Elmwood Park” where motorists could spend the night before resuming their journeys. The park also contained a lagoon with a structure for monkeys. “The city fathers didn’t know monkeys can swim, so Monkey Island eventually became Monkeys in Dundee because after a week of getting free food they got bored and went all over Dundee.
The renowned Omaha Community Playhouse is a block north of the highway’s route.
We go another mile west and he says, “So here we are on 78th and Dodge. We’re taking a hard right because that’s the way the Lincoln Highway went. The New Tower Inn was at 78th. Before that it was the Tower Motor Court and before that it was a camp ground called
Towers Tours Village.” We arrive on Cass Street and the site of what used to be Peony Park and the extensive peony fields of Carl Rosenfield. Both were right on the highway’s path.
Erickson’s found brochures and postcards illustrating how attractions on the highway, such as Peony Park and Boys Town, marketed themselves as way-stops for travelers.
Following Cass west we merge onto West Dodge Road, where almost everything post-dates the highway. A major exception is Boys Town. Founder Father Edward Flanagan relocated his residence for homeless boys from downtown Omaha to the Overlook Farm right on the highway in 1921. Boys Town historians say Flanagan publicly touted the highway as a great avenue to see America and he invited motorists to follow it right up to Boys Town’s front door. Many did just that. Boys walked or hitchhiked their way on the highway to the home. So many made their way to Boys Town via the highway that in the ’30s Flanagan had some of the youths build a covered travel stop, of which there were few and far between then, as a comfort station.
The 1938 movie Boys Town includes scenes shot on the highway, including Pee-Wee being hit by a car.
Finally, we reach the ribbon of bricks in Elkhorn, where Erickson says, “You actually get a feel for driving on the road. This vista right here could be any day, any time. This is kind of what I remember driving in our old Pontiac with Dad. We’d hit a stretch of brick and, vroom, he’d put on the gas more. I don’t know why. I suppose he liked it, too. The highway was a lot nicer then because it was flat and smooth. Today it’s used as an access road. That’s part of the problem. The trucks are getting bigger and heavier and the road gets wavier.”
Stretch of the Lincoln Highway in Elkhorn, Neb.
He says the brick remains because people knew well enough to leave it alone.
“I mean, the reason it’s still here is that nobody needed to make it all pretty and nice and concrete. If they had, that concrete would be destroyed by now. The bricks are still here. Bricks will last forever, Concrete lasts maybe 20 years.
“If it had been in Omaha we would have paved it a long time ago.”
The Douglas County Board passed a resolution to preserve the brick segment for future generations. Milepost 1437 to 1438 was entered in the National Register of Historic Places. The historic mile was rededicated July 17, 1988. State historical markers offer background.
It’s all music to Erickson’s ears, whose eclectic music pedigree is the root of his love of history and nostalgia for bygone eras. He grew up listening to Johnny Mathis, James Brown, Motown. Then came the British Invasion bands. He was steeped too in traditional tunes from his family’s Swedish heritage. It’s why his repertoire today ranges from the Swedish folk song Can You Whistle Johanna? to the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen and pretty much everything in between.
“The best compliment I ever got was that my music is a cross between Frank Zappa and Bob Marley.”
His older siblings played in bands and he tagged along with them.
“They played at Mickey’s A-Go-Go and the Peppermint Cave and they dragged me around when I was like 6. I thought I was a roadie and they thought they were babysitting. So I was exposed to this wonderful monster music. I wrote my first song when I was about 4. I’ve written about 4,000 songs. Some of them are good and some of them are appreciated by people. ‘Shit Head, the Love Song’ was the most requested song the Fish Heads did, and it’s one of my mine.”
Erickson’s fronted several bands. He says his Wee Willie and the Rockin Angels broke attendance records at Peony Park. Today he gigs with his own Paddy O Furniture jam band. He’s sat in with many other groups. He’s been a fixture on the Omaha music scene not only for his music but for his work as a sound and lighting engineer. He’s made custom speaker cabinets and sound systems for decades.
Lincoln Highway National Museum & Archives
“We provided sound for Sprite Night at Peony Park all those years. Those were the original raves – 3,000 kids outdoors dancing to ‘dashboard light’ with a sound system you could hear pretty clear about two blocks away. It’s just cool to have that volume switch. You need it a little louder?”
He’s worked with musical artists of every genre:
The Beach Boys
The Isley Brothers
“When we were doing sound jobs for national acts all over the country sometimes I’d scoot on an old highway for awhile.”
Peony Park Sprite Night
When North O thrived as a jazz, R&B, funk and soul hub he did sound and lights for enough African American bands here – L.A. Carnivale, Crackin’ – to get inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame.
311, Boyz to Men and Jordan Sparks have all recorded at his funky Rainbow Music. But it’s the audio gear he buys, sells, trades and records on that really gets him amped up.
“We have all the new digital gear but to make the digital sound good you have to bring in some old tube gear. We basically made all of our own equipment because they hadn’t invented it yet. The old stuff still sounds better. We’re like the dinosaur on the block. Today you’d need about 24 of the hip new boxes to equal the sound pressure four old ones produce. At Rainbow you can record through some of the best gear they had back in the ’50s and ’60s to give it that fat, warm sound.
“We started acquiring all this tube analog tape gear and every piece we came up with was tied to famous recording studios and artists. We’ve got half the PA system used for the Grateful Dead, all the tube mixers Motown would have had. We have equipment from Sun Studio in Memphis, Sound City in L.A. and from other legendary studios.”
He’s no Elvis or Dylan, but he carries his catchy Lincoln Highway tune with great aplomb.
Got my baby sittin’ by my side, ’40s chop top, I got the ultimate ride
Since 1913…100 years ago today
Everybody’s driven’ cross the USA
I’m goin’ on the Lincoln Highway
I’m hopin’ to see you…somewhere along the way
He’s happy if his music video homage to the highway spurs wider interest in the history behind it.
“It’s been buried for so long, it’s almost like we destroy or shy away from history.”
He loves discovering and sharing that history, saying, “Give me a little kernel of information and I’ll go dig up some more stuff. That’s half the fun.” He also believes fate led him to the mill and its highway lineage.
“Magical things like that happen to me all the time. People call it coincidences. I call ‘em little tiny miracles.”
Visit his website at lincolnhighwaynebraska.com.
- Lincoln Highway turns 100, still in use (newsnet5.com)
- Celebrating 100 years of the Lincoln Highway (cnnphotos.blogs.cnn.com)
- Lincoln Highway Gumshoes: To Bedford and Back (jennifersopko.wordpress.com)
- Loyalhanna Creek parcel preserved by conservancy (triblive.com)
When I first posted this, I wrote about the subject of this story, “Pamela Jo Berry is a photographer who doesn’t like her picture taken.” I could have added that she also doesn’t allow her picture to be used without her permission. That’s still true but she has since relented to let me post a self-portrait she created. The fact that we’ve became a couple since I wrote this story may help account for this change of mind. She’s still very shy and particular about her image. What you will see in this self-portrait, which is broken up into two images here, is her heart. The mixed media artist displays her big, warm heart in everything she does, including the North Omaha Summer Arts festival she just dreamed up herself and has staged three consecutive years now out of her own pocket and with in-kind donations from friends, fellow artists, and supporters. The grassroots event is very much an expression of her passion for art in all its many forms, her deep spirituality, and her abiding love for her North Omaha community. As always, this year’s featival culminates in an Arts Crawl up and down a section of North 30th Street that not coincidentally is also her neighborhood. The crawl runs from 6 to 9 p.m. and Berry’s organized an eclectic roster of artists to show their work. Berry’s done something here that should be a lesson to us all. She saw a need for more public art in her community and instead of bemoaning its absence she went about creating a festival that brings art there.
©Pamela Jo Berry’s Change
©Pamela Jo Berry’s Change
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Pamela Jo Berry saw a need for more art offerings in the section of northeast Omaha where she resides and decided to do something about it.
With the help of friends and venues the photographer and mixed media artist created North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) in 2011 to serve the area north of Ames Ave. along the 30th Street corridor, The free public festival is a homespun hodgepodge of writing and quilting classes, a gospel concert and an arts crawl. She says all of it’s “open to anyone interested in participating.”
“It actually came about as wanting to put a taste of art in the area,” she says.
This year’s festival has already seen: a Creative Writing Journey for Women workshop series taught by best-selling romance novelist Kim Whiteside (who publishes under Kim Louise) of Omaha; and a Free Motion Quilting course taught by former Union for Contemporary Art resident Shea Wilkinson.
A free home-cooked dinner was served before each class.
The June 22 gospel concert at Miller Park featured the Cadence Ensemble, Highly Favored and Eric and Doriette Jordan.
That leaves the August 9 Arts Crawl, from 6 to 9 p.m., featuring artists, art talks and homemade food and refreshments at the following sites:
Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd. Work and art talk by sculptress Pamela Conyers-Hinson
Blessed Sacrament Church, 6316 North 30th St.
