I have interviewed a lot of celebrities in my time. Alexander Payne. Laura Dern. Jaime King. Patricia Neal. Robert Duvall. James Caan. Danny Glover. Matthew Broderick. Debbie Reynolds. Swoosie Kurtz. Carol Kane. Mickey Rooney. Pat Boone. Dick Cavett. Martin Landau. Gabrielle Union. Cathy Hughes. Isabel Wilkerson. Johnny Otis. Bill Dana. Richard Brenner. Edward Albee. John Guare. Warren Buffett. Bob Gibson. Gale Sayers. Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Johnny Rodgers. Marlin Briscoe. And many more. In my experience with public figures I have found it generally takes several days, sometimes weeks to arrange an interview and to have it come off. One notable exception to that rule was Warren Buffett, whom I needed a quote from for a story related to the now defunct Sun Newspapers he owned. I had procrastinated during the week and not called his office asking for an interview, which I suspected I wouldn’t get anyway, I found myselg facing the deadline on a Saturday morning and feeling a bit desperate. What the hell? I thought, so I rang up his office and who should pick up the phone but Buffett himself. He handled my few questions with aplomb and that was that. I was later told by someone who knows him well that it was a one-in-a-million circumstance that Buffett just happened to be in his office then and that he got the phone himself. All of which brings me to Bill Cosby. Between the time I got the assignment to do an advance story on his upcoming Omaha gig, my making the request through his handlers for a phone audience with him, then getting the interview confirmed, and then actually conducting the interview with the legend, less than 48 hours elapsed, which aside from the freak Buffett occurrence, is record time for an interview with someone of his stature. That’s not all that made my Cosby encounter memorable. I was surprised when I was accorded an hour by his publicist because I only requested 30 to 40 minutes. Near the end of that hour, a thoroughly enjoyable give and take with the comic whose answers to my questions sounded a lot like his storytelling bits, I asked a final question about his views on what public education in America needs to be doing better to capture more of the students being lost in the system. He told me has a lot to say on the subject and would I mind calling him back later in the day for him to comment for a separate story. I agreed to do just that, of course, and that’s how it happened I ended up interviewing him a second time, this time for more than hour, on the subject of education. The question about education was a natural one since he’s a well known vocal advocate for the value of quality education and good parenting and an outspoken critic of what’s wrong with much of education and parenting today in certain quarters. Also, throughout much of that first interview he spoke about the transformative power of education in his own life that set him on the path to becoming the writer-storyteller-performer we know today. So, below you will find my forthcoming article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) that previews his May 6 concert in Omaha. Look for a follow up story sometime soon with his views on education. And also look for a more extended profile of the artist.
Bill Cosby Coming Talks Abou His Life’s Turning Point
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Slow ticket sales are prompting legendary comedian Bill Cosby to do a media blitz promoting his 2 p.m. May 6 Orpheum Theater concert. It just wouldn’t do for the 74-year-old icon to play to empty seats.
Cosby’s handler has me call the artist’s home directly. The unmistakable voice answering on the other end hastily greets me before excusing himself with, “Hang on a minute.” It seems his wife Camille is heading out with the grandkids and he wants to confirm dinner plans before she goes.
“Hey, listen! Is anybody paying attention to what I’m saying? Camille, are you paying attention to what I’m saying?”
He’s channeling the exasperated Cliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show.
He holds the floor a moment before fumbling for a name that eludes him. His family assures him they’ve got it covered. As they exit, he says, “OK,” and returns to the phone.
“Hello, alright, what you got?”
I suggest the overheard exchange is like a scene from his show.
“Well, um, yeah, with grandchildren now who come by and visit and then things show up in their hands and you say, ‘Well, where’d you get that?” ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Go put that back.’ And you have to define to grandchildren what is not a toy.
“Before they’re broken we would rather you not pick them up and then put them on the floor and pretend they’re something, and then forget you put them down there, which is what I call dementia. While people are picking on old people, kids have dementia too , They put stuff down and then they walk away and leave it. You say, ‘You know you forgot to pick up…’ ‘Oh, yeah.”
The riff over, Cosby refocuses to ask. “So where am I going?” I reply, “You’re coming to Omaha.” “Oh, yeah, listen man, we need help there. Played Lincoln (October 7), did well, did very well. We’re sitting there (Omaha) anemically at 30 percent. I think we need to tell the people I’m coming and they will probably have close to an hour and 45 minutes of good old, gee whiz I-forgot-I-could-laugh-that hard-and-that-good fun.”
Later, when he repeats his plea for help, citing the 30 percent number, I express surprise he even knows a detail like that.
“Really?” he asks incredulously. “Well, you better erase that. I do know. Look, this is a business. And I do think there may be an awful lot of entertainers and performers who would not even care, I mean, at least not to do anything about it. But I just want the people to know I am here and they need to go on and get these tickets and quit fooling around.”
A personal appeal to his fan base is potentially huge. His audience is sure to include folks “when I used to play Ak-Sar-Ben, when that was a big to-do then,” he says, referring to sold-out Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben concerts he performed at the old coliseum, once memorably with Sammy Davis Jr..
I ask if he considers himself a storyteller or monologist and he interrupts with, “Don’t bother with all that stuff. I walk out, there’s a chair, a table, a box of Kleenex, a bottle of water and a waste paper basket. Draped over the chair is ‘Hello, friend,’ which is our late son’s favorite saying in greeting people.”
Then, in the warm, reflective intonations familiar from his stand-up act and film-TV roles, he launches into, what else?, a story about how it all started for him at school. It’s the reason he’s taken education as his cause, both as advocate and critic.
He says growing up in a Philadelphia public housing project he was a bright but indifferent student, devoting more time to sports and hanging out than studying. He recalls only two teachers showing real interest in him.
“I wasn’t truant, I just didn’t care about doing anything. I was just there, man. I was still in the 11th grade at age 19.”
He calls what happens next “divine intervention.” The high school drop-out joined the U.S. Navy. He hated it. “That was a very rude epiphany.” He stuck it out though and obtained his GED. “I spent four years revamping myself.”
He marveled a GED could get him into college. Despite awful test scores Temple University accepted him on an athletic scholarship in 1960.
