Tag Archives: New York

Ice Age Tusks vs. Blood Ivory

December 22, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Doug Meigs

The buried remains of Ice Age mammoths hold secrets to the story of climate change and the rise of mankind.

Mammoths vanished from Earth some 11,000 years ago at the end of the geological epoch known as the Pleistocene, but their story grows increasingly significant today with contemporary discussions of global warming and the alarming rate of wildlife species extinctions worldwide.

As the United States and China crack down on legal channels for buying and selling African elephant ivory— due to a quirk of international treaty regulations—Chinese ivory traders have begun turning to tusks from prehistoric woolly mammoths.

Traditional Chinese ivory craftsmanship has a history dating back thousands of years. Ironically, the continuation of the ancient Chinese art form could become dependent on supplies of ivory from extinct woolly mammoths.

Mammoths are the ancient relatives of modern elephants. Although their closest living relative is the Asian elephant, they also share the biological family “Elephantidae” with African elephants. Paleontologists have excavated their long-nosed (i.e., proboscidean) kin on nearly every continent, except for Antarctica and Australia.

Nebraska has an especially rich history of elephants. In fact, the mammoth is Nebraska’s official state fossil. Mammoths or mastodons have been uncovered in all but three of Nebraska’s 93 counties (every one except Grant, Arthur, and Wayne counties).

“Our elephants first come over about 14 million years ago into North America, and Nebraska is probably the only place in the country where you can find a complete sequence until their demise in the late Ice Age, 10-12,000 years ago. Nebraska is probably one of the few places where you can document the entire history of the Proboscidea in North America,” says George Corner, collection manager at Morrill Hall, the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln.

mammoth2

Nebraska’s State Fossil

Mammoths were mythical creatures to the young Corner. As a kid growing up in rural Blue Hill, his family would travel to the capital every year for the state basketball tournament. Across from the Nebraska Coliseum (the tournament’s home prior to the Devaney Center’s construction) was Morrill Hall.

He would resort to temper tantrums if his father wouldn’t let him “go look at the elephants” during their Lincoln visits, Corner says with a laugh.

The paleontologist (who turned 69 in January) stands in the middle of “Elephant Hall,” where gigantic specimens of the state’s rich proboscidean history loom overhead. He has spent 47 years working for the museum—starting with field studies as an undergraduate student of geology, and with the museum’s highway salvage project during and after his master’s in geology.

Corner, who jokes about being as old as the creatures on display, credits the bulk of the collection to Erwin H. Barbour. In 1891, the Ohio-raised Barbour came to the University of Nebraska to head its geology department. Within a year of landing in Lincoln, Barbour had taken charge of curating the museum; he served as its director for roughly 50 years.

The crown jewel of the museum’s Elephant Hall goes by the nickname Archie. That’s short for Archidiskodon imperator maibeni. Archie is a Columbian mammoth (a southern branch of the mammoth genus, which may have lacked the shaggy-coat of its northern woolly mammoth relatives). Both Columbian and woolly mammoths once roamed the grasslands of Nebraska.

“We like to claim that Archie is the largest mounted mammoth in the world, but I’ll show you one thing that Barbour did,” Corner says. “Look at his toes. He’s mounted on his tippy-toes. Now, you can’t tell me that an elephant of that size could stand on his tippy-toes.” (Archie would have likely weighed in the realm of 8,400 kilograms, the size of a large bull African elephant plus 20 percent.) “But Barbour wanted as much height as possible.”

Archie stands in a semi-circle of proboscidean specimens that stretch from prehistoric non-elephants into modern-day varieties—from long-jawed mastodons, to stegomastodons, to mastodons, to the elephant family: mammoths (though a woolly mammoth is not on display at the museum) and culminating in modern Asian and African elephants.

“Some of these critters came over to North America as they were, so there wasn’t a lot of evolution in place. Most of the evolution probably took place in the Old World and then migrated over in the late Miocene,” Corner says, explaining how elephants traveled to Nebraska via the Bering land bridge that once linked northeastern Russia to Alaska.

