I was asked by Metro Magazine to write a 20-year retrospective piece on the Omaha arts-culture scene and the story that follows is the result. The story is my take and the take of a few others on the city’s creative community, which by almost any measure has experienced a maturation and flat-out growth that has drawn attention near and far, including a widely read and circulated piece (“Omaha Culture Club”) by Kurt Andersen in the New York Times a few years ago. Yeah, Omaha has indeed grown up a lot in the space of a generation and today is much more the cosmopolitan metropolis of its aspirations than it was 20 years ago. I anticipate that growth to continue too. Omaha is still a city without much of an image outside Nebraska, particularly on the coasts, but it is increasingly getting known for its sophisticated, even world-class arts-cultural offerings among the cognoscente. If you’re still doubtful and skeptical about that, then simply check out some websites devoted to Omaha or better yet the next time you’re traveling cross country don’t simply fly over or drive over without giving the place a second thought, stop here and stay awhile and see for yourself just what Omaha has to offer.
Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)
Twenty years ago Omahans grumbled about there not being enough to do here. For a city searching for an image in a flyover state straining to retain its best and brightest and attract new talent, it sounded an alarm.
Seemingly, Omaha arts-culture plateaued. Major players retrenched while smaller, newer ones tried finding their way. It appeared Omaha collectively lacked the vision or confidence to enhance its horizons. The status quo went stale.
Then, whether by design or coincidence, Omaha enjoyed a renaissance in the space of a single generation. This flowering shows no signs of slowing down.
“Over the last 20 years Omaha has grown up a lot and the arts have grown up with it,” said Todd Simon, an Omaha Steaks International executive and a major arts funder. “There’s certainly a lot more variety and a lot more choices for our community. Any night of the week you can open up the newspaper or go on the Web and you can find something of interest to you. Whether it’s music, art, film, live theater, there is something for everyone every night of the week in Omaha now.
“If you’re bored here it’s because you’re not breathing. If you can’t find something to do in Omaha right now, shame on you.”
Saddle Creek Records executive Jason Kulbel was among those bemoaning the lack of options. No more.
“Simply put, there’s more to do now,” he said. “There’s so many different things to pick and choose from. Whatever interests you, whatever your thing is, it’s here now. It’s really cool.”
He champions the live indie music scene now having more venues and he embraces the festivals that have cropped up, from MAHA to Playing with Fire to the newly announced Red Sky Music Festival.
Kulbel and SCR colleague Robb Nansel have added to the mix with their block-long North Downtown complex. It includes their company headquarters, the Slowdown bar-live music showplace and the Film Streams art cinema. Together with the new TD Ameritrade ballpark, Qwest Center Omaha, the Hot Shops Art Center and the Mastercraft art studios, anchors are in place for a dynamic arts-culture magnet akin to the Old Market.
From the opening of the downtown riverfront as a scenic cultural public space to the addition of major new venues like the Qwest and the Holland Performing Arts Center to the launching of new music, film and lit feasts to the opening of new presenting organizations, Omaha’s experienced a boon. Major concerts, athletic events and exhibits that bypassed Omaha now come here.
Artists like world-renowned Jun Kaneko put Omaha on the map as never before. The indie music scene broke big thanks to artists recording on the Saddle Creek label. Alexander Payne immortalized his hometown by filming three critically acclaimed feature films here. The Great Plains Theatre Conference brought Broadway luminaries in force.
The Old Market solidified itself as a destination thanks to an array of restaurants, shops, galleries, theaters and creative spaces. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the Blue Barn Theatre and the Omaha Farmers Market became anchors there. Omaha Fashion Week and the Kaneko added new depth.
Omaha Performing Arts president Joan Squires said she’s seen “a huge change” since arriving eight-plus years ago from Phoenix to head the organization, which programs the Holland and the Orpheum Theater.
“The first time I drove in from the airport the Qwest Center didn’t exist, the Holland wasn’t here, a lot of the small groups weren’t around. If you were looking for things to do and it wasn’t the Orpheum or a few other places, it was limited. Now on any given night the breadth of what you can do is exciting. There’s a synergy about it that’s reaching all segments of the audience.”
