For anyone of a certain age, shopping at the downtown J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store in Omaha was a pinnacle experience for the sheer size, opulence, and wonder of it all. Any city of size had its equivalent, but I didn’t grow up in any city, I grew up in Omaha, and Brandeis was all I knew when it came to mega department stores. It was my Macy’s or Gimbels or Marshall Fields. This two-part story is my attempt at taking stock of the Brandeis legacy, which eventually grew to include many stores in many locations, although the downtown flagship store was always the one people remembered. I certainly did. I used to go there as a kid with my mom. It was always an occasion. The family that owned the downtown store and ultimately a whole chain of stores and other business enterprises lived liked royalty, and my story is as much about them as anything. Whether or not you grew up with Brandeis as I did, I hope you will find this interesting if for no other reason than the larger-than-life qualities of that store and that family. My story originally appeared in the Jewish Press and served as the basis for a script I wrote on the same subject for a documentary film.
Although most remnants of the Brandeis department store empire are long gone, the jewel in the crown, namely, the downtown store building, remains intact, though retrofitted as a condominium tower. I know a man who lives atop that building in the fabled penthouse, but that’s a story for another day perhaps, another forum, not on this blog.
The Brandeis Story: Family-Owned Department Store Empire of the Great Plains
Part I: On Becoming an Institution and Tradition
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
There was a time when every great downtown featured an immense department store. New York had its Macy’s and Gimbels. Chicago had its Marshall Field’s. Further west, smack dab in the middle of the Great Plains, Omaha had Brandeis. As local family dynasties go, few evoke the nostalgia the Brandeis name conjures. That’s because for a century J.L. Brandeis & Sons ruled the department store market in Omaha, serving hundreds of thousands of customers each year.
In its heyday, the symbol of the company’s and the family’s success was the downtown store. Period advertisements billed it as “the greatest store in the West.” Modeled after Marshall Field’s, nothing quite as elaborate as Brandeis could be found from the Windy City to the Rockies.
“Any city of any pretension, any city of any caliber developed a huge department store,” said Omaha historian Dennis Mihelich. “When Brandeis built that store…Omaha was the 20th most populace city in the United States. That meant a city had arrived. It’s kind of like saying you’re a major league city today…If we go back to the turn of the century, what gave a city cachet…one thing would be that symbol. ‘Look where we get to shop.’ They were architectural symbols in the city.”
Designed by John Latenser Sr. in the Second Renaissance Revival style, the half-million square foot, brownstone edifice included ornate ceilings, Corinthian columns and marble floors. Its vast, sweeping spaces contained every imaginable good and service. So distinct was the store, it became a destination stop for anyone visiting Omaha. Its sheer size, fabulous amenities, everything under-one-roof selection and first-rate customer service set it apart from the competition.
“Brandeis was really the source of most of the things you wanted. It was where you bought your first suit. It was where you went to have dinner with your friends…it was 10 floors of just a wonderful array of things,” Omaha historian Barry Combs said.
All things have their seasons and as downtowns lost their competitive edge to suburban malls in the 1950s and 1960s department stores began to feel the pinch. Many closed in the ensuing years. Omaha and Brandeis were no exception. As the suburbs beckoned, Brandeis followed — building a mall, opening outlets.
At its peak in the early 1970s, the family-owned retail chain grew to 15 stores, 3,000 employees and $100 million in sales. As fewer folks shopped downtown the flagship store became a drag. When, in 1980, Brandeis closed the downtown store as part of a general downsizing, it marked the end of an era. A leaner Brandeis became profitable again by the time Younkers bought it in 1987. More than 100 years of Brandeis retailing was no more.
The dynasty dates back to company founder Jonas Leopold Brandeis. This family patriarch set The Great Man precedent. Born in 1837, the Austrian-Jewish immigrant was a tanner by trade in his native Prague. J.L. came to the U. S. in his late teens, part of a flood of immigrants helping settle the frontier. His self-made success story in America began as a merchant in the wilds of Wisconsin, where he traded with Indians. He married Fanny Teweles of Milwaukee and the couple made a life for themselves and their family in Manitowoc.
A sportsman tradition that runs through the Brandeis family began with J.L., whose prowess with a gun became legendary.
He next set his sights south on Omaha, a booming transportation, mercantile and livestock hub with excellent rail and river access. He, Fannie and their four children, Sara, Arthur, Emil and Hugo, moved to Omaha in the early 1880s. J.L. built the first of what would be several downtown Brandeis merchandising enterprises. The first retail venture, The Fair, opened at 506 South 13th Street. By 1888 J.L. and his boys were full partners when they rented a new site at 114 South 16th Street, calling it The Boston Store, a then-popular name for retail outlets. The J.L. Brandeis & Sons name first appeared over the door there and would appear, on building plates, on all future Brandeis stores.
Business soon outgrew that location and in 1891 the family built a second Boston store on the northwest corner of 16th and Douglas, near what would become the anchor spot for the burgeoning Brandeis empire. J.L. was determined to succeed and not even the total loss of the building in an 1894 fire could deter him. He built a new, larger, better store on the same site.