Asian and African elephants have only recently ventured into Nebraska with help from modern man.

The museum’s Asian elephant specimens came from two that died when a Campbell Brothers Circus train caught fire at Pawnee City in 1904 (only to be excavated by Barbour’s graduate student two years later). The museum’s African elephants on display include the skeleton of an African elephant that had died in a German zoo—acquired before the construction of Morrill Hall in 1927—and taxidermy mounts shot during a 1920s safari by Adam Breede, the publisher of the Hastings Tribune (who contributed most of the museum’s collection of African taxidermy).

“In Nebraska, mammoths became extinct along with 85 percent of all animals larger than the size of a jackrabbit 10-12,000 years ago. And I can’t tell you why,” Corner says, who speculates that climate change, disease, maybe an asteroid, or any combination of such factors, could have driven Nebraska’s mammoths to extinction at approximately the same time that mammoths went extinct worldwide.

Early humans lived alongside mammoths in the landscape that would eventually become the state of Nebraska. But Corner doubts that mankind could have been entirely responsible for the demise of mammoths: “Early Nebraskans witnessed the extinction of these animals, and they were opportunists; they hunted them—but I do not think they were the final cause.”

On remote islands, isolated pockets of woolly mammoths lingered past the species’ mass die-off. The last known living woolly mammoths went extinct on Wrangel Island (a secluded Russian territory in the Arctic Ocean) as recently as 3,700 years ago.

Why did mammoths go extinct? “That’s the big question in paleontology,” Corner says. “Go to the African savannah—we had analogs in the New World to all these animals. In Nebraska, we had elephants, rhinoceros, and camels. Why did all those big game animals become extinct here when they managed to survive in Africa—where there were more humans hunting them? Why? We don’t know.”

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA
Remains of more than 10,000 extinct elephants have been found in Nebraska, but far less than 1 percent of the state has been carefully explored for fossils.

Elephant and Mammoth Ivory

Modern elephants in Africa face persistent pressure from poachers and conflict with human settlements that encroach on an evermore limited range of habitat.

To address the poaching crisis, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (which went into effect in 1975) banned the ivory trade in 1989. But African elephant populations had already collapsed during the decade leading up to the ban, falling from roughly 1.3 million to 600,000 elephants.

mammoth4Despite decades of coordinated international efforts to protect African elephants, grim statistics remain a reality today: “An elephant is killed every 15 minutes,” according to The Ivory Game, Netflix’s original documentary released in November 2016. The vast majority of that blood ivory is destined for China.

The CITES ban has allowed several technical loopholes for African elephant ivory. For example: pre-Convention and pre-ban (antique) ivory could be bought or sold, as could ivory harvested from African safari hunts.

After Beijing declared traditional Chinese ivory carving to be an “intangible cultural heritage” in 2006, China participated in a one-off purchase of 108 tons of ivory sourced from naturally deceased elephants in 2008. The sale raised $15 million for African conservation, and the Chinese government has been slowly allocating the stockpile to licensed factories for sale only in the domestic Chinese market. Many environmentalists view the sale as a failure for stimulating demand and providing a front for the laundering of “blood ivory.”

Mammoth ivory is an entirely different beast. CITES does not regulate the trade in fossils or extinct animals. Prehistoric ivory is a way around the global regulation of elephant ivory.

Most of the world’s untouched mammoth ivory remains locked in the frozen permafrost of Siberia. When snows melt during the brief Arctic summer (from mid-July to mid-September), riverbanks often reveal prehistoric remains. Warmer summers means the permafrost is thawed longer every year. That means more and more mammoth tusks are protruding from the ground every year.

Indigenous locals, seasonal tusk hunters, and Russian gangs aggregate the raw tusks in Siberia. Officially, the tusks must be approved for export by the government authorities, but traders (and smugglers) are increasingly taking their purchases directly into mainland China over the land border with Russia, Mongolia, or neighboring countries.

