Tag Archives: festival

Omaha is 120 Years Old (In Tourism Years)

May 15, 2018 by

The year of 1898 was a huge tourism year for Omaha. It was the year that an event lasted five months and attracted 2.6 million people from around the world—the Trans-Mississippi and International Expo, also known as the Omaha World’s Fair.         

It was no accident that Omaha played host to this event; it was all by design. The tourist attraction was the innovative vision of a small committee of local businessmen who understood that tourism meant big business and could provide a boost to the local economy. The fair had an economic impact of almost $2 million dollars, an equivalent of more than $54 million by today’s standards.  And it all started with a small group of business leaders with an idea.

Omaha has a long history of small committees doing big things. In 1950, four men who loved baseball had the vision to bring the NCAA Men’s College World Series to Omaha—Ed Pettis of Brandeis Department Stores, Morris Jacobs and Byron W. Reed of Bozell & Jacobs, and then-Mayor of Omaha Johnny Rosenblatt. The first games played in Omaha had a total attendance of 17,805. Over the years, College World Series of Omaha Inc., a local nonprofit organizing committee, was formed to sell tickets, plan special events, and rally community support for the series. Today the average attendance is more than 20,000 people per game.

It was the belief of a local woman, Lisa Yanney Roskens, and her love of horses that played a big part in Omaha hosting the 2017 FEI World Cup Horse Jumping and Dressage Finals. While there were many people involved, she played a key role in presenting the proposal to the international committee members in Lausanne, Switzerland, and convincing them that Omaha was the right place to host the event. More than 50,000 people from around the world attended the competition, putting the city on an international stage. 

Junkstock is another Omaha event that started with an idea from Sarah Alexander, a stay-at-home mom with a passion for vintage pieces. She envisioned a place where junk enthusiasts could find some of the best antiques and repurposed art in the region. Junkstock started in 2012 with 29 vendors. This fall more than 200 vendors and 23 food trucks will be on site to welcome more than 10,000 guests through the gates. To accommodate the demand, Alexander purchased Sycamore Farms, a 135-acre century-old horse farm which now hosts three premier junk festivals every year. 

Some of the names you may recognize, while others may not be as well-known. Each person named helped with events that brought thousands of out-of-town visitors to our city and millions of dollars to our local economy. And they all started with an idea, a few creative minds, and faith in Omaha as a destination.


This column was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B.

Keith Backsen is executive director of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Best of Omaha Festival

December 1, 2014 by
Celebrate all that Omaha has to offer with Omaha Magazine’s annual Best of Omaha Festival  from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 5, at Baxter Arena.
Come check out the top voted businesses, chosen by you, the public. With eight different categories: nightlife, family, dining, household, health and beauty, retail, services, and transportation there is something for everyone.
We believe that with our wonderful sponsors and exciting NEW non-profit partner (4-H youth development program of Douglas and Sarpy counties), this festival will be the best one yet!
One hundred percent of the proceeds from the paid door cash revenue will go directly to the Douglas-Sarpy 4-H Club.* Come out and support your local 4-H club, while listening to live entertainment and trying out delicious food and beverage samples. You won’t want to miss this!
*Excludes VIP and Complimentary tickets.
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It Takes a Village

June 1, 2014 by
Photography by Omaha Summer Arts Festival

One of the most colorful of Omaha weekends awaits as the Omaha Summer Arts Festival prepares to launch its 40th season June 6-8.

“The Omaha Summer Arts Festival is like creating a village—a city within a city,” says Vic Gutman, founder and director of the event. “Hundreds of artists interacting with tens of thousands of our friends and neighbors turns Farnam Street into Omaha’s back yard for one brief but exciting weekend. It’s a social experience as much as it is an art experience.”

The history of the festival closely mirrors that of Downtown Omaha over the course of the last four decades. The now-venerable Old Market was in its infancy when the event first moved to abut an empty pit of a construction zone that would soon become the Central Park Mall, now known as the Gene Leahy Mall. City sidewalks were largely deserted in a urban area that had for years been on a slow but steady economic decline.