Omaha native Rachel Jacobson left New York to launch Film Streams, one of several attractions that’s taken things to a new level.
Growing up here, she said, “there was a lot of good stuff to do but nothing really bringing people to town or being talked about in the national and international press, other than Chip Davis. Today, the Omaha arts community is strong, it’s alive, it’s visceral, it’s something we’re known for worldwide. Musicians continue to move here from other cities to make their home here because of Saddle Creek Records. Visual artists move here because of the Bemis and Jun and Ree Kaneko. New galleries are opening up all the time.
“It has really blown up in the best way.”
Established organizations have shown new life. Joslyn Art Museum built a huge addition designed by noted architect Sir Norman Foster. It’s since added a pair of sculpture gardens. The Durham Museum underwent a refurbishment and gained Smithsonian affiliation. The Omaha Children’s Museum found a new home and completed extensive renovations. The Omaha Community Playhouse redid its theater and lobby spaces. The Henry Doorly Zoo built the Lied Jungle, the Desert Dome, the Lozier IMAX Theater and other new attractions.
The Bemis expanded its gallery exhibition schedule and educational programming as well as added the Underground and the Okada. Now it’s poised for new growth.
Old venues received serious makeovers. An Orpheum renovation allowed the largest touring Broadway shows to come. The city spent millions in renovating Rosenblatt Stadium, in turn helping it become a national icon.
Existing organizations found new digs.The Omaha Symphony made the Holland its home. The Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater moved into the old Astro (Paramount) movie house, renamed The Rose, and became the Omaha Theater Company.
Popular events drew ever larger crowds, such as Jazz on the Green, the Cathedral Flower Festival, the Summer Arts Festival and the CWS.
Even with all the new options, it didn’t appear as if Omaha reached a saturation point. Using the Holland and Orpheum as examples, Joan Squires said the presence of these two venues has only increased patronage.
“When you open a major facility and you bring in new arts offerings the community continues to lift up,” she said. “It broadens and really makes more things possible. In the last five years we’ve reached 1.7 million people. We’ve seen nights where both buildings sold out and there’s a lot of arts going on at other facilities all at the same time, and there’s an audience for everybody.
“We’ve got a growing and thriving arts community. I think it’s very encouraging.”
Funder Dick Holland describes the arts as “an economic engine” and “a big part of the community.”
Great Plains Theatre Conference artistic director Kevin Lawler, a Blue Barn founder, has seen a more adventurous scene develop.
“There are several new generations of artists making work in all genres and receiving support and interest from their peers and others,” he said. “This heralds the beginning of a new, vibrant era for arts and culture here. That small group of philanthropic leaders who have been supporting the arts in Omaha for years have enabled enough fertilization for this new blossoming to begin.
“When we began the Blue Barn there were almost no theaters willing to take on new, challenging work as a regular part of their seasons. Now, there are a number of groups that follow this path.”
Lawler notes there “is a new generation of artists staying in Omaha to make work because they feel there is enough energy in the community to support and respond to their work. I feel this trend reflected not only in theater, but all the arts.
“There are stages to the cultural life of a city. Omaha is in a blossoming stage. It is a rare and exciting time to be here.”
The linchpin behind this growth is private support. “Omaha has an exceptionally generous philanthropic community that understands the value of investing in its cultural institutions,” said Bemis director Mark Masuoka, adding that funders here appreciate the fact the arts “improve quality of life.”
He said the Bemis is close to reaching its $2.5 million capital building campaign goal “thanks to several generous gifts from local foundations and individuals.”
What losses there were sparked new opportunities. After years of struggle the Great Plains Black History Museum rebounded. When Ballet Omaha folded Omaha Performing Arts brought in top dance troupes and Ballet Nebraska soon formed. The Omaha Magic Theatre closed only to birth new ventures. The Indian Hills Theater was razed but Omaha movie houses multiplied. The Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts arose after its namesake’s tragic death.
The recession impacted large and small organizations alike.