Trinity Lutheran Church, 6340 North 30th St.
Jehovah Shammah Church International, 3020 Huntington Ave.
Parkside Baptist Church, 3008 Newport Ave.
Solomon Girls Center/Heartland Family Service, 6720 North 30th St.
Other artists featured in the Arts Crawl include: Whiteside, Wilkerson, Peggy Jones, Linda Garcia, Reginald LeFlore III and Gerard Pefung.
Berry’s also showing her own work.
It’s only natural for Berry to utilize churches because she’s a deeply spiritual woman who sees the festival, like her own artwork, as a faith-led mission.
“It’s just an extension of who I am as a follower of Christ.”
The normally shy Berry, whose extrovert daughter is local actress and playwright Beaufield Berry puts herself out there with NOSA because she feels called to it
“When you see something as a ministry you kind of go with it,” she says. “This gives me a chance to share. North Omaha Summer Arts is quite important to me.”
She sees NOSA as a much needed asset for an underserved community challenged by poverty, crime, scarce amenities and a perception problem.
“In the area of North Omaha where we live we could find no art,” she says. “We knew it was there, we just had to uncover it. We knew art would bring hope and peace and most of all community to our neighborhood. We’ve seen it grow, we’ve noticed the interest and the benefits…and we want it to continue to flourish.”
Nebraska Arts Council Heritage Arts Manager Deborah Bunting says NOSA is part of the new energy and sense of community being built in North O.
Berry, who works with Omaha Community Playhouse education director Denise Chapman in organizing the fest, says while the number of people who engage with NOSA is still small it positions North O as a place of beauty, creativity and potential.
“The impact of art in places deemed ‘artless’, the impact of music to create growth and connectedness, the impact of strangers coming together for a common goal of creativity, creating opportunity, is magical. We want the community of North Omaha, particularly the youth, to open themselves up to creativity, of what is possible and to be a part of.”
Berry, who regularly attends Trinity Lutheran, says her pastors, Revs. John and Liz Backus, “have been very supportive” as have pastors at other churches she’s enlisted.
John Backus admires Berry’s efforts.
“Her open spirit is a challenge to everyone to make things better. She successfully combines her passion for her art with her passion for the world around her. Her contribution has been of unimaginable value in bringing one more hope to the North Omaha area, cultural opportunities, and the chance to meet neighbors in an atmosphere of elevation and inspiration.”
Berry says her decision to create NOSA was much like her decision 20-plus years ago as a young single mother to make art her life.
“I just made a choice one day to go ahead and try it and do it.”
She succeeded too with commissions, exhibitions, Nebraska Arts Council residencies and a Mid-America Arts Alllance fellowship. Just as her art career got in full swing a series of challenges, including a chronic illness, interrupted her plans. It’s taken time for her to learn to budget her energy.
“What you do is end up trying to work your life around it and try to make it work around your life, but you’ve got to take your time with it, so you step back and you slowly come back into it. It’s almost like I’m starting over again with creating.”
She’s producing and exhibiting again. She currently has a show of mixed media work in the Mulitcultural Affairs office at Creighton University’s Harper Building.
“Art opportunities keep popping up. I guess this is my time to be an artist again. I’m making things from found objects. In my last show I had older images shown along with the new images I’ve made. All of it’s an expression of the spiritual side of my life.”
She says a turning point in her artistic life came with photographing the homeless, “It helped me to understand that in order to tell a true story the subject needs to be a partner and shown the same respect I would want.”
Where she used to be consumed trying to make things perfect, she says she’s now fine keeping imperfections in her work. Her mixed media piece “Change” includes a torn photograph she views as a metaphor for the permutations life holds.
“Going through changes you realize your flaws,” she says. “I’m not perfect, nobody is. So now when I make the artwork I am not so set on making it perfect. I make it from the heart. It’s very liberating.”
That same easy attitude infuses NOSA. Berry appreciates that after a long lull the 24th and Lake Street hub is alive with arts activities again thanks to Loves Jazz and Arts Center, Carver Bank, the Union for Contemporary Art and the Great Plains Black History Museum. NOSA fills a gap further north and offers programs the others don’t. She likes that NOSA has a quirky, do-its-own-thing vibe.
“You can do that when you’re not paying attention to what everyone else is saying. You’re free to do whatever you want to.”
In putting NOSA together Berry calls on fellow African American female creatives.
“There are artists I admire and am friends with. I’m not walking this myself believe me.”
The artists feel a kinship with Berry, whose big heart and bright spirit they respond to. Peggy Jones says of Berry, “She is committed, passionate and has great love for both the arts and her community. Pam is a tireless advocate for helping people tell their own stories and create art because she is a true believer in the way the arts can be used for expression as well as heal and connect disparate groups.”
Berry likes that she and her “sisters” produce a festival that not only gets people to experience different forms of art but that gives them a chance to create art and to get it seen. Students in the creative writing class pen pieces published in an anthology and students in the quilting class get their work shown in the Arts Crawl.
For Berry, it’s all about giving North O its due.
“I love my community.”
For details visit http://www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts.
- Cherish the Day: North Omaha (yperspective.wordpress.com)
- Kelly: Homecoming event a parade down memory lane (omaha.com)
- North Omaha Summer Arts Presents: Freelance Writing Academy Seminars with Leo Adam Biga (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Street festivals are as emblematic of America as anything and my hometown of Omaha has it’s share of them. A newer one, the Vinton Street Creativity Festival, is an urban pastiche that’s part carnival, part fair, part block party that takes its name and cue from the funky diagonal street where an eclectic assemblage of venues comprise Vinton’s historical business district. This story appeared in advance of the recently held 2013 fest.
Omaha’s Vinton Street Creativity Festival Celebrates a Diagonal Cultural Scene
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
The resurgence of both the Vinton Street Commercial Historical District and the greater Deer Park Neighborhood it resides in is impetus for the second annual Vinton Street Creativity Festival.
The 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 18 event is a free celebration of youth and community organized by the Deer Park Neighborhood Association, Habitat for Humanity and the City of Omaha. Vinton Street merchants are helping sponsor it.
The festival, whose hub is 18th and Vinton, will include live music, a street art throwdown, extreme skateboarding, breakdance performances, children’s activities, arts and crafts displays, walking tours and a Victory Boxing Club demonstration. Food can be purchased from the district’s many eateries.
The Hector Anchondo Blues Band will headline the on-stage band lineup, which also includes Pancho & the Contraband and Midwest Dilemma. Mariachi Zapata and Ballet Folklorico Xiotal will perform traditional music and dance, respectively.
The Omaha Creative Institute will present Elmo Diaz in a blacksmithing demo, Tom Kerr drawing caricatures and a watercolor station for kids to paint.
Linda Garcia will teach the Mexican paper cutting craft, appeal picado banderas, in creating miniature decorative flags.
Among a few dozen commercial historical districts in the nation, the Vinton strip is singular for its diagonal layout. The narrow, meandering road, with low-slung, century-old buildings set close to the street, follows a ridge line that may have been a trail or country road before the area’s late 19th century development.
Noted photographer Larry Ferguson, who’s long maintained a studio and living space in the Daniel J. Jourdan Building at 1701 Vinton, says as a result of the street’s serpentine shape “you have a lot of different vistas as you move along and through those curves – it’s like a piece of sculpture that way.”
Festivalgoers will come upon a commercially thriving district whose 14 historically significant buildings have been largely untampered with and house a diverse mix of service-based businesses. Many small business owners there are Hispanic. Their enterprises include bakeries, restaurants, a meat market and clothing stores.
The area is far livelier then when Ferguson moved there in 1987. “It was a derelict part of town. It was really bad,” he recalls. “Nothing but vacant storefronts and six bars. Very little street and pedestrian traffic.” He says as the South 24th business district filled “it was a natural progression for the Latino community to move up into this area to rebuild. That led to a big influx of property changes and people changes. To the point now we have constant traffic on the street during the day. A lot of new businesses have come on board that are making Vinton happen. The new businesses are just hopping.”
One of the biggest changes is the influx of families with young children. Deer Park Neighborhood Association president Oscar Duran says, “There are hundreds of young kids in our neighborhood.” In his work as a Neighborhood Revitalization Specialist with Habitat for Humanity Duran’s enlisted youth as volunteers and as participants in urban art competitions and mural projects.
“I saw we had a local asset of urban artists within the neighborhood, That started us asking ourselves what other ways could we outreach to our youth in the South Omaha area. How can we bring together a mash of different counter cultures and communities that celebrate youth being active, involved and a part of something?
“So we invited some of the urban artists and break-dancers we’re familiar with as well as the nonprofits that do outreach-mentorship to cross pollinate with each other and celebrate what each of them is good at.”