“The backdrop for the festival has changed dramatically since then,” Gutman adds, “and the event parallels how our city has earned its reputation as a thriving place for creativity, culture, performing arts, and retail.”

The festival’s artist market may be the main attraction, but the all-ages fun also extends to a hands-on, activity-packed Children’s Fair. Ready for a bite? Check out the savory offerings of the TasteFest to fuel your booth-hopping journey from 10th to 15th streets along Farnam. The soundtrack of the crowd-pleasing event will once again be provided by an eclectic array of artists playing on the World Music Pavilion Stage.

Over its storied history, the event has attracted more than three million visitors to Downtown Omaha and more than $15 million in artwork has been sold.

“The Omaha Summer Arts Festival rises above a mere arts festival,” Gutman adds. “It’s about celebrating Downtown. It’s about community and the life of a city. It’s about Omaha.”

Omaha Under the Radar

May 6, 2014 by

Sometimes “the good life” can get a little bit blurry. When it comes to Omaha’s music scene, soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett is happy to see that happen and wants to help perpetuate it. “Around the country, there is less and less differentiation between genres; people are forming small ensembles that blur genre lines.” This amalgamation of styles, which can be found in big cities and small towns all over the nation, is not limited to only the world of music. Nearly every type of art form is seeing various innovative mixtures of influences and mediums emerging.

Noticing this trend in the theater field, another Nebraska native, Thom Sibbitt, began to consider starting a festival which would highlight area performers and their works. After Sibbitt and DeBoer Bartlett—who has run a contemporary classical music festival in Madison, Wis., for the past three years—had the opportunity to work together and learn about their shared interests, a natural partnership was born. The result: Omaha Under The Radar, a three-day interdisciplinary festival taking place July 11-13, which will feature the latest in contemporary music, dance, theater, and performance art.

This region is by no means lacking artists who are steering works in creative new directions. “There are a lot of amazing and interesting things happening in Omaha,” says Kayleigh Butcher, a member of the OUR Festival support team. “Installation art; new jazz music; avant garde “new” music…these all totally exist and are thriving. We are really excited to see what Omaha artists bring to the table.” However, what the area might be lacking is a soapbox from which these performers can shout locally and nationally about what they’re creating. Butcher adds that, “there hasn’t been a platform where artists can come together to showcase what they’re doing. Under The Radar is a perfect opportunity to do that—to show to Omaha and beyond what is happening artistically but might not be being highlighted the way they should be (and are in places like
New York, L.A. and Seattle).”

Festival activities will be split between a number of venues in town, including House of Loom, KANEKO, the Bancroft Street Market, The Slowdown, and the University of Nebraska-Omaha. The Joslyn Art Museum will host an opening event—free and open to the public—on Thursday, July 10. The three days that follow will feature performances, workshops, and discussions spread out among the participating venues.

Local and nonlocal artists and works will be presented, and some shows may be accompanied by a Q&A with the guest performer, composer, or choreographer. As DeBoer Bartlett points out, such discussions give one the opportunity to be “working with living composers, which a lot of classical musicians don’t do.” She continues, stressing that there are “more composers living now than ever before,” and that these dialogues can stimulate valuable conversations and collaborations. This interaction is quite possibly one of the greatest reasons for a contemporary musician to come be a part of the festival.

A complete schedule of events will be announced on May 15.

An OUR day pass is $15, while a $30 weekend pass allows you to “choose your own festival adventure.”

Find more information and updates at UnderTheRadarOmaha.com.

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Now That’s Italian

January 21, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It’s a bustling Thursday afternoon at the Sons of Italy hall on South 10th Street. The hum of conversation is punctuated by greetings from the regulars, and by 11:15 a.m. the hall is near capacity. Downtown business professionals mix elbows with construction workers at family-style tables. During campaign season, the Thursday lunch draws politicians like flies to honey—make that cannoli.