Todd Simon said, “Many not-for-profits have struggled and I think they’ll continue to struggle in these economic times, but I also think there is a dedicated group of supporters in our community who will step up to fill the gaps.” These lean times, he said, encouraged “many organizations to get smarter in how they use resources and how they collaborate with each other, where they leverage the talent and the resources they have. I think that trend will continue.”
Dick Holland said few cities can boast Omaha’s philanthropic might. He favors a public-private coalition to undergird and concentrate arts funding.
By any measure, it’s been an era of net growth for the creative community and leaders see more progress ahead thanks to a spirit of innovation and support.
“A strong legacy of investing in the arts here has been established and I believe it will continue to proliferate,” said Rachel Jacobson. “We’ll see new initiatives develop, especially arts in education and social-community development arts projects. There are a lot of high-energy, incredibly innovative people who have a huge heart for this city and will make a strong commitment.
“Just in the last month I’ve heard about wonderful projects in the works. I’m excited for the next 20 years.”
- Omaha Making Plans For Red Sky Music Festival (beatcrave.com)
- North Downtown Development, New Year Resolutions, 2011 YP Summit (theweeklygrindradio.com)
- Tyler Owen – Man of MAHA (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Magazine and a Mission Founded on a Spirit of Giving: Metro Magazine Publisher Andy Hoig Celebrates Philanthropy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh to Talk Shop at Film Streams Feature Event (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Ushers in New Era of Omaha Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Grows in New Directions (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Indie-Rock Club Behind Omaha’s $100 Million Creative Boom (npr.org)
Something I would like to do more of is luxuriate in the warm cascade of live symphonic music. My girlfriend and I happened to attend an Omaha Symphony program when I read in the program that two orchestra players were celebrating 50 years each with the organization. That sparked my doing the following article. Violinist Marcia Hinkle and French Horn player Bill Sprague proved gracious subjects and I am confident you will find them as charming as I did. My story originally appeared in the New Horizons.
Marcia Hinkle and Bill Sprague are the Symphony’s Golden Anniversary Players
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Fifty years doing the same job, for the same organization, is a rare feat anymore. That’s why when Omaha Symphony Orchestra players Marcia Hinkle and Bill Sprague marked their 50th anniversaries last spring it was cause for celebration. The musicians were recognized on a flyer in the program for the 2008-2009 season’s final Masterworks concert at the Holland Performing Arts Center. The veteran second violinist and French Horn player, respectively, were singled out prior to the performance of Mahler’s 5th, taking bows before an appreciative crowd. The pair were also feted at parties following the concert.
Omaha natives Hinkle and Sprague took singular paths reaching this golden anniversary. They’re believed to be only the second and third musicians to ever notch the milestone with the orchestra. Neither has plans to retire. Music is too much a part of their lives to imagine life without it.
They’ve seen the evolution from a community-based, part-time orchestra to one with a full-time professional core. Along the way, the Symphony’s grown in terms of artistry, staff, budget, schedule and outreach. They’ve served six music directors and survived numerous board turnovers. They’ve performed in all manner of venues, from the Holland to the Music Hall to the Joslyn to the Orpheum to Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum to Peony Park’s Royal Grove to Memorial Park to Lewis & Clark Landing to Gene Leahy Mall. They’ve weathered wind, rain, bugs, egos, makeovers, strikes.
Then there are the legendary guest artists they’ve shared the stage with. Performers Van Cliburn, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and conductors Arthur Fiedler, Howard Hanson, Robert Shaw. The list goes on and on.
Marcia Hinkle: Still An All-American Girl After All These Years
In a simpler time when schools honored students for their combined character, personality, appearance, academics and extracurricular activities, Marcia Hinkle was named Best All-Around Girl at Omaha North High School. “I was in a lot of things” she said. “I was the boys sports editor, I played tennis, I played in the orchestra, I was the drum majorette for the band and I was a decent student.”
It was the mid-1950s and the striking, athletic, talented, vivacious blond embodied the wholesome qualities of the All-American Girl Next Door. Think Sandra Dee. She even won the title of Miss Omaha after a fraternity put her up for it, making appearances during the city’s centennial celebration year (1954).
