Tag Archives: Bob Gibson

Where’s Johnny’s?

December 28, 2016 by
Photography by Contributed

Johnny Carson was the definitive talk show host of the 20th century, hosting The Tonight Show for three decades at a time when it was the undisputed king of late night television. Carson started his career as a professional broadcaster in Omaha, a fact that is fondly remembered.

Carson started at WOW-TV in Omaha in the 1950s, and he remained friendly with many of his coworkers there long after he became a national celebrity. Carson was also an amateur magician and performed locally, a fact that appears now and then in local stories about the man.
A now-defunct local business was associated with Carson’s name, too. But this endeavor has received less attention, as it didn’t go all that well.

johnny_carson_1970The idea was not Carson’s. It was that of Gilbert “Gibby” Swanson Jr., one of the scions of the Swanson company that introduced TV dinners to the American public. Gibby was the third generation of Swansons to run the company, despite his background, which had mostly been in various elements of security and law enforcement (which supposedly remained an obsession of his).
Swanson approached Carson with the idea of a restaurant chain bearing Johnny Carson’s name. It would serve typical American food with a Johnny Carson touch, such as the “Carnac Burger,” a sandwich named after one of Carson’s signature characters, an all-seeing seer in a feathered turban.
Carson lent his name to the project, but, he later claimed, little else—he was neither the owner of the business nor a stakeholder. He was, instead, board chairman, a job that was “mostly for publicity purposes,” according to the World-Herald. This would prove important later.

There was initially much excitement about the opening of the chain, which debuted in Omaha on 72nd Street in 1969. Carson himself came out to promote the opening, taking a tour of his old haunts and charming the press. A second restaurant opened on Saddle Creek, but only lasted a few years.
Meanwhile, Here’s Johnny’s restaurants began to spring up across America—a reported 302 franchises were purchased in the U.S. and Canada. Of those that opened, most were short-lived, and in 1979 the company went bankrupt. The World-Herald reported that the Swanson family took a bath on the enterprise, with Gibby losing $1.77 million of his own money; Gibby owed another $1.2 million to other Swanson companies and his brother, Jay.

Several franchise owners filed lawsuits against the company, claiming disastrous rollout, including kitchen equipment that “disintegrated,” as well as claims that franchisees were told Carson himself had invested in the company, only to later learn that this wasn’t true. In September 1976, the first Here’s Johnny’s restaurant on 72nd closed, bringing an end to the business.

This wasn’t Gibby’s only failed franchise, but there is a happier ending to another story: Gibby hoped to start a franchise of fried chicken restaurants targeted at inner-city business owners, and partnered with sports stars Bob Gibson and Bob Boozer to achieve this goal. While the business never developed into a true franchise, it did manage to open one restaurant: Time Out Foods, which is still a beloved institution in North Omaha.

Visit timeoutfoods.com for more information.

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Time Out

December 18, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The official name of this long-lived north Omaha business is Time Out Foods. “But Time Out Chicken is what everybody tags us as,” says owner Steve Mercer. He’s even bought that Google domain.

With a sign proclaiming “Omaha’s Best Fried Chicken,” it’s no surprise what the signature dish is at this north 30th Street landmark.

Credit for this grassroots branding, he says, goes to the restaurant’s fans.

“We didn’t just create this ourselves,” Mercer says. “It’s the people that buy it all the time that make it our signature. That’s the name the people gave us.”

He says business keeps growing and he’s considering expanding and adding new locations.

“I feel like this is just the beginning of something else to happen,” he says. “This is a good ride.” With many north O revitalization efforts underway after years of stagnation, his timing seems good. “There’s so much more [positive] going on in north Omaha than ever before.”

Though chicken is clearly what keeps folks coming back, it was not the house staple when his parents bought the place in 1972. The Swanson Corp., the TV dinner pioneer, opened Time Out in 1969 to develop a model for black-owned fast food franchises. Local sports legends Bob Boozer and Bob Gibson lent celebrity status. But north Omaha struggled, and so did the restaurant. Mercer’s parents saw opportunity and secured a loan to buy it. Mercer, who had worked there since age 12, bought the business in 1982 when he was only 22.

That’s when he devised the chicken recipe that has made Time Out a hit.

