Tag Archives: Christmas

The Tail-Gunner’s Grandson

May 1, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Filmmaker Ben Drickey’s lifelong fascination with history turned personal in 2001. That’s when he documented his grandfather’s return to Germany, revisiting the sites where the U.S. Army Air Corps serviceman crashed and was captured during World War II.

Drickey’s video of the emotional trip has only been seen by family, but the project inspired him to make video production his career after years working with still photography and politics. Today, he creates documentaries and branded film content through his studio, Torchwerks.

Growing up, Drickey was spellbound by family patriarch Wendell Fetters’ stories of being a tail-gunner on a B-26 Marauder flying with the 9th Air Force, 391st bomb group.

On an ill-fated daylight bombing run during the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 23, 1944, his plane crossed the English Channel and delivered its payload over the Ahrweiler bridge. Enemy artillery and fighter flak killed the left engine, igniting a fire, but the crew bailed out before the plane went down.

Fetters’ chute pitched him into a tree. The impact broke an ankle, but he cut himself down. Alone, injured, and afraid, the 20-year-old Iowa native took a sun reading and hobbled west behind enemy lines in sub-zero cold and snow. Two days later, militia captured him. A family housed him over Christmas, and he spent the next four months in a POW camp before the war in Europe ended. After a stay-over in England, he came home to resume his life. He worked, married, and raised a family.

Ben Drickey of Torchwerks

Fast forward nearly six decades. Drickey was attending a family reunion, where he learned of his grandfather’s plans for returning to Germany to visit the plane’s crash site. German amateur historian Hermann Josef Stolz found its debris and used a piece stamped with identifying information to trace the plane’s manufacturer, bomber group, and crew. He invited Fetters to come pick through remnants.

“The rest of us were totally intrigued and we quickly realized this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Drickey, who, along with his mother, two aunts, and an uncle, joined his grandparents on the summer 2001 trip. Drickey went as a video documentarian even though he was strictly working as a still photographer at the time.

“I had no formal experience creating a moving image. I borrowed a friend’s camera and pirated a copy of Final Cut Pro. But I just knew I had to go do it,” he says.

With Stolz as guide, the Americans traveled to the site, where a cross memorializes the remains of the pilot, Jack Haynes, who died in the crash.

Even all this time later, Drickey says, “pieces of fiberglass, aluminum, and rubber” are strewn about. “I was picking up things to take home.” He displays one piece on his desk in the Mastercraft Building.

He says his “ecstatic” grandfather “was like a little kid being reunited with something from his past.”

The Americans next went to the nearby two-story wood and stucco farmhouse of Josef Hayer, the man who—at age 14—first arrived on the scene of the 1944 crash. Hayer had salvaged things from the smoldering debris. Among his finds was a tailpiece with a yellow triangle on a canvas peak.

“It was the first time on our trip where my grandfather was presented with the past in such a dramatic way,” Drickey says. “You could see on his face the memories just flooding back.”

Fetters then wanted to return to Eisenschmitt, the village his captors paraded him through to the home he was billeted in. He recalled a tannenbaum atop a table and framed photos of two German Army conscripts hanging on a wall. He was fed dinner and slept in the barn, then he was taken to the rail depot for transport to the POW camp.

After nearly giving up the search for the home all those years later, Fetters noticed a familiar landmark. Sure enough, just beyond the hill sat the house. Through translation, the elderly woman occupant said she remembered that war-torn Christmas when an American airman was brought to the house. She was 9 years old then. She recognized Fetters standing before her 56 years later.

She explained that the uniformed men in the photos were her brothers, and the pictures still hung in the same spot. She invited Fetters to see for himself. He refused.

“My grandfather said, ‘No, no, no, let’s go,’” Drickey says. “He went to the car and wouldn’t come out. He was visibly shaken. We didn’t know what to do, but we were standing there in awe reliving this history with him.”

As the visitors drove off, the woman hurried behind clutching oranges as a gesture of friendship. She handed them to Fetters. A family meeting ensued. Fetters held firm. Drickey explained he’d come too far not to go back, so he did.

“In my business, I would rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission most of the time,” Drickey says.

He filmed inside the house and interviewed the woman, one of many interviews he conducted for the project.

The experience gave him a career path and archived a precious family legacy.