As a young woman Hinkle was the spitting image of Doris Day’s or Donna Reed’s Goodie-Good screen personas. She was the picture-perfect wife, mother and homemaker who still found time to play tennis, to volunteer — with the Junior League, the PTA, the Omaha Community Playhouse, among others. Where the similarity stopped is that Marcia was also a serious symphony musician. Then, as now, that meant sacrificing some family time in order to fulfill the demands of busy concert and rehearsal schedules and performing in string ensembles (the Myron Cohen and Midlands String Quartets). She began a second career as a real estate agent in the ‘70s that she continues today.
“I’m not absolutely dynamic or terrific at any particular thing,” she said, “but I’m pretty good at quite a few things.”
Not all was so picture-perfect. She and her first husband ended up divorcing after their three kids were grown. Through a mutual friend she then met Don Hinkle, her husband of nearly three decades years now. The two had actually gone on a blind date together in college but had not seen each other since. When they did, both were middle-aged, divorced, single, soon-to-be empty-nesters unsure if they wanted to take the plunge again but certain they were right for each other. Besides, he was a fellow real estate agent and tennis nut. They became partners in business and in life. Their CBS Home Real Estate office has flourished during their marriage.
“We’ve been multi-million dollar producers for 30 years,” she said proudly. Being a people-person is a must in that game. “I enjoy people,” she confirmed.
Marcia and Don are still actively engaged in helping put folks in homes, including some of her symphony colleagues — “I just sold one to another violinist.” Any marriage that can survive decades as realtors together must be solid. “We’ve just always gotten along together,” she said. “We enjoy working together. He’s not a huge symphony-goer. He loves the Pops and the lighter classics. But I haven’t gotten him to be a total die-hard for the masterworks. We also had the tennis connection.”
They played mixed doubles for years. “He would still be playing but he ended up with two new hips and then he ended up with bone cancer,” she said. When not caring for Don and attending to her symphony gigs, she’s likely tending her home or playing a match. “I love it. I still play. I’m in a ladies tennis league that’s been going probably 42 years now. There’s still quite a few of us playing that were in that original group. We play a competitive level of tennis once or twice a week. It’s great exercise. It’s a wonderful lifetime sport.”
The couple share a comfortable home in northwest Omaha’s Sunny Slope neighborhood. She’s as busy as ever these days between the symphony, her tennis and her grandkids but her and Don’s life has changed in one significant way recently — his cancer. It’s meant making certain accommodations, but they’re not letting the disease stand in the way of enjoying each other.
Marcia Hinkle, second from left, and the Midlands String Quartet
Through it all, music’s been the one constant in Marcia’s life, though it’s not something that’s consumed her. By some measures, she even got a late start. She was in 3rd grade when she began playing the tonette or song flute. In the 5th grade it was recommended she try the violin. It was as if the stringed instrument and her were made for each other. Still, she wasn’t completely carried away. “At one point I told my parents, ‘I don’t want to play,’ and they said, ‘OK.’ So I put my instrument down and two or three weeks later I decided I really did. That was sort of the turning point.”
An only child, Marcia was the apple of her Storz Brewery business manager father, Bill Wetzler, and her homemaker mother. Her dad started her playing tennis. She got her strokes down hitting against the garage door of her family’s home on Belvedere Blvd. across from Miller Park. She played on the North High girls squad. She went on to win state club titles.
Music was just another activity but as she progressed it became more than that. She was concertmaster with both the North High orchestra, which enjoyed a fine reputation, and with the All-City Youth Orchestra.
“I had a really fine high school teacher named Sam Thomas. He was a violinist. He coached and helped prepare me and a lot of other students for the music profession. He was very encouraging. He was one of my mentors.”
Surprisingly, she did not major in music at college. Instead, she majored in education. She was actually interested in studying law but the restrictive times discouraged her from pursuing such a male-centric field.