Duran says the resulting youth and community-centered event is an attempt “to separate us from other neighborhood festivals because Deer Park itself is a very unique neighborhood. It’s a collection of smaller neighborhoods. It’s a melting pot. You go down Vinton Street and you have an internationally known photographer (Ferguson) who’s been there since the ’80s right next to a carniceria (meat market) who’s been there for ten and right across the street you have a pasterleria (bakery). Then there’s all the restaurants, the boutiques, the Capitol Bindery, Gallery 72.
“I think it’s really cool. It’s something that’s very organic to our area.”
New additions to the melting pot are The Apollon, a multi-genre arts event-dining space having its grand opening during the fest, and The Pearly Owl curio shop.
Apollon co-founder Ryan Tewell says the district is becoming known as a “friendly up-and-coming arts and dining destination without all the traffic and congestion and higher prices that come with it.”
Grants are assisting some owners with sprucing up the facades of their buildings. Duran says improvements to the surrounding area include the recent razing of condemned homes, the rehab of others and the construction of new residences.
“That revitalization brings new people, higher property values,” Ferguson says. “I’ve got 26 years here of watching this neighborhood transform, which has always been my dream. I’ve been trying to champion this street for a long time. It’s very exciting to see it happen.”
Ferguson and Duran view the festival as a showcase for what the area offers.
“There’s a really good core of people here,” Duran says. “A very strong sense of work ethic and community was already here and it’s not going to go away. There’s really an environment fostered here that people want to help each other.”
“Vinton’s becoming more unified,” says Ferguson. “It’s a real celebration of it. We’re totally jazzed and excited.”
- Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
After Decades in New York City Omaha Native Jazz Pianist Paul Serrato Proves You Can Come Home Again
Jazz artist Paul Serrato is one of those cool cats who left his native Omaha to do his thing in the big city. He carved out a nice career in New York as a pianist, arranger and composer. He has serious chops and he’s well respected in the jazz world for his talents. Now, decades after leaving here, he’s come back to his hometown something of a jazz legend to aficianados, though he’s largely unknown to the general public. He’s one of those classic cases of being unappreciated in his own backyard. That’s partly due to the fact that jazz is off most people’s radar. Then there’s the reality that he was not in Omaha when he did make a name for himself in the Big Apple. But he’s come home to stay and he’s eager to share his work with Omaha audiences. My guess is he will get the recognition he deserves here before too long.
After Decades in New York City Omaha Native Jazz Pianist Paul Serrato Proves You Can Come Home Again
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in El Perico
Jazz pianist-arranger-composer Paul Serrato left his native Omaha more than 50 years ago to pursue a theater and music career in New York City. He found considerable success there. He led headlilne and backup bands, he soloed and did sideman work at top clubs. He composed original music for hit underground, off-Broadway plays. He recorded and released several well-reviewed CDs on his own Graffiti Productions label.
He would return to visit family and friends. In 2011 he came back here to stay. He performs around town, including a regular gig at The Addicted Cup in the Old Market. He’s preparing a new CD highlighting some never released original music.
Why move here after so many years away?
“Well, it was a push-pull thing,” he says. His mother, who had remained in town, died and rather than give up “the family compound in South Omaha” he decided to move in. It beat the Big Apple’s high cost of living.
Omaha is where it all began for Serrato. He grew up the only child of a single mother. He never really knew his father, who left for Calif. It’s only in the last year Serrato discovered half-siblings on the west coast. “We’ve really bonded,” he says of his new found family.
Times were tough for Serrato and his mom. She traveled wherever she could find factory work.
“I went to school in Michigan, Texas, Tennessee,” says Serrato.
His love of the piano began as a young boy. An aunt in Omaha played a big upright he couldn’t resist. He started lessons at age 9 and quickly showed promise and passion.
“I really found an obsession.”
He won local music contests and was a featured soloist in school concerts. He played mostly classics until happening upon jazz.
“I used to hear it on the radio and I was very like blown away by the great jazz pianists. I’d thought I wanted to be a concert pianist until I started hearing recordings by Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson.”
By high school he was living in Omaha again. Soon after graduating Creighton Prep in the late 1950s he left for Boston University to study theater arts. Then New York beckoned.
“It was a magnet, it was a pull, it was an exciting lure,” he says. “What I did when I arrived was I saturated myself in the club scene.”
He was a regular at the landmark Birdland. He also took composition studies. His studies continued. His resulting music expresses the energy and edge of the bustling city. He calls his sound urban jazz – not by the rules.
“You’re a product of your culture, whatever it is,” he says.
He acknowledges a strong Latin influence in his work. Conga player Candido Camero was “a great inspiration,” he says.
“Candido made a record called Mambo Moves with one of my favorite pianists Erroll Garner. It has such great duets they play. I’ve always loved that record and I’ve tried to incorporate some of those ideas into my own music.”
Serrato’s worked with several conga players over the years. He recently found a new one – “He’s got the licks, man” – with whom he hopes to perform and record.
He identifies strongly with his Mexican heritage. He didn’t grow up speaking much Spanish but he fell in love with the language and became an English-as-Second Language teacher for Spanish-speakers.
“I’ve done a lot of traveling in Spanish-speaking countries. I spent lot of time in Spain, where I used to follow bullfights. That was a whole passion of mine. I used to be a really great aficionado. I got my master’s degree in urban education ESL and my last few years in New York I taught adult education in Washington Heights to mostly Dominicans. I taught bilingually.”
His early years in New York he supported himself working odd jobs, including tending bar. While managing a Greenwich Village bookstore he met artists from the underground scene – poets, playwrights, painters, singers.
“That’s a great thing about New York, where you just collide with people. In that New York downtown underground culture nobody was dictating you to write it this way or that way, so I was writing jazz for singers to perform in plays. I had the field to myself because nobody else was doing that. Everybody was doing like rock songs and the Velvet Underground, and I loved the Velvet Underground but that wasn’t what I was doing. I was a novelty.
“I jumped into it and had some wonderful collaborations with (Andy) Warhol superstars, playing for them, accompanying then, getting acts together. I did stuff with jazz basses, walking basses, trumpet solos, all this stuff, and they loved it.”
Serrato made tours of London in the 1970s. More recently he’s performed concerts in Japan. His work’s been featured in television documentaries, included An American Family, and in the HBO dramatic movie, Cinema Verite.
He says New York is “where I’ve done my most memorable creative work and I’m hoping I can transfer some of that to Omaha, and I’m having some gratifying success. I’m meeting some really good musicians.
He looks to add to a personal recording catalog that includes the albums AlterNations, Pianomania, Excursions, Origami and Nexus.
His next Addicted Cup gig is June 29 from 4 to 6 p.m.
Find more about the musician at http://www.paulserrato.com.
- Potash Twins Making Waves in Jazz: Teen Brothers Count Jazz Greats as Mentors (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Laura Love: Omaha’s High Yaller Gal Comes Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- You: Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol group settle suit over banana image (latimes.com)
- Jazz Pianist And Pedagogue Mulgrew Miller Dies (wnyc.org)
- Jazz Fest 2013: Interview With Aaron Neville (Review) (popmatters.com)
Appearances can be deceiving. Take the subjects of this story, for example. On first blush who would be less likely to be positioned to lead a revival of Omaha’s once kickin’ but long dormant live jazz scene than a couple of Jewish kids from suburbia? What’s more, you probably don’t think of privilged white boys as being promising proteges of contemporary black jazz greats. But in each instance the Potash Twins, 19-year-old identical twin brothers from Omaha, are overturning assumptions, Their making waves in the world of jazz not just in their hometown but in places like New York City and New Orleans. They count among their mentors Wynton Marsalis, Jon Faddis and Jonathan Batiste. It’s anybody’s gues what they’ll end up doing in jazz but they’re riding a wave that at least for now shows no sign of slowing. I have a feeling I’ll be writing about them for a long time.
Potash Twins Making Waves in Jazz: Teen Brothers Count Jazz Greats as Mentors
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Identical twin brothers from Jewish suburbia, Ezra and Adeev Potash, are Omaha’s unlikely gift to the jazz world. Their soul and funk-infused horn playing has everyone from Big Sam Williams to Wynton Marsalis singing their praises.
Ezra plays trombone, tuba and sousaphone. Adeev plays trumpet. The Westside High School grads recorded their 2012 debut album, “Twintuition,” in Omaha as a New York City calling card. The 19-year-olds are elite music students there.
They’ve parlayed a gift for schmooze and chutzpah into private lessons and close personal relationships with jazz greats, notably trumpet master Marsalis.
“When we go to concerts we bring our instruments with us and for us that’s like a baseball fan bringing your glove to a game hoping to catch a foul ball. But for us the foul ball is the lesson, and we’ve caught a couple foul balls,” says Adeev.
They also have a knack for nabbing national attention. In March they performed at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where they led an impromptu New Orleans-style Second Line down Sixth Street that National Public Radio featured. A film crew following them for a proposed Reality TV series was there and at the May Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting the brothers performed at.