“I’m so glad I did it. It was such a learning experience for me about myself, my eye, and my ability to capture an image,” he says.

“So many things happened on this trip,” and Drickey says he can only appreciate them all by re-watching the footage.

His grandfather lived to see the video. “He thanked me for taking the time to do it,” Drickey says. “He was very pleased it will live on past him.”

Drickey has gone on to produce slick corporate videos, commercials, and short films. He also worked as cinematographer on the feature film It Snows All the Time, but nothing compares to that first personal project.

His grandfather—the airman who also served in the Korean War—passed away July 31, 2015.

Visit torchwerks.com for more information.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition Sixty-Plus, a publication within Omaha Magazine.

Show Of Hands

February 22, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If you love trips to the museum and trips to the manicurist, Imagine Uhlenbrock is your one-stop shop for a day of art, style, and self-care all rolled into one stunning experience.

Uhlenbrock is the “nail genie” and artist behind Just Imagine Nails. Keratin is her canvas and her work is constantly showing on the hands of happy clients throughout Omaha.

“I started doing my own nails when I was about 4, because I was an only child and it was something I could do for myself,” Uhlenbrock says.

Her interest in nail art grew through middle school and high school, culminating in her first steady nail job at a downtown Omaha salon. It was meant to be her college job, but Uhlenbrock loved the craft so much she launched her own business doing natural, ethical nails at age 19.

For those skeptical that a manicurist can be a “real” artist, one look at Uhlenbrock’s vibrant Instagram portfolio provides ample evidence of her artistry and talent. Intricate, hand-painted designs, patterns, and messages mingle with hand-placed bling. Colors and textures pop, and unique, creative themes inspire the urge to scroll right on down the rabbit hole because no two sets are alike and your eyeballs will want to collect them all.

 

 “It’s just like commissioning any other piece of art,” Uhlenbrock says. “I always have ideas, so I have clients who just come in and let me do whatever I want every two weeks, or sometimes they come in with a theme or idea in mind. Most of the time it’s a collaborative process and we customize it based on the vision and what they’re feeling like that week.”

This process has resulted in galaxy nails, Vegas- and beach-themed vacation nails, desert sunset nails, snowflake and Christmas nails, Fourth of July “red, white, and bling” nails, Ouija board nails, Netflix and chill nails, ice cream and French fry nails, nails that are geometric, plaid, rainbow, floral, color-blocked, gradient, holographic or chrome, and nails that mimic abstract paintings, among others.

“I take inspiration from everywhere. The print of your dress, the pattern of that chair, the texture of this pillow, someone’s artwork,” Uhlenbrock says.

Then there are the pop culture nails. She’s done sets that honor artists including Eartha Kitt, Prince, Beyoncé, and Frida Kahlo, that appreciate cultural icons ranging from Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson to Grumpy Cat, that recognize the Broadway Hamilton phenomenon, that reference literature from Harry Potter to local author Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, and that celebrate TV shows from The Golden Girls to The Powerpuff Girls. Her popular annual Halloween special has taken inspiration from The Addams Family, Stranger Things, The X-Files, and Hocus Pocus sets, as well as one of her personal all-time favorites: Michael Jackson “Thriller” nails.

“You can see from my themes that I like weird,” Uhlenbrock says. “I’ll put anything on a nail as long as it’s not problematic.”

Uhlenbrock’s political work is also incredibly compelling. She’s done anti-pipeline nails, Black Lives Matter nails, and nails that read “Go Vote,” among others.

“One of the roles of an artist is to get people to think or to spread certain messages. Nail art is no different than any other art form in that way,” Uhlenbrock says. “That’s how art and social justice can intersect by creating visuals, sounds, or whatever the medium to raise awareness, to educate, or to relieve pain and pressure for the oppressed. So, a lot of what I do is people’s regular self-care.”

In December 2016, Uhlenbrock opened her Hand of Gold Beauty Room space in the Fair Deal Village Marketplace, near 24th and Lake streets. She currently shares the space with two subcontractors, Qween Samone and Ria Gold, who help support the service menu of natural nails, makeup, and braiding. Uhlenbrock enjoys working in the thriving area among neighboring small business owners and she’s committed to using her space to support her peers.