She tarried with the piano in college but, she said, “I had a horrid time. I couldn’t read bass clef.” She regrets not having learned piano first and then violin. She doesn’t recommend doing it “backwards” the way she did. After college she worked as an Omaha Public Schools 3rd and 6th grade teacher for two-plus years. Her husband Don also taught for a time.
Following her classroom gig she got hired by the Joslyn Art Museum as program hostess, a job that entailed supervising various events.
Music was always in her life. “I just wanted to play,” she said. “I liked performing. I didn’t have aspirations of being a soloist on the New York stage or anything. I really enjoyed playing in the orchestra setting. That was my forte. I didn’t like solo work that much. I suppose my passion honestly developed when I did more of the masterworks and the classics with the symphony. You know, they’re beautiful and thrilling to play as well as listen to, and they’re challenging, and that’s fun, too.”
She said she long ago found her niche playing as part of ensembles rather than soloing. “I suppose it’s gotten to be a comfort level over the years. If you’re going to be a soloist and enjoy it I think you have to do it pretty often to really not get uptight and nervous. I enjoy so much more being in an orchestra and there’s a talent to being an orchestra musician versus a soloist. Not every solo performer can be an orchestral person. Probably a lot of orchestral players can be soloists. I also love the people. I’ve sold a lot of them houses. A lot of them I call ‘my kids.’”
The man responsible for bringing her to the Omaha Symphony was its then-music director, Richard Duncan, one of her teachers at UNO, whose orchestra she played in. “I didn’t study with him until about my junior year in college,” said Marcia. “I worked with him a couple years and he was the one that encouraged me.” She recalled Duncan as “a very fine violinist” and taskmaster. “He wanted you to be a very diligent student, which became difficult because I was very widespread by my senior year in college.” Within a short span her appendix was removed, she married, she earned her degree, she began teaching and she joined the Symphony. All at age 20. Then came her three children.
Her new taskmaster became Joseph Levine, who replaced Duncan as music director. Even before the demands of a family, a home and a day job she had trouble making time for as much practice as her conductors expected. Her saving grace was being a quick study, “I always was blessed with an ability to sight read well, which they knew, but they still thought I should be spending more time practicing.” Once in the orchestra intensive attention to her craft became paramount. “It takes a tremendous commitment,” she said. So she found ways to fit in all the prep and performances around her many other responsibilities. Still, there were and are sacrifices she’s had to make in her personal life. Her loved ones perhaps didn’t always like it but they understood.
“I feel extremely blessed. My family’s been really wonderful in letting me do this. Your family has to be supportive or you can’t do it. You can’t be gone the hours you’re gone. You end up missing birthdays and…that’s just what you do. I mean, you do that with a lot of professions, but with the symphony the show always must goes on. You’re there and you do it and it doesn’t much matter what else it is. This takes priority. Like I love tennis, but when I’m doing a lot of music I don’t do tennis. Music is my first love. I love playing. I guess it’s just something that happens to you and I’m just grateful for everything I’ve been able to do in music.”
Over these 50 years she’s nary missed a scheduled performance, with the exception of a rare illness. She still eats the same preconcert meal she always has – a home cooked hamburger — and still plays the same violin she came to the symphony with a half-century ago. In fact, it’s the same one she’s primarily played since age 11. For that reason alone, it holds much sentimental value.
“I’ve had it ever since 8th grade,” said Marcia. “It’s a pretty nice violin. It was supposedly an Enrico Rocca-made instrument but I was told by someone that was not correct. Somewhere, years back, I had a certificate (of authenticity), but it’s long disappeared. I’m hoping one of my grandchildren will play it and I’ll pass it onto them. We’ll see. It’s served me well.”
She said her parents purchased it from Nielsen Violin Shop in Omaha, a third-generation store where such world-class string players as Isaac Stern, Fritz Kreisler and Midori have come to peruse its high-caliber instruments, bows and accessories.