“I was the happiest 23-year-old in the world. They put me in remedial everything and I knew I deserved it and I knew I was ready to work for it. I knew what I wanted to be and do. I wanted to become a school teacher. I wanted to jump those 7th and 8th grade boys who had this same idea I had of just sitting there in class.
“Being in remedial English, with the goal set, that’s the thing that began to make who I am now.”
I score points with him when I share I tested into remedial English myself, prompting this, “Hey, we’re remedial, man.”
Fully engaged in his work, he threw himself into creative writing assignments. He wrote about pulling his own tooth as a kid and the elusive perfect point in sharpening a pencil. He recalls the impact it made when the professor held up his papers as shining examples and read them aloud in class to appreciate laughter.
“That was the kickoff. That’s when my mind started to go into another area of, Yes you can do, and I began to think, Gee whiz, I could write for comedians. And all my life from age 23 on, I was born again…in terms of what education and the value is. To study, to do something and be proud of it – an assignment.”
Cosby found his voice and passion: humanist storyteller of universal themes.
“That’s the whole idea of the writing – everybody identifying with it. I write about the human experience.”
From the start he wrote what he knew. “Who told me to do it? Nobody, I just wrote it. Was I trying to be funny? No. Was I reading any authors who inspired me? No.”
It wasn’t long after enteringTemple he penned famous bits like “Superman” and “Toss of the Coin.” Hundreds more followed, mostly about family.
“I write all and have written everything I have ever performed on stage. So, when you look at a movie, when you look at a TV show, when you hear an LP, I am that writer-performer. Everything comes from that. But when you look at the body of the work you will see that school teacher still working it, still talking about the value of education.”
Even as his stand-up career exploded, setting the stage for many firsts, he focused on entertainment with a message.
“I would imagine it was something brand new for an awful lot of people – to see this black person talking and making a connection and laughing because, ‘Yeah, that happened to me.’”
He’s the author of several best-selling books.
He’s well aware his life could have been quite different.
“Had it not been for the positive influence of this professor, without him reading that out loud and my hearing the class laugh, who knows, I may be at this age a retired gym teacher, well loved by some of his students.”
Years later he did finish college and added advanced degrees.
Going on 50 years as a comic, he’s a familiar “friend” to audiences. “We already have a relationship that’s wonderful because they know I’m funny, so there’s no guessing there.” He walks out with an idea of what he wants to do but, he says, “I keep it wide open.” Once he feels out the crowd, he goes where “they are.”
“It’s very complex,” he says, “but because I’m a master at it I think you want me in that driver’s seat to turn you on.”
Tickets start at $49.50. To order, call 402-345-0606 or visit http://www.ticketomaha.com.
- Cosby says guns, not race, the key issue in Trayvon Martin case (cnn.com)
- St. Frances Academy To Honor Cosbys For Donations (baltimore.cbslocal.com)
- Bill Cosby (slideshare.net)
- The Cosby Show (1984-1992) (russelllindsey.wordpress.com)
- Quintessential family man Bill Cosby “out to hurt their faces again” with laughter at Sunrise show (tcpalm.com)
- WATCH: The Cosby Obama Show On ‘SNL’ (huffingtonpost.com)
- Bill Cosby Speaks Boldly to Students About Their Choices (fox4kc.com)
From the Archives: Opera Comes Alive Behind the Scenes at Opera Omaha Staging of Donizetti’s ‘Maria Padilla’ Starring Rene Fleming
Opera Omaha has had many high points over the years, and this 1990 story from deep in my archives touches on some of them. The company’s Fall Festival was an international showcase that garnered much attention for the talents it brought together and the edgy repertoire it presented. Then Opera Omaha drifted to safer waters for several years. Recently it’s tried some outside the box things again, including an acclaimed Madama Butterfly designed by noted artist Jun Kaneko, a hauntingly etheral staging of poet Ted Kooser‘s Blizzard Voices, a sublime rendering of the Native American Wakonda’s Dream, and a spirited production of Brundibar. The following two stories from 21 years ago chart the behind-the-scenes actviity of mounting opera and the collaboration behind a Fall Festival production of Maria Padilla, starring then then emerging and eventual world-acclaimed soprano Renee Fleming.
From the Archives: Opera Comes Alive Behind the Scenes at Opera Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Metro Update
It’s a Monday night at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall, where a surreal scene worthy of Federico Fellini unfolds. The strange confluence of sights and sounds represents the final preparations before the evening’s dress rehearsal of Gaetano Donizetti‘s 1841 opera Maria Padilla, one of three music theater works now showing in Opera Omaha’s Fall Festival.
While carpenters’ electric drills whir away on an unwieldy set piece near the front of the stage, a harpist begins playing behind them. Soon, violins, horns and percussion instruments are heard over the workmen’s din, as Omaha Symphony Orchestra players gather in force. Other production crew members climb ladders high into the rigging overhead or adjust lights. Stage managers cart spears, pillows, plastic grapes and other props in the wings.
And as if on cue a woman bedecked in a flowing white wedding gown appears like an apparition in a side aisle. She surveys the hubbub, then disapepars. She is one of the costumed actors who pace in and out of the hall as the rehearsal’s 8 p.m. curtain call passes without the set piece having budged. It seems the union crew is having trouble fitting the parts of the large trihedron together.
Rehearsal is already 15 minutes late. A long night lies ahead; the cast and the opera’s conductor and director are anxious because Maria Padilla will make its American premiere only five days later.
Opera Omaha technical director Brady Mittelman had already spent a few all-nighters at the Witherspoon when interviewed a week before Maria’s September 14 opening. Mittelman, who joined the company only 13 weeks ago, has had a baptism-by-fire.
When Carousel closed July 31 he had three weeks of pre-production to call union crews and figure lighting, sound and stage requirements for the Fall Festival, which presents three works in repertory. Then work began on moving an army’s worth of equipment into the Witherspoon and installing it.
“We basically have three weeks to convert a concert hall into an opera space,” he said. “The biggest challenge, technically speaking, is just making the Witherspoon work. It is a very limiting space.”