Currently back in Omaha on summer break they’re performing June 8 with their band The Potash Twins at LoessFest on the same bill as Don Vattie, a New Orleans legend Marsalis introduced them to. The free fest is at River’s Edge Park on the Bluffs end of the pedestrian bridge. The brothers’ group consists of players from the Westside jazz band they anchored along with other hometown friends. Following their 4 p.m. appearance Preservation Hall Jazz Band takes the stage at 7:30.
Ezra, who describes himself and Adeev as “musicians, entertainers and personalities,” says they realize how surreal a ride they’re on. It’s why they’re already writing their memoir.
“It’s been a fast transition and a huge transition for us,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe some of these things that happen to us. I have to write them down. Every time something happens we look at each other and say, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’
Like meeting jazz heavyweight Jonathan Batiste on the streets of New York and being invited to a Harlem church gig he was playing. They went to dinner with him and that led to playing with him at the famed Dizzy’s Club, where Marsalis and Bobby McFerrin were their rooting section. All that in their first week in the city.
Ezra and Adeev have since performed several times with Batiste.
“We can’t believe the way our lives have turned out. We were never that serious about being musicians until we met Wynton in 2008. The next thing we know we’re playing with all these people and invited to all these things, living in New York City,” says Ezra.
Their superstar mentor, Marsalis, opens doors for the twins to hang out and jam with major artists. Indeed, the brothers may have never emerged as promising jazz newcomers if not for Marsalis, who took them under his wing in a series of backstage encounters that changed the way they thought about music.
That first meeting in the green room of the Lied Performing Arts Center in Lincoln, Neb. turned into an extended private lesson.
“We talked for a really long time about what it means to be a musician. Wynton’s very about being humble and just representing the music like you’d represent yourself. It’s something he always talks about,” says Ezra. “When Wynton told us ‘you guys should be learning this’ we had to learn it, especially if we wanted to continue a relationship with him. It was like, If we want to be musicians this is what we need to do. He handed us like a free pass almost.”
The twins acknowledge their nonchalant attitude about music turned around once Marsalis entered their lives.
Ezra says, “That lesson really got us serious about being musicians. Everything changed from that point on.”
“We started practicing a lot more,” says Adeev.
After a Marsalis concert in Minneapolis the brothers attended Marsalis offered to help with their college admissions applications. They’re not entirely sure why he’s taken such an interest other than the fact “he knew we were eager,” says Ezra. “He gets it that we understand basically what he wants us to do.
“We’re apt students,” adds Adeev. “When we saw him the third or fourth time he said he had a huge connection to us because we were old souls. But I don’t know if that would describe us.”
They do acknowledge their deep appreciation for jazz is unusual for people their age. Their brazen approach to big names, usually sneaking or fast-talking their way backstage, “kind of takes artists by surprise,” says Adeev
“They can see we’re really interested,” says Ezra. “They don’t mind, especially because we’re eager to learn from them, and we’re respectful and we really appreciate their time. They see we’re more students than fans.”
“We think this is something jazz musicians have – a willingness to welcome eager younger musicians. It’s a jazz family,” says Adeev.
The twins attribute their rapid progress to hard work and good instruction more than prodigious talent.
“I wouldn’t say we have natural ability. I just think we’ve had really good music education,” says Adeev.
Ezra says, “I think we’re the poster children of Omaha or Westside music education. We learned how to play and we just continued.”
Then came the lessons from jazz greats. Today, Adeev studies under Dizzy Gillespie protege Jon Faddis and Ezrra with veteran sideman Dave Taylor. “We take what they give us and we kind of run with it,” says Adeev.
They know they have much to learn.
The brothers are not only tight with Marsalis but with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, whom they first met in Omaha in 2009 “after worshiping their musicianship for a year,” says Adeev.
“We knew all of them by name. We had studied this band. It’s like people collect baseball cards, well we memorize everything about certain jazz musicians,” says Ezra. “We got such a connection with them the first time and we got like really good one-on-one advice from top New York musicians.
“They are like our adopted parents in New York City. It’s pretty special because Jazz at Lincoln Center is a huge organization. These guys are pretty famous. We feel so honored with that “
The twins are determined to get horn players respect across genres. They aspire being the horn section of a famous band.
They also want to revive Omaha’s live jazz scene. They recently played at Loves Jazz and Arts Center, where they learned about its namesake, local music legend Preston Love Sr. and North Omaha’s jazz hub legacy.
“We want to give back to Omaha specifically. We want to bring in these big artists we know. We really want to develop a New York City-Neb. jazz connection,” says Ezra, who confirmed that he and Adeev are LJAC’s new artistic directors.
He’s aware how strange it is he and Adeev are “the jazz representatives of Neb. in New York.” He’a aware too how ironic it would be if North O’s jazz scene is resurrected through the efforts of two white Jewish boys from the ‘burbs. But they’ve found a shared interest with Loves Jazz to recapture a music heritage.
“They have the passion for it, we have the passion too. We want to bring that back,” says Ezra, who imagines a packed jazz club and hot jam sessions there. “We really do have a love for the music and we’re trying to bring it to places where it’s not as accessible. A lot of people say jazz is dead. It’s definitely not at its peak but I think it’s something people can relate to if they put the effort in.”
Meanwhile, the bros have written original tunes for their second album, which they’ll record in New York this fall.
Follow the Potash Twins at http://www.facebook.com/PotashTwins.
- Marsalis on Jazz (venitism.blogspot.com)
- Jazz Harlem Lincoln Center (thestarryeye.typepad.com)
- Chick Corea and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: 16 May 2013 – New York (Review) (popmatters.com)
- Crosby, Stills and Nash get jazzy with Marsalis (miamiherald.com)
Brenda Allen is a good old broad. That’s a compliment by the way. She just says it like it is, take it or leave it. She’s funny, brash, the life-of-the-party and yet more than a little acquainted with tragedy. Her career as a country singer-guitarist took some unexpected turns, like taking her to Vietnam and Vegas. Her path and the forks in the road she came to along the way make her life story compelling. I tell that story in the following article for the New Horizons.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
NOTE: This Web version contains bonus material not found in the print version
Brenda Allen is not your typical crooner come open mic nights at the southwest Omaha bar, Lauter Tun. Unlike the amateurs and wannabes who struggle carrying a tune, she’s a pro who can style a song to fit her voice and mood or any crowd and occasion. A real cut-up, she invariably does comedy bits as part of her act. Her brazen, earthy manner comes through loud and clear.
“I’m a straight shooter…full of piss and vinegar,” she likes to say.
The singer-guitarist, who was born Brenda Allacher, has decades of paying gigs behind her. She’s performed at major venues and appeared alongside bone fide legends, including the late Johnny Cash, who became a friend and champion.
Though long ago retired from her music career she simply can’t give up taking the stage, putting an audience in the palm of her hand and lapping up the laughs and applause. That’s why she often heads to the nearest night spot to present selections from her vast repertoire of country and rockabilly sounds.
A natural comedienne with a bold, often risque sense of humor, Allen is a no-holds-barred personality with plenty of stories to share from her eventful life. She sometimes catches audiences off guard with not only her humorous anecdotes but her unexpected true tales of love and loss, fear and regret, addiction and recovery.
She was in her early 30s when she had to leave the successful band she helped found, The Taylor Sisters, to address her alcoholism. She now has 39 years of sobriety that she maintains one day at a time.
The Taylor Sisters headlined at the famed Golden Nugget in Las Vegas when things came to a head for Allen, who upon getting herself clean and sober began a crusade against substance abuse.
“I left the show in ’73 because I was an alcoholic. I needed help,” she says. “I was told I had less than three months to live from cirrhosis of the liver. I had a good connection up there (she signals to heaven) because I’m the only one alive out of the original Taylor Sisters. He let me stay around because I talk about (the dangers) of alcohol and drugs. I started going into schools and doling shows like that. Then I went to nightclubs and said, ‘All you drunks, if you want to meet me tomorrow morning I’ll take you into detox.’ I talked about it even in nightclubs.”
Her use of alcohol to medicate feelings, she says, got worse after taking part in a three-and-a-half month tour of Vietnam the Taylor Sisters made during the height of the war in 1969. Servicemen called her “Crazy Legs” for the way she’d kick her legs up and fling her shoes into the crowd.
The members of the all-girl band were not really sisters but the things they experienced over there bonded them like blood siblings.
Allen is still haunted by all that happened. She survived a rocket attack that killed a U.A. Army nurse. Once, she got left behind by the convoy she was traveling in and had to catch up to it in the dead of night. After one show she talked her way out of a possible rape. Three U.S. army doctors died in an attack only hours after she met them. One time a mysterious U.S. Army colonel spirited her away, blindfolded, to a secret POW camp manned by a black-op Special Forces unit.
She can’t shake the fact mere boys were put in harm’s way for so dubious a cause. She fears their lives were lost in a conflict that had more to do with boosting the military industrial complex than defending freedom.
“To sacrifice a generation of young men for prosperity is sick,” she says.
She’ll never forget being around scared, lonely young men who saw in her and her fellow entertainers their girlfriends, sisters, mothers.