“We support small businesses here,” Uhlenbrock says. “Economic disenfranchisement has been a huge tool of oppression against people of color. So, it’s really important to me as I grow and have my own economic development to reach out and empower others through that as well.”

Uhlenbrock stocks body care products from Lincoln-based Miss Kitty and Her Cats, pieces from Omaha’s Amaral Jewelry, and gets all of her regular polishes from Ginger + Liz, a black woman-owned, vegan-friendly, toxin-free nail lacquer company. She also sells jewelry from her other business, The Bigger the Hoops.

Besides providing an important platform for a network of artists and makers, the petite Hand of Gold Beauty Room just feels like a place you want to be. A plush, amber-colored couch beckons from the pedicure platform that Uhlenbrock and her mother hand-built. The walls are decked with striking work by Lincoln artist Brittany Burton, featuring black-and-white depictions of “thick” women with sparse flashes of green and yellow. Soul music fills the air and large windows let ample natural light stream in.

“Everyone should probably go to a therapist, but not everyone does—some people get their nails done instead,” Uhlenbrock says. “They can come here, have a good conversation, and leave feeling like a million bucks with something good to look at for a couple weeks. It’s a lot easier to feel like you have your shit together when your nails are on point.”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

Year of the Rooster

December 23, 2016 by
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

Chinese Lunar New Year falls on January 28 this year. The holiday is like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all rolled into a week of celebrations. This year will be my third Lunar New Year in Omaha. Since relocating to the Midwest, I have developed a small go-to list for dishes that taste like home (or at least satiate my appetite until my next return visit to Hong Kong).

When coworkers ask me to recommend “real” Chinese food, I often probe how adventurous they are with eating. Authentic Chinese cuisines do not usually come with a thick brown or red sauce. Sometimes, signature dishes also feature uncommon ingredients. Although I never fancied chicken feet, I know several European Americans who will gobble down the dish (which translates to “phoenix talons” in my native Cantonese language) at any opportunity.

Chinese cuisines vary depending on region. Sichuanese (from western China) is known for its “mala” numbing spice. Cantonese (from Hong Kong and Guangdong) is famous for fresh seafood and dim sum. Dumplings, maybe even more than rice, are beloved in northern Chinese cuisines. You might even say Americanized Chinese food is authentic in its own way, with its distinct flavors and history woven into the story of Chinese migration.

1. Fresh housemade dim sum

I was excited to see barbecue pork and duck hanging on display upon entering Canton House Restaurant during my first visit; the Cantonese diner reminds me of the typical Hong Kong-style café (also known as a “cha chaan teng”). The chef started his career in Hong Kong decades ago and has brought a long list of authentic Hong Kong dishes to his restaurant in northwestern Omaha. Dim sum—bite-size breakfast hors d’oeuvres—are freshly made to order; I highly recommend ordering a variety and enjoying them with a group of friends. Stuffed eggplant, fish slices in congee (rice porridge), and sliced beef with pan-fried rice noodles are among my top three choices.

4849 N. 90th St., No. 1, Omaha, NE 68134

402-505-9446

cantonhouseomaha.com

2. Savory Shandong cuisine

Tucked in the corner of a strip mall on 72nd Street, Blue and Fly Asian Kitchen is a homey eatery that is crowded with Chinese students every night. The traditional Chinese menu features a range of quick-fried and fish dishes that are iconic of Shandong cuisine. A bilingual handwritten menu beside the kitchen offers a further selection of seasonal delicacies. The owners are generous in sharing their cultural heritage with patrons; for example, in the last Mid-Autumn Festival, they gave out handmade “mooncakes” to diners to share celebration of the Chinese holiday. I have yet to order anything I do not enjoy at Blue and Fly (and I am definitely a frequent patron). My personal favorites include spicy shredded potato (a cold appetizer), spicy pig intestine (an entrée), and a specialty dessert—caramelized sweet potato.

721 S. 72nd St., Omaha, NE 68114

402-504-6545

blueflyasiankitchen.com

3. Cantonese-style barbecue duck and barbecue pork buns

Order a Cantonese-style duck (half) to go with a bowl of rice, and you will get an authentic Hong Kong lunch experience. Grand Fortune Chinese Restaurant also has an extensive dim sum menu—the baked barbecue pork pastry and baked barbecue pork bun are must-tries as you may only find the steamed version in other dim sum shops in town. Steamed barbecue pork buns are known as “cha siu bao” in Cantonese. Cha siu bao, pork and shrimp dumplings (“siu mai”), and shrimp dumplings (“har gow”) are regular fixtures of dim sum brunch anywhere in the world.