Her violin’s unchanged but the orchestra she plays in is quite different than the one she joined 50 years ago. Besides wholesale changeovers in personnel, it’s gone from second-rate to first-class. “It’s a tremendous difference,” she said. “The repertoire we play is much more challenging, the level of performance is much better, the qualifications of the musicians are much better. I mean, there were some really talented musicians in the past but we have extremely talented people (across the board now). We just have experienced a lot of growth.”
That growth did not come without a cost. In the mid-’70s music director Thomas Briccetti and the Symphony board moved away from an orchestra drawn almost exclusively from community members to a core group drawn from the best players in the world. At least the best artists Omaha could afford to attract. That meant demoting some existing players and letting others go. Some left on their own, feeling insulted or betrayed their many years of service were not appreciated.
“It was a tough time,” she said. “That was a difficult change. Kind of heart-breaking in a way. We lost some people that were really good musicians that I wish would have stayed with us.”
There was also a musicians strike around then that brought long simmering tensions between artists and management to a head. In its wake she formed the Omaha Symphony Committee, a musicians group to voice their interests. “We really needed to be able to sit down and talk about things and the committee did sit down with board members. It was a very good thing.” So good that the differences were resolved and the committee still exists today as a vehicle for airing grievances, settling disputes and keeping the lines of communication open.
“You don’t want to get involved in something like a strike, You want to be able to talk about things in good discussions before the problem is too big.” She said there hasn’t been an outright strike since, although there’s been a work stoppage. “We missed a few concerts,” she said.
Marcia’s pro-active efforts reflect her conciliatory nature. “I don’t like to be negative, I like for people to be happy, especially when you’re making music. You don’t make beautiful music when you’re not feeling somewhat beautiful. It’s a lot more fun when everybody’s happy about what they’re doing.” One perpetual complaint that hasn’t changed, she added, is the pay symphony players receive.
Fifty years and counting and she’s still looking forward to the next season. “It’s been a great joy to play with the Symphony and to be a part of that organization. I can’t believe it’s been that long. I just kind of keep going. I don’t stop and think about it. I’m very happy to be here today and hopefully I’ll be here tomorrow.” She said she’s certain she’ll know when it’s time to step down. Until that time comes, however, she said she plans to continue “as long as I’m qualified, as long as I’m doing my job the way it should be done.”
A life without playing music is inconceivable. “It would be hard. I’m not sure I could just sit and listen. I just don’t know,” she said. “I’m so used to performing it. That’s what I enjoy most.”
Bill Sprague — Tinker, Teacher, Player, Cat
For almost as long as he can remember Bill Sprague’s had an affinity for music and tinkering with things. At 64 he’s still making music as an Omaha Symphony French Horn player and he’s still a Mr. Fix It specializing in instrument repair at his The Horn Works store in Ralston, Neb.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Sprague’s played with the symphony since coming of age. His unlikely start began as a 14 year-old Omaha Benson High School freshman. He was already well advanced despite having picked up the horn for the first time only five years earlier, in 4th grade. He took piano lessons before that at the insistence of his mother, a pianist who also taught the instrument. He was an only adopted child. His mother wisely didn’t try to instruct her son but even the private teacher she hired couldn’t get Bill to embrace the keyboards. “It did nothing for me,” he said. But the first time he laid sight on that shiny horn, he was smitten.
His horn work was confined to school lessons that first year and then his folks got him a private instructor, Don Swaggard, who played in the Symphony. Bill credits much of his early development to Swaggard, who still teaches today.
“I progressed, I wouldn’t say phenomenally quickly. I got from a beginner’s point to a reasonably good player by junior high,” said Bill. “Being in all city bands and orchestras and all those things I was usually at the top of the section or pretty close to the top. I got to the place where I was feeling pretty good about myself.”
Away from music, Bill learned what it meant to be meticulous working in the stock room at the family’s Sprague Pharmacy in Benson. He was also getting skilled using his dad’s woodworking tools, doing refinishing projects, and anything to do with cars. As a teen he worked at a Chevrolet auto dealership installing hubcaps, carpet, radios, air conditioners, you name it, on new arrivals.
