Any urban place worth its salt as a destination to visit bears the imprint of the people who shaped it. Omaha isn’t known for much outside Nebraska but one area just south of downtown has become its primary tourist destination, the Old Market, which at its core is a historic district whose collection of late 19th and early 20th century warehouses offers the city’s most eclectic concentration of restaurants, shops, and arts-cultural venues. Many people have had a hand in molding the Old Market but the most critical guiding hand belonged to the late Sam Mercer, who had the vision to see what only a few others saw in terms of the potential of transforming this old produce warehouse market into a arts-culture-entertainment haven. My story about Mercer and the small coterie of fellow visionaries he developed a consipiracy of hearts with in creating the Old Market appears in Encouner Magazine. You’ll find some other Old Market-related stories on this blog and coming this spring I will be postiing a retrospective piece on how this creative hub became the Old Market and how it survived and thrived against all odds. I will introduce you to the people who turned the spark of an idea into reality.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Encounter Magazine
The Old Market’s undisputed godfather, Samuel Mercer, passed away Feb. 5 at his home in Honfleur, France. He was 92. Services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Omaha.
This continental bon vivant was not a typical Nebraskan. The son of prominent Omaha physician and landowner Nelson Mercer, he was born and raised in privileged circumstances in London, England and educated at Oxford and Yale. After living in Washington D.C. he based his law practice in Paris, where he mostly lived the rest of his life. He held dual citizenship.
In Paris he cultivated relationships with avant garde artists, A watercolorist himself, he made artist Eva Aeppli his second wife.
On his handful of trips to Omaha each year he cut an indelible figure between his shock of shoulder-length gray hair, his Trans-Atlantic accent and his waxing on far-ranging subjects. He spoke perfect French.
“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy…I liked him immediately and enormously,” says designer Roger duRand, who with Percy Roche opened the Old Market’s first business, The Farthest Outpost.
When the death of his father in 1963 Mercer inherited his family’s property holdings and he took charge of their Mercer Management company here. He appreciated the century-old brick warehouses, some Mercer-owned, comprising the wholesale produce market just southeast of downtown. But it was someone his junior, designer Cedric Hartman, who first advocated doing something with those buildings, which by the mid-1960s were largely abandoned and in disrepair.
Hartman, an acclaimed designer of lighting and furniture pieces made at his 1414 Marcy St. factory, recalls the genesis of the Old Market. He and Judy Wigton were partners in a high end gift shop. Like Mercer they admired the dying produce district’s buildings and in 1964 began meeting with him about these structures as potential sites for exciting new ventures, such as fine shops, galleries and restaurants. Those conservations in turn sparked Sam’s efforts to preserve and repurpose the Market as an arts-culture haven.
“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman. “He was a very smart, very worldly and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both wowed by him and in his way he was with us.”
Wigton says, “He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.”
“He did respond to us in a great way,” Hartman notes. “We were a couple of really arty kids and he was really arty, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”
Those early encounters formulated the vision for what became the Old Market.
“I remember we walked around the streets trying to imagine what could be done. I’d say, ‘Now look at this building, here’s we could do this with it,’ and he’d just respond right in kind,” says Hartman. “I couldn’t have done that with anybody else. He hooked into all this stuff really fast.”
A sense of urgency set in when city officials and property owners began eying some Market buildings for demolition.
Hartman tipped off Mercer to the condemnation of the Gilinsky building that sat in the middle of Mercer-owned properties on Howard Street. It was Hartman too who brokered a meeting between Mercer and Peaches Gilinsky. A deal was struck that led Mercer to acquire the site.
By 1968 Mercer moved strategically to gain control of a collection of buildings there.
“Sam did not want anything said about the project until he could acquire options on enough other properties in the area to insure the success of the redevelopment,” says Wigton.
It was Mercer’s idea to make the groundfloor space of the former Gilinsky fruit company into a French restaurant. There, Hartman designed the Old Market’s signature spot, the French Cafe, as well as apartments above it. Ree Kaneko, a fellow Old Market pioneer, says the restaurant, opened in 1969, was “very important” in helping solidify and legitimize the Market.
“It was a risky thing for him to do,” Hartman says “Who knew if that would work? However, it was a great success.”
More anchor attractions followed – Homer’s, M’s Pub, Mr. Toad, the Spaghetti Works, Nouvelle Eve, eh Firehouse Dinner Theater, the Bemis.
Designers duRand and Hartman advised Mercer and his son Mark, daughter-in-law Vera, nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter on this never planned but organically developed area. The Mercers created one of the Market’s most distinct features, The Passageway, and later opened their own distinguished enterprises – V Mertz, La Buvette and The Boiler Room.
“We worked to shape the Old Market neighborhood in the most authentic and benign ways possible, gently guiding new tenants away from the cliched and vulgar, and to more thoughtful and honest approaches to development of the beautiful old structures,” says duRand. “Even though Sam lived and worked in Paris, his presence was in every decision of significance in nurturing the Market. He made frequent visits to Omaha in the early days, and was instrumental in bringing the city fathers around to acceptance, then eventual approval, and finally enthusiasm for the preservation and rebirth of our neighborhood.
“His passing leaves a permanent and poignant void.”
Sam Mercer viewed the Market as an evolving social experiment and art project aligned with his own desires. Mark Mercer says the family’s continued that philosophy by encouraging unique ventures that “fit our tastes and interests.” He and his wife, artist Vera Mercer, say “creating” new things is their passion.
Ree Kaneko has high praise for the Mercers’ stewardship and their “allowing things to take shape” by nurturing select endeavors. She adds, “They know it’s a slow process,. They have a great sense of the mix of things that need to happen to make the Market exciting.”
“It hasn’t been easy and I don’t think any other family could have done it,” Wigton says.
Mark and Vera Mercer say Sam remained “very interested” in the Market. They vow retaining the vibrant charm of this historic neighborhood he lovingly made happen.
The Old Market in Omaha is a both major attraction and a laidback state of mind that’s made up of the places and personalities, past and present, expressed there. Two of this historic arts and culture district’s longest sustained restaurants, M’s Pub and Vivace, share the same owners and executive chef, and in 2013 these each of these eateries celebrates a milestone anniversary. M’s Pub is 40 years old and Vivace 20 years old. Owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson discuss their successful enterprises in the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and along with Old Market pioneer Roger duRand they look back at the force of nature who started M’s, Mary Vogel, and who personified the visionaries and characters that have made the Market the singular destination and experience that it is.
Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Signature Old Market spot M’s Pub celebrates 40 years in business this year. It’s a milestone for any independently owned restaurant. But reaching four decades takes on added meaning because when M’s opened in 1973 (a planned 1972 opening was delayed), the fledgling Market’s survival looked unsure.
The Market though went from counter culture social experiment to mixed use success story. M’s owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson doubly appreciate a thriving Market as their highly reviewed eatery is a fixture along with a second respected restaurant they own there, Vivace, which marks its 20th anniversary this fall. The establishments are emblems of the district’s sustainability and growth.
The well-connected woman who founded “M’s” and was its namesake, the late Mary Vogel, wanted to be part of the emerging Market scene. She commissioned architect John Morford from the Omaha firm headed by Cedric Hartman, who designed the French Cafe, to transform the former Sortino Fruit Company warehouse into a sophisticated, cozy environs inspired by her favorite dining-drinking nooks from around the globe, particularly the pubs of England and Washington DC. Some argue M’s is more bistro than pub but whatever it is M’s owns a reputation for quality food, superior service and laid-back charm that’s both cosmopolitan chic and homespun Midwest.
The small space is dominated by a three-sided green marble topped bar, exposed white brick work, a high ceiling, large mirrors, which make the room seem bigger, and picture windows that provide a glimpse of 11th Street on the east and peer into Nouvelle Eve on the south. The open kitchen is about the size and shape of a train’s dining car and overflows with activity, though the culinary action mostly happens in the downstairs prep rooms.
“It’s just a great open plan,” says Samuelson. “Timeless. And that’s why we don’t change anything about it because we see a lot of fads come and go and as tempting as you might be to say, ‘Well, it seems like that’s what everybody’s doing today – maybe we should try that,’ it’s not going to work here.”
M’s is indelibly of the Old Market. Like its neighbor shops it resides in a historic, 19th century building that exudes character earned with age. It adheres to tradition. It pays attention to detail. Its personality can’t be replicated or franchised.
“I don’t think we could take our sign and throw it in a place out west or anywhere else really,” Samuelson says. “I just don’t think it would transfer.”
The affable, attentive, knowledgable wait staff wear crisp white and black uniforms with none of the attendant starch.
Samuelson says, “We’ve worked really hard for a really long time to position ourselves as a place where you can come sit by side with the table that has a $150 bottle of wine and a couple steaks and you can have a beer and a Greek sandwich and not be treated any differently by the waiter. A lot of our people have been around here for a really long time. We have people that we trust.”
When Vogel sold M’s in 1979 to Mellen’s parents Floyd and Kate Mellen she stayed on as hostess and matriarch. Ann Mellen began working there around then and she soon grew fond of this force of nature.
“She would sit at the bar every day after lunch and count how many drinks we sold,” Mellen says of Vogel. “She was a trip. A very energetic lady, very world traveled, very knowledgable, very opinionated. But very helpful – when things went wrong here she knew who to call.
“She had a passion for this place. She knew exactly what she wanted it to be and she did it right. She totally designed M’s after her favorite places all over the world. She was like the mother of M’s pub. It was her baby.”
Market pioneer Roger duRand writes:
“Mary Vogel was a dame, A socialite with a heart of brass (polished). Mary was equal parts Mayflower pedigree, finishing school gloss and ribald cocktail raconteur. When she courageously cast her lot with the Old Market demimonde of 1972, she found a welcoming environment among the artists and adventurers. Her vision of a tearoom for ‘ladies who lunch’ that doubled as a bistro for ‘lads who lust’ became the elegant and reliably satisfying M’s Pub that remains little changed from its first days.”
Samuelson, who went to work there in 1986 after restaurant experience in Omaha, Texas and Colorado and then quickly partnered with Mellen, admired Vogel’s “indomitable spirit,” adding, “I think she was way ahead of her time. I think that’s probably why she got along with the Mercers so well. They needed people like that to incubate ideas and to establish a core of anchor businesses.”
Mellen’s parents, who’d never operated a restaurant before, bought it with the intent of their restauranteur son Joe running it but when he passed Ann stepped in to lend her folks a hand. Her passion for the business bloomed.
“I liked working for myself basically,” says Mellen, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism grad who worked as a reporter and advertising copywriter before M’s. “Then I came here and never left.”
She and Samuelson pride themselves on being hands-on owners. One or the other or both are at their restaurants most days. A tunnel connects the two sites.
Though an institution today, M’s first decade was a struggle.
“Times were hard,” she says. “The Old Market was a totally different place then.
The Omaha (homeless) mission was just up the street. A lot of people were afraid of the Old Market. But even then it had a family, neighborhood feeling and I liked that a lot.”
“It gets under your skin,” Samuelson says of the Market.
By the early ’80s, Mellen determined the Market was here to stay.
“It just got busier and busier and we saw more tourists coming to the area. You could just tell it was an exciting, upcoming area.”
She and Samuelson, both Omaha natives, make a good team.
“We’re a good fit personality-wise and professionally,” he says. “We share the same passion for the Old Market and the same visions and goals for M’s and Vivace. It’s rare we have a disagreement about and when we do we do it respectfully.”
“I don’t want to seem like an old married couple but a lot of people think we’re married. We’re not,” says Mellen.
She does all the books. An acknowledged foodie, he deals more with the culinary side. Both partners enjoy engaging with people.
“We feel the same way about how to treat people – our clientele as well as our employees,” he says.
The fierce devotion of M’s regulars is appreciated but it can be too much.
“Somebody who’s been coming here for awhile may have an opinion about what you’re doing and if you don’t take their advice you can ruffle some feathers that way,” says Samuelson. “We listen to people a lot and we always end up making decisions based on the good of the whole, which I think is responsible ownership.”
He says that with M’s “in good hands” he and Mellen decided to launch Vivace in 1993 ” to fill a gap we saw in the landscape of the restaurant scene in Omaha for Mediterranean-influenced Italian food. We wanted to fill a niche for the community but also complement what we do at M’s.” He’s proud of its pasta and pizza.
Vivace’s larger space is perhaps warmer than M’s but not as intimate.
Executive chef Bobby Mekiney is in charge of both kitchens. “He’s young and kind of bridges the generation gap for us in a lot of ways,” says Samuelson. “He’s as talented a guy as we’ve ever had here. He makes it work.”
Samuelson’s proud that M’s Pub and Vivace express the same “meticulously adhered-to, single-minded vision of passionate, locally-owned” venues that make the Market “a community treasure.”
- Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- OmahaNightOutGuide.com Announces its Arrival as Omaha’s New Internet Directory for Dining, Entertainment and Night Life; Making it Easy to find something to do in Omaha. (prweb.com)
- The Troy Davis Story: From Beyond the Fringe to Fringes Salon (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Hair designer Troy Davis of Omaha was amazingly forthcoming and transparent in a recent interview he did with me for this Encounter Magazine profle I wrote about him. As a fellow 12-stepper I know something of what he speaks. I know the courage and conviction it requires to be this honest about the hurt and the healing. His words and his story are bound to help someone else.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine
Leading Omaha hair dresser Troy Davis long ago showed an educational and entrepreneurial knack for his craft and for building the Edgeworthy brand at Fringes Salon & Spa in the Old Market. Now that his mentor and longtime business partner, Fringes founder Carol Cole, has sold her interest in the location, he has a new partner and a new focus on managing costs. The result is record profitability.
“Fringes of the Old Market is the busiest and healthiest it’s ever been,” says Davis, who’s made Fringes an Omaha Fashion Week fixture.
“Troy and Fringes have been a very important part of Omaha Fashion Week, as they style many of our veteran designers and constantly impress with their ability to interpret the latest hair and makeup trends on our runway,” says OFW producer Brook Hudson.
Davis is glad to share in the success. He’s lately seen members of the Fringes team represent well in a recent competition and awards show. Never content to stay put, his Clear Salon Services business is a new generation, grassroots distributorship for independent hair care brands.
These professional triumphs have been happening as Davis addresses personal problems that “came to a head” last August but that have their roots in the past. Growing up in Blair, Neb., he began drinking and using drugs to mask the sexual identity issues he confronted as a gay teen in an environment devoid of alternative lifestyles.
“I felt so completely isolated. I lived in fear so badly that I hid it with drinking and weed,” he says.
A healthier form of self-expression he excelled in, speech and drama, seemed a likely direction to pursue out of high school. But first he moved to Omaha to experience the diversity he craved back home. He briefly attended Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, even landing the lead in the school’s fall production, before dropping out to attend beauty school in Omaha.
From their first meeting Davis and Cole knew they’d found a new best friend they could grow in their chosen field alongside. She says she immediately responded to his “passion and energy and drive,” adding, “Troy Davis has definitely made me a better person and stylist and leader.”
Within four years he’d proven to be such a trusted asset that Cole partnered with him in opening the Old Market shop.
“He earned that,” she says. “He just really wanted to be downtown. His heart was there. I finally said, ‘Look, if you want to be a partner, I’ll do it, but you’re going to have to step it up and find a location.’ And he did. I have to give him a lot of credit because he put a lot of grunt work into it to get it started.”
The rest is history, as Fringes became a presence in the Old Market for its ultra-contemporary, urban styles and high-end hair care and beauty services. Cole let him run things there so she could concentrate on the West Dodge site.
For Davis, Cole’s been more than just a business partner.
“Carol and I are so close. We just absolutely click,” he says. “She’s a very intelligent, very professional business woman. There’s not a lot of partnerships that make it. In a lot of ways our relationship is like a marriage, only platonic. I think it’s healthier or better than most marriages I know of. We are able to communicate in a way that most people are not. We can say anything to each other and even if it’s something that ends up hurting each other, we know that’s not our intention. Usually it’s one of us misunderstanding something and we’re always able to go back and clean it up.”
Davis has moved fast in the industry. While still in his 20s he became one of 10 international creative team members for Rusk, a role that saw him flown all over the world to teach other hair dressers the use of the international distributor’s products. He worked in the Omaha salon during the week and jetted around on weekends.
It gave him the stage, the lights, the theatrics he felt called to. It also meant lots of money and partying.
All the while, his addictions progressed.
He was prepping for the always stressful Omaha Fashion Week last summer when he and his life partner split for good. Amidst the breakup, the all-nighters, running his businesses, and leading an online advocacy campaign for a Fringes team that showed well in the national Battle of the Strands competition, Davis crashed.
“By the time I hit bottom I was drinking every day and drinking to black out three days a week and, you know, it just had to end. I finally realized I am an alcoholic. It was a real wake up call.”
He’s now actively working a 12-step program.
“It’s definitely helped me get sober. I definitely thank my Higher Power for the strength I’ve had to get where I am today.”
He’s not shy sharing his ups and downs.
“I’ve always been a very honest and open person. I’ve actually shared publicly via Facebook some of my bottoms and what I’ve learned in my treatment. In order to achieve something you need support in your life and there is a connection through Facebook with family and friends that I think is very useful. I see it as an opportunity to share with them what I’m going through and the choices I’m making for myself.”
He calls his 12-step group “a new addition to my family,” adding, “They’re great people.” Like many addicts he’s replaced his former addictions for a couple new, blessedly benign ones – Twitter and tattoos.
As his recovery’s progressed he’s grown in other ways, too, including taking charge of his Fringes store’s finances.
“It’s absolutely the best thing that could have happened for this business. It’s given me a whole new level of accountability. I see things more clearly and because of that we’ve broken through a plateau we were never able to get past.”
He credits new business partner Sarah Pithan, a former assistant, for helping increase business by more than $4,000 a week. He also credits the “amazing team” he and Pithan have cultivated, including Omar Rodriguez, Kristina Lee and Teresa Chaffin, for taking Fringes and Clear Salon Services to new levels.
- Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Entrepreneur and Craftsman John Hargiss Invests in North Omaha: Stringed Instrument Maker Envisons Ambitious Plans for his New Hargissville Digs (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Omaha’s popular arts-culture district the Old Market didn’t happen by accident, it evolved with the careful nurturing of landlords, entrepreneurs, and artists whose vision for the city’s historic wholesale produce center went against the tide at a time the district’s future was up for grabs. The late 19th and early 20th century warehouses that now are home to shops, restaurants, galleries, and condos might easily have been lost to the wrecking ball if not for visionaries and pioneers like Roger duRand, a designer who took a firm hand in becoming a creative stakeholder there. This short profile of duRand for Encounter Magazine provides some insight into the forces that helped shape the Old Market in the face of certain obstacles.
Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine
His imprint on this historic urban residential-commercial environment is everywhere. He’s designed everything from Old Market business logos to chic condos over the French Cafe and Vivace to shop interiors. He’s served as an “aesthetic consultant” to property and business owners.
He’s been a business owner there himself. He once directed the Gallery at the Market. For decades he made his home and office in the Old Market.