It didn’t take long for the mutton-chopped J.L. to make his mark, drawing much attention with lighted store windows at night and illustrations in newspaper ads. Every Saturday he released a dozen balloons containing coupons redeemable for a free suit of clothes. Thus, from the very start, Brandeis was known as a pacesetter and innovator. These qualities would distinguish the company and the family members who ran it throughout the 20th century.
“It seemed like Brandeis was always very progressive with the things they did,” said Omahan Ted Baer, whose father, the late Alan Baer, was a great-grandson of J.L and the company’s last owner/president.
As a savvy merchant, J.L. knew a prospering city and Jewish community meant more good will and business for Brandeis and so he and his wife immersed themselves in civic pursuits. He was involved in helping establish one of Nebraska’s first synagogues. He, along with Carl Brandeis, a relative he brought to Omaha, actively worked to create a chapter of the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith. An Omaha chapter was founded by Carl, who remained active in Jewish activities.
Fannie organized a sewing class for Russian Jewish immigrants and led efforts to establish the area’s first Jewish hospital — Wise Memorial — as a sanctuary from bias. When Fannie died the hospital board paid tribute to her with a resolution:
“With patience and perseverance, undaunted by discouragement, she courageously carried forward her plan of founding a permanent institution…open and free to the afflicted without distinction as to creed or race.”
Fannie and J.L. were also on the committee that promoted the largest event in Omaha history — the 1898 Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition, a five month-long fair of more than 4,000 exhibits on 108 city blocks that drew 2.5 million visitors. The Brandeis’ also served on the city parks commission that extended the system of parks and boulevards.
By the early 1900s the Brandeis name owned currency with customers and vendors. His sons were already running things and they embarked on the family’s biggest expansion to date, construction of the giant Brandeis store, between 16th and 17th and Douglas Streets. Work began in 1906 and the $1 million building opened to much fanfare in 1907, displaying the latest goods from the post London and Paris trade centers. Eleven-year-old E.John Brandeis — Arthur’s son — was accorded the honor of laying the cornerstone.
Originally 8-stories, the building qualified as a skyscraper by that era’s standards. Later additions brought the structure to its present height, complete with an Art Deco-style penthouse bungalow atop the 10th floor.
Ads ballyhooed the new store as “absolutely fireproof,” a reference to the fire that destroyed The Boston Store a dozen years earlier.
Brandeis pulled out all the stops to assure the public this store was unlike any before it. Elaborate window displays drew lines of spectators. Mihelich said, “Those window displays were virtual museum exhibits. They would change regularly and would reflect the seasons and the holidays. They were used to entice people in. People literally did window shop.”
Former Brandeis VP Gene Griffin of Omaha said it was a showplace: “People came from near and far to see what was going on…”
Gleaming glass counters and mirrors, polished marble floors and overbrimming bins filled the cavernous interior. “The display was key,” Mihelich said. “Christmas, of course, would be the most important of all.” At Christmas the 10th floor was transformed into Toy Land, a Santa’s workshop-inspired seasonal display that thousands of children and parents visited. Lines of kids waited to sit on Santa’s lap and to have their picture taken with Old Saint Nick. Ex-Brandeis VP Vic Mason of Omaha said, “People looked forward to going downtown and shopping at the store, especially at Christmas time, when they had those fabulous displays on the 16th and Douglas corner and the big Toy Land up on the 10th floor.”
Any time of year the main floor mezzanine was a take-your-breath-away sight with its gilded columns, hanging chandeliers, copper-plated ceiling and brass-fixtured elevators hand-operated by white gloved attendants. A large clock near the 17th Street entrance was a popular meeting spot. A mosaic-tiled balcony offered secluded shopping and custom services. The bargain basement floor attracted teeming crowds. An arcade included an array of eateries — the Pompeian Room, the Tea Room, Hamburger Heaven and a cafeteria.
“…there was a certain elegance to the department store. You had a shopping experience that you certainly wouldn’t have in a big box store today,” Omaha historian Harl Dalstrom said. “…just the surroundings, the showcases, the decor inside the building, the majestic construction of the buildings themselves, the high ceilings, the display of merchandise and, of course, the windows…”
The Brandeis brand stood for something special, representing an ultimate shopping experience unequaled in these parts. A one-time Brandeis VP, the late Sam Marchese, may have put it best when a newspaper quoted him saying:
“When my grandfather came to this country he could speak only three words of English: ‘Hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ and ‘Brandeis.’ From Omaha there are only four real institutions in the state: the University of Nebraska, the Omaha World-Herald, Creighton and Brandeis.”
More than a flagship, the downtown store was THE center for commerce. It’s where people shopped and dined and caught up with friends or associates. It’s where you went to be seen. Where big wigs did business, sealed deals, made plans. Brandeis hosted fashion shows, parties, receptions, graduations and meetings.
Dalstrom said, “You would find going to the big department stores such as Brandeis part of an overall urban experience. When you look at the Brandeis experience you need to consider it too as part of an overall orientation toward during important things downtown..,and so downtown shopping was very much the thing.”