By ‘58 Symphony music director Joseph Levine began a training orchestra of this area’s finest young musicians called the Omaha Youth Symphony, which is still going strong today. Bill’s private coach identified his protege as a prime candidate and, sure enough, Bill made the grade. Even in the Youth Symphony he stood out, as he was younger than any of the other players, who were largely high school or college upperclassmen. The experience of playing with the group had a big impact on the teen. “I really got to loving the orchestral music,” he said. Being pegged a rising star among local players meant being “a big fish in a small pond,” he said, “but nevertheless it was a very gratifying feeling.”
When a seat in the regular adult Symphony opened that next season Swaggard urged Bill to go for it. “Don was an aggressive person about that sort of thing and had he not been so in favor of it and really pushing on it I probably wouldn’t have done it, at least not with the (same) vigor. I wanted it, but mostly because he said, ‘This is something you can get, this is something you can do.’” Swaggard didn’t mislead either, telling Bill he would have to work harder than he ever had before to reach a level he couldn’t yet appreciate. “And all of that was true,” said Bill. “It did take a great deal more work. He really paved the way with the conductor, Joseph Levine, and got him to believe that he could take somebody like me and work with me and make it happen.”
Bill did make it, as did a Youth Symphony percussionist and a violinist. Earning a Symphony slot — as 4th French Horn — at 14 is analogous “to a kid playing Pop Warner League ball suddenly getting to play semi-pro ball, just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “How awesome it was to be at that level. It was amazing. I felt I was really special and I had that feeling for a number of years.”
How was Bill treated at the start by veteran musicians old enough to be his parents or grandparents?
“More as a novelty than anything at first,” he said. “The age difference was so great that it was hard for them to really believe that you belonged. It took awhile to really gain any acceptance and you had to earn it, definitely earn it. I would say the three of us were the type of players that were willing to work on that and earn it and to find out what it took to do it and gain that respect.”
He said “it probably wasn’t until I was into the college years” that that respect was granted. He continued his development at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education and performance. He taught and was a band director in the Papillion and Bellevue public schools. Meanwhile, he and childhood sweetheart, Kathie, a retired teacher and fellow musician, married and raised two sons, both of whom are musicians. His wife does the books at The Horn Works and both boys have apprenticed as repair technicians there. Drew is electronic department manager and does percussion and electronic repair. David works for the state.
Bill’s penchant for working with his hands made it “natural” and practical that he began repairing his own horns in his basement. He moved on to working on a wide range of students’ and professionals’ instruments. He was very intentional about learning the trade of instrument repair from masters and mentors he sought out.
“All of whom have passed away,” he said, “and this is kind of the way this profession is. We don’t have many of us and there’s not a lot of guys hammering at the door to get in and find out how to do this. I would say the number one person was Charlie Sheppard. As a teacher I used to go out and hang around with him during vacation breaks. A lot of schools would send instruments in during Christmas break because nobody’s using them then. I’d watch and learn from him. It takes a lifetime and you may never get there, but you can watch somebody who knows, who’s already made the mistakes and learned the ways to do it, and it helps a lot.”
Ultimately, he said, “you learn by doing.” Before long, Charlie, who also played and taught music, trusted his protege. “He’d say, ‘Here, go do this one,’ handing me a horn. “So I did that. It’s a trial and error method.” Bill misses the Charlies and their Old World shops. “It was just fascinating to watch these guys sitting at their benches working on things. There was something about those shops — you got within a hundred feet and you could smell the chemicals. Today, EPA and OSHA rules prohibit that. But I loved that smell. I mean, you could get high on it,” he said, laughing.
Being mechanically inclined helped Bill master the craft but working on trumpets and motor vehicles are worlds apart. “The biggest difference is that an instrument is so much more finely concentrated with so many small pieces in very small areas,” he said. Where a car dent fender may entail hammering, disc grinding, painting and priming, a horn dent involves a refined burnishing process whose tools must reach narrow, hard to access spaces. Some tools are like plumbers’ snakes with strings of teflon-coated ball bearings thread through the instrument’s arteries and guts. Surgical-like copes are sometimes used to see up inside joints.