The Omaha native goes back to the very start when the Old Market lacked a name and identity. It consisted of old, abandoned warehouses full of broken windows, and pigeon and bat droppings. City leaders saw no future for the buildings and planned tearing them down. Only a few visionaries like duRand saw their potential.
He’d apprenticed under his engineer-architect father, the late William Durand, a Renaissance Man who also designed and flew experimental aircraft. The son had resettled in Omaha after cross-country road trips to connect with the burgeoning counter-culture movement, working odd jobs to support himself, from fry cook to folk singer to sign painter to construction worker. He even shot pool for money.
He and a business partner, Wade Wright, ran the head shop The Farthest Outpost in midtown. A friend, Percy Roche, who had a British import store nearby, told them about the Old Market buildings owned by the Mercer family. Nicholas Bonham Carter, a nephew of Mercer family patriarch Samuel Mercer, led a tour.
“We trudged through all the empty buildings and I was really charmed by how coherent the neighborhood was,” says duRand. “It was really intact. The buildings all had a relationship with each other, they were all of the same general age, they were all designed in a very unselfconsciously commercial style.
“They were such an asset.”
Remnants and rituals of the once bustling marketplace remained.
“When I first came down here the space where M’s Pub is now was Subby Sortino’s potato warehouse and there were potatoes to the ceiling,” recalls duRand. “Across the street was his brother John Sortino, an onion broker. There were produce brokerage offices in some of the upper floors. There were a couple cafes that catered to the truck drivers and railroad guys. There was a lot of jobbing, with suppliers of all kinds of mechanical stuff – heating and cooling, plumbing and industrial supplies. The railroad cars would go up and down the alleys at night for freight to be loaded and unloaded.
“A really interesting urban environment.”
He thought this gritty, rich-in-character built domain could be transformed into Omaha’s Greenwich Village.
“I had in mind kind of an arts neighborhood with lots of galleries and artist lofts.”
That eventually happened thanks to Ree (Schonlau) Kaneko and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.
duRand and Wright’s head shop at 1106 Howard St. was joined by more entrepreneurs and artists doing their thing.
The early Market scene became an underground haven.
“In 1968 it was really artsy, edgy, political, kind of druggy,” says duRand.
Experimental art, film, theater and alternative newspapers flourished there.
City officials looked with suspicion on the young, long-haired vendors and customers.
“We had all kinds of trouble with building inspectors,” whom he said resisted attempts to repurpose the structures. “The idea of a hippie neighborhood really troubled a lot of people. This was going to be the end of civilization as they knew it if they allowed hippies to get a foothold. It was quite a struggle the first few years. We really had a lot of obstacles thrown in our path, but we persevered. It succeeded in spite of the obstructionists.
“And then it became more fashionable with the little clothing stores, bars and gift shops. Adventuresome young professionals would come down to have cocktails and to shop.”
The French Cafe helped establish the Old Market as viable and respectable.
Te social experiment of the Old Market thrived, he says, “because it was genuine, it wasn’t really contrived, it evolved authentically,” which jives with his philosophy of “authentic design” that’s unobtrusive and rooted in the personality of the client or space. “Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. The main criterion wasn’t profit, it was for interesting things to happen. We made it very easy for interesting people to get a foothold here.”
Having a hand in its transformation, he says, “was interesting, exciting, exhilarating because it was all new and it was a creative process. The whole venture was kind of an artwork really. I do have a sense of accomplishment in making something out of nothing. That was really the fun part.”
He fears as the Market’s become gentrified – “really almost beyond recognition – it’s lost some of its edge though he concedes remains a hipster hub. “I’m a little awed by the juggernaut it’s become. It’s taken on a much bigger life than I imagined it would. I never imagined I would be designing million-dollar condos in the Old Market or that a Hyatt hotel would go in.”
duRand and his wife Jody don’t live in the Market anymore but he still does work for clients there and it’s where he still prefers hanging out. Besides, all pathways seem take this Old Market pioneer back to where it all began anyway.
Learn about his authentic design at http://rogerdurand.com.
- Carver Building Rebirthed as Arts-culture Haven; Theaster Gates, Rebuild and Bemis Reimagine North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
The Cincinnati native lived in Calif. then. The fresh-from-art-school bohemian came to see an Omaha friend and soon got swept up by Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman and their experimental Omaha Magic Theatre.
“Creating the installation pieces in the theater is really altering a space. Sometimes I see that influence come out in my sculpture work,” she said, referring to her small bronze figures in self-contained environments and convergent, theater-like installations.
Her work often depicts flowing figures interacting with the spaces they inhabit. The figures’ charged presence alters the lived environment around them.
“The moving image, the kinetic part of it, has been a strong piece of who I am going way back to art school,” she said. “My painting has always been more on the expressionistic side, so from the very beginning I was intrigued about the energy of people.”
A new series of paintings captures the ephemeral, effervescent figure in motion.
“It’s kind of a continual inspiration for me, this very kinetic energy, and that basically at our core we’re real electrical beings. I love that, I find it endlessly fascinating.”
She enjoys the physical, tactile experience of making art. Each medium she works in, she said, gives her “a different fuel” for what she wants to express.
On one level or another her work reveals narrative.
“We are the stories written on us and we’re the stories that we give off in that energy,” she said. “If it’s not a tattoo, it’s something else, a scar or something we say or the way we move, it’s something distinct about us. We all have these amazing stories that are kind of intrinsic to who we are. It’s always in flux.”
The tension of seeking permanence amid life’s fluidity is a new theme of her work.
“I’m really interested right now in the juxtaposition of the things that we think are really lasting in our lives with the impermanence of it all. It’s that thing about, Where are we all going? We take things so seriously sometimes.”
Kimberlain said a work is only truly finished “when somebody engages with it, somebody wants to live with it,” adding, “When they buy it and take it home, the work is complete now, it’s got its home.”
She’s exhibited locally at the Bemis and the RNG Gallery and farther afield in San Francisco, Sicily and Bali.
“A huge passion is seeing other parts of the world,” she said. “Whenever I get that opportunity or luxury, I’m off. I get such inspiration from other cultures.”
As much as she loves “going in and out” of Omaha, what keeps her rooted here is “a lot of great friends,” including her interior design life partner. The longtime downtown resident is “content” with her neighborhood in the shadow of the 10th Street Bridge. She has a studio in her “perfect place” apartment at the historic Bull
Durham Building in the Old Market and a second studio a couple blocks away.
The growing Omaha arts community pleases her. While she doesn’t make much of an income from art, she said, “I try to live true to what I am.”
Visit Sora’s website at www.sorakimberlain.com.