Not to be overlooked, Brandeis was viewed as one of Omaha’s own.
“Locally-owned. Local ties. That was different than all the other department stores. It was kind of funny growing up because everybody I knew either had somebody in their family who did work or had worked at Brandeis,” Ted Baer said.
Every city has its movers and shakers. Big wheels turned early Omaha from a prairie town outfitting Western Plains settlers into a modern metropolis of railroad, meatpacking, livestock, banking and mercantile interests. The names of those who made it happen — Kountze, Storz, Joslyn, Dodge, Reed, Hitchcock, Clarkson, Millard, Doorly — adorn streets and public places. The Brandeis name lives on, too.
The executives guiding the company were more than merchants. They were part of the elite inner circle that called the shots. Through the years Brandeis family members filled the top executive slots in the company, but with its growth Brandeis increasingly looked outside the family. Family or not, the Brandeis name opened doors. When Brandeis spoke, people listened.
“At one time, Brandeis ran this town,” said former VP Helmuth Dahlke. “… in the heyday Brandeis pretty much controlled every corner of downtown Omaha, strategically, so that no one could move in. They controlled the real estate…owned the buildings, the properties. When we wanted something we called and one minute later they called you back. We had muscle.”
“Yes, the Brandeis family and other major corporate executives of Brandeis provided substantial leadership in the business community, in civic affairs, in philanthropy,” Mihelich said. “They did it individually, serving on things like the board of governors of Ak-Sar-Ben…In all of these numerous kinds of activities the Brandeis family and the Brandeis company certainly for the better part of a century were as influential as any of the other major Omaha players.”
Befitting their means, the Brandeis family lived like Midwestern rajahs with their mansions, stables of horses, recreational activities, parties, appointments, titles, world travels and charitable work. Newspapers detailed their comings and goings. Cousins George and E. John Brandeis cut dashing figures with their good looks and active pursuits. Fellow sportsmen, their exploits made much news: George with his prized horses and hunting of fowl in western Nebraska; and E. John riding, yachting, hunting on one of his big-game safaris or squiring eligible young women.
“The Brandeis family were like rock stars,” Ted Baer said. “One of them was on the Titanic. E. John lived like the young Howard Hughes, playing polo, flying all over the place and doing pretty much anything he wanted to do.”
There would be many stars in the Brandeis firmament, but none quite as bright as J.L. By his death in 1903, the company was already viewed as a linchpin in the local economy. An Omaha Bee article proclaimed:
“…its prosperity has been a part of the growth of the city and its faith in the city has been shown by its constant endeavor to grow within the city.”
Even in death, J.L. continued giving, as his will directed generous gifts to several charities, including the Creche, the Omaha Benevolent Society and Temple Israel, beginning a long tradition of charity by Brandeis heirs and descendants.
Following in his footsteps, J.L.’s sons continued as community stewards. Arthur, Hugo and George each served on the Ak-Sar-Ben board of governors. The family’s association with the civic-philanthropic organization would last generations.
After J.L.’s passing, his three sons found their niches. Arthur, the visionary, assumed the presidency. Emil, the builder, handled supervised construction and maintenance of the company’s early building projects. Hugo, the retailer, sent buyers to foreign markets and managed the store’s sales policies.
Cousin George Brandeis joined them at the department store, first at J.L.’s urging and later at Arthur’s. George’s presence proved invaluable when a series of tragedies struck down J.L.’s boys, leaving George to take over.
The first of these tragedies befell Emil. The lifelong bachelor had concluded his annual overseas trip in the spring of 1912, touring the European continent and Egypt with his niece and her husband. For his return trip, he boarded the Titanic as a first-class passenger and died in its sinking. He was 45. His body was recovered on an ice floe by the MacKay Bennett. He was wearing a dark suit, brown shirt with blue stripes, black shoes and silk socks. Among his effects were diamond cuff links, a gold knife, a platinum and diamond watch chain, a gold pencil case, a gold ring, a gold cigarette case and match box, a pearl tie-pin and a 500 francs note.
Personal accounts of the disaster to reach the Brandeis family placed Emil at a card table when the “unsinkable” luxury liner struck the iceberg that spelled its doom.
An old friend who survived the sinking, Mrs. Henry B. Harris, wired the family her own account of her and her husband dining with Emil on the ill-fated maiden voyage and how he proudly boasted to them of his recent travels. Once the ship was damaged and the evacuation begun, Mrs. Harris was put safely out to sea on a jampacked lifeboat and watched Emil and Mr. Harris remain among the throng of men on deck, stoically awaiting their fate, she reported, “without fear.”
Emil was remembered as a solid citizen in a statement issued by the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben published in the Omaha World-Herald:
“In the consideration of his distinguished services in the upbuilding of Omaha and in appreciation in the loss of his loyal devotion to her interests that his home city has sustained in his tragic death, we…have called a public meeting in memory of our late fellow citizen, Emil Brandeis…”
Upon his death, Emil’s will directed funds to the Visiting Nurses Association, an organization the family continues supporting today.