They are all here for the traditional Italian fare served up with a genuine smile and occasional wise-guy crack. Today’s menu: spaghetti and meatballs, salad, and fresh bread. Quintessential Italian but far from ordinary. The sauce has been simmering for over 24 hours, its seasonings taking on a richer, more complex flavor, just like the neighborhood. The troupe of volunteer cooks never work off a recipe. Rather, the sauce is a happy combination of a few family recipes adapted over the years. Over 240 gallons are made for these Thursday lunches, a tradition that dates back 50-plus years. The men have cut over 200 pounds of lettuce for the salads and hand-rolled 2,000 meatballs. And if the early crowd is any indication of the late lunch numbers, they will need every morsel of this copious amount of food.

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The Sons of Italy is not much to look at from the outside. The only nod to its Italian heritage is the green, white, and red striped awning over the front door. But once inside, the hearty aroma of tomato sauce, the cheery red and white checked tablecloths, and ever-present laughter make you feel like you’ve walked into an Italian family reunion.

“It’s like coming home to Nana’s kitchen,” says Rich Mengler, who has been working the Sons of Italy lunches for 14 years. “I’m the kid here,” the 77-year-old quips. And if the name Mengler sounds more German than Italian, it is. “I’m an IBM,” he jokes, “Italian by Marriage.”

 Settlement Days

The first wave of Italian immigrants arrived in Omaha in 1893. The railroads, stockyards, and meatpacking plants provided the promise of work. Most came from Sicily—in particular, Carlentini—and settled in the area bounded by Pacific and Bancroft streets to the north and south, respectively, and from the river to 13th Street. They built businesses and wrote to family in Italy to come to the American Plains’ burgeoning Italian community.

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By the time immigration from southern  and eastern Europe was cut off, more than  5,000 Italians called Little Italy home. “It was almost like a separate small town” within the larger city of Omaha, says Mike DiGiacomo, member of the Santa Lucia Festival committee and trumpet player in its marching band.

Ties to the old country were strong, so strong that residents turned to their heritage to stave homesickness for Sicily. In 1925, Little Italy residents hosted the first Santa Lucia Festival, a New World version of the centuries-old festival held each year in Carlentini. They managed to raise an astounding $2,000 to replicate the statue of St. Lucy in Sicily for use in the Omaha festival.

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The Santa Lucia Festival gradually evolved into a three-day party, including Mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, a parade down 10th Street, music, rides, games, food, and the crowning of a queen at Lewis and Clark Landing. It is one of the Midwest’s oldest festivals, running continuously for 90 years, save the four years of World War II.

DiGiacomo says tradition and heritage have kept the festival afloat: “While many of these types of festivals have died off, the Santa Lucia Italian Festival has continued to defy the odds. The people who grew up with it, who are part of it, are so dedicated to St. Lucy and what the festival stands for. This festival is what gives the city character, a sense of community.”

 New Development with a Historic Foundation

The passing of time brings change. It’s inevitable. One of the neighborhood’s revered institutions, Caniglia’s, closed its doors in 2006. And when Frank Marino decided to finally retire at 80 and close the 13th Street grocery store his father had started 88 years prior, people lined up to buy the last of his homemade Italian sausages and ravioli.

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But there is also continuity in Little Italy. Orsi’s Bakery, at 7th and Pacific, is still going strong. Owner Jim Hall spent much of his childhood at the bakery. His Little League coach was a driver for Orsi’s, so Hall would help him make deliveries on the weekends. In 2010 Hall purchased Orsi’s with his wife, Kathy. “It has such a longstanding history. I didn’t want to see it close,” he explains rather matter-of-factly.

Orsi’s offers a variety of Italian meats, homemade Italian sausages, pastas, and olive oils, but bread from old Orsi recipes is the foundation of the business. Pizza is take-out only, or as old Mr. Orsi used to say, “Get it and hit it.”

Hall now sees a revitalization of Little Italy. DiGiacomo concurs: “While there was a feeling that the neighborhood was deteriorating in the late ’80s and ’90s, that feeling is no longer present. Recent development has helped the neighborhood grow again and redevelop that sense of community.”

The Santa Lucia Hall is under renovation. Out of the ashes of Caniglia’s Steak House has risen a community of town homes called The Towns, developed by Bluestone Development. Its clapboard exterior recalls the siding popular with most of Little Italy single-family dwellings. Driveway names like Lucia and Caniglia Plaza acknowledge the neighborhood’s heritage. Twenty-something urbanites gravitate toward Bluestone’s apartment complex at 8th and Pacific.