A few years ago two very different Omaha theater companies did a twinning in the same space to help save costs. The Blue Barn Theatre is known for cutting-edge contemporary work. The Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre Company specializes in classics. During this pairing of convenience each organization remained autonomous. The arrangement and relationship proved satisfactory and in short order the Brigit Saint Brigit found enough support to go its own independent way, producing at a revolving slate of sites with the hope of finding a permanent home. The Blue Barn meanwhile consolidated its strong niche in the community and is well positioned for the future. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in the afterglow of the twinning experiment.
A Theater Twinning
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The venues comprising Omaha’s theater scene have their own identities, each as recognizable as any character or setting in a play.
The grand dame of them all is the Omaha Community Playhouse. She’s the well-heeled matriarch and life-of-the-party who throws sumptuous bashes in her plush digs. Her costumes and decorations are to-die-for but that glitter is sometimes more show than substance. Love her or loathe her, you must give the old gal her due. Secretly every ham desires to shine on her stage.
The other extreme is represented by the intimate Shelterbelt, a small, plucky poverty row entree that wears its penchant for arresting new work on its sleeve. This classic overachiever does wonders despite limited resources, consistently garnering top Theatre Arts Guild awards. The John Beasley Theater & Workshop is in a category all its own as Omaha’s only dedicated African American dramatic arts forum. While the shows aren’t always as polished as they could be, no one can question their heart or authenticity.
Then there’s the bohemian Blue Barn Theatre, which enters its 20th season as this burg’s undisputed home for cutting edge contemporary work, and the aristocratic Brigit Saint Brigit Company, now in its 16th season of presenting classics from the American and Irish stage. Although they seemingly focus on incompatible ends of the spectrum both are committed to professional quality theater. They also share a decidedly serious approach to everything from the fringe to celebrated standards of the theater canon.
Despite glowing reputations the Blue Barn and BSB have always just struggled by. That comes with the territory but things are tougher in these hard economic times. As a way to hedge their bets this pair of Omaha theater fixtures has joined forces to secure their present and realize their ambitious vision for the future.
Last summer the Blue Barn was in debt. The Old Market-based theater held an Aug. 25, 2007 fundraiser to help get its financial house in order. Supporters turned out in droves. Contributions poured in. The immediate threat was resolved but Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, along with her board, sought a long-term alternative to what she called the theater’s “treadmill” existence.
“We’ve dealt with debt before. But after 19 seasons it was time to either grow into something new or to stop,” she said. “I talked to the board and to the founding members. None of them were willing to come back and get back on the treadmill either. So we made the decision that if things did not change, if we did not change our view of what we could be, that we would close.”
Around this same time BSB contemplated losing its home at the College of Saint Mary, which gave the company until mid-2008 to find new quarters. Financially healthy but with no permanent facility lined up for its 16th season, doubt hung in the air. Artistic director Cathy Kurz and executive director Scott Kurz searched for a new home. Wherever the couple looked they found sky high rent. Nothing fit.
That’s when Clement-Toberer called with a solution to both theaters’ dilemmas. She proposed partnering by sharing residence in the Blue Barn space at 614 South 11th Street. The principals were already friends and colleagues who shared a similar forward-thinking, dream-big mindset. All parties concerned viewed it as a good fit aesthetically, philosophically and financially.
Teaming up, as Scott Kurz noted, only made sense. “It’s a win-win. Everybody comes out ahead,” he said. “I think it’s not just smart in a business sense but as an opportunity to present the entire gamut of theater in one place and to see both companies flourish in a way that supports the people who are creating the art.”
This marriage between two of Omaha’s most respected theaters got a dry run during a combined production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the Playhouse this past spring. BSB’s Scott Kurz and Amy Kunz starred and the Blue Barn’s Clement-Toberer directed.
With the 2008-09 theater season kicking off this month, the two organizations will soon find out how their partnership is received in a space that, until now, has been associated with the Blue Barn. In recognition of the bookend theaters operating out of the same location the shared collaborative site is now called The Downtown Space, lending it a fresh, neutral name in what is a new beginning for each organization. A new sign out front announces the change.
With the two companies under the same roof, using the same stage, will this union dilute the audience base for one or both or will it rejuvenate things and grow audiences? No one knows.
Such questions are important in light of a long term goal the two theaters have of founding a combined professional repertory company in a new space. It was a goal each theater was independently desiring already. Now that they’re partners it’s only natural they pursue this vision together.
“The vision came out of a place of stagnation,” Clement-Toberer said. “We were no longer willing to produce theater in the treadmill way.”
BSB artistic director Cathy Kurz said, “We’re wanting to establish a repertory company where actors and other artists are paid an honorable wage.”
It’s rare, BSB executive director Scott Kurz said, that theater artists can make a living in Omaha practicing their art. “And that’s what we’ve both been working towards as companies since the very beginning. It’s the reason we started doing it because it’s our career, it’s not just a hobby.”
Despite the theaters being in the same physical space it doesn’t mean they’ve merged. The artists describe their union as “a partnership,” which has to do with cooperation and sharing resources. The theaters are not morphing into some hybrid that negates or obscures their signature brands. They remain artistically and administratively autonomous but in a mutually supportive environment.
Each theater is keeping its own identity, maintaining its own budget and retaining its own board and membership base while alternating shows in their respective schedules and collaborating on select other shows.
They have their own separate contacts for both individual show tickets and season subscriptions. They have their own distinct web sites.
The theaters share administrative, storage, technical space and pool some resources to effect cost savings. To accommodate BSB’s office-costuming needs some physical changes have been made to the site’s back stage area.
Along the way, it’s meant “figuring out the new rhythms” of two theaters working side by side.
Clement-Toberer said the new model brought about by the relationship offers a best of both worlds scenario. “We stay separate entities creating theater under the same roof and creating a vision to grow towards a true repertory company.”
For Scott Kurz, it’s all about freedom and possibility. Each theater, he said, retains “the flexibility to do the things we do best. The cool thing about where we are right now is the future is ours. It’s a blank piece of paper and we can incorporate any way we see fit. The benefits to the community we provide in terms of art and theater are only enhanced by our independence. That independence will be used as a selling point because you’re getting two for the price of one.”
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Cathy Kurz said.
Combining the seasons of two companies has meant some adjustments — the end result being more theater opportunities for audiences. The BSB is now running each of its productions four weekends instead of three and adding Thursday shows to its usual Friday-Saturday-Sunday mix.
Programmatically, the theaters’ alternating productions offer a diverse lineup of old and new classics.