17330 West Center Road, Omaha, NE 68130

402-697-9888

grandfortunecuisine.com

4. Dim sum brunch after church

New Gold Mountain is crowded with families after church on Sundays. The restaurant has an intimate atmosphere. Its fried items—such as salt and pepper shrimp, deep-fried minced pork shrimp dumplings, and crispy fried tofu are all finger-licking good. Meat lovers can try barbecue pork with five spiced beef. The meat platter is a common dinner staple in Hong Kong, and is best enjoyed with a bowl of rice and some stir-fried vegetables.

15505 Ruggles St. No.105, Omaha, NE 68116.

402-496-1688

newgoldmountain.com

5. Mouthwatering tofu dishes

People may not associate Three Happiness Express with authentic Chinese food. But its kung pao tofu is a good representation of Chinese cooking. The tofu is perfectly fried to form a crispy crust; the dish is not drowned, rather it is drizzled with a light brown sauce. The restaurant’s steamed dumplings are also authentic, as long as you skip the sweet and spicy sauce and dip it in soy sauce. Friends from the neighborhood have professed a deep love for the crab rangoons, Princess Chicken, and Loc’s Chicken Wings (and these dishes are definitely American Chinese inventions).

5107 Leavenworth St., Omaha, NE 68106

402-558-8899

facebook.com/threehappinessexpress

6. Classic American Chinese food

Golden Palace has an old-school menu and an Oriental interior design that suggest the restaurant has been passed down through generations. The restaurant serves polished classic American Chinese food. The barbecue back ribs are the absolute bomb.

4040 N. 132nd St., Omaha, NE 68164

402-493-2777

goldenpalacene.com

7. Unlock the secret menu 

The “secret menu” of Jade Palace offers authentic Chinese cuisines. Even if you don’t read Chinese, pick a protein and ask the server what he/she recommends. The owner suggested we try “water boiled fish”—beware though, the Sichuanese dish is cooked with a lot of red hot chili peppers. The heat index of the fish is a challenge (southerners, like me, are not known for eating spicy). Be sure to discuss the level of spiciness before ordering.

1702 Galvin Road South, Bellevue, NE 68005

402-558-8899

jadepalacebellevue.com

8. Hot pot special

China Garden Restaurant has a winter hot pot special. The communal dish is popular in colder months. Select meats and vegetables from a list, and the server will bring a pot of broth and a portable stove for you to cook the food in. The restaurant offers most of the favorites of Sichuanese cuisine. To drink, ask the server if sweet-sour plum juice is available. Other thirst-quenching options include Tsingtao beer and canned Chinese herbal tea, “Wong Lo Kat.”

8315 Tangier Way, Omaha, NE 68124

402-397-1995

chinagardenomaha.com

9. Fusion Chinese food

P.F. Chang’s modern take on Chinese food results in a range of light, savory fusion cuisine. I highly recommend the chicken lettuce wrap.

Westroads Mall, 10150 California St., Omaha, NE 68114

402-390-6021

pfchangs.com

10. Oldest Chinese restaurant in town

The interior design of King Fong Cafe resembles that of Chinese courtyard houses. The wood carvings and chandeliers (imported from Canton, the old name of Guangzhou) are well-preserved—the visual enjoyment is a feast in itself. The restaurant is not only the oldest Chinese restaurant in town, it is the longest-running restaurant in the city.

315 1/2 S. 16th St., Omaha, NE 68102

402-341-3433

facebook.com/pages/king-fong-cafe/117861274906131

* Note: King Fong Cafe announced its temporary closure in 2016 and had not announced a reopening date at the time of Omaha Magazine‘s publication deadline.

Another great way to discover new dishes is to ask the server what Chinese customers have ordered. If something looks delicious at another table, ask your server what it is. For anyone looking to celebrate the Lunar New Year with a Chinese feast, please note that restaurants may close during the festival, so check ahead to confirm if they are open.

Authenticity aside, I absolutely love when fortune cookies arrive with the bill. The American Chinese invention (or American Japanese, depending on the origin story) coincides with Chinese affinity for auspicious signs. Happy Lunar New Year! May your fortune cookie bring good luck!