Chinese demand for mammoth ivory has pros and cons. The trade is potentially beneficial for identification of excavation sites—hunting of tusks is incentivized, so tusks are saved that would otherwise be destroyed from exposure to the elements after millennia underground; however, the trade destroys the integrity of excavation sites disrupted by tusk hunters.

According to John E. Scanlon, the Secretary-General of CITES, more than 90 percent of Russian mammoth ivory exports went to China (including Hong Kong) in the past 10 years, with total Chinese imports surpassing 80 tons annually from 2010 to 2015 according to the official trade database of the United Nations.

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA
Nebraska’s state fossil is not just ancient history. The mammoth is an important player in the global ivory trade today.

Changing Regulatory Landscapes

Today, on the crowded streets of Hong Kong’s tourist districts, there are roughly half a dozen storefronts that advertise mammoth ivory products for sale. Signs visible outside the mammoth shops promote the legality of prehistoric ivory—tusks of extinct woolly mammoths harvested from the frozen permafrost of Russian Siberia.

Hong Kong played a crucial role in developing China’s niche mammoth ivory market. Before and after the CITES ban, the former-British colony (which became a special administrative region of China in 1997) also served as a key transit hub for elephant ivory—legal and illegal—entering the mainland Chinese market.

Implementation of the 1989 elephant ivory ban brought about major declines in Hong Kong’s ivory carving industry. During the same time period, however, the mainland Chinese economy enjoyed rapid economic growth—boosting demand for luxurious ivory products among the nation’s nouveau riche.

As demand for ivory intensified in China, the government implemented an extensive licensing system, mandatory certification cards for legal elephant ivory products, stiff penalties, and a crackdown on smuggling. Despite the risks, black market ivory dealers continued to cash in on Chinese market conditions to maintain the country’s status as the world’s primary destination for black market elephant ivory (followed next by the United States).

mammoth5Destructions of seized ivory stockpiles followed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushed more than 6 tons of confiscated ivory in Denver, Colorado, in November 2013. Then, two months later, Chinese authorities crushed more than 6 tons of its own seized ivory in Guangzhou province. Over the course of 2014-2016, Hong Kong’s government followed suit with the incineration of 28.86 tons, nearly all of its seizure stockpile—the world’s largest ivory burn until Kenya torched 105 tons ($172 million worth) of ivory in 2016.

During a September 2015 meeting in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to enact “nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.”

In the U.S., tightened elephant ivory laws went into effect in July of 2016 to close loopholes for pre-ban ivory, antiques, and hunting trophies.

Cheryl Lo, a senior wildlife crime officer with the World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong told Omaha Magazine in late November that she expected Beijing to reveal China’s implementation plan sometime in December. No status update had been released as of the magazine’s press deadline. Hong Kong officials had already announced the implementation plan for the territory’s more stringent ivory regulation in June 2016.

Lo says her research for the WWF found that Hong Kong’s registered elephant ivory stockpile has remained level for many years, indicating that traders were likely replenishing with black market stocks.

She says more research on mammoth ivory in Hong Kong is needed. At this moment, she says there is no evidence to prove systematic laundering or smuggling of African elephant ivory into China under the guise of mammoth tusks. “The current concern is probably at the individual store level—shops that intentionally or accidentally misrepresent or mislabel to consumers that elephant ivory is mammoth,” Lo says, noting that the potential for wrongdoing should still be monitored.

In the future, China’s implementation of stricter ivory regulations will likely increase market pressure on the prehistoric ivory stocks. Being able to tell the difference, then, becomes paramount. Sometimes the difference can be difficult to identify—especially in tusks that are heavily processed or scrimshawed with ink.

Mammoth tusks sometimes exhibit a rocky/mineralized exterior, discoloration from being underground, with denser consistency than elephant tusks. But this generalization does not always apply to high quality tusks gathered from the permafrost.