BSB presents: Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams, Sept. 4-27; The Seafarer by Conor McPherson, Feb. 5-28; and The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, April 23-May 30. The Blue Barn presents: The Goat or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee, Oct. 16-Nov. 8; Wit by Margaret Edson, Mar. 19-April 11; and Reefer Madness: The Musical, book by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, June 18-July 11.
A collaborative holiday production by the two theaters presents Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple Nov. 28-Dec. 20. The schedules do reflect a broad sampling of theater.
Clement-Toberer said the partnership is already paying dividends in the overwhelming response being felt from the theaters’ patrons. “It’s a very smart business deal,” said Clement-Toberer, who reports “increased” individual and corporate support. The theaters are exploring joint venture grants.
For the first time in either theater’s history, endowments are being started to provide the kind of long term security they’ve never known before.
As Clement-Toberer said, ticket sales alone “do not keep your doors open. In order to grow and to be able to continue to produce theater you have to have donors.”
People are jumping on the bandwagon, the artists say, because they see two established theater companies taking steps to assure their sustainability.
“If one thing has staved both theater companies to the longevity we’ve had it’s been the reputation for the work we do,” Scott Kurz said. “I think we’re finding more doors are open to us because we’re together. The idea of an artistic venue being smart and responsible enough to pool their resources and move forward is a good indicator to corporations and larger foundations that we’re serious about what we say.”
“There are so many true philanthropists that are behind both theaters and they’ve very excited,” said Cathy Kurz, adding that each company brings “credibility” to the table.
It’s a fact of life that small theaters struggle. But none of these artists was willing to settle anymore for what Clement-Toberer described as a “hand-to-mouth” scramble to just get by. Being on that treadmill was exhausting.
“Money never leaves your mind. It’s like a vacuum and it’s sucking out your creativity,” Cathy Kurz said. “So then the thing that is your vocation becomes less fulfilling.”
“The vision had to change to get us out of that rut and that’s what happened,” Clement-Toberer said. “The vision became broader and more direct into what we wanted to do and become.”
Money is being raised. A new space is being sought. Chances are it will be an existing site that’s renovated for reuse. Whatever happens though, the two theaters will continue moving ahead together towards their vision.
‘Experience has shown that it’s always about moving forward,” Scott Kurz said.
“There’s a unique energy that’s coming together. It’s a renewal. It’s like a rebirth,” Cathy Kurz said. “We’re actively looking at our own future,” Scott Kurz added, and that future, Clement-Toberer said, “is bright.”
“We’re going to produce great theater here this season — both companies — and I think possibly some shows better than we’ve done before because we’ll be collaborating,” Clement-Toberer said. “We are going to grow into the premier regional professional company in the Midwest. I see that happening.”
- Actor Kelcey Watson Fills Role of a Lifetime on Short Notice in Blue Barn Production of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Lara Marsh’s Breath of Life (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- John Beasley Has it All Going On with a New TV Series, a Feature in Development, Plans for a New Theater and a Possible New York Stage Debut in the Works; He Co-stars with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash in TVLand’s ‘The Soul Man’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- You: Critic’s Notebook: The joys and challenges of the L.A. small-theater scene (latimes.com)
- Shakespeare Theatre Company Sues to Stay in Building (legaltimes.typepad.com)
I am drawn to stories of people whose lives are clearly journeys of transformation and discovery and stepping outside comfort zones in pursuit of dreams. Anne-Marie Kenny’s life story is one such journey. I tell it here in short form but you can find on this blog a much more extensive profile of her I did. She’s a cabaret singer and an entrepreneur and a generous soul.
From Omaha to Paris to Omaha, with Love, Anne-Marie Kenny’s Journey in Song and Spirit
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine
Before becoming a world citizen, Anne-Marie Kenny made a coming of age trip to Paris, alone, at 21.
“I just knew I needed to spread my wings,” said Kenny, a native Omahan who eventually made her second homes in Paris and Prague. where she forged careers as a cabaret singer and entrepreneur. After years away this once expatriate returned to Omaha in 2001. Her hometown’s now the base of her performing, vocal instruction and corporate consulting work.
She became a Francophile studying French at Mercy High. The City of Lights symbolized romantic possibilities. She recalled, “I was on the train from Marseilles to Paris when an elderly woman asked, ‘What will you do in Paris?’ and for some reason I said, ‘I’m a singer, I’m going to sing.’ That’s the first time I admitted that to myself.”
She and her three older sisters had performed locally as a four-part harmony group. They studied piano. Not all was idyllic,. Their attorney-father drowned when they were young, leaving their mother to raise and support them. To help make ends meet the girls took jobs. Anne-Marie worked at St. James Orphanage.
“I think life might have been a little bit harder had we not had music,” said Kenny. “Music was our outlet.”
Once in Paris she found work as an au pair. Her pluck led her to an Argentine guitarist and the two became street performers on the Champs Elysees.
“I was determined,” she said.
The duo was quickly discovered, landing a gig on a popular radio variety show.
Returning to Omaha, she studied voice and honed her chops at M’s Pub and V Mertz. She then met her late husband, Bozell & Jacobs ad man John Bull. All the while she pined for Paris. Bull did, too, and the couple moved there. She studied voice with Janine Reiss and at the Juilliard and Peabody conservatories and Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. Kenny soon made a name for herself as a cabaret artist at posh spots in Paris and the South of France.
Her repertoire includes American, French and Italian tunes. She’s done some recording. She’s also worked in musical theater and has appeared in three feature films shot on the Riviera. She and John shared an apartment on the Seine’s Ile Saint-Louis. She appreciates France’s “very high regard for artists.”
Life took a turn when a poem-song she wrote for newly elected Czech president Vaclav Havel earned an invitation to perform it at Praugue’s famed Reduta Jazz Club. Caught up in the new free market opportunities there, she put her music career aside to form an employment agency serving international companies. The same engaging presence that works a room wins over clients as well.
Just as business boomed John fell ill and died in 1998. She’s since sold the business and made Omaha home again. She operates her vocal performance studio at her brick ranch dwelling, aka, cultural salon. She said, “I am as passionate about teaching as I am about performing now. It’s so much fun seeing people go from having a good natural voice to being able to technically do things they never thought they could do.” She teaches the Bel Canto method.
Her community work includes leading the Siena Francis House Singers, whose ranks are composed of the homeless and in-treatment residents.
Europe is still her playground. She was back last October. Recent U.S. performing gigs included the Sarasota Yacht Club in Florida and the Omaha Community Playhouse. This summer she’s doing a concert for Alliance Francaise d’Omaha.