He won’t share the savory spicy recipe for his lip-smacking, mouth-watering chicken, but does reveal the battered bird is deep-fried in peanut oil. Whatever the secret ingredients, he notes “all the customers say it makes them have a craving for it.” Regulars dining there one recent morning raved about the moist, tender meat and crispy, never-greasy crust. They all admitted to a hankering that keeps them coming back for more.

Living in Atlanta, Georgia, hasn’t dulled Omaha native Cheryl Berry-Neal’s passion for poultry. “Time Out is a must-stop when we come to town,” she says. She and other ex-pats in town for Native Omaha Days flood the joint for its familiar comfort food. Lines form year-round every Sunday as the after-church crowd dressed in their finest patiently wait for a down-home fix.

Chicken is the star, but cheeseburgers and other hot sandwiches are plenty popular, too. The classic crinkle-style fries also have many devotees. So do the pies supplied by an outside vendor.

Three generations of family work there, including Steve’s mother, Jean.

“That’s what makes it work,” says Mercer. “We’ve been doing this for over 40 years and we enjoy doing it,” as a family. “I’m here because I love being here. It’s my second home.”

More and more, Mercer views Time Out as a community anchor.

“I can’t let the community or anybody else down. We have to do whatever it takes to keep it going because anything else would just not be right. Failure is not an option.”

Visit timeoutfoods.com to learn more.

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Omaha Press Club

October 29, 2013 by
Illustration by Jim Horan

While other city clubs have closed in defeat, the Omaha Press Club marks its 42nd anniversary on the 22nd floor of the First National Center in Downtown Omaha.

Does the club stay open because of the spectacular view from windows stretching to the ceiling? The glowing copper fireplace? The food?

Executive Director Steve Villamonte explains the club’s durability, even through a recession: “There is something going on all the time. The club offers events from lunch-and-learn opportunities to wine dinners to holiday buffets.”

Retired WOWT newscaster Gary Kerr and his committee hold monthly educational events. Sports forums at noon feature such topics as Nebraska football and 
Creighton basketball.

Each year, journalists are inducted into the OPC Hall of Fame. Their names are engraved on a plaque in the club’s Hall of History. Among the first inducted in 2008 were Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown (read more on Brown), NBC-TV’s Floyd Kalber, and legendary radio sportscaster Lyell Bremser.

The OPC Foundation’s annual Omaha Press Club Show, which raises funds for journalism scholarships, will be held next year on April 3.

The space’s premier event is the ‘Face on the Barroom Floor’ dinner. When the club’s restaurant opened in 1971, members decided to celebrate the people who give journalists something to write about. Walls are now covered with caricature drawings of 
newsmakers’ faces.

The satirical artwork by artist Jim Horan (full disclosure…yes, the author is Jim’s wife, and she also serves on the organization’s board) is presented in fun as friends roast the subject. A zinger directed to Larry the Cable Guy is a sample of the teasing that honorees endure: “I’m happy to say fame has not gone to his [Larry’s] head, only to his waistline.”

The most recent honoree was Omaha Magazine publisher Todd Lemke.

The first caricature was that of fun-loving Omaha Mayor Gene Leahy. Nebraska football coach Bob Devaney followed him in 1972. Also that year, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew dropped by the club to see his ‘Face.’

Agnew had a love-hate relationship with the press, whom he once famously described as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” So it was with tongues in cheek that Omaha Press Club officers named a private room at the club the “Spiro Agnew Room.”

Among other well-known ‘Faces’ hanging on the club’s walls are Bob Gibson, Chuck Hagel, Tom Osborne, and Johnny Carson.

Horan said that his drawing of Warren Buffett is his favorite because of the billionaire’s unruly hair: “Warren looked at his caricature the night he roasted Walter Scott at a ‘Face’ event and quipped, ‘I’ve got to rethink that 25 cent tip for my barber.’”

The disappearance of Buffett’s ‘Face on the Barroom Floor’ became national news in 2008. The New York Times and Forbes magazine were among media that published stories about the missing artwork. Omaha heaved a sigh of relief when the drawing was finally found.

On Sept. 9, the Lauritzen Room was dedicated to honor the First National Bank family that helped open the club 42 years ago.