“They were looking at you, longing for you. We let them know America loved them and we were there to entertain them. We sat and drank with them just like we were one of the boys.”
Back home, Allen felt compelled to share these experiences with the press but she says nobody showed any interest. Then The Taylor Sisters hit it big at the Golden Nugget and between her busy career and wanting to forget what she saw at war she suppressed the trauma. Her drinking got out of hand. Not long after she left the group the other original Sisters died – one of cancer, the other by suicide, Just like that two of her closest friends were gone. She’s never married and has no children.
A man she dearly loved, Hollywood makeup artist Jerry P. Soucie, died in a 1989 motorcycle accident.
Life’s thrown more challenges at Allen. She was in a bad auto accident that cost her part of a foot. She was an identity theft victim.
After going on the wagon for good Allen returned to performing, sometimes with bands led by Johnny Ray Gomez and Pat Hamilton.
Increasingly, the entertainer felt a need to educate the public about the overlooked military and civilian roles American women played in Vietnam. She performed for veterans groups. Vets who saw her perform in Nam would call out “Crazy Legs” at her shows and she’d hold mini-reunions with them afterwards. She made a point to tell each vet, “Welcome home, soldier.” She advocated for a national memorial dedicated to the women who served. She was on a committee that pressed for the Congressional Medal of Freedom be given veteran USO entertainer Martha Raye.
A native of Lincoln, Neb., Allen grew up in nearby Martell, where her mother was the town switchboard operator. She sang at church and school from childhood. When her older brother went into the service he left his ukulele behind and she learned to play it. She soon switched to guitar. The advent of rock ‘n’ roll changed her life while a student at Lincoln High.
“That was the beginning of it all – The Memphis Five, Elvis, rock n roll. In 1958 we were rocking and rolling and the black sound was coming in and I loved it. I was the only one that played guitar in my school and the guys invited me to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band – The August Heat Wave. I was the only girl in the band. All the girls at school were mad at me.”
Her parents were not thrilled with her new passion.
“You know all the young girls found their libido after watching Elvis. My parents didn’t approve. My mother shut the TV off when Elvis was on. My dad said, ‘Why don’t you sing at church?’ I said, ‘They don’t applaud.”
She enjoyed every opportunity she could find to make music for people.
“I’d sit out on my front porch at night singing and playing and kids from the neighborhood would come. I loved doing that. I’d make money, too. I’d put a tin cup out there and say, ‘If you want to hear a song it’ll cost you a nickel.’”
The pretty, vivacious, saucy Allen attracted admirers. One was Charles Starkweather, just another neighborhood kid before he went on a killing spree that made him infamous. Allen was close friends with his sister Lavita.
“Charlie was nice looking but he had bright flaming red hair and he was bow legged and he spoke with a lisp, He was slow. Kids made fun of him,” recalls Allen. “Lavita loved him dearly. Charlie called up one day and said, ‘I’m Lavita’s brother.’ He’d been listening to me from his car. My father saw that and came out and said, ‘I don’t know who you are but I don’t want you here.’ I felt bad.”
Her last encounter with Starkweather gave her a chilling insight into what may have contributed to his homicidal rage.
“Lavita invited me to a slumber party and said to bring the guitar. There were about 10 of us girls. Her father came home and said hello and then here came Charlie. He sat down and listened to me playing guitar and asked if I would show him some stuff. I said sure. I gave him the guitar, showed him chords, and his father came in and said, ‘What are you doing in here you little shit?’ He was drunk. The dad took Charlie and threw him out the back door.”
Allen says she later learned that Starkweather didn’t returned home and the sister suspected her troubled brother was “with that girl” – meaning Caril Ann Fugate, his accomplice in the killing spree. Allen says she remembers asking Lavita, “What do you think of her?” and Lavita answering, “She’s nothing but trouble. He acts different with her.” Allen says, “The next few days they found the bodies. It was a very scary thing because Charlie was killing people he knew.”
Tragic as it was, Allen would not be distracted from her goal of being a professional musician. Her first major public show happened by accident but whetted her appetite for more big stages.
“I went to the (Nebraska) state fair and Jimmy Wakely (a popular singing cowboy) was appearing in the open auditorium. I snuck backstage and got his autograph. I was sitting back there singing with a band I knew from high school who were backing Wakely. We did “The Bible Tells Me So’ – a big Dale Evans song back then. Somebody tapped me on the shoulder and it was Wakely, and he said, ‘I want to have you be my special guest.”
Before she knew it she found herself being introduced before a crowd of a couple thousand folks. She was 15.
“I didn’t have time to be scared. He screwed up on the ending of it and he said, ‘Hey, you messed that up,’ and I shot back, ‘You’re the pro.’ Later, he took me aside to tell me, ‘Take up country music.’ Well, I loved Teresa Brewer, Patti Page, people like that. I said, ‘What’s country music?’ and he said, ‘Listen to Hank Williams.’ And he said there was only one big female name in country then – Kitty Wells.”
Allen followed his advice and transformed herself into a country artist.
She also got a taste of show biz’s seamier side.
“He (Wakely) did make a play for me by the way and I downplayed it with, ‘Mr. Wakely, you always rode off in the sunset by yourself.’ A year later Channel 10 in Lincoln had a Multiple Sclerosis telethon I performed on and Mr. Wakely was there and he said, ‘How old are you now?’ I said, ‘Mr. Wakey, I’m 16, I’m still jail bait, and he kind of laughed and said, ‘Here’s a dime, call me when you turn 21.’”
Allen began making a name for herself as a solo entertainer and as one half of the duet, The Country Misses. She decided to go to Springfield, Mo. to audition for the Ozark Jubilee made famous by Red Foley on his ABC-broadcast show. It was there that an elephant doing its business brought she and a country icon together.
“I did my audition and they said I could stay and see the rest of the show. This was about 45 minutes before show time. My girlfriend and I were looking at three guys sitting in front of us. They weren’t regulars on the show.”
One in particular caught Brenda’s eye.
“I said, ‘God, he’s good looking,’ and my girlfriend said, ‘All three of them are good looking. Yeah, I wonder who that is?’ In the meantime the Jubilee’s version of a Hee Haw couple, Uncle Cyp and Aunt Sap Brasfield, were rehearsing.”
A live elephant was part of the act. The animal did some tricks. Then the elephant decided to pee.
“It sprayed 20 rows out. All the performers were in their costumes already. Everybody got hit. We were soaked,” Allen recalls with a hearty laugh. “I dived and my girlfriend dived under the seats and I saw these long legs go running over top and I said, ‘Is he done yet?’ And this male voice said, ‘No, you better stay down there,’ and he went on by me. Finally I peeked up and they were putting saw dust all over the place, wiping seats down and I heard that same voice say, ‘Well, how high is the water, mama?’ I said, ‘It’s two feet high and rising.’ It was Johnny Cash.
“I popped up and said, ‘Are you staying across the street?’ ‘Yeah,” he said. ‘We’re staying there, too, you want me to bring you a shirt?’ ‘Hell, yes,’ he said and he gave me the key to his room and I got him a clean shirt.”
The old theater lacked dressing rooms and so anyone drenched had to make do with what they had on or what they’d brought.
That unlikely meeting was the beginning of an enduring friendship with The Man in Black. At the time Cash was married to his first wife Vivan and the woman he made his second wife, June Carter, was not yet in his life.
“That’s what started it,” Allen says of her long association with Cash. “We sat and played guitars that night and talked about country music. He was a perfect gentleman. I told him I was looking to join a band and he said, ‘Why not get your own band together?’ Back in Lincoln I wrote him a letter and I got a letter back. We had exchanged pictures. I gave him a picture of myself with my Fender Telecaster and I got his first song book. He wrote, ‘Love & kisses.’ Trust me, he wouldn’t have written that after June (Carter).
“Without me even knowing it he sent my picture to Fender. That’s the kind of guy he was. Fender offered me a contract to model.”
She never signed the contract. Instead, she worked hard on her music and at 18 landed her next big break when she met Marty Martin, who gained fame as Boxcar Willie.
“I was his first girl singer. Because of my age I couldn’t be in nightclubs. He and his wife looked after me. We toured the Midwest in a big car. I learned a lot from Marty. He was a honey. He was a very, very good teacher for me. But I got bored because they wanted me to be the prim Miss So-and-So. I’m not geared that way. I’m a ham.”
Fate intervened again when she got a call from an agent saying Cash was coming to Lincoln and needed an opening act. She promptly pitched The Marty Martin Show Featuring Brenda Allen. It was the early 1960s. They got the gig.
“We opened in Lincoln for him at Pershing Auditorium and in Omaha at the Music Hall. I played the Music Hall with a lot country acts.”
“Wonderful,” is how she describes sharing the stage with Cash. She says he flattered her by saying, ‘You’ve got a damn good voice.’” She says Cash and his lead guitar player Luther Perkins “sat me down and said, ‘Brenda, stick with country music, you’re going to make it.’” She did, too.