On the entrepreneurial side. she’s an intercultural relations consultant. “To put kind of a credential on my experience,” she earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership, with a concentration on cultural studies, from the College of St. Mary. She led the start-up of the college’s Center for Transcultural Leaning.
Whether doing art or business, she said, “I’m being creative in both. “They’re both very risk taking and they’re not marching to the conventional beat.” For her, home is where the heart is. “I am so glad now to be back in Omaha. I’m here because I want to be here. I think Omaha has so much going for it. I feel I can flourish here.”
- Kat Moser of Nouvelle Eve, A Life by Her Own Design (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Litniks Unite! The Downtown Omaha Lit Fest Brings Writers, Artists and Readers Together in Celebration of the Written Word (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Generosity at Core of Anne Thorne Weaver’s Life, Giving Back to the Community Comes Second Nature to Omaha Woman Whose Live-out-loud Personality is Tempered by Compassion and Service (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Eddith Buis, A Life Immersed in Art (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Movie Maven Crawford Celebrates 20 Years of Classic Film Revivals that Bring Hollywood to Omaha, Special Guest Pat Boone to Appear at Screening of ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Men are generally credited with shaping Omaha’s Old Market arts-culture hub but women have more than made their mark on the National Historic District, including Ree Kaneko, Catherine Ferguson, Vera Mercer, Lucile Schaaf, and Susan Clement Toberer. Another is Kat Moser, whose high-end Nouvelle Eve contemporary women’s clothing store has been a bastion of cutting-edge fashion for many years. She and her husband Jim Moser also had the Jackson Artworks gallery for a couple decades before closing it in 2010. She’s one of those persons who integrates her appreciation for art and design and beauty in every aspect of her life, from her work to her home to her clothes, et cetera. Moser’s own keen sense of style has helped make the Old Market a destination place for discerning people. I did this profile on her for Encounter Magazine in 2007, when she still had the art gallery, though it had recently suffered major damage in a storm.
Kat Moser, A Life by Her Own Design
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine
A visit to the Old Market condo of Nouvelle Eve and Jackson Artworks owner Kat Moser and her husband Jim Moser reveals the couple’s sophisticated aesthetic. The street level entry opens onto a grand space with a soaring second-story loft. The 3,400 square-foot dwelling is rich in contemporary art and sleek furnishings.
Some of the art is by the Mosers themselves. She makes infrared photographs of female nudes in ethereal nature settings. He makes abstract metal sculptures. Also displayed are pieces by such artists as Jun Kaneko and Littleton Alston.
Painted white walls and ceilings are “the canvas” for the many black, gray and glass design accents and earth-fire-water elements adorning the posh home’s 9-rooms. Exposed wood beams, brick work and cement blocks lend a rough-hewn, historic, urban charm that expresses the building’s 19th century character and contrasts with the modern updates throughout.
Reminiscent of Moser’s ethereal imagery is the filtered sunlight that banks of windows and skylights let in. A sweeping living room fireplace serves as a welcome hearth to gather round. A small, southern exposure room up front has a built-in ledge that Moser grows plants in. Adjoining it is a sauna/steamroom.
The second-story kitchen, which overlooks the living room, is a spacious area of stainless steel appliances and glass-fronted cabinets. An atrium off the kitchen is where Moser, a yoga practitioner, begins her day. The large skylight above basks the room and its many plants in the glow of natural light. The atrium leads to the roof-top deck, where, weather-allowing, the Mosers spend time lounging in patio sofas and cooking on the built-in electric grill, complete with bright, tiled-counter.
A den, master bedroom, guest bedroom, office and bathroom complete the condo, which she calls her and Jim’s “sanctuary.” The pair enjoy quiet evenings reading.
“It’s right here for me. I really don’t have to go anywhere. I can have everything I want and probably much easier and more economically than if we moved to New York and tried to do the same thing,” she said.
First with Nouvelle Eve in ‘73, and then Jackson Artworks in ‘95, she’s made herself a major player in the Old Market’s vital cultural scene. The Mosers bought their building in ‘85 and after two years renovating it, moved in. Twenty years as Market dwellers make them newcomers in some circles but pioneers to the historic district’s newer residents. The couple welcome the growing downtown community.
Just as she likes it, the condo is situated right in the heart of things. A block away is her own high end women’s apparel store and literally next door to her home is Jackson, now one of the Market’s longest-lived galleries.
She didn’t intend to be an entrepreneur. Trained in textile/clothing merchandising at Iowa State University, she worked as a buyer with Dayton-Hudson, whose first independent boutique she ran, and Nebraska Clothing. Jim, an attorney by training and the owner of Omaha Standard, is the one who encouraged her to go in business for herself. She made the shop, which visiting celebs like Laura Dern and Sheryl Crow buy from, an edgy, contemporary place where lingerie is right out front.
“I’ve been really blessed with really great teachers,” she said. “And I’ve always had this wonderful guidance from people. My ability was just to listen, which is really important. I’ve always been very intuitive.”
Her intuition, she said, told her the Market “is where I wanted to be, and I was OK to…develop my business knowing I wasn’t going to make a huge killing, but this would give me time to show my skills and to really get my feet on the ground and then go with it. It just felt really good there. I liked the Mercers’ concept of bringing a little bit of Paris — my other favorite place in the world — to Omaha. Creatively, it was very exciting to me to be involved in that.”
“Vera (Mercer, the wife of Old Market visionary Mark Mercer) was a really big inspiration to me then,” she said. “I can remember seeing her in the Market photographing. I loved what she represented.”
The Mercers’ caution in leasing to tenants meant a long wait for the Mosers. “It took us almost a year to negotiate our lease, “ she said, “which involved going to the French Cafe for many, many dinners and then going to their apartment. It was a big process. It was very intensive those early years. I mean, they were picking their neighbors and they wanted only people who had the same concept they did.”
Fashion and art are Moser’s lifelong calling.
“It was always there. I really feel blessed that I never had that feeling of, Oh my God, what am I going to do? I always knew exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. “I don’t know where it came from. I never had to question it. I’m 61 in July and I still loving going to work every day.”
Since a May 5 storm-related roof collapse at Jackson, she’s had more than the usual hectic summer. She can’t afford to stop or look back while repairs continue. She’s trying to get it ready for a grand reopening while planning Nouvelle Eve’s 35th anniversary next year. That’s on top of the renovation slated for her and Jim’s condo. Like the new woman of her shop’s name, Moser is always reinventing herself.