Truckloads of gear began arriving August 23. The task was to outfit the space with everything a full-fledged theater demands. While the hall’s minimal lighting facilities are adequate for the concerts usually held there, for example, they fall far short of opera production needs. Lighting, sound and other equipment has been rented.
“All the lighting equipment that we are using was brought in on a 14-foot truck from Kansas City. We have a couple hundred lighting instruments and nine dimmer packs, which weigh a few hundred pounds apiece.
“The lighting board we rented is a computer memory board called a minipallette. No longer are there the days of the large auto-transformers or piano boards with the long handles. For the lighting operator to move them he had to use his hands and his arms and his legs and his head in order to bring up enough lights,” he said.
“We have to bring in electricity. The Witherspoon did not have adequate power installation, and for the last two festivals Opera Omaha brought in a generator that sat outside. We had to run a cable from the generator up to the roof, through a door, down a spiral staircase and onto the fly deck to power all of our lighting equipment. It was a real hassle.
The fly deck is a space about 12 feet above the stage where the ropes, arbors, grid system and other rigging that move the set pieces which “fly” in and out of the stage are stowed.
“This year we had proper 600 amp service installed just for the festival,” he said. “According to the musuem’s director we are the only ones who require that kind of power. It’s an amazing amount of electricity.”
Mittelman said eliminating the diesel operated generator has been a cost savings now that fuel prices have climbed.
“We brought in sound equipment from two suppliers here in town. The sets and costumes are being produced by Opera Omaha. We did contract to have the costumes for Maria Padilla built in England.”
John Pascoe is the director and designer of Maria. Like many Fall Festival artists he has been imported here, and in the months prior to rehearsal he worked out of his home.
“The design work was all done in Britain. I have a 200-year-old house in Bath, where I have a studio. I prepared the costume designs there and the costumes were actually built in London, where I traveled to supervise their construction,” he said. “From the direction side of things I basically prepared the show in England. I have a big music room where I can explore the possible movements that we’re doing. A choreographer from the Royal Ballet came and worked with me on the sort of dance the chorus performs at the beginning of Act II.”
Pascoe is also the designer of the festival’s Golem with whose director, Keith Warner, he collaborated. “We developed it in England together. He lives in London and I went there to work with him, and he came down to Bath to work with me.” He and Warner also worked with Golem’s composer John Casken, a fellow Brit.
Pascoe, his production assistants and cast members began arriving in Omaha in mid-August. The first two and a half weeks of rehearsal were held at the American-Italian Heritage Society hall minus costumes, sets, lighting and orchestra. The opera’s performance and technical aspects didn’t come together until September 9. The dress rehearsal described earlier took place September 10.
Prior to that point, however, Mittelman and his crew were making the Witherspoon performance-worthy for not one, but three shows. He’s pulled every which way but loose in the process. “I’m working with the designer in the house, with the master electrician and carpenter in the shop…I stop by the office two or three times a day to get messages. And I run to supply houses for lumber, hardware or whatever.”
Meanwhile, the productions rehearse at separate sites. Maria called the American-Italian Heritage Society home; Golem and the third festival offering Stranger Here Myself rehearsed at the Brandeis buildiing. Besides rehearsals for the principal performers, chorus and orchestral rehearsals were held for Golem and Maria. Juggling everyone’s schedules was Opera Omaha production coordinator Rhonda Jamison, who said, “There are challenges in getting it all to fit and work together.”
In fact, Opera Omaha artistic/general director Mary Robert said, “It’s actually a logistical nightmare trying to get three productions up and running at the same time. One of the things we look for is productions of a certain size, so they can move in and out of the Witherspoon successfully.”
An early priority for Mittelman and is crew was constructing an extension onto the permanent stage, covering the orchestra pit and the first five rows of seats. This “thrust” stage is used to create more space and to bring the performance out into the audience.
“The thrust is just a scaffolding frame on which we laid a plywood deck. Once that’s up you can start rehearsing on that space, lighting that area and calculating how tall your set pieces can be,” explained Mittelman. “All of that work can be done on paper ahead of time, but that’s only your best guess. There’s only so many mathematical formulas that will tell you what you need to know before you run into a problem that can’t be solved on paper – it has to be solved on the space. I deal with problems as they arise.”
The September 10 dress rehearsal offerd a perfect example of Murphy’s Law playing havoc with Mittelman’s best laid plans.
The orchestra, led by conductor and Opera Omaha music director John DeMain accompanied resplendently costumed singers Renee Fleming and Stella Zimbalis in an impromptu rehearsal on-stage. Their romantic music and voices off-set the blue collar crew’s frustrated attempts at putting the stubborn scenery together.
Although the sublime and ridiculous were only a few feet apart neither party seemed aware of the other. Mittelman was a blur attending to the scenery crisis and details in seemingly every square foot of the stage.
Adding to the incongruity of the moment was the orchestra’s very presence up-stage behind the actors. They occupied that unusual station during the festival because the thrust covers the orchestra pit. As a result, maestro DeMain and his musicians perform behind a screen during performances, making direct eye-contact between him and the singers impossible.
Solving that problem are video cameras trained on him and the stage, which transmit audio-visual communication to television monitors. Seven monitors are strategically placed around the perimeter of the stage and in the balcony. Actors use these to take their cues from DeMain. Likewise, he sees and hears them via a monitor at his feet.
The cameras and monitors, along with banks of lights that hang overhead and shoot up like trees from the sides of the stage and balcony lend an eerie, high-tech contrast to the marble Art Deco walls and floor.
Behind-the-scenes the stage managers and lighting and sound operators also have audio-visual contact with the stage and/or conductor.
Where is Mittelman on show night? “Anywhere and everywhere in the space. I’m on call to troubleshoot anything or nothing. I would prefer to be doing nothing because that means my show is running smoothly. But as soon as there’s a problem, it becomes my responsibility.”
Joslyn Witherspoon Concert Hall
Dress rehearsals are vital for ironing out glitches ahead of time and streamlining production. “It’s when you start bringing everything together – meshing the technical elements like lighting, sound, costumes, et cetera – with the performers. The lighting designer sits in the hoouse, saying, ‘Okay, change that one – it’s too bright,’ or, ‘It’s too soft.’ The sound people are getting levels to really make it balanced,” said Mittelman.