Only months following Emil’s death, brother Hugo died, after an operation, leaving Arthur as the only Brandeis at the helm. Soon, Arthur cast his eye to diversify Brandeis interests with development of the Brandeis Theater, which opened up next door in 1910, joining the spate of motion picture houses downtown.
Meanwhile, Arthur’s son, E. John, began learning the business as a boy, occasionally accompanying his father on buying trips overseas.
With the loss of his two brothers, Arthur turned to cousin George, then manager of the Boston Store in Chicago, to join the family empire. By 1914 a restless Arthur left the store’s leadership to George in order to attend to his extensive realty holdings and to become vice president of Stern Brothers dry goods store in New York, where he took up residence. When Arthur died in 1916, his will left in excess of $1 million in personal property and real estate, in a trust, to his son, E. John.
As a boy E. John had laid the cornerstone of the Brandeis department store. E. John had worked under his father at Stern Brothers, but at 21 was not yet deemed ready to take over the reins at Brandeis, where George remained in charge as general manager. E. John would have to learn the business from the ground up. George mentored the heir apparent.
George’s tenure at the top lasted longer than anyone’s in Brandeis history. He grew up in Lieben, Austria. His uncle, old J.L., was already a success in America when he visited Lieben in the early 1890s. Impressed by his uncle’s tales of riches, young George returned to America with J.L., who put him to work at the family’s Boston Store in Omaha. George began humbly enough — checking parcels for customers.
Upon returning to Omaha to help manage Brandeis he told a reporter:
“It was one of the surprises of my life to find…Omaha has grown to such a thriving city. And I was also greatly surprised at the enormous amount of business my cousin is doing. Why, they are selling higher class goods here…than in Chicago.”
On his watch George is credited with growing the store’s market share. The growth continued despite the Great Depression and two world wars. Just as Arthur Brandeis brought George on board to guide the company, George brought in a key lieutenant of his own, only this time someone from outside the family, Karl Louis, a German immigrant. Brandeis and Louis met at Chicago’s Boston Store, where the two men forged a professional and personal relationship that lasted 36 years.
Louis got the nickname “Cyclone Kid,” as his arrival coincided with the horrific Easter Sunday tornado that laid waste to miles of Omaha on March 23rd, 1913.
Louis was George’s top aide and eventually made vice president and general merchandise manager. Helmuth Dahlke has fond memories of Louis. “He was a great merchant. He was a great guy. He ran the company all those years — under George — but he ran it. Longer than anyone else. I was in total awe of him.”
With Louis looking after the store, George Brandeis turned his attention to developing Omaha’s downtown business district. Always looking to consolidate the store’s position and spur growth around it, George directed the Brandeis Investment Company in providing the land and the impetus for construction of the Fontenelle Hotel, the Omaha Athletic Club, the Elks Club and the Medical Arts Building. All became fixtures on the vital downtown scene.
As Ak-Sar-Ben president George swelled the organization’s membership and led the drive to give Omaha toll-free bridges across the Missouri River. He was crowned King of Ak-Sar-Ben in 1931. Ak-Sar-Ben bestowed on him the honorary office of chairman of the board. Active in the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, George’s leadership extended to serving as a director of Omaha’s Union Stock Yards Company, operator of the world’s largest livestock market, and head of the Central Land and Cattle Company.
Mihelich said, “George Brandeis…was a mover and shaker…with a vision and a passion for his city…His name was associated with virtually everything going on.”
George raised and trained show horses on his farm west of Omaha. Many of his saddle and harness horses won ribbons on the show circuit. He also owned a prized thoroughbred gelding, Hal Mahone, once valued at $20,000. Long before media titan Ted Turner invested in Nebraska’s rich ranch lands, Brandeis purchased a 30,000-acre Sand Hills spread, the T-O, south of Valentine, where he raised cattle.
When Brandeis died in 1948 he was memorialized by newspapers as “a merchant and civic leader” and more:
“Mr. Brandeis’ civic-mindedness reached into all corners of Omaha life. The story of George Brandeis…is the oft-told tale of the immigrant who achieved great business success. It is the story of a man who worked to build his community while building businesses.”
With George gone, cousin E. John installed himself as president. His early immersion in the family business was interrupted by military service during World War I. E. John was assigned a machine-gun unit at Camp Funston, Kansas and later made inspections of aircraft production. After the war he returned to the fold, opening Brandeis’s New York office, from where he networked with big Eastern jobbers and traveled to European markets. He remained in the Army Reserves, retaining a captain’s commission. On many of his store buying trips — to acquire textiles, chinaware and leather goods — his companion was the “Cyclone Kid,” Karl Louis.
In 1924 E. John came into possession of the Brandeis store and investment company held in trust for him since his father’s death. Confident in cousin George’s management ability, he leftwell enough alone and remained a background figure. E. John bided his time, waiting for his chance at the top. t came in the late 1940s. He would guide Brandeis through the early 1970s.
A dynamic man with a penchant for high living and the outdoors, he spent most of his time at his ranch in California, where he moved in elite social circles. While on the coast or off on one of his many jaunts around the world, he received regular briefings on Brandeis affairs. On monthly visits to Omaha he attended to business. So it was this largely absentee owner oversaw the company at its time of greatest growth.