- Artist Claudia Alvarez’s New Exhibition Considers Immigration (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- George Eisenberg’s Love for Omaha’s Old Market Never Grows Old (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
One of the biggest champions of Omaha’s Old Market and the history of the place has died. George Eisenberg devoted much of his life to the historic warehouse district. As boys and young men he and his brother Hymie worked alongside their father, Benjamin, manning a fruit and vegetable stand when the area was home to the Omaha Wholesale Produce Market. Later, the brothers revolutionized the family business to become niche suppliers of potatoes and onions to major food processors, operating out of offices in the commercial center. When the wholesale district declined and largely disbanded altogether the area was transformed into an arts-culture haven and George, who never left and owned substantial property there, became a landlord and an active Old Market Association member. In his later years he was advocate and amateur historian for the Old Market and proudly led an effort to get decorative street lamps installed and other improvements made. He contributed some anecdotes to a section I wrote on the history of the Old Market for a recent book, Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores published by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society. An excerpt with that section can be found on this blog. George was one of the last of the go-to sources who personally worked in the Omaha City Market. He enjoyed reliving that history and as he saw it educating the public about a way of commerce and life that is largely no more. His enthusiasm for the subject will be missed. I did the following short profile of George about five years ago for Omaha Magazine and now as fate would have it I will soon be writing an in-memoriam piece about him for the same publication. That rememberance will join one I wrote about another Old Market legend who died recently, Joe Vitale. You can find the Vitale story on this blog.
George Eisenberg’s Love for Omaha‘s Old Market Never Grows Old
@by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine
Old Market icon George Eisenberg has more than the usual attachment to the historic warehouse district that once was the area’s nexus for produce dealers, buyers and transporters. His late father Benjamin was a peddler in what used to be called the City Market. As boys Eisenberg and his brother Hymie worked alongside their dad in the leased open air sidewalk stalls whose overhead metal canopies still adorn many of the 19th century-era buildings preserved there. Once home to wholesellers and outfitters, the brick structures now house the Old Market’s mix of condos, restaurants, shops, artist studios and galleries.
After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II Eisenberg rejoined his father, delivering items by truck, and by the early ‘60s he’d modernized and expanded the enterprise and bought out papa. In 1972 his brother Hymie partnered with him. Innovations gave the company such a competitive advantage that the brothers were dubbed “the potato and onion kings of the United States” supplying millions of pounds a week to commercial customers across America and into Canada. They made their fortune and retired in 1983. Hymie died in ‘91.
The 83-year-old is proud to be a peddler’s son. He’s also proud of his continuing relationship with the district. He’s a property owner and an active volunteer with the Old Market Business Association and Downtown Omaha Inc.. Eisenberg secured the authentic lamp posts that lend such a distinctive design element to the 10th Street Bridge. He played a key role, too, in making the 11th and Jackson Street parking garage a reality. Downtown Omaha Inc. honored him with its 2007 Economic Development Award.
He’s a model landlord for the tasteful restoration he’s done and solid tenants he’s brought to his 414-418 South 10th Street buildings, properties originally owned by his father for wholesale storage, distribution and offices.
Generous with advice, he’s given counsel to many Old Market entrepreneurs, including Nouvelle Eve/Jackson Artworks owner Kat Moser.
As much as he’s involved in the “new” Old Market’s destination place identity and as much as he supports the emerging SoMa and NoDo developments, he enjoys looking back to the Market’s past. Back when ethnic blue collar produce vendors pitched their wares in the ancient tradition of the open air market. When pockets took the place of cash registers and vendors took a break from 14-hour days by reclining on bales of hay or overturned crates. It was a boisterous, press-the-flesh carnival of men, women and children using sing-song chants to hawk fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and plants. Shoppers hailed from all walks of life.
A chorus of Eisenberg shouting, “Get your watermelon — red, ripe and sweet watermelon,” blended with the pitch, dicker and banter of hundreds of merchants-customers. Accents were common among the mostly Jewish, Italian and Syrian vendors. “English was the primary language spoken,” he said, but many foreign-born merchants, like his Russian immigrant father, “conversed among themselves in their native tongues. Every ethnic group was represented in one way or another.”
All those peddlers packed in a small space shouting to get customers’ attention created quite a racket. “Our advertisement was our voice,” he said. “It was noisy, yeah.” But that noise was sweet “music.”” Besides, he said, the ruckus and color “were part of the charm of the market.”
Hawking’s not for wallflowers. “If you’re shy you don’t belong in marketing,” he said. Things only quieted down, he said, after a warning from the market master, whose job was to collect monthly fees from vendors and mediate disputes among them. Once gone, the din began again. It was a special time and place.
“It was fun,” Eisenberg said. “There was excitement.”
He said his father steeped him in the market’s history. Ben Eisenberg got into the trade through his father-in-law Solomon Silverman, whose daughter Elsie became Ben’s wife and George and Hymie’s mother. Just as Silverman began as a door-to-door peddler with a horse and wagon, Ben followed suit. Just as Solomon leased stalls in the market, so did Ben. In the early 1900s, Eisenberg learned, a bidding process divvied up the stalls. Some locations were better than others. Getting outbid caused sore feelings and fistfights broke out. The bidding system was disbanded, he said, and exisiting stalls grandfathered in. Ben had four choice spots at the northeast corner of 11th and Jackson as well as his own wholesale house.
In an era before “Thanks for shopping…come again,” he said many vendors lacked good customer relation skills. His dad, though, had a gift with people.
“My dad was a really good salesman and he separated himself from everybody else because he was very polite, businesslike, and his word was his bond. If my dad said, ‘You got it,’ you didn’t need a contract — that’s it.” Eisenberg said.
He said his father “bought and sold in big quantities,” a practice Eisenberg continued. Many of Ben’s grocery-supermarket customers were former peddlers like himself. “My dad knew all the peddlers, so when he got in the wholesale business all the peddlers came to do business with dad. They knew he was going to give them the right price and not insult them.”
Like his father before him, Eisenberg served as vice president of the Omaha Wholesale Fruit Dealers Association, a predecessor of the Old Market Business Association. In some ways he’s still hawking, still looking after the best interests of his beloved Old Market. “I love business. I love marketing. I welcome anybody who wants to hang up their shingle and start their business.” He embraces the growing community there. “That’s the district’s salvation — it’s a neighborhood now.”
- In Memory of a Omaha Old Market Original, Fruit and Vegetable Peddler Joe Vitale (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Allan Noddle’s Adventures in the Food Industry Show Him the World (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)