And the director and designer are training critical eyes and ears on every note, every gesture, every detail from their seats. Pascoe was like a human jumping bean before the September 10 dress rehearsal, which finally did go off about an hour late.
Mittelman must accomodate the varying needs of three very different shows. “For Maria, which is our largest show, we have a 50-member orchestra, a 32-member chours, plus eighth principals. Then you have a running crew of eight or nine. Our smallest show is a one-woman show (Stranger Here Myself starring Angelina Reaux), with a three or four-piece combo and only two crew members.”
Golem is mid-sized but it incorporates some of the festival’s most interesting special effects. “It opens with a memory sequence of the main character, Maharal. The actor playing him (Terry Hodges) stands in front of a rear projection screen and slide carousels project images of what he’s reliving,” said Mittelman. “There will be 70 projections in the first 17 minutes.”
He said lighting is also used to create dramatic effects in Golem and the other shows. With colored gels and patterned templates inserted in lights it’s possible to create moods, textures and even specific images, such as clouds, stars or skylines.
Despite the Witherspoon’s liabilties officials feel the hall more than makes up for them by its intimate ambience, one perfectly suited to Fall Festival works.
“I really do believe that there is an appropriate space for each production. Not everything belongs in the Orpheum. And the Witherspoon’s small space really lends itself to the festival’s emphasis on dramatic believability,” said Robert.
John Pascoe agrees. “We gain in terms of intimacy and communication with the audience. We have a huge plus in that people can see the expression in a face, and that’s vital.”
Robert added that the Joslyn staff does “everything they can to make this work. They’re wonderfully cooperative.”
Mittelman said a spirit of cooperation is necessary among the festival’s collaborators as well. “You meet with directors and designers and you work out problems and you make compromises. Whenever you get several creative people together they all have different concepts. There are discrepancies. My job is to try to work those out.”
Opera Omaha Presents the American Premiere of Maria Padilla Starring Renee Fleming
The old St. Wenceslaus Church building south of downtown Omaha isn’t the site of religious services anymore but for three weeks recently it reverberated with simply divine music.
Now home to the American-Italian Heritage Society, the building - located in Omaha’s blue-collar Little Italy neighborhood – served as the rehearsal space in late August and early September for Opera Omaha’s current production of Maria Padilla. Fittingly, the 1841 bel canto opera was written by an Italian composer, Gaetano Donizetti. Bel canto, which means “beautiful singing,” is a style of operatic singing characterized by rich tonal lyricism and bravura displays of vocal technique.
Opera Omaha is presenting the American premiere of Maria Padilla as part of its Fall Festival at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The event, which continues through September 23, also features performances of John Casken’s new opera Golem and Angelina Reaux’s one-woman show, Stranger Here Myself.
As Opera Omaha artistic/general director Mary Robert likes to boast, the Fall Festival is a magnet for world class artists. Maria Padilla is no exception. Residential and light industial neighbors of the American-Italian Heritage Society may not have known it, but several international opera stars were brandishing their formidable talents for weeks just across the street.
Former St. Wenceslaus Church was home to the Italian-American Heritage Society
New York native Renee Fleming, the gifted young soprano who stars in the title role of Maria, is due to make her Metropolitan Opera debut this fall. She comes to Omaha on the heels of winning what Mary Robert calls “the world’s most prestigious singing prize” – the Richard Tucker Award. British director and designer John Pascoe works at the world’s leading opera houses, including engagements at Covent Garden, London, Rome, Syndey, San Francisco and New York.
The singer and director are friends and frequent collaborators. Fleming, in fact, encouraged Pascoe to do the opera when she found out Opera Omaha had not named a director. When Pascoe learned Fleming was starring, with maestro John DeMain conducting, he called Mary Robert to offer his services.
“I honestly thought he was kidding me at first,” said Robert, who recovered her senses in time to invite Pascoe to come. She added that he is working for about one-tenth of his usual fee, as Fleming and other festival artists are appearing at fractions of what they normally command.
Pascoe said he doesn’t “normally phone an opera company up and ask to direct. No, I’ve never done that before.”
What prompted him then this time?
“The decisive thing for me was the fact that Renee was singing the title role. It if weren’t for that I wouldn’t be here. Somebody asked once, ‘Why do bel canto work?’ And somebody replied, ‘You do bel canto work when you’ve got the cast to sing it, and specifically, when you’ve got the lead to sing it.’
“When (Maria) Callas came on the scene in the ’50s suddenly there was a great revival of bel canto works in Italy and around the world because Callas was there to sing it. Then in the ’60s and ’70s (Joan) Sutherland was there to do it. And we now have an artist to do it – Renee Fleming. People all over the world are saying this.”
Fleming first sang bel canto repertoire at Opera Omaha’s 1988 Fall Festival, when she and current co-star Stella Zimbalis sang a duet from Maria Padilla in concert.
“It was a personal turning point because I realized with that concert that bel canto repertoire was something I could pursue. Now I’m in a lot better shape for singing this, vocally and technically. I had hoped Opera Omaha would explore the possibility of doing that opera because we had all loved the duet so much. I am very pleased they pursued it,” said Fleming.
And for Fleming the experience wouldn’t be the same without Pascoe. “I’ve worked with John three times before. He’s my favorite director. He has a remarkable talent for finding the heart of the matter. Unlike most directors, he can sing everyone’s part, and he sings it well. He does trills and everything. Also, he can act it better than any of us. He acts in such an exaggerated way that we know precisely what he means.”
Indeed, a visit to the rehearsal hall found Pascoe often stopping the action momentarily to enact the impassioned part of one of the perfomers. He came out into the rehearsal area to show what he wanted by his own broad strokes. He suggested, rather than dictated how an actor might wield a sword or react to another character.
“I would never agree with the notion that I show an artist what to do – I show them how I would do it. The kind of thing I say is, ‘Can you find your way of doing what I mean by that?’ That’s the way I work,” said Pascoe.