Change was in the wind, however, and Brandeis would meet new opportunities and challenges that forever changed the company and hinted at its fate.
Arthur, George, and E. John Brandeis
The Brandeis Story: Family-Owned Department Store Empire of the Great Plains
Part II: The Dynasty Has It’s Last Hurrah
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
By 1948 Omaha department store J.L. Brandeis & Sons ruled the roost with its grand downtown emporium. Founder Jonas Leopold Brandeis built an empire that his three sons, Hugo, Emil and Arthur, and a nephew, George, grew. Arthur’s boy, E. John Brandeis, took over as president/owner following George’s death in ‘48.
When E. John assumed control Brandeis was still the only game in town. Its 10-story store was bigger, more impressive and offered more goods and services than any competitor around. Downtown was still the center of everything and Brandeis dominated that retail market. Things pretty well remained that way for the next decade. But the winds of change were blowing. By the late ‘50s-early ‘60s Brandeis faced an altered landscape. The new playing field changed the company’s status and forced a whole new way of doing business. Navigating Brandeis through this transition was E. John and his successor, nephew Alan Baer.
Each Brandeis titan exerted his own style and influence. Without a doubt, E. John proved the most flamboyant. Start with his California retreat, the Open Bar Diamond ranch, whose house was a replica of his favorite big game hunting lodge in Kenya, Africa. A man who indulged his passion for the outdoors, he worked the spread himself. He lived most of the year at the ranch, but stayed in his Omaha penthouse atop the 10th floor of the Brandeis building on monthly Omaha visits. He held court there, playing bridge and hosting parties. The penthouse, appointed in Native American art and big game head trophies he collected, was featured in an Architectural Digest spread. Its interior was inspired by his ranch’s rustic decor.
Despite spending much time away from Omaha and leaving daily operations to others, E. John professed a love affair for his hometown:
“I’m a million percent loyal to Omaha. This is my life. I’ve traveled everywhere, hunted everything, but I still love to come back to Omaha and the store. I was born and raised here and I’ve got a confidence in the Midwest.”
In an address he once made to store employees he spelled out just how closely Brandeis’ and Omaha’s fortunes were aligned. What set Brandeis apart from its competitors, he said, was its local-ownership and community-mindedness. He articulated how Brandeis ties to the area reaped loyal customers:
“This is the only Omaha store owned by Omaha, owned by Brandeis. Nobody can even touch us because we are Omaha and Omaha is Brandeis. All the other stores take it out of Omaha, but we put it back into Omaha and Nebraska. That’s why this is the best store. We are the only store that has EVERYTHING.”
The store that has everything became a mantra. For much of the store’s history it carried full hard and soft lines, from furniture to clothes, including all accessories and assundries. If Brandeis didn’t have something a customer wanted, it got it. No excuses. No questions asked. E. John made the policy crystal clear:
“…if I find we haven’t got EVERYTHING, we must have it…”
“We were very, very keen on making sure we had what the customer wanted,” former Brandeis vice president Helmuth Dahlke said. “Anytime a customer would come to the store and something wasn’t available our clerks had to write it down on a slip and it came through a system to central. It was typed up and then brought back to the buyer with the order, Buy this. The other thing is, we shopped our competition all the time for comparison.”
E. John’s disciplined habits found him riding and playing tennis most days. He was a regular at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, then the center for tennis in the U.S., and at Omaha’s Dewey Park courts. On the coast his playing partners included top pros and movie stars. When he wasn’t recreating, he was off on one of his hunting jaunts to Africa, India, Alaska or some other exotic locale. He bagged lions, tigers, rhinos, bears. He was on safari in Africa when word reached him the U.S. had entered World War II. At his request he went back on Army active duty, serving in the Transportation Corps at bases on the west coast. By war’s end he’d made the rank of lieutenant colonel. He remained on reserve status for years afterwards.
When at his California ranch, he called daily to get sales reports. A top-line man, he always insisted on 10 percent increases across the board, regardless of conditions. E. John declared:
“…I want the store to be running 10 percent ahead because if you don’t run 10 percent ahead you’re running behind…”
The bottom line and details didn’t interest him. He spent an average of one week a month in Omaha, where he conducted inspections, chaired meetings, presided over special functions and hosted guests. No big changes in the company happened without his approval. Said Dahlke, “There wasn’t anything major that would happen when E. John wasn’t around, without E. John giving his blessing. He would call every morning from wherever he was and want to know how business is. He knew exactly what was going on.”
Punctual to a fault, he expected the same from others, especially for the noon executive meeting or the two o’clock tennis game.
“If you were delayed, if it was even 12:01, you would not dare to enter the executive dining room,” Dahlke said. “If you got to the court at 2:01, you wouldn’t play. I mean, he was fiendish about it.”
E. John’s military-style inspections of the downtown store were legendary. With operations manager Ray Powers and other execs in tow, Brandeis would begin his tour on the 10th floor and work his way down to the basement, setting a brisk pace, alert to any speck of dirt or anything askew.