She says it was sometime in the early ’60s that June Carter “started entering the picture and I started noticing things about John from when I first him.” Cash battled drug addictions at various points in his life.
When Allen turned 21 she began playing Lincoln lounges-clubs, When not performing she modeled and worked the switchboard at Hovland-Swanson clothing store. She says s strict policy forbid employees from moonlighting. One night, she says, the owner showed up where she was performing. His guest was newly hired University of Nebraska football coach, Bob Devaney. She says the owner fired her on the spot, saying, “You sing better than you sound on the switchboard.” She adds that the married Devaney took an immediate liking to her and pursued her through the years.
Now that she was on her own, she focused on perfecting her comedy and country act that was equal parts innocent and naughty.
“For instance, I’d start up and say, ‘OK, fellas, hang on because I’m going to take you for a ride. Hey, hey good looking, what you got cooking…’ And then I’d still be playing guitar and I’d say, ‘Move that chair,’ and I’d sit down on their laps and say, ‘Oh my goodness. I think he’s got a flashlight in his pocket.’ “
With suggestive lyrics like, “I’ve been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too, the things I did to them, sugar, I can do to you, I’m a Fujiyama Mama…” she made quite an impression.
How far she went depended on the crowd.
“Then I’d start doing my version of Johnny Cash.”
Allen had an established solo career going when she met fellow musician Joann Paugh backstage at a show. Paugh wanted to start an all-girl band. Allen resisted. “But she kept bugging me and bugging me,” recalls Allen, The dye was cast after Paugh introduced her to Helen Taylor, a formidable guitarist herself. “We drew straws to see who would play bass and rhythm guitar,” says Allen. Helen got bass and Brenda rhythm.
Things moved fast for the group. They began performing as the Taylor Sisters before Helen’s husband took over as manager and changed the name to Helen Taylor and the Taylor Sisters. “It pissed me off,” says Allen.
The band played with Cash a few times, even opening a 1964 Wichita, Kansas show with June Carter, Minnie Pearl, the Statler Brothers and Lefty Frizzell.
“I’d say we were in damn good company.”
Then the call came that changed their lives.
The Taylor Sisters had toured with Sheb Wooley and the entertainer called Brenda to say, “They need you in Vietnam,’ to which she responded, “What’s Vietnam?” He thought the Taylor Sisters would go over well with the boys. She says the decision to go was easy “once we heard what was going on over there and how bad it was.”
Instead of going with the USO (United Service Organizations), the group went independently though the Johnny Robinson talent agency, who hooked them up with an agency in Saigon, who signed them over to the Korean Entertainment Corporation.
Brenda and Co. arrived in Saigon the first week in April. The humidity, heat and stench are what first struck her.
Until they returned home in July they were kept busy.
“We did three-four shows in a day within a 150-mile radius every four or five days,” says Allen.
They traveled by jeep, truck, boat and helicopter. A military escort was assigned but she says those they were often drunk or stoned by the end of the show. Drinking and drugging were prevalent wherever they went. Brenda imbibed a lot herself.
The women were given strict orders to not venture out at night alone but that didn’t always prevent them from going off on their own, especially with an enlisted man they liked. “We always made sure the others knew where we were,” Allen says. Not every GI could be trusted, she discovered.
“One night we were tear gassed. We came off the stage and we were separated
The guy who grabbed me ended taking me out to a hangar and I said, ‘What are we doing here?’ ‘This is where you’re going to meet the rest of the group,” he said. ‘No it isn’t, I’m supposed to go to the major’s tent.’ The guy said, ‘We can wait a little bit.’ ‘No we can’t.’ Then he admitted, ‘I’m so lonesome.’ ‘That’s too bad,’ I said, ‘then you need to get a break. If you have the idea of what I think you’re thinking and you rape me here now the girls are going to miss me and the Army’s going to find you and throw the book at you, and I don’t want to see that happen. Look, I came here to get paid a little bit of money. I didn’t have to be here to make you feel better. Americans do care about you. And you want to rape me?’ He started to cry.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry but you’ve got problems, you need to go to your commanding officer. He took me to hs CO. I explained what happened and the major said, ‘You’re going to lose a stripe over this soldier.’ I was a little bit more careful from then on.”
Her suspicions were aroused another time but her instincts told her she’d be safe and she was. The experience sounds like something out of a movie.
“After an outdoor show in Da Nang a snap-to colonel wearing a green beret came up to me and said, ‘I want to ask you a question.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘I am in charge of one of our POW camps and we have a North Vietmanese soldier starving himself. He doesn’t want to talk, he’s afraid we’re going to poison him. We want to get some information out of him. Would you be willing to help?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, where is it?’ ‘You can’t see where it is. but it’s about an hour’s drive from here. We’re Special Forces. Please do it.’”
Whether out of curiosity or patriotism, she says, “I agreed to go. I told the girls if I’m not back by six o’clock this is who I went with and I want you to report it. He loaded me up with my guitar in a jeep. We drove for awhile and then he said, ‘I have to blindfold you.’ ‘I’ll have a drink of scotch first,’ I said. He never laid a hand on me.” At the camp she found herself in an officers club, where the colonel barked, ‘“Attention. This young lady was going to help us with our North Vietmanese prisoner but he’s already been put down for the night. She has her guitar here and she’s going to entertain you.” She recalls, “The place went bonkers. They grabbed me and sat me on the bar. I cracked jokes and sang to them for about 45 minutes.”
When it was time for her to leave, she says the soldiers “separated into two lines and saluted her. At the end of the line was the colonel and as he walked her out he removed his green beret and placed it on her head. “He took me back and I never heard a word from him since,” she says. She tried tracking him down but her inquiries with the Army always got the same response: we don’t have anybody by that name. She assumes he was part of some black op, covert unit. She still has his green beret and sometimes dons it for pictures and performances. She also has a vest pinned with medals and decorations given to her by military personnel.
Brenda wearing the green beret and insignia
In Chu Lai Nebraska National Guard troops had just come back from the bush, she says, when the CO, “Big Daddy” Richardson, asked her, “Brenda, can you and the girls do one more show for the guys from Nebraska?” “Are you kidding?” she replied. Once on stage inside a quonset hut, she recalls, “I said, ‘Hit it girls,’ and we did ‘There is no place like Nebraska.’ The roof went off – the place exploded.”
She says that Chu Lai, a central coastal area manned by the Americal Division,“was one of our favorite places because we had privacy taking a shower. I remember ‘Big Daddy’ Richardson saying, ‘I’m going to work your butts off, but when you come back at night your favorite food and drink will be sitting in front of you.’ And it was, too. Lobster and blackberry brandy and Cutty Sark scotch. We’d do five and six shows a day for that man. The men, they just wouldn’t let us quit and we weren’t about to leave those boys. The guys were just absolutely beautiful. They called me ‘Crazy Legs’…I’d do wild dancing and kick my legs up. They just went bonkers. We’d come back exhausted.”
An incident in Chu Lai scarred her forever.
“One night, we’d come back from a show and a few of us were in the officers club drinking when there was a loud CLAP and the building just shook. “ It was the start of a prolonged mortar attack. A GI grabbed her and threw her down under the bar. “Aren’t we supposed to go to a bunker?” she asked, “Too late now,” she was told. “We took 16 rounds over a period of four or five hours. We just laid there on the floor and got drunk. I was so scared. Around daylight a young man came running in, shouting, ‘They got a nurse at the 312 Surg-Evac,’ which was like a block away.”
The victim, 1st Lt. army nurse Sharon Ann Lane of Canton, Ohio, was the first Army nurse to die under hostile fire in Southeast Asia and one of 68 American women in all — military and civilian — to die in the conflict. “She was decapitated by shrapnel,” says Allen. The incident shook the singer to her core. “She was 26 and I was 21. What really gets me is – why her and not me? – because she was saving lives. I held her mother in my arms at the dedication of the statue in 1993.”
The Taylor Sisters pushed off to their next stop. The war ground on as usual.
“We just forgot about it, we had to put it behind us…The next day it was a whole new ballgame, a whole new area to perform in.”
It was a sober reminder of what men in combat faced. She couldn’t fathom “seeing their best friends blown apart” and having to keep on fighting. “Holy crap, I still have post traumatic stress. I can’t stand the Fourth of July.”
She says she learned Western performers had a price on their heads. The bigger the star, the higher the bounty. Bob Hope was the biggest target of all though he reduced his exposure to danger by being flown to safety every night.
Another brutal reminder of war’s vagaries came when Brenda and Helen got their picture taken with three U.S. Army docs on the deck of a boat headed for Cua Viet, a base in the demilitarized zone near North and South Vietnam border.
“It was sand and tents and water. It was R & R for the troops.”
The Taylor Sisters did a show on a small stage with a sheet as a backdrop. The all-male audience sat on a sandy beach on the South China Sea.
“Cua Viet was getting hit almost every night. That’s why they got us back down the river right away. We did an afternoon show, they loaded us up, and away we went.”