That’s not to say Bill and his techs never get to pound things. Sometimes a repair requires heating the metal and hammering or pressing it back into shape. The only way to get at some problems is to dismantle the piece. After decades diagnosing and doctoring instruments, Bill’s just about seen it all. “I think there’s not too many we haven’t encountered,” he said. A unique one was a sousaphone with a rotted peach stuck in its tubing. The gunk had to be rotor-rooted out.
Occasionally a name musician comes into the shop. One is former Tonight Show band leader Doc Severinson. “I’ve known Doc now for better than 30 years,” said Bill. “The first time he played Omaha with the Symphony he needed something done on his trumpet and one of the players in our section said, ‘Well, just give it to Bill, he’ll take a look.’ Doc did and Bill brought the famed’s musician’s trumpet back to the shop and took care of the problem. Before Bill could call to say he’d fixed it Doc showed up. “He just couldn’t be without it any longer,” said Bill.
Bill delights in an anecdote from Doc’s visit. After testing out his patched-up horn Doc pawed through a box of odds-and-ends Bill kept — spare parts and just plain junk — when hr fished out a filthy mouthpiece, put it in his mouth and buzzed it just as Bill warned, “No, don’t do that!” Too late. “You want to sell this?” Doc asked, none-the-worse-for-wear. “You can keep it, I was going to throw it away,” Bill replied, shocked that a world-class artist would want it. “It was an old New York Bach 3 mouthpiece and he couldn’t have too many of them,” Bill noted.
“Every time since then when he comes to town we sit down and talk in the rehearsal room or in his dressing room. On three occasions he’s come to the store. He’d rather come here and talk to us than sit in his hotel room all day. Once, he took us all to lunch. We worked on four of his instruments at the same time. His horns actually were in pretty bad shape for a guy at that level. It was amazing to us he could and would play on those.” Bill and his crew also did some silver plating for Doc. “He’s a very nice man and, oh, the stories he tells us about his life.”
Another star Bill has a long relationship with is Chip Davis, the visionary Omaha musician behind American Gramaphone and Mannheim Steamroller, with whom Bill’s played off and on from the start. Bill drove Itzhak Perlman between Omaha and Lincoln for a series of symphony engagements, allowing him to hear “all these marvelous stories of his life.”
The orchestra keeps Bill plenty busy but he’s also played with the Lincoln, Sioux City and Des Moines symphonies — when they put out calls for extra brass — and with the Omaha-based Palladium Brass Quintet. He does some teaching with the Omaha Youth Symphony and with private students. His full-line Horn Works store, which he’s run full-time since retiring from the classroom, does more than just repair instruments. It sells them and offers lessons.
Bill’s still learning himself even after all these years. He fondly recalls former Omaha Symphony maestro Victor Yampolsky as a superb teacher who brought out the best in him and in the orchestra. “No question in my estimation he was the finest conductor/musician we’ve had around here. When he was here he was always teaching and there wasn’t anybody that wasn’t always just right there (with him).”
An Omaha Symphony career was Bill’s goal but he never thought he’d still be at it 50 years and counting. “Am I proud? Yes I am, very much so,” he said. “To be 50 years in about anything — a marriage, a job — is a milestone. For most of us it’s at least half our life, if not more. It’s a big deal to do something for that long and to still enjoy it, and I know Marcia (Hinkle) does just as I do. You do this not because it’s a habit, you do it because you enjoy it. If they would stop paying me tomorrow I’d continue to do it,” said Bill, hastily adding, “I don’t want them to know that.”
He’s committed to keep right on enjoying it, too. “As long as I can keep my job by doing what I do well enough to stay in there I want to play with the Symphony. I had no idea it would be this long either but I also didn’t think I was going to use Omaha as a steppingstone and go somewhere else. Maybe very early on I did. But then I got into the real world of auditioning and saw what the level was out there that’s beyond Omaha and how much that takes, and I wasn’t willing to give up my life to do that. That’s basically what it takes — you dedicate everything to it, and everything I had was here. My family was here, my regular day job was here.
“For me, this is the only gig in town.”
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