He explained that the Act II duet between Maria and her sister Ines contains a passage when they remember their happy youth. “I told Renee the kind of things I used to do with my brother and sister – playing games and stuff. And I said, ‘Try to remember what you did. Find your vision of this.’ And the same with Stella (who plays Ines).”
The result is a charming scene in which the young women play again like little girls.
The American-Italian rehearsal space is where Maria Padilla was fleshed out. After months of preparing the opera at his home in Bath, England, Pascoe and the cast began working on blocking out the stage movements and performances in Omaha in mid-August.
“Every morning I got up two hours early before we started rehearsing to go through what I’d prepared to refresh myself, so I knew what I was doing the rest of the day,” said Pascoe.
The floor of the former church was covered with a mat, on which a patchwork of colored tape was adhered. The tape marked where set pieces, props and stage boundaries would be once the production moved into the Witherspoon. During their two and a half weeks at the American-Italian hall performers rehearsaed without wigs, costumes and make-up. Their only musical accompaniment was a pianist.
Actors, along with the director, conductor and stage manager, dressed comfortably.
While scenes rehearsed Pascoe sat on the sidelnes, giving blocking notations to stage manager Tim Ocel.
Pascoe aims for a “synthesis of stage and music” that heightens, supports and informs the drama. “I’m quite specific about things because if you do something on one beat it’s completely different than if you do it one beat later. If there’s a great crashing chord one beat later you have to decide if you want to do a dramatic movement on that chord or if you want the chord to come after the action.
“Or do you want the chord to come before the action, so the actors have a reaction with the crashing chord. There’s all these possibilities,” he said.
Each choice will color the drama and the audience’s interpretation of it, he added. He said the integral role music plays in drama is best illustrated by film scores. “Let’s face it, would Return of the Jedi be an eighth of the film it is without John Williams’ score. The music informs and adds to the emotion and provides subtext. I’m not saying John Williams wrties the same music as Donizetti or that either is better or worse than the other. I’m just saying the use of music with drama is well established. Especially with film, people understand without even knowing it that the music is helping them.”
Pascoe feels strongly about Maria Padilla’s music and drama. “It’s an extremely powerful work, with very clear, good, strong emotions. The thing that’s most appealing about it is its sensational music – it is astonishingly rich and beautiful music. I’m not talking about music that a musicologist would call wonderful and the rest of us would find boring…this music is exciting stuff.”
The director, who has staged other Donizetti operas, including Don Pasquale and Lucia di Lammermoor, said, “Maria Padilla’s music is more evenly sumptuous all the way through. It’s a much later work than the others. The orchestration’s highly colored and very interessting.”
Maria has rarely been performed. Some suggest the artifical ending imposed on Donizetti by censors of the time explains why. Pascoe disagrees, although he concedes “the ending is not the strongest part of the opera. You don’t come out fizzing from the ending, but I think you will come out fizzing from the excitement of the opera.”
He attributes the work’s obscurity to the fact that the bel canto opera has simply not been “fashionable.” He and Mary Robert say that as a result of Opera Omaha’s production, which is drawing reviewers from national publications, Maria could become part of the standard repertoire.
The piece is set amidst the intrigue of Spanish royalty in 14th century Castile. Maria is an ambitious young woman willing to suffer dishonor for love. She lives as the mistress of the prince, to whom she is secretly married, in order to appease political pressures. When the prince is forced to marry another woman, Maria takes matters into her own hands and claims her rightful place beside her husband on the throne.
Opera Omaha hopes to strike a balance between the tragic circumstances Maria endures and her own strong-willed nature that manipulates events to her own design.
“John has suggested, interestingly, that she very cunningly says, ‘Ha, this is my chance to have it all.’ I think this is Leona Helmsley – hopefully a lot more sympathetic than that, but she’s a very strong person,” said Fleming. “That was the thing that attracted me when I first read the libretto. I said, ‘Wow, finally a woman who’s not victimized.’ She takes charge.”
Pascoe added, “I don’t think she’s a tragic figure at all. Unlike most romantic heroines she actually takes a hand in shaping her own future and takes some very bold steps toward doing it.”
The long rehearsal period Opera Omaha devotes to Fall Festival works helps Fleming, Pascoe and other collaborators explore the nuances of character and performance.
Fleming calls the four weeks alloted “invaluable.” “If I were singing The Marriage of Figaro I wouldn’t be thrilled about the long rehearsal period because I’ve done so many Figaros in the last year. But for a new work it’s a fantastic luxury to have four weeks, and really have time to explore the character and get the role into your voice.”
Pascoe said the extended rehearsal schedule “is one of the reasons I was interested in coming. The festival sets up a very, very good work situation.”
During early rehearsals singers preserve their voices by “marking,” which is important when working on a production over several weeks time.
“We mark either by singing down an octave or by singing softly to save the voice,” said Fleming. “I can only sing full voice, full energy maybe an hour and a half to two hours. In a performance, of course, that would be spread out.”
Rehearsals last up to six hours a day, requiring both physical and vocal endurance. She said she and other singers gradually work up to singing full throttle. “It’s important for every artist to know their limits, but you also have to sing the role into your voice. You can’t do it too much and hurt your muscles by over training.”
She said performers “train much like athletes do.” That conditioning is essential in opera, she added, because most works include a rape scene or murder scene or mad scene that knocks her about. She stays in shape doing aerobic workouts at a gym.
She and Pascoe both laud the American-Italian Heritage Society building as an excellent rehearsal space.
They say when creative artists are cooped up in close proximity like they are for a month an esprit de corps is needed if magic is to happen. “If it doesn’t develop, you’re in for problems,” said Pascoe. Or, as Fleming put it, “Four weeks with somebody who’s not very good would be hell.”
No such problems on this production, they say.. And when things click, Pascoe said, “it’s always a bit like falling in love. There’s a very special feeling working on an opera because all of us are commited to it and trying to give it as much of ourselves as we can.”
Fleming said Pascoe promoted that feeling by his approach. “He said to me one day that the reason he got into directing was because he wanted to be moved. And he’s right because when I read these scripts and hear the music I am moved, and yet so often when you get to the final results, you’re not. Something has been missed along the way. We try to find that.”