After the band left the base came under attack that night and suffered major casualties. She was informed the men she got her picture taken with were among those killed.
“They died the day we played for them.”
The Taylor Sisters landed the Golden Nugget slot soon after returning from Nam.
“We had a damn good thing – an all-girl country western show band. We had the comedy, all the girls sang, we all played different instruments. We made history as the only headline act at the Golden Nugget without a recording.”
Years of loss and love, making people happy and getting healthy again followed. Then she found the cause that was so close to her heart. Getting the Vietnam Women’s Memorial approved by Congress and erected on the Washington Mall took years of persistence. “We fought and we fought,” Allen says of the sisterhood that took up the fight. The bronze statue by sculptor Glenna Goodacre depicts women in fatigues caring for a wounded soldier.
The Vietnam Women’s Memorial
Brenda was there for the statue’s dedication. She was there for the 10th anniversary in 2003 and she’s due to be there again for the 20th anniversary in November. She always says a few words and sings a few lyrics at the memorial.
She became a big supporter of the Shirley Lauro play, A Piece of My Heart, that dramatizes the true-life stories of American women in Nam. When the Blue Barn Theater in Omaha produced the play the woman who led the effort for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, Diane Carlson Evans, attended opening night and ended up inviting the production to be performed in D.C. for the 10-year anniversary.
Brenda’s Vietnam story has been told in newspaper articles, the book Potpourri of War and in a Nebraska Educational Television documentary Not on the Front Line.
For a time she drowned her feelings about what happened in Vietnam in booze. But once she confronted those bittersweet memories the healing began. Of that intense time over there, she says, “I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.”
- Vietnam veteran keeps solemn vow to his lost brother in arms (stripes.com)
- A lifelong passion for fiddle, country music (mysanantonio.com)
- Making a Country Music Bucket List (countrymusic.answers.com)
The Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha is always looking for new ways to connect with audiences and in the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) I share the latest attempt to bring theater to where people live. The conference’s PlayFest is presenting Neighborhood Tapestries in two well-defined inner city communities that don’t always have the kind of access to theater that other communities do. The idea of these tapestries is for people of these communities to share various aspects of their neighborhood’s art, music, culture, and history.
Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The play’s still the thing with the Great Plains Theatre Conference but organizers are making a concerted effort to expand theater’s definition in order to connect more people to it.
The May 26-29 PlayFest is the Metropolitan Community College conference’s answer to making theater more accessible. That means staging works at nontraditional sites, including one along the riverfront, and, new this year, holding Neighborhood Tapestries in the inner city.
The inaugural tapestries, a cross-between a chautauqua, a street arts event, a storytelling festival, a salon and a variety show, will happen outdoor on separate dates in North and South Omaha. Each neighborhood’s art, culture and history will be celebrated through a loose program of music, poetry, stories, dance and other creative expressions. The performers will include professionals and amateurs.
Union for Contemporary Art
Chapman, an actress and stage director, is the Omaha Community Playhouse education director and a Metropolitan Community College theater instructor. She’s worked with a team to produce the event.
“We’re creating a thread,” she says. “We are thinking of our show as a block. So who are these people on the block? Borrowing from Sesame Street. who are the people in your neighborhood? We want to have this musical and movement throughline with these transitional words and the sharing of these stories as people get up and talk about community and food, growing up on the North Side, memories of their mothers and just all these different people you might encounter on a street in North Omaha.
“That thread allows us to plug in people as we get them, as they see fit. Who knows what could happen with the evening. We’ve got that flexibility. It’s not a rigid the-curtain-opens and this-series-of-events needs to happen for the show to make sense and come to some conclusion. Instead it’s this nice woven piece that says here are some things that happened, here are some reflections, here is some music , here’s a body in space moving. Hopefully at the end you’re like, Oh, let’s get around this circle and have a conversation.”
She says GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler gave her a “very open” script to take the event wherever she wanted.
“I’m excited about this project because it allows us to explore the concept that we’re all performers with this urge to tell a story or to share this happening or to recount this thing that happened to us. But where’s the platform for that? When do we get together and do it? What we’re doing is throwing some artists and musicians and actors in the mix. It’s engaging us as theater practitioners to not be so static in our art form and it engages the community to understand that theater isn’t this other thing that happens on the other side of the city.”
Featured storytellers include Nancy Williams, Felicia Webster, Peggy Jones and Dominque Morgan, all of whom will riff and reflect on indelible characters and places from North O’s past and present.
Jazz-blues guitarist George Walker will lay down some smooth licks.
Member youth from the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club will present an art project they created. Works by Union for Contemporary Art fellows will be displayed.
Chapman sees possibilities for future North O programs like Tapestries that celebrate its essence. She says such programs are invitations for the public to experience art and own it through their own stories.
“Then you start having those conversations and then you realize the world is a lot smaller than you think it is,” she says. “It just starts to close the gap. So yeah I think there’s a real possibility for it to grow and create these little pockets of reminders that we’re all performers and we all need our platforms for creation.”
The May 29 South Omaha tapestry will take a similar approach in fleshing out the character and personalities of that part of town. The site is Omaha South High’s Collins Stadium, 22nd Ave. and M Street. Director Scott Working, the theater program coordinator at MCC, says he’s put together an event with “a little music, a little storytelling, a little poetry to let people know some of the stories and some of the history of the neighborhood.”
He says he got a big assist from Marina Rosado in finding Latino participants. Rosado, a graphic designer, community television host and leader of her own theater troupe, La Puerta, will also emcee the program. She led Working to retired corporate executive David Catalan, now a published poet. Catalan’s slated to read from three poems written as a homage to his parents.
Rosado also referred Working to artist and storyteller Linda Garcia.
“I will be doing a storytelling segment based on my Abuelita (Grandmother) Stories,” says Garcia. “The story I am telling is an actual story of my abuelita, Refugio ‘Cuca’ Hembertt, and my exposure to her insatiable reading habits. That led to my discovery and connection with languages and the power of words.*
Even Louie M’s Burger Lust owner Louie Marcuzzo has been marshaled to tell South O tales.
Also on tap are performances by the South High School Louder Than a Bomb slam poetry team, Ballet Folklorico Xitol, the Dave Salmons polka duo and a youth mariachi band. Working also plans to bring alive an El Museo Latino exhibit of Latinos in Omaha. Individuals will read aloud in English the subects’ bios as a video of the subjects reading their own stories in Spanish plays. He says his inspiration for the evening’s revolving format is the Encyclopedia Shows that local artists and poets put on.
“It’s a combination of like standup and poetry and music and theater,” Working says. “It’s relaxed, it’s fun. Plus, I don’t think I could get David Catalan and Louie Marcuzzo to come to six rehearsals to get it right. I trust them.”
Rosado embraces the format.
“I believe in the power of art. Music, dance, literature, theater and all cultural expressions can change a person’s life. That’s why I am so excited about the event. Scott has a genuine interest in showcasing the best of our community. Tapices is the word in Spanish for tapestries and I can hardly wait to see the unique piece of art that will be made at the end of this month.”
Catalan feels much the same, saying, “Stories told as a performing art leave lasting impressions on audiences and motivate many to learn more about heritage and ancestry.” He applauds Metro for its outreach to inner city Omaha’s “rich cultural history in the transitional ethnic populations.”
Lawler says Tapestries enables the conference “to be more rooted in the community,” particularly underserved communities. “I wanted to go further into involving the community and being something relevant for the community. That’s why I want to generate these stories from the community. It’s kind of a lifelong quest I have to keep looking at the art form and saying, ‘What are we doing that’s working but what are we doing that’s not working very well’ That’s part of the reason the whole PlayFest is free. Theater is just priced out of society’s ability to go. That doesn’t work.”
Just as Chapman feels Tapestries can continue to mine North O’s rich subject matter, Working feels the same about South O. He adds that other neighborhoods, from Benson to Bellevue, could be mined as well.
Both the North O and South O events kick off with food, art displays and music at 6:30 p.m. Storytelling begins at 7:30.
For the complete PlayFest schedule, visit http://www.mccneb,edu/theatreconference.
- Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kevin Lawler Guides Ever Evolving Theater Conference to Put More Focus on Fewer Plays and Playwrights and to Connect Deeper with Community (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area
The following cover story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about a group of artists looking to take things to the next level at the Carver Bank cultural center and residency program in North Omaha has received some nice buzz. The four artists couldn’t be more different from each other. Each is doing his or her own thing and having success with it but they themselves and others feel there’s room for them to grow and to make an even bigger splash. It will be interesting to observe what they do individually and collectively from this point forward.
The inaugural resident artists at the Carver Bank cultural center couldn’t be more unalike in some ways and more congruent in others.
Carver is the new Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and Rebuild Foundation endeavor at 2416 Lake Street that houses a Big Mama‘s Sandwich Shop, a gallery- performance space and artist studios. Artist and urban planner Theaster Gates of Chicago is the facilitator-instigator of the project. Caver is one of several projects he’s done through his Rebuild Foundation that repurposes abandoned structures in inner cities to house art-culture activities that engage with community.