How do you say Happy New Year in Chinese?

“Gong hei fat choi!” That’s Cantonese (the language of Hong Kong and Guangdong).

“Xin nian kuai le!” That’s Mandarin (the official language of mainland China and Taiwan)

mattsrooster2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…and for a preview of the 2017 Nebraska Chinese Association Lunar New Year Celebration:

Mary Beth Harrold

October 16, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For Mary Beth Harrold, “decking the halls” means something a tad more extravagant than outfitting a fir tree with antique Santa-themed artifacts. A long-time Papillion resident, Harrold has spent the last four decades doing what she loves: decorating homes.

Harrold started her company, Papillion Flower Patch, 40 years ago with a dream and minimal experience. She currently manages the store with the help of her daughter, Stephanie Crandall.

christmascaravan1“I had a love for beautiful home décor,” Harrold says of her conception for the business. “I had to learn with experience, and buy books, and get support. After that, I competed in contests and learned more to become a designer that traveled the United States.”

The most wonderful time of the year also happens to be Harrold’s busiest decorating season.

For the past 15 years, Harrold’s holiday home decorating style has been featured on the Christmas Caravan Tour of Homes, a fundraiser on the first Thursday of November (Nov. 3 this year) to benefit the Assistance League of Omaha. Preparation for the grand tour, Harrold explains, involves spending a full week prepping houses with fellow decorators and florists.

“It’s a lot of work because we have to build a shop in the basement from scratch,” Harrold says of the week-long frenzy. “Then we sell (products) from there.”

The Christmas Caravan gives attendees the opportunity to browse high-end homes decorated by local florists and interior designers, as well as purchase products from the vendors. 

Each house includes a boutique where attendees can purchase featured decorations. Twenty percent of revenue is donated to the Assistance League, with proceeds directly benefiting programs such as Operation School Bell (which has provided clothing to more than 58,000 Omaha children in need).

christmascaravan4

Harrold prefers to design homes with winter in mind, as opposed to the Christmas holiday, so decorations can be used all season long.

“We put up our decorations the first week of November and they last long after Christmas,” she says. “So, I decorate in more warm, earthy, wintery tones so it lasts through the season.”

Harrold’s home on the Christmas Caravan tour demonstrates her philosophy of seasonal décor. Natural elements like pinecones, birch branches, holly berries, and sprigs of pine provide an ambiance of warm wintery tones despite the chill. Glowing candles halo Harrold’s stone figurine nativity set; the color palette of browns, earthy greens, and pale blues set each scene. The main piece on the dining room table features white branches, small cardinals, and a dusting of faux snow.

A collection of birch branches wrapped with clear lights, small logs, and large pinecones preface the main staircase—a greeting to anyone wandering in through the front door. Every room of the house, including the master bathroom, contains a subtle touch of Harrold’s woodsy holiday flair. And yes, there is the occasional, familiar snowman.

christmascaravan2

“Cozy” is the word that would best describe the atmosphere of Harrold’s Christmas Caravan home, but it seems oddly over-simplistic for the attention to detail and artistic eye that clearly drove the decorating process. The consistency of design carries through even the most minimal of elements— towel racks, windows, bedroom shelves.

Harrold has decorated what she estimates to be hundreds of homes over the years, tailored specifically to her customers’ aesthetic tastes and desires.

“For the Christmas season, the glitz and glamor is gone,” she says of time’s passing decoration trends. “Now, (people prefer) the more natural, simple home look.”

The most rewarding part of the job, she says, is her relationship with customers. Harrold spends weeks leading up to the holiday season consulting with clients who often return each year for her decorating services.

“It’s fun to try to please a lot of different types of people and try out a bunch of different tastes,” Harrold says.

What about decorating her own home?

christmascaravan5

“My decorations are very simple and not overly done,” Harrold explains. “I’m not a bright-color decorator, so the style is more subdued. I just like the closeness and the warmth of looking out at wintertime, and feeling cozy, and getting the thought of, ‘I love my house.’”

After all the good tidings and decking of halls, perhaps Harrold can enjoy a well-deserved day off on Christmas Day with her family. Afterwards, the preparations for next season will begin.