“He marched. He literally marched,” former VP Gene Griffin said. “And the executives that were with him — just making sure to keep up. If they saw something out of place they’d try to hide it before he got to it.”
“He was totally fanatical about cleanliness. I mean, if he saw anything amiss, he’d let you have it,” Dahlke noted.
Always immaculately attired and groomed, he expected the same from his employees, who could expect a stern dressing-down if they didn’t look just right. Knowing he despised long hair on men, managers scrambled to hide, out of sight, personnel with offending locks. Even worse was if he overheard an employee say the store didn’t carry a certain item.
And one never balked at an E. John order or request. “My predecessor made a big mistake one time,” Ray Powers recalled. “Mr. Brandeis was talking to him about something and this guy said, ‘Well, that’s not my job.’ I thought, ‘Oh, he’s dead,’ and he was dead,” Fired. On the spot.
“He was quite a formidable man, and you didn’t walk up to him just to say hello,” said Marcia Baer, whose late husband Alan Baer was E. John’s nephew and the man who succeeded him as president.
Dahlke saw another side of E. John. “He was a very direct, very strong, very firm leader. He was a dominant person but a good person and the most loyal person,” he said. “In those days we had some people that needed to be let go…and he would not allow it. He was very loyal to his people.”
As in any kingdom, Brandeis also had department heads who ruled over their territories like lords. Maury Aresty had the Bargain Basement. Meyer Reuben, “The Famous Fifth,” where high-trafficked hard-lines were sold. Lester Marcus, the main floor. Turf wars were common on the sales floor. It’s what came with high-pressure jobs, strong personalities and rivalries to see who sold more.
“These were the merchandise managers. They were tough guys. Brandeis was a rough-and-tumble environment. We had people working there that were big shots. I mean, they were kings,” Dahlke said.
Away from the fray of the sales floor, things were more serene — usually.
Much as George Brandeis immersed himself in shaping Omaha, E. John made it a point to convene meetings with fellow movers and shakers. These confabs, held in a private executive dining room at the downtown store, would bring Brandeis together with titans of commerce and industry. Their discussions put in motion projects to revive a restructured downtown amidst rapid westward expansion.
Dahlke recalled, “At Brandeis you made it when you became a member of the private dining room and I worked very hard to get there…You would have E. John Brandeis, Alan Baer, Peter Kiewit, Leo Daly, the head of At & T, the head of the World-Herald, and these people ran this town, period. It was a working lunch. Basically, they discussed the city. They discussed projects.”
In line with post-war trends that made Americans more dependent on creature-comforts, E. John, with Karl Louis and Ed Pettis now as his right-hand men, began a modernization program that saw the installation of escalators and air-conditioning. Responding to Americans’ love affair with their cars and a tight parking situation downtown, E. John ordered construction of the 18th Street parking garage.
Affordable vehicles and gas meant greater mobility, a vital economy meant more disposable income, prompting the Great American migration to the suburbs. All of which led Brandeis to look at expanding beyond downtown. Omaha’s mid-town Center Mall was a harbinger of the future. Brandeis kept a close eye on it. When VPs Karl Louis and Ed Pettis broached the idea of leasing land on the outskirts of Omaha, at 72nd and Dodge, for a future outlet, E. John approved the acquisition. Louis and Pettis drafted plans for a dramatic new chapter in Brandeis history.
“They had that property, which was pretty much the end of Omaha. That’s where the streetcars and the buses stopped. It was nothing but cornfields. And they were very nervous about it,” Dahlke said.
Ted Baer, a son of Alan and Marcia Baer, said, “That was pretty progressive thinking…Stores didn’t have outlets like that back in that time. There weren’t malls yet really. They probably took a lot of heat for it, too.” Marcia confirmed the skepticism, saying, “Yeah, it was, How crazy can they get to think this would work?” But it did work.
Brandeis took the plunge in 1959 qirh construction of the $10 million Crossroads Mall, anchored by the first new Brandeis store in half-a-century. Crossroads opened in 1960 to a lukewarm response before the mall caught on with the public.
“We were very disappointed with the grand opening and the initial performance of Crossroads,” Dahlke said. “It was so new, so different. But then gradually it took off and it became a $36-$40 million anchor store for us and a very, very successful shopping center for us.”
The project set in motion an era of unprecedented expansion, including the purchase of Gold’s department store in Lincoln, Neb. and construction of a massive distribution center in west Omaha.
“…the Brandeis family saw that expansion was necessary, that anchoring the entire business on the one store downtown was not likely to continue,” Omaha historian Dennis Mihelich said. Fellow Omaha historian Harl Dalstrom said it showed “Brandeis could and did adapt to the changing times.”
Guiding much of the later expansion was Alan Baer, the next generation to rise to prominence in the Brandeis dynasty. A nephew of E. John and a great-grandson of J.L., Baer was an Army veteran. He grew up in the San Francisco area. On summer visits to Omaha he got a taste of the retail trade. After the war E. John invited Alan to take a greater role in the store’s operations. Alan moved to Omaha and learned the ropes under Karl Louis, his mentor. With Louis’ death in 1959, Baer’s influence in the company grew. More and more, E. John deferred to Baer.