She said that extra spark is intensified when working on a piece like Maria Padilla, which few people are aware of and therefore have few preconceptions about. That gives her and Pascoe freedom to interpret the work and leave their own mark on it.
“It’s a fun opportunity to explore something new. There are no rigid traditions about interpreting specific notes. I can do whatever I want with it. There aren’t that many pieces left that haven’t been explored already.”
Fleming, who said she enjoyed her stays in Omaha in 1988 and this year, sings Opera Omaha’s praises. “I’ve been calling all my singer friends and saying, ‘You’ve got to sing for this company.’” She credits Mary Robert for having “a lot of vision.”
“I can’t think of either a festival or a rep situation that is as brave and adventurous as this Fall Festival is,” said Pascoe. “I can’t think of any other event in the world that is offering such an exciiting menu. I think Omaha’s very clever to have been able to grab people of such vision as maestro DeMain and Mary Robert and hold them here long enough to get this festival on its feet.”
Most cities of any size that have at least some semblance of sensitivity for historic preservation still have an Orpheum Theater. My hometown of Omaha, Neb. is one such city, although the Orpheum here came perilously close to being razed at one point. Omaha’s track record for historic preservation is rather spotty, although it’s gotten somewhat better over time. I wrote the following article shortly after the local Orpheum was renovated for the second or third time and had come under new management. I will soon post a second piece I did around this same time, for another publication, that takes a different angle at the Orpheum and its opulent place among the city’s entertainment venues. For the first half of my life I only knew the Orpheum by catching occasional glimpses of its exterior during downtown shopping excursions with my mom or dad. Mainly though I heard about it through reminiscences by my mother and aunts, who frequented the theater as girls and young women, when it was still a movie palace. They made it sound so grand and special that I was always enthralled by their descriptions. I was actually well into my 20s before I first stepped foot inside. Right out of college my first job, albeit it a part-time gig, was as a gofer for a now defunct arts presentation group, whose programs were held at the Orpheum. I was supposed to be doing PR work but all I ever seemed to do, much to my frustration, was to fetch coffee for the haute woman in charge, or pick up poster orders or transport visiting artists, et cetera. But there were perks, particularly getting to see a string of world class performances, including Marcel Marceau, Twyla Tharpe, and the Guthrie Theatre. I’ve gone on to catch dozens of programs there — touring Broadway shows, operas, ballets, movies, you name it. I try to convey some of that wide-eyed excitement in my story, which originally appeared in the New Horizons.
Omaha’s Grand Old Lady, The Orpheum Theater
More stars than there are in the heavens.
That’s how the great lion of Hollywood movie studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, described the galaxy of stars under contact to MGM during cinema’s Golden Age. Omaha may be far removed from the bright lights of Tinseltown but for 75 years now one enchanted place — the Orpheum Theater — has been a magnet for some of the brightest stars of the big screen, Broadway, the concert circuit and the recording industry.
This grand old lady, fresh from a $10 million facelift applied last summer, opened in 1927 to a varied program featuring comedian Phil Silvers, violinist Babe Egan and her Hollywood Redheads and the silent film, The Fighting Eagle, starring matinee idol Rod La Rocque. From the start, the opulent Orpheum has seduced us with its eclectic attractions and extravagant motifs. The French Renaissance Revival style theater is a monument to Old World craftsmanship in such decorative flourishes as gold leaf glazings, marble finishes, velvet coverings, framed mirrors, crystal chandeliers and ornate Venetian brocatelle and damask-adorned chairs. The grand foyer is dominated by a circular French Travertine marble stairway that winds its way to the mezzanine and balcony levels.
The City of Omaha-owned theater, saved from an uncertain future in the early 1970s before undergoing a major overhaul, is now under the purview of the Omaha Performing Arts Society, a non-profit headed by Omaha World-Herald publisher John Gottschalk. The society, which will also manage the Omaha Performing Arts Center to be built across from the Gene Leahy Mall, has signed a 50-year lease with the city for the Orpheum’s use and will share, with the city, in any operating losses the next 10 years. Money for this most recent renovation came from private donations culled together by Heritage Services, a fundraising organization headed by Walter Scott, Jr. and other corporate heavyweights. These new developments are the latest efforts to reinvent the Orpheum over the past 107 years.
The present theater is actually forged from the facade and foundation of an earlier building on the very same spot. What began as the Creighton Theater in 1895 became the Creighton Orpheum Theater when it joined the famed Orpheum Theater Circuit in 1898. The original Orpheum operated until 1925. Then, when Orpheum officials decided a grander edifice was needed to support a growing Omaha, $2 million was spent extensively enlarging, altering and gentrifying the site.
Matching the Orpheum’s lavish decor, is a rich lineage of legendary performers who have appeared there, including many identifiable by only one name. From Crosby to Sinatra, crooners have made fans swoon and sway there. From Ella to Leontyne, divas have held court there. From Channing to Goulet, luminaries from the Great White Way have made grand entrances there. From Lucy and Dezi to Hope and Benny to Cosby and Carlin, comedians have made audiences titter with laughter. Magicians, from Blackstone to Henning to Copperfield, have bedazzled patrons with their wizardry. Classical musicians, from Stern to Pehrlman, have moved crowds with their sublime playing. Big band leaders, from Kaye and Kayser to Dorsey and James, have got the place jumping.
The Orpheum has been the home to the symphony, opera and ballet, the place where Broadway touring productions play and the eclectic venue-of-choice for everything from school graduations to Berkshire Hathaway stockholder meetings to movie premieres to appearances by top orchestras, renowned repertory theater companies and elite dance troupes.
The plush theater has been adaptable to changing tastes, beginning as a vaudeville house, evolving into a movie palace and lately functioning as a performing arts hall. During the Depression and war years theaters like the Orpheum were great escapes for people just wanting a break from the real world or just to find relief from extreme weather. In the vaudeville era several shows played daily, from noon to midnight.