“Family is always the best part,” Harrold says with a smile. “I love the warmth and joy, and the feeling of happiness and love, that come with the holiday time.”

Visit alomaha.org for more information about the Christmas Caravan Tour of Homes. OmahaHome

christmascaravan6

Holiday,HoliDIY

October 14, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ornate picture frames can be used for more than framing photos or prints; however, that wasn’t my original intention when I found the perfect frame at a thrift store last year. It contained a hideous old photo, but I just loved the frame and decided it was going to “frame” my coffee table’s holiday décor.

holidiy1I went through most of my decorations looking for items to highlight until I was at the bottom of the Christmas box.

Even without the picture frame, holiday ornaments can be used to create vignettes—small ornamental designs to fill a space—for tables and nooks around the house. Include any of your favorite decorations.

Instructions:

Place items inside the picture frame or arrange as a vignette. Consider different heights and textures for added interest, and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. This DIY project doesn’t have to be just for the holidays. It can be adapted for any season.

Items used
Ornate picture frame

Christmas greenery

Christmas bulbs

Glass candle holders (place décor of different heights in the center)

Christmas ornaments

String of white lights

OmahaHome

Looks Like We Got Us A Failure

October 3, 2016 by

We all know the old quote. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

This kind of persistence is considered a virtue, especially when one is engaged in a noble pursuit like trying to cure the common cold, discovering America, or attempting to rig a bird feeder so that the squirrels can’t loot it, boldly, right in front of you, day after day, no matter what you do…but I digress.

“It is fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

Yeah, Bill Gates said that. Of course, there’s another old maxim: “That’s easy for you to say.” Bill Gates is the richest guy in the world, or close enough that it doesn’t make much difference. I mean how many diamond-encrusted, squirrel-proof bird feeders can one man use, right? Failure’s sting can be numbed more than a little bit by just one $55 billion success.

“They all laughed at Alexander Graham Bell. They all laughed at Steve Jobs.  They all laughed at Jeremy Geomorphia…”

And yet we have telephones, or at least we used to have them. Anyway, now we have “smartphones,” and nobody’s laughing anymore. Jeremy Geomorphia?  Well, they were right to laugh at him. Turned out nobody needed his innovative, non-slip collars for their pet boa constrictors.

People laughed at Chip Davis, too. But that’s exactly what he wanted them to do.   

When the kid out of Ohio came to Omaha to work for an advertising agency, he brought the funny. He and Bill Fries put together the “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep on A-Truckin’ Cafe” campaign for Old Home Bread. It was a huge success. That success naturally led to Davis and Bill (under the pseudonym C.W. McCall) catching the CB radio wave and surfing it all the way to a number one hit song, “Convoy.”

Within two years, Davis was riding the wave even higher. No less a Hollywood icon than Sam Peckinpah was bringing Rubber Duck, Pig Pen, and Sodbuster to life on the silver screen in a big-budget movie starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw. The 1978 flick remains a cult classic to this day, and…interesting fact: Convoy was the biggest grossing box office success of the legendary director’s career.

Davis wasn’t finished succeeding. About the same time “Convoy” was taking the pop music world by storm, he started a little thing called Mannheim Steamroller. FYI, the moniker comes from “Mannheim Roller,” a crescendo passage having a melodic line over an ostinato bass line originating in the Mannheim school of composition in the 18th century. Add a little Christmas in the `80s and the rest is, as they say, history—or just plain success.

Success. Success. Success. So what’s missing?  Ah yes, failure. Where’s the failure? What huge mistake taught Davis a valuable lesson? What misstep gave Davis the chance to appreciate all of his success?

In a word, his biggest failure was me.

Disco was running big in the `70s. Really big. Davis decided to paddle towards that ocean swell. Thus he produced the dance club classic, “I am the Boogie Man,” a disco anthem for the ages. The lead vocalist? Me. But this time the muse had misled Davis. Almost simultaneously, Steve Dahl held “Disco Demolition Night” in 1979 at Comiskey Park in Chicago and nearly destroyed the venerable stadium when a riot broke out. Disco was dead.

There was an apocryphal story that thousands of unsold vinyl copies of “Boogie Man” were unceremoniously dumped in Davis’ driveway in the dead of a cold Nebraska night. It was the biggest disaster of his long career.

And I was to blame.