“They had a tremendous relationship,” Dahlke said.
Considered a visionary, Baer became the chief architect of Brandeis expansion with the addition of new stores in north, south and west Omaha, and for the first time — in out state Nebraska and in Iowa. Dahlke recalled, “Alan would have more ideas in an hour than most people have in a lifetime. He was an amazingly mentally agile person.” When E. John was still in charge, Baer would pitch him ideas, pushing for new stores, new ways of doing things. Not everything Baer proposed made the grade but enough did to keep Brandeis ahead of the curve.
“Basically the guy that would sell it to him was Alan Baer. He would sell it to him and he know how to sell it to him and many times he had to…” Dahlke said.
E. John put into words and Alan Baer put into action the Brandeis motto:
“We have to keep rolling. If you don’t go ahead, you fall behind.”
In his last few years, E. John’s active involvement waned except for pronouncements, groundbreakings, ribbon cuttings. He was more ceremonial figurehead than CEO. He continued making inspection tours. He also gave generously: $60,000 for construction of the Hanscom-Brandeis Indoor Tennis Center; and animals and big game trophies to the Henry Doorly Zoo.
Where E. John had little input in day-to-day business, VP Ed Pettis did. “He was a crusty old guy. Very strong,” Dahlke said of Pettis.
Pettis carried on the tradition of Brandeis executives involved in civic affairs. Dubbed “Mr. Omaha,” Pettis chaired the Golden Spike Days celebration in 1939 and directed Omaha Industrial Development Council activities. He lent his expertise to 4-H, United Community Services and Creighton University. He’s best remembered as general chairman of the College World Series when the popular event was still in its infancy. Pettis, along with advertising giant Maury Jacobs and Omaha mayor Johnny Rosenblatt, made the early CWS a success.
“Ed Pettis was the one who really got the College World Series going. Without him and Maury Jacobs, it wouldn’t have happened,” said former VP Vic Mason.
When Pettis died in 1963, Brandeis executive Jack Diesing Sr. assumed many of his duties, among them chairing the series. Diesing is credited with building the CWS into a national phenomenon and keeping it in Omaha. Today, his son, Jack Diesing Jr., heads College World Series, Inc.
“…I think Brandeis had a lot to do with the College World Series being here. There’s a lot of things Brandeis did as a community service,” Ted Baer said.
More than anyone except E. John, Jack Diesing Sr. became the face of Brandeis. From the early ‘60s through the early ‘70s, the executive team of E. John, Alan Baer, Diesing, Vic Mason, Lester Marcus and Ray Powers charted the course. Where E. John and Diesing were public ambassadors, the others were classic behind-the-scenes men.
Much as George Brandeis did with Karl Louis, E. John found in another German emigre, Helmuth Dahlke, an ambitious young man brought into the Brandeis sphere. As the trusted assistant to Alan Baer, Dahlke became an important cog in the Brandeis machine. He would remain with Baer long after the stores were sold.
E. John’s 1974 passing brought an end to an era of bigger-than-life leadership. A newspaper described him as “a fascinating and colorful figure.” In his eulogy, Rev. Carl Reinert said:
“Brandeis believed the God-given pleasures of this world are to be enjoyed with zest….He showed a fatherly concern for the large family of Brandeis employees.”
He was also a major supporter of the Pratt Institute for Individual Instruction. He left an estate valued at $12.7 million, half of which went to the E. John Brandeis Foundation, now the Alan and Marcia Baer Foundation. He also left $1.5 million to nephew Alan Baer, who took full control of Brandeis upon his death.
Where E. John was a fashionplate who lived large, Baer was an introspective eccentric whose austere, frugal, bargain basement tastes fit his simple lifestyle. In his unconventional way, Baer might plop himself down on the floor during a business meeting. “But that’s the way he operated. A little eccentric. But a brilliant mind,” former VP Gene Griffin said. “Totally disarming. He was what I call an ice-breaker,” Dahlke said.Where E. John made a show of inspections, Baer made himself inconspicuous, passing himself off as a shopper. His door was always open but he wasn’t always in his office. He might be out on the floor or playing tennis – he loved the game almost as much as his uncle — or traveling to some exotic spot.
By the late ‘70s Baer saw the changing retail landscape and realized it posed a threat. The emergence of national discounters like Target and the inroads made by departments store chains like Dillards and Younkers squeezed the market, cutting into Brandeis’ share and putting the Omaha company at a competitive disadvantage. A great booster of downtown — just as J.L., George and E. John were — Baer adored the flagship store but realized consumers preferred shopping at suburban malls. The times were making the giant downtown facility a white elephant.
“He was very interested and he was way ahead of the crew because he felt department stores as they existed in the ‘60s were dinosaurs,” Mason said, “and he was kind of right.”
“Brandeis was a big deal locally, but when you looked at it in the big picture, Dillards was ten, probably, a hundred times bigger,” Ted Baer said. “Brandeis could compete with a Dillards or with a Younkers, but we really couldn’t compete with both of them at the same time.”