When movies lit up the marquee, a typical program included a line of girls, a pit band, a newsreel and a first-run feature film. The theater’s Wurlitzer organ was a staple for sing-a-longs and silent movie accompaniment. When the big band craze hit, live music moved from the pit to the stage. If a hot band packed the house, it became the main attraction. If a big movie drew long lines at the box office, it took center stage. Trying a little something of everything, the Orpheum even ran closed circuit TV broadcasts of championship fights.
In its heyday its flamboyant manager, Bill Miskell, was known as “a show doctor” and “master of ballyhoo” whose advice could help a sick act get well and turn a sow’s ear into silk. Under Miskell, the Orpheum ran grandiose promotions — like the time the lobby was dressed as a railroad station for the 1939 world premiere of Cecil B. De Mille’s epic Union Pacific. In 1953, it became the first Midwest theater to project a Cinemascope picture — the religious extravaganza The Robe. From the 1950s through the ‘60s, the theater operated almost solely as a movie house.
Ruth Fox, a veteran usher and backstage volunteer, said the theater has a one-of-a-kind appeal. “It’s elegant. It commands dressing up. It makes you feel like putting on a long gown. What could be more regal?” Patron Mark Brown said, “I’m amazed by the splendor of the grand architecture and the acoustics. I don’t think it can be matched today.” Al Brown, a former on-site Orpheum manager, calls it “the crown jewel of the Midwest. It’s majestic.”
Former Omaha Public Events Manager Terry Forsberg, goes even further by describing it as “the cathedral of the performing arts as far as Omaha is concerned.” Indeed, the sheer grandeur of the place sets it apart.
Impresario Dick Walter, presenter of hundreds of shows there over the years, said, “Visually and mentally, you have to be moved when you see the size of the lobby and the theater. It takes your breath away a little. It’s like going into any of those grand palaces in London or Vienna or Berlin. And there’s an aura when you walk in the same space that so many scores of great performers of the past performed in. It’s the implicit tradition and the magic of the theater with its history. I don’t want to sound religious, but it’s semi-sacred.”
The Orpheum evokes many memories. Omaha musician Preston Love recalls getting his groove on there to the swinging sounds of jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, all idols for the then-aspiring sideman. “All the big names who toured theaters played the Orpheum,” he said. “Suffice to say…the Orpheum was top stuff, man. It was unbelievable.” He saw Count Basie there in ‘43, and three weeks later he auditioned for and won a seat in the band and ended up playing the Orpheum with Basie in ‘45 and ‘46, as family and friends cheered this favorite son’s every lick on the saxophone. He noted that a rolling stage utilized then carried featured acts to the lip of the stage. If it was a band, like Basie’s, those jamming cats really cut loose when they made it out front. “Boy, you started rolling down in front and that band would just be on fire,” Love said.
Dick Walter has a long relationship with the theater, first as a child lapping-up the antics of vintage comedy teams like Olsen and Johnson, than as a young man spellbound by big name entertainers and later as a presenter of performing arts programs, including everything from Camelot to The National Chinese Opera Theater. “When I was going to Omaha University I enjoyed cutting the Friday afternoon class to go down and see the first show of that week’s vaudeville show,” Walter said. Among the performers he caught then was the magician The Great Blackstone.
Decades later, in a “remarkable” bit of fate, Walter found himself presenting the famed illusionist’s son, Harry Blackstone, Jr., a great illusionist in his own right, in performance at the Orpheum. From the 1970s through the ‘90s, this local showman brought a diverse array of acts to the Orpheum, including scores of Broadway road shows. “Although I made a lot of money and I had great pleasure in presenting big-time musicals with big-time stars, I also enjoyed bringing the off-beat. I had some successes I certainly didn’t deserve and I had some failures I certainly didn’t deserve. Fortunately, I guessed right most of the time.” Although officially retired, he still dabbles in show business by presenting his long-running travel film series at Joslyn Art Museum and bringing occasional shows, such as “A Celebration of World Dance” and the Russian State Chorus, to Joslyn this fall.
As Walter can attest, show business is a series of highs and lows. For all the standing ovations and packed houses, he can’t forget the times when things went a cropper. “The biggest glitch ever was when I was presenting Hello Dolly with Carol Channing,” he said. “We had played a week when about a half-hour before the Saturday matinee show the entire electrical system went out. The emergency system came on, but it was too dim to do a show. It was a sold-out house, all of which had to be refunded. Miss Channing was really upset because she had never missed a performance. I said, ‘What are you worried about? This performance is missing you — you’re not missing it.’”
With Channing mollified and the power restored, the second show went on without a hitch. In his many dealings with stars, Walter has found most to be generous. However, as “they’re pestered a lot,” he said, “all of the big people build a wall around them. They have no private life. Now, when you brought some of them in a few times, the wall broke down and the next thing you knew you were out eating dinner together after the show. A lot of them were wonderful with people coming up to them for autographs…and they should be — that’s part of their job. On the other hand, if people were a little pushy, they didn’t like that.” Among his favorites, he said, were comic musician Victor Borge, conductor Arthur Fielder, band leader Fred Waring and actor Hans Conried. “These people were special.”
Regarding Waring, Walter recalls, “The last time I had him was his ‘Eighth Annual Farewell Tour.’ I used to kid him about that. He just kept going on as long as he could. That last time we had him he gave a wonderful show and, when he came off, he was literally so exhausted he just fell into my wife’s arms backstage, catching his breath. But seconds later he was back on stage thanking everyone. That’s show business. That makes a performer.” When it came to Conried, who headlined a straight dramatic play for Walter, the actor so enjoyed a repast at the Bohemian Cafe that whenever he hit the road again “he’d drive up, give me a ring and say, ‘Let’s go to the Bohemian.’ He thought this was heaven.”
Ruth Fox recalls going as a little girl with her mother to the Orpheum and being awe-struck by the great hall. “I was so impressed with the mirrors and the chandeliers.” she said. “Oh, that was something to behold.” A lifelong theater-lover, Fox began ushering and working backstage at the Orpheum in the 1970s. “I started to usher for the symphony, the opera, Broadway touring productions and whatever else came.” It’s something she continues today. She enjoys being around theater people and the hubbub surrounding them.