If it is true as Sophocles said, “There is no success without failure,” then I must finally take credit where credit is due. 

Chip, you’re welcome.

OtisXIIOtis XII hosts the radio program, Early Morning Classics with Otis XII, on 90.7 KVNO, weekday mornings from 5-9 a.m. Visit kvno.org for more information.

Come On In

November 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Historic Brandeis Mansion

December 24, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Mark Maser starts with sound advice for any home decorator: “Buy what you like and find a way to make it work in your space.”

And when the holidays come around, he says, “everything stays.” It’s an approach that makes sense for a lot of homeowners, but especially so for a family that owns a turn-of-the-century Omaha mansion that’s also got a lot working in its space—a Jacobethan Revival exterior with brick walls, a red tile roof, and stucco and half-timber work; an interior main staircase with Colonial Revival-style columns flanking the main staircase inside; a sitting room ceiling with exposed beams recalling the Arts and Crafts period; a neo-classical music room; a Georgian Revival dining room. The design—the early-1900s work of architect Albert Kahn—blended several interior design revival styles to make it feel like an English manor house updated through the years, Maser said.

Department-store mogul Arthur Brandeis commissioned the house, situated at 500 S. 38th St., in 1904; Maser’s parents purchased the house in 2008 after it had served as commercial and private residential spaces for years and, by the end of the early aughts, had been through nearly a decade of restoration. Maser and his partner, who’d lived around the corner in another Gold Coast home, moved in.

“We were attracted to the house because of its traditional nature,” Maser says. “I’ve always liked old stuff. We thought if we could park our collections inside an older home, it’d be a perfect fit.”

The question, then? How to make the house feel comfortable, Maser says, how to make it feel like a place people could sit around without feeling constricted in a small antique chair—how to make it feel like the things inside had always been there.

Maser mixed modern upholstered items amid antiques. In a nod to Britain’s Victorian and Edwardian periods—when, Maser says, families were proud to display collectibles purchased in far-off lands by relatives with foreign business concerns—he placed chinoiserie and other items from across the globe throughout rooms.

“The rule I have is ‘be true to the space,’” Maser explains. “[The house] has a sense of collection.”

And that is the sense that, at the holidays, stays.

“We don’t want to lose the flavor of the stuff,” he says. “That way it looks like Christmas is more organic.”

Maser says he works with the help of a decorator (this year, Voila! Flowers’  Ann Etienne is helping with the mansion’s holiday transformation) to find what he and his partner like and make it work
with the house.

“We buy Christmas things that are not 100 years old but are inspired by them,” he says. “We put something together that feels right for a period house.”

It’s a blend of Christopher Radko ornaments, clip-on glass birds, peacocks in blue and green and teal and white, some rooms that are more red than green. With the home’s limited floor space, a shorter 4- or 5-foot tree goes in a large Chinese fishbowl on a table in one room, atop a piano in another.

“It gives the sense of the tree being important and tall,” Maser said, “but without eating up floor space or having to move out furniture.”

And when guests are coming to call—at the mansion, it could be family members or nonprofit groups and organizations (Maser is president of the Opera Omaha Guild, which hosts events in the mansion) or, more recently, private parties by reservation—Maser says the primary concern is to make sure they have a good time.

He doesn’t set a particular theme to events and leaves a lot of creative decision-making to the people he says have the specialized skills for it—florists and photographers and caterers (he consistently works with Attitude on Food).

His does prepare one holiday dish, however, frequently requested by his guests: egg mousse.

He makes the mousse and arranges it in the shape of a tree on a platter. He tops it with parsley flakes and tomato ornaments and olive tapenade garland.

“Every time I have a party, people ask for egg mousse,” he boasts. “I’ve served it millions of times. People think it’s just dandy.”

It’s what people like. It works in the space.

It’s comfy. Merry.

“When Christmas goes up and the music goes on and the lights are twinkling,” Maser says, “it’s a happy feeling.”

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White Elephant

December 23, 2014 by and

My girlfriend and I were invited to a thing called a Ladies’ Christmas Ornament Exchange Party.

I seemed to have enough couth to not ask the hostess, “Is this country casual, or somethin’ super fancy?” So, I searched high and low for a leg-lamp ornament. It would be nice and a personal reflection of my awesomeness. Most people know the reference. It’d be fun. If it turned out to be a fancy party, then someone would get stuck with it. But it’d be like a funny ha-ha stuck with it, and not a “Who invited those nitwits to our soiree?” kinda vibe.