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The neighborhood’s price point and feel are appealing, says Bluestone’s Christian Christensen. “The vibe of Little Italy is very connected,” he says. “It’s a longstanding neighborhood and eclectic with 25 to 55 year-olds hanging out together.”

To wit: Fork Fest, a neighborhood festival centering on music, a bocce ball tournament and scavenger hunt, camaraderie, and food (of course). Andrew Marinkovich is one of Fork Fest’s founders. Its success, he asserts, is a communal effort. “You become part of the neighborhood’s fabric” when you move there, Marinkovich says. “You are so close to everyone, you are forced to interact.”

A tight-knit, historic neighborhood is what Michael Giambelluca and his wife, Donnamaria, were seeking when the couple relocated to Omaha this past summer after Michael accepted a job as Creighton Preparatory School’s new president. “Little Italy still seems to have that old-fashioned neighborhood feel that Donnamaria and I had growing up in our own respective areas of New Orleans,” he says. “People know each other and look out for each other. And people have a real pride in the place, that it has deep roots, and wonderful tradition.”

Maha Music Festival 2013

June 20, 2013 by

It’s hard to believe the Maha Music Festival will celebrate its fifth anniversary this year. First held in 2009 at the Lewis & Clark Landing in Downtown Omaha, the all-day outdoor indie rock festival moved to Stinson Park at Aksarben Village in 2011, where it remains today. Each year, the event expands and evolves into a bigger musical machine than it was the year before.

Even more surprisingly, Maha is a nonprofit endeavor, run strictly by volunteers and supported by a host of generous corporate sponsors, including Centris Federal Credit Union, Weitz Investment Management, Schnackel Engineers, and 20 other local and national companies. The event is built on a love for the Omaha community and a passion for music. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy feat. Maha Board President Tre Brashear admits he didn’t exactly know what he was getting into when it first began.

Photo by Chip Duden.

Photo by Chip Duden.

“I jokingly say if we knew how much work [Maha] was going to be, we probably would have never done it in the first place,” Brashear says. “But once it gets in your blood a little bit, you want to make it better and better so it keeps going. It was hard to explain to our families that we weren’t making any money [laughs].”

This year’s music lineup announcement sent shockwaves through the Omaha community when people got word The Flaming Lips were headlining the August 17 event. Lips’ frontman Wayne Coyne and his wild, gray-streaked Afro are all over television lately, with Coyne serving as the spokesperson for Virgin Mobile. Not only are The Flaming Lips huge right now, they’re also the most expensive act Maha has ever booked. The organizers spent 25 percent more on talent this year than last, Brashear shares.

Photo by Josh Hollowell.

Photo by Josh Hollowell.

The initial Maha concept was to generate enough profit from the event to donate to various nonprofit organizations around the community; so far, that hasn’t happened. But the Maha committee is determined to make that goal a reality. With The Flaming Lips headlining and prolific artists such as Matt & Kim, The Thermals, and Bob Mould (Sugar) rounding out the bill, Brashear is hopeful this is the year.

“We thought we’d come out gangbusters out of the gate, but we didn’t do that,” he says. “We’re trying to get enough money to put aside so we know Maha is safe and will continue on, even if it rains or nobody likes the headliners. We are slowly getting there, but it’s not to the point we can distribute anything [to nonprofits] yet.”

Despite the challenges, Maha always has an eye on the future. Hip-Hop has been noticeably absent over the years, and the festival also seems a bit confined with just one day of performances.

“Our vision for Maha is to have multiple days on a weekend,” Brashear explains. “We want to be able to expand to different genres. We still want to be true to all of our indie fans that have grown up with us, but we’re not trying to only be this indie music festival. We want to go beyond that.”

Tickets for the Maha Music Festival are available for purchase online at mahamusicfestival.com. Advanced general admission tickets are $45, and day-of general admission tickets are $55.