“I find it thrilling.” As an opera guild member, she joins other ladies running a backstage concession for cast and crew. “We fix homemade food. Matzo balls, deviled eggs. You name it, we have it. We have a real thing going. We spend time with the performers. We take care of their needs…and they’re so nice to us. Once in a while you get a stinker, but most are wonderful.” She takes great pride in her role as an usher, too. “We, who usher, really are ambassadors to the city. There are so many people who come from out of town who have never been to the Orpheum before. It’s their introduction, you might say, to Omaha…and we have to make a good impression.”
Despite the theater’s prominence, its future was once uncertain. By the end of the ‘60’s it languished amidst a dying downtown. Ownership changed hands — from the Orpheum Circuit to several movie theater chains. As business declined, the theater fell into disrepair and, following an April 29, 1971 screening of Disney’s The Barefoot Executive that played to a nearly empty house, the place closed. At first, there was no guarantee the theater would not follow the fate of another prominent building in Omaha, the old post office, and be razed. Its prospects improved when the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben bought the theater and donated it to the city, which agreed to steward it.
The city formed the Omaha Performing Arts Society Corp. (no relation to the current management group) for raising revenue bonds to underwrite a renovation. Local barons of commerce contributed more dollars. Everything was on the fast-track to preservation until the city learned it had inherited a $1,000 a month lease for use of the lobby from the City National Bank Building, which the Orpheum abuts. With the rental issue gumming-up the works, the theater — then lacking any protective historic status — became a white elephant and, some say, a likely candidate for the wrecking ball. It was saved when the Omaha Symphony bought out the lease and deeded the lobby to the city.
A multi-million dollar renovation ensued — removing years of grime, repairing damage caused by a leaky roof and restoring deteriorated plaster and paint — before the Orpheum reopened as Omaha’s performing arts center in 1975, with Red Skelton headlining a glitzy gala. Later, it was designated an Omaha landmark and a National Register of Historic Places site. Over the next 27 years, the theater thrived but not without complaints about acoustics, amenities and overbookings. The theater also operated at a loss for many years.
Two men who know every inch of the theater and have spent more time there than perhaps anyone else are Al and Jeff Brown, a father and son who have made managing the Orpheum a family enterprise. Al, a tattooed Korean war vet, was on-site manager there from 1974 to 1996, during which time he saw the theater enjoy a renaissance. When Al retired, his son Jeff, who worked at the Orpheum as a stagehand like his dad before him, followed in his footsteps to assume responsibility for the day-to-day operation and maintenance of this heavily-used old building in need of faithful attention.
The hours on the job can be so long that Jeff, like Al did, sometimes sleeps overnight on a cot in the office. Jeff feels the work done to the theater this past summer, which tackled some longstanding problems, will be appreciated by performers and patrons alike. “The big thing is to keep both of them happy,” he said. “I feel with this renovation we’re going to better realize that goal because of the areas we’ve addressed…improved seating, enlarged and added dressing rooms, added women’s restrooms, a new heating-air conditioning system. Before, we did the best we could with what we had, but now it’s going to be much more user-friendly.” Keeping show people happy, whether local arts matrons or visiting world-class artists, means making sure everything behind-the-scenes “has to be the way they want it,” Al said. “Touring performers come into town and they’re tired. It’s a drag. Anything you can do to alleviate some of that, they appreciate it.”
He said temperamental stars become pussycats if a manager and crew are prepared and have gone the extra mile. Echoing his father, Jeff added. “If you do your homework before the show and you make sure that everything is clean and you have everything they ask for, they’re very pleasant to work with.” Something Jeff learned from his old man is “treating every show the same — it doesn’t matter whether it’s a school graduation or a dance recital or a big Broadway show. We do whatever we can to make sure they have the best show they can have.”
Jeff said the theater’s new management structure bodes well for the facility. “I feel it’s better because our budget isn’t affected by what happens at Rosenblatt or at the Auditorium. We’re our own separate entity now. We’re on our own and we know we have to make it on our own. It will be a challenge, but I think it will be good.”
The Orpheum, saddled with recent annual operating losses in the half-million dollar range, will more aggressively seek and promote high stature events and market the theater as a destination place. An Orpheum web site is in the works. It also means Orpheum performance seasons — complete with public subscriptions — may be in the offing. It’s all been tried before. But the performing arts society may be in a better position to pull it off than financially-strapped city government.
Terry Forsberg said, “Now that you have a private group and the financial backing of the business community, it can be done. The question will be how much of a profit they will have to show in order to keep it operating.” According to John Gottschalk, “The Orpheum will have an endowment, but we’re certainly in no position to absorb half-million dollar losses every year. So, we’ll need to operate effectively and efficiently. The best way to end the…losses is to have a diversity of performances and to have bigger houses more frequently…and we will be heavily employed to make sure this place is full and active.”
Everyone, it seems, holds the Orpheum in high esteem. For Gottschalk, its rich legacy makes it a vital touchstone. “In the first place, it’s an incredibly old symbol,” he said. “There’s been an Orpheum Theater here since the turn of the century. Its longevity is what makes it such an integral part of the fabric of the community.”
Showman Walter said “it’s great to be part of this theater and it’s wonderful heritage.” Omaha Performing Arts Society president Joan Squires calls it a real treasure for the city.” Theatergoer Marjorie Schuck describes it as “a very big asset for Omaha culturally,” adding, “It’s a highlight coming to the Orpheum…it’s been here a long time, it’s still here, it’s still going, and we expect it to continue.”
Perhaps thinking of the effect the planned downtown performing arts center may have on the Orpheum, volunteer Ruth Fox said, “I just pray they will not tear it down or change it.”
Pray not, indeed, for that would be too much to bear. As a program for the Orpheum’s 1927 opening noted, the theater “is a continuation not only of a place of amusement, but also a veritable civic institution.”
- Ghost Hunting at the Orpheum (tdhurst.com)
- Musical Theatre Shows in Chicago (north-american-musical-theatre.suite101.com)
- Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Quiana Smith’s Dream Time (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Re:Take: The Orpheum Will Rise Again (seattlest.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Grows in New Directions (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kevyn Morrow’s Homecoming (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Shakespeare on the Green, A Summertime Staple in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Ushers in New Era of Omaha Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)