“It was very apparent that going forward a private company like ours would have a tough, tough time staying in business with the big boys — the national companies,” Dahlke said.
In a move to streamline operations and maximize profits, Alan brought in new management teams from outside Omaha, the first led by Jim Gibson and the second by Sid Pearlman. Departments were scaled back. Hard line, big ticket items dropped. Brandeis could no longer afford to be “everything to everybody.”
The resulting staff downsizings were tough. Tougher decisions followed, none more so than the 1980 closing of the downtown store — the monument of the whole Brandeis empire — along with closing three other stores. The announcement made headlines. The downtown store’s last close-out days drew huge crowds. Generations of customers and employees expressed their nostalgia. It was like losing a beloved family member or dear friend.
The building remained as a mixed retail and office center but with Brandeis gone the tradition was lost.
The Brandeis store at the Crossroads became the chain’s new flagship. Renovations were made. But try as company officials might, it just wasn’t the same anymore. The oomph and awe were gone. Baer’s decision to close downtown was not made lightly. It meant letting go people who in some cases worked there decades. In larger terms, it meant abandoning the very core of what Brandeis represented. But as much as he wanted to keep the downtown store alive, he couldn’t.
Ted Baer recalled, “It definitely was not a popular decision, either in the Brandeis community or within the larger community, because Brandeis was really one of the last stores to hang on and keep downtown, downtown. I know it was a very, very tough decision for him. Gut-wrenching. It was a tradition, Brandeis.”
Still, Brandeis moved on and rebuilt its financial health. A fifth generation family member, Ted Baer, was being groomed to take over one day. Just as Alan and Marcia did, Ted and wife Kathy met working at Brandeis.
When Dillards and Younkers tendered attractive offers to buy the company, Alan Baer ran the numbers and decided to sell the family business to Younkers in 1987. The sale price: $33.9 million. It was a classic case of head over heart. He wanted to keep the stores that were his family’s legacy but Brandeis neither generated the profits nor owned the capital to stay competitive.
Once the deal was struck he didn’t look back, except to offer a hint of regret that Brandeis hadn’t parlayed its success to become a regional giant like Younkers.
He told a reporter: “My goal had been to hang in there until I died. If we had the bucks behind us…if we’d had the finances and the courage, we could have done what Younkers is doing.”
Alan kept ownership of Brandeis Food Service and began Alan Baer & Associates, an umbrella company for wide-ranging business interests — from coffee and nuts to travel services to publishing to sports teams to butterflies. Ted and his father’s longtime assistant, Helmuth Dahlke, joined Alan in the new venture, which gained a reputation for turning around small companies..
Dahlke remains a bit in awe of Alan Baer: “He was a man of incredible curiosity and quick wit. His energy was endless. Alan would ask lots of questions and, to be sure, he knew all of the answers…Alan was a networker. He always worked. He was always on the phone, always talking to someone. He was always exploring something. He went after everything. An uncommon common man.”
Father and son continued the family’s sportsmen tradition: Alan as an avid tennis player and Ted as a championship-level amateur bowler. They bought an amateur hockey team, the Omaha Lancers, that became a phenomenal success under Ted’s guidance. After his father’s death Ted went on to own a second amateur hockey franchise, the Tri-City Storm. He’s since divested himself of his hockey interests to concentrate his sports holdings in bowling with the Thunder Alley and Thunderbowl centers.
Another Brandeis tradition, philanthropy, has continued. “Alan and Marcia were very generous. A lot of their generosity got no publicity,” Dahlke said” Countless examples abound, he said, of them quietly paying the rent or medical/dental bills of Brandeis employees in need. As it has for decades, the Alan and Marcia Baer Foundation grants monies to local cultural, educational and health initiatives.
To the end Alan Baer searched for new endeavors to engage him, always on the look out for businesses to invest in, new challenges to overcome. It’s why Baer & Associates had a piece of so many different things.
“You know what I always thought it was? It was like Brandeis, but not under one roof, because we had everything. We did everything,” Ted Baer said.
Baer, who died in 2002, lived the credo that was the Brandeis slogan under his uncle. E. John Brandeis:
“To build a business that will never know completion, to create an enviable reputation and be worthy of it, to satisfy every customer individually, through quality merchandise and friendly service.”
Marcia Baer admits she doesn’t know much about early members of this fabulous family she married into. “I don’t know anything about them, except they obviously built a place called Brandeis,” she said.
The solid foundation J.L. laid down, and that successive generations added onto, stood Brandeis alone, at the top of the heap among retailers and the city’s leadership. All things have their season, and after a century of success, Brandeis left the scene. Except it will never quite be gone. The downtown building where so much of its history was made still stands. It still goes by the Brandeis name. A dynamic new use for it is under way. Then there are the memories, which never quite seem to fade.
Ted Baer said, “When we run into an old Brandeis employee it’s like we’re seeing an old family member we haven’t seen in awhile. It’s like old home week.” “Yeah, it’s like suddenly a step back in time, but it’s a good step back,” Marcia said.
“Yeah, it’s a very nice warm feeling,” added Ted.
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