“Without their continuing support,” Villamonte says, “it would have been difficult for us to succeed.”

Littleton Alston

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Littleton Alston’s 8-ft bronze statue of Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson catches the moment the ball’s just been released. “It’s when the will and the training and the gift come together,” says the sculptor. “It’s the crescendo of intent.”

Alston’s sculpture embodies motion in its dynamic pose. Leaning into the pitch, the muscled body spirals upward from the left foot—the lower body forward, the shoulders and arms swung wide to the left. The right arm and leg are powerful horizontal flourishes; the left foot, like a dancer’s en pointe, anchors man to earth and channels a diagonal bolt of sheer energy. Only the head is still, as Gibson’s intense gaze follows the ball to its precise target.

Such flawless execution comes from years of training, exercising through fatigue, inclement weather, or personal discouragement. Equally important is the determination, the focus on one’s goal. And thirdly, an inherent gift. This trivium is the foundation of a career in sports and in the arts.

Alston played baseball for one semester in high school, but it was enough to give him a better understanding of himself. “It’s both an individual and a team sport,” he said. “Sometimes you have to forgo the ego for a greater good.” And although he liked baseball, he recognized that it was not his gift. Besides, Alston’s school experience was not one of free time and hobby sports.20130307_bs_8479_Web

Growing up poor in Washington, D.C.’s Northeast neighborhood, Alston and his two closest brothers quickly learned the value of self- and mutual reliance, street smarts, and independence. From home, they could look all the way down East Capitol Street to see the Capitol dome, topped by its statue, Freedom. After one astonishing Christmas when each child got a bike, Capitol Hill became the boys’ playground. Bicycling a couple of miles from home to Hill was hot work in Washington’s humid summers, and the inviting waters of the many reflecting pools were irresistible. They leap-frogged from one to another, sometimes with police in pursuit. Alston particularly liked the pool at the Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) with its 40-ft Calder stabile. A cool dip was what first appealed to the children, but Alston was unconsciously absorbing the lessons of form embodied in the public art and distinguished buildings.

In junior and senior high school, police presence signaled a much more dangerous environment than summer shenanigans, and violence seemed an unavoidable whirlpool. It was Alston’s gift, an insistent urge to draw, and his mother’s recognition of that talent, that provided him a way out—acceptance at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. It was a gift that demanded constantly that he push past his definitions of endurance, of ability, of understanding. And when he won the senior art prize and a scholarship to Virginia Commonwealth University, the training continued. As his skills were honed, so was his will, so that one night, after his job as a janitor, he was determined to finish a painting assignment. When it was completed, he was so exhausted that he laid his cheek against the wet paint and slept.

After 35 years, he still feels the derision of the teacher and other students, and his own bitter anger. But, sometimes, the ego has to be put aside for a greater good.

Alston with his statue at the unveiling. Photo by Dave Jenkins.

Alston with his statue at the unveiling. Photo by Dave Jenkins.

Littleton Alston got his degree from VCU, and an MFA from Rinehart School of Sculpture. He is Associate Professor of Sculpture at Creighton University and maintains a private studio. Among his awards, the most recent is Midtown Business Association’s 2013 City of Omaha Community Excellence Award for “The Jazz Trio,” located in North 24th’s Dreamland Plaza. Alston has worked in abstract style, but prefers figurative. His website’s home page bears this statement:

“The human form holds endless fascination for me, and it is this vehicle through which I believe can best express the joys and sorrows of the human condition.”

When offered the Bob Gibson commission, Alston took time to think it over. He’d never sculpted a sports figure, but felt “immense respect” for Gibson as a “trailblazer” in terms of racial equality and changes to the game. He was fascinated by the form of a ball player in action, and by the “aging champion” who sat for him.

Alston’s sculpture of Bob Gibson was unveiled April 11 at Werner Park. The presentation was a time of honor for Gibson, but also for Alston. Each man has created a life using will, training, and his unique gift. Every release of the ball, every unveiling strikes a crescendo of intent, an expression that goes out into the world contributing its own perfect harmony.

To view more of Littleton Alston’s work, visit alstonsculpture.com. To view the Bob Gibson Project, visit bobgibsonproject.org.