Each Omaha native participant was selected in line with Carver’s mission of providing work spaces and showcase opportunities for underserved artists of color whose creativity deserves wider support and recognition
The artists cut across a wide range of disciplines and starting with the Carver’s March 29 grand opening they’ve been displaying their respective chops in performances, readings, exhibitions.
Program director Jessica Scheuerman says the artists “care deeply about the cultural resurgence of the Near North Side,” adding, “In addition to their individual practices, they have quickly taken to the role of host and are developing public programming that will enrich the space throughout the year and expand the roster of artists presented in the space.”
Shannon Marie is a 20-something hip hop and R&B artist. The single mom works full time to support her dream of making it big out of her hometown.
Dereck Higgins, 58, is a pioneer of the Omaha alternative music scene as a bass player, drummer and arranger. This champion of psychedelia recently left his career as a licensed mental health professional to devote all his energies to his art.
Bart Vargas, the lone visual artist of the group, is a 40-year-old art educator and creator of salvage-based paintings and sculptures.
Portia Vivienne Love, 56, is a sometime singer and full-time poet and writing workshop presenter now also penning murder mystery short stories and novels.
Three of the four have close ties to the symbolically potent 24th and Lake area. Once the commercial-entertainment hub of the local African American community, its live music scene used to draw national artists. Love’s late father, saxophonist Preston Love Sr., cultivated his music passion there as a fan and player. The catty-cornered Loves Jazz & Arts Center is named after him. Higgins’ late father, James “Red” Higgins, was a contemporary of Love’s and also haunted the Deuce Four.
Marie, who’s real name is Ennis, grew up a few blocks from Carver. She’s adamant about developing a national name for her writing and singing.
“I’m definitely confident about it,” says Marie, who’s produced several mix tapes. “It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s where you want to go. I can make it happen.”
If it doesn’t happen here she may leave to try her hand elsewhere, though she admits she needs more polish.
“I feel like I need to be more prepared before I step out with the big dogs.”
She got serious about rapping as a junior at Benson High School. Her early professional forays taught her lessons about not selling out.
“I would contact promoters and they’d just kind of brush me off like, ‘Who is this chick?’ Now when they have something going on I’m one of the first people they contact. I’ve gained their respect. They’ve seen the growth and they know I have people backing me.”
Her YouTube videos attract hundreds of thousands of views. Her Omaha fan following is such she gets recognized most everywhere she goes.
Gone are the days when promoters tried extracting sexual favors from an aspiring newbie. “It’s a male-dominated industry and sometimes guys look at females like a piece of meat. You have to be confident to let people know, Hey, you cant treat me like this. Now they’re like, ‘She’s just about her business. She’s not about sleeping her way to the top.’
“I kind of had to learn the hard way in some cases. I still have to learn a few things.
But it’s a lot better now than me being naive and saying, ‘OK, let’s just do music.’ All that glitters isn’t gold.”
A dispute with a local record label resulted in some of her original music being withheld from her. She’s moved on.
She plans a Carver event featuring herself and other empowered women who’ve overcome obstacles. She’s also planning a listening party for her new work.
“Now I’m here, I’ve got my opportunity, everything is still possible.”
Working alongside fellow residents who are “so different,” she says, “is going to be interesting.” She adds, “We really do vibe together. There’s going to be positive stuff going on. I want to support everybody and I want them to support me, too.”
She feels the love from friends, family and fans. “Everyone is excited for me.” She terms the multicultural turnout for Carver’s grand opening “a beautiful thing” and encourages all of Omaha to support its programs. “It’s for everybody.”
She’s eager to add to the area’s rich music legacy, saying, “Now it’s our time.”
Dereck Higgins is intent on opening the Carver to a broad range of artists and audiences.
“It only makes sense that if Im going to be down here I try to get some of the people that work with me everywhere else to work with me down here,” says Higgins, who jams with Nik Fackler as part of InDreama. Higgins is presenting a Night of Sound Exploration with saxophonist and electronic musician Curt Oren from 7 to 9 p.m. on June 7.
Higgins, who has his own DVH Records label and an extensive vinyl collection, makes trippy music that draws on traditional instruments as well as a panoply of electronic and ambient sounds.
“It’s personal, that’s ultimately what it is,” he says, “and that’s probably why I’m not more commercially along the way because I don’t know what genre to be in and I’m not interested in it and I don’t like it. When people say to me, ‘I don’t know what you are,’ that’s a great compliment and I want to stay there.”
Since walking off his 30-year job at Community Alliance in 2012 he’s made music his number one priority.
“I’ve always been a real artist-musician but a hobbyist. Making the break from the job and now doing this Carver thing is really allowing me to embrace truly, fully the role of artist-musician. I’m very thankful. This is a luxury. I can come down here and I can work, experimenting with music and sound ideas at my makeshift little audio studio. I’m already working on my next album.”
He creates the collage artwork that adorns his album covers.
“I’m broker now than I’ve ever been as an adult but I’m happier,” says Higgins, who along with his fellow artist residents receives a $500 a month stipend.
It’s no coincidence that Bart Vargas, the lone Carver resident artist who’s not African American, though his dreadlocks often prompt people to assume he is, makes art from salvaged materials. Just when it looked like his life was a thrown-away bust, he found salvation.
Growing up in a chaotic home with a mentally ill mother and alcoholic father Vargas sought refuge in art. “I escaped through drawing,” he says. “Drawing was a way to have control over something and make believe and go other places. When I was 16 I was young, angry and confused and this other family saw the situation and offered me a safe place and took me in. So I have my biological family and what I consider my real family – the family I associate with all these years later.”
Vargas, a Nebraska Air National Guard veteran, feels his salvage art parallels the Carver project and its adaptive reuse of the long abandoned Carver Savings & Loan building and plans to revitalize other long vacant North Omaha properties.
“Everything has a potential. The only place trash is made is in our head…when we decide something no longer has value.”
Bemis chief curator Hesse McGraw says the hope is that by nurturing artists Carver “can generate some cultural heat and create a magnetic lure in North Omaha.” Another hope, he adds, is for their work “to have an impact on public perception of the neighborhood. Imagine when the Near North Side is again known as a place that artists live and work, and where we all can be part of that resurgence.”
A self-described “mixed blood” who’s white and Mexican and not sure what else, Vargas used some of his Carver money to take DNA tests to determine his ethnicity.
“I’ve thought about doing this identity painting after finding out what my genetic markers say I am.”
Or he might adapt a painted words series he began s few years ago to express musings about “my American muttness.”
The University of Nebraska at Omaha and Metropolitan Community college art instructor says he’s already made word paintings “specific to this place or neighborhood,” adding, “I want this part of the city to become part of the work I do here. Before I even moved in I painted ‘Carver.’ My goal is to cover the walls in my little corner in Yeses. To have this wall of positivity. I want to start it out with really good energy.”
Portia Love understands why she’s identified with her father, whose band she sang with for several years, but music was his thing, not hers.
“The writing thing is mine,” says Love, who retreated into words and stories as an “introverted” adolescent and began winning recognition for her work at Marian High School.
She went on to work in and teach human services but always wrote on the side. As a veteran artist with Why Arts she conducts writing workshops for people with disabilities. She also holds workshops through the Bemis.
She’s self-published two books of poems, Eclipses of the Sun and Redefinition. She creates poems by commission for clients, placing her original works in designer boxes, frames and photo albums.
WriteLife is publishing her debut novel, The Men’s Club, as well as a book of short stories, High Heel Shoes, Bright Red Lipstick and Strange Love.
Carver appeals to her for practical reasons.
“I went after it for the working space and the recognition. I’m real if nothing else. I tear my house up doing this stuff. Now I have a studio to work out of. This is my time for me and my writing. This is an opportunity that I hope is going to put me to another level. i hate anybody trying to put limitations on me and what I do.”
Moving artists along is part of the idea.
“We hope this opportunity provides a crucial jump for the residents and that they are able to move their artistic practices to new levels,” says McGraw.
Love says Carver’s location is “significant,” adding, “The whole thing is significant. I love that Hesse (McGraw) said the Bemis cannot be this white organization that ignores the fact there are people of color in this city with talent. And yes this is the perfect place for it, 24th and Lake. I think about my dad and how much he would have loved coming through here wearing the hell out of everybody. I think he would be so overjoyed to see me excelling at something that was not his.”
Love’s hosting a poetry reading from 3 to 6 p.m. on May 25. She’s invited her fellow resident artists to add their distinct flavors.
Carver events are free and open to the public.
For Carver updates visit carverbank(at)bemiscenter.org.
- Omaha Playwright Beaufield Berry Comes into Her Own: Her Original Comedy ‘Psycho Ex Girlfriend’ Now Playing (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Laura Love: Omaha’s High Yaller Gal Comes Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)