Light Up Your Summer

Photography by Mid-America Expositions

Nebraska may not be stereotypical wine country (Hello, California), nor does it play host to the world’s largest hot air balloon festival (that’s reserved for Albuquerque, N.M.). However, that hasn’t stopped Mike and Joe Mancuso from hosting a unique summer’s end event that combines the two in a family-friendly way. On the fringes of Omaha, wine is poured and balloons soar at the Nebraska Balloon & Wine Festival.

Attracting thousands of people each year, this is the event’s seventh anniversary. Happening August 9 and 10 at the Coventry Campus, just south of 204th and Q streets, this year promises an expanded event, with more wines to taste and enjoy and more family fun. The festival begins at 5 p.m. on Friday and 3 p.m. on Saturday. General admission adult tickets can be purchased at the entrance for $7 and children 12 and under tickets are $5.

“Part of the success that we’ve seen with the Taste of Omaha event is the high interest in doing an event in the western part of the city,” says Mike Mancuso, president of Mid-America Expositions, the producer of both the balloon festival and foodie event. “We thought the best atmosphere would be with hot air balloons, which turned out to be a positive and enjoyable part of the event.”DSC_1341_web

Half the festival’s namesake focuses on wine and the ever-growing popularity of wine tastings. Wine connoisseurs, wine lovers, and those interested in trying something new interact with chefs while sampling the various Cornhusker state wines throughout the duration of the festival. A special wine and food presentation will be given at 6 p.m. each night. Tickets can be purchased prior for $12, and includes five wines to taste and a souvenir wine glass, or they can be purchased at the festival for $15.

“This is the one time we can put all the Nebraska wineries together at one place. Nebraska is known for having great soil and producing great crops. Why not grapes and making great wine?” Mancuso says.

Mac’s Creek Winery & Vineyards, out of Lexington, Neb., has been participating in the festival since day one, seven years ago. Joining as a way to reach the Omaha wine market, the high attendance and exceptional running of the event kept the vineyard coming back, says Seth McFarland, owner and vineyard manager.

“We have vastly different wines [from California]. We have different grapes, which gives us a different starting point in terms of behavior growth,” says McFarland. “We’re also Nebraskans, so we’re not afraid of hard work. That, combined with the unpredictable weather, promotes exceptional flavors.”

“This is the one time we can put all the Nebraska wineries together at one place.” – Mike Mancuso

With more than six million spectators attending hot air balloon festivals each year nationwide, Nebraska is throwing its hat into the ring as a premier hot air balloon destination. At the festival, guests can take a hot air balloon ride, as well as see the balloons dance to the musical beat of live performances and witness a balloon light show. The balloons launch at 7 p.m., with the “Balloon Glow” light show beginning at 9 p.m.

Veteran balloonist Mark Enholm will conduct these balloon rides and light shows. Returning this year to serve as balloonmeister, Enholm has been with the festival since its inception. “My job is to coordinate the different balloonists and balloon events,” he says. “All of them are commercial pilots, meaning they’re licensed to carry two or three guests per flight. The first year, we had five balloons participate. This year, we’ll have nine or 10; most are local, though we’ve added one from Des Moines and another from Missouri.”

Enholm credits Mother Nature for contributing to the festival’s growth over the years. “We’ve been very lucky with the weather,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to get—rain, tornadoes, hail…In six years, we’ve been very successful in both our flights and the glows.”IMG_8070_web

He says the professionalism of the balloonists is also a factor. “The pilots go out of their way to make the rides fun and enjoyable. We don’t want riders white-knuckling it. The safety of our passengers is paramount.”

New to this year’s event is the Vintners’ Lunch. This special lunch, from noon until 2 p.m. on Saturday, focuses on supporting local businesses. Fresh, local foods will be paired with Nebraska wines by Omaha’s best chefs to provide a homegrown food experience for luncheon guests.

“Our VIP food and wine tastings have been so popular…we wanted to add another opportunity to add the wine to the food,” Mancuso says. “We thought since the vintners were staying with us overnight, it would be great for them to do a lunch before the last day of the event.”

That’s something Omahans can raise their glasses to.

For more information regarding the Vintners’ Lunch and the event itself, visit showofficeonline.com/nebraskawineballoonfestival.html.