But apparently, and as usual, I’m a year late. The leg lamp ornament was last year’s craze. This year, the stores have the mini leg lamp but not the full-sized lamp and not the ornament. Great, now I was going to have to come up with something else sub-par in brilliance.

I asked a co-worker who is pretty up on fancy. She told me where to go, but lo, my crappy minivan doesn’t point in that direction. I found myself upgrading my ornament shopping by the minimum—at Garden Ridge. Finally, I opted for a dog picture frame ornament.

We had a blast at the party. The four main food groups were represented in the form of chocolate. I wasn’t too worried about how my dog ornament would be received. After all, it was a dog picture frame ornament and everyone found the hostess’ dogs to be adorable.

I noticed as ladies opened randomly wrapped ornaments, my contribution was on the lower end of ornament financial investment. Uh-oh.

As usual, I was distracted by an ornament that said “Merry Christmas, Y’all” on it. I’m a pure-blood Texan, if you didn’t know. I was gonna get that ornament. In the throes of the exchange, the lady next to me happened to get my awesome dog frame ornament. I heard her explain her dismay to her pal. I asked if she had a dog. She did, but it’s not like she’s going to display that on her tree. That poor dog of hers.

I responded with, “Yeah, who’s the weirdo who brought a ridiculous ornament like that?” Then I grinned and took off with my super “Merry Christmas, Y’all” ornament. I hope we get invited again next year. There’s hope because my friend brought such a cool ornament everyone asked her where she got it. So, maybe next year, they’ll invite her and then, since we’re a power couple, she’ll have to take me. And I will find an expensive cat ornament. For sure.

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Bikers With Bells

December 15, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Christmas means Salvation Army red kettles swinging, bells ringin…and volunteers in biker gear and Santa hats.

Navy veteran Bob Swanson is one of the Salvation Army’s most faithful bell ringers. For 10 years, he has rounded up a group of fellow motorcyclists to ring bells at the entrance to Dillon Brothers Harley
Davidson in Omaha.

The riders share the holiday spirit in their own unique way. “We wear our biker’s gear with leather vests along with Santa hats,” Swanson says. “And some of us hand candy canes to the kids.”

All are members of the American Legion Riders. That big guy in the Santa hat vigorously ringing a bell might have spent time in a war zone in Vietnam or Korea. The younger man saying “thank you” may have recently returned from Iraq.

People seem to be more motivated to donate to the Salvation Army when donating through a veteran, Swanson says. “One lady said she always feels good donating to the Salvation Army, and the fact that it’s veterans who are bell ringing made it even better.”

Swanson formed the chapter of American Legion Riders for Omaha Post 1 in 2005. Members are veterans, veterans’ spouses, or veterans’ adult children who ride motorcycles.

Men and women who are American Legion Riders represent all branches of the military with a wide spread of ages. The chapter has about 55 members.

Not all who donate are motorcyclists. Some stop to drop money into the kettle as they enter the store to buy a collar with a Harley Davidson logo for their dog. Or maybe they have their eye on a bib with the logo for their baby’s first Christmas.

“It’s fun to watch the kids. They see this big, ugly biker standing there and are a little intimidated,” Swanson says. “One of our members is Santa Claus size and last year when bell ringing he wore a Santa suit.”

Ringing bells for the Salvation Army is a good fit for the American Legion, he says. “It involves the community, and that’s one of the primary tenets of the American Legion.”

After retiring from Physicians Mutual Insurance Co. where he was a vice president, Swanson, who is 72, donned a uniform and joined other military veterans to form an American Legion color guard. They perform at funerals, parades and various functions.

“I had always been moved when I saw family reactions to military funerals. It is the final opportunity to show respect for someone who served our country,” he says. “One of the main things we have to do is keep the public aware of sacrifices that go along with military service.”

Swanson will lead members of American Legion Riders as bell ringers at the entrance to Dillon Brothers Harley Davidson near 174th and Maple streets each Saturday prior to Christmas starting November 8.   

By the way, you don’t have to be a motorcyclist to ring bells. Visit RingOmaha.org to learn about volunteering.

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