Likewise, tusks from adult male mammoths are generally larger with greater spiral curvature than African elephant tusks. “But this is not true of all mammoth tusks. Some very much resemble tusks of elephants,” says University of Michigan professor Daniel Fisher, one of the world’s foremost experts on mammoths and mammoth tusks. “There are, of course, juvenile mammoths whose tusks are not large at all, and female mammoths whose tusks do not show much spiral curvature.”

While forensic methods can certify a tusk as belonging to a mammoth, the procedures could damage the specimen or require specialized lab equipment. The most certain means of verification requires a polished cross-section of the tusk. Close inspection of such a surface reveals intersecting spiral curves called “Schreger lines.” Elephant tusks exhibit Schreger lines that intersect with an angle greater than 115 degrees, while mammoth tusks exhibit an angle of less than 90 degrees.

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA Paleontologists estimate that at least 3,000 elephant fossils remain buried in the average square mile of Nebraska countryside.

Chinese Mammoth Ivory Dealers

Daniel Chan—the owner of Lise Carving & Jewellery in Hong Kong—claims to have first introduced mammoth ivory to the market.

“I began buying mammoth tusks from suppliers in Alaska and Canada in 1983. That was a very busy time for [elephant] ivory. In 1983, nobody wanted to use the prehistoric material, only me. I bought and kept it,” Chan says. “In the early ’90s, nobody was using this material. I was the first Hong Kong person to visit Moscow looking for mammoth tusks.”

In his Hong Kong factory/warehouse, several craftsmen are working at a long carving table. Whirring electrical tools spit ivory dust in the air as they carve Buddhist figures and trinkets from ancient material. There is even a baby mammoth skeleton in the corner of the room. It faces a mountain of mammoth tusks stored in shelves and piled on the floor. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chan pioneered the supply chain from Siberia to Hong Kong via Moscow. Competition followed. Other ivory dealers moved into his market niche and demand for mammoth ivory steadily grew. Mainland Chinese smugglers buying direct from Siberia and transporting their stocks over the land border with Russia became a major annoyance, undercutting his business.

mammoth3-2One of Chan’s peers, carving master Chu Chung-shing says, “I can carve on any materials. I don’t need to break the law to make a living.” Chu owns two upscale shops that exclusively sell mammoth tusk artwork in Hong Kong’s most popular tourist districts.

Chu’s Prestige Crafts storefronts glisten with ostentatious carvings, which stretch up and around gigantic, spiraling mammoth tusks. His work was exhibited at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and he has had large exhibitions promoted by committees of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Chan and Chu shared similar experiences in their search for elephant ivory alternatives.

“The ban was a huge blow to me. I even carved out of ox bone, but only for a short time. Everybody was trying something new after the ban,” Chu says, who eventually found an ideal substitute in mammoth ivory, even though the prehistoric tusks are denser and more prone to cracking than contemporary elephant tusks.

Both ivory insiders emphasize that any new ivory ban from the government should not impact the mammoth ivory trade because of the fundamental difference between the two products.

In Beijing, the China Association of Mammoth Ivory Art Research issues cards to authenticate mammoth ivory products, similar to the system mandated by the Chinese government for elephant ivory carvings. However, use of the mammoth registration cards is voluntary.

Chen Shu, the president of the association, maintains an extensive showroom of mammoth carving arts at his home. Large polished mammoth tusks join examples of historic schools of traditional Chinese ivory carving—from Canton ivory balls carved with impossibly intricate concentric spheres, to Beijing-style painted ivory carvings, and even delicate modern jewelry designs.

Many domestic buyers consider mammoth ivory to be a commodity investment, while others have used the expensive carvings to bribe or otherwise buy influence.

Chen watched prices skyrocket for prehistoric ivory in the past decade. The growth far outpaced changes in elephant ivory prices. He says raw elephant ivory increased from roughly 1,000-2,000 yuan per kilogram in 2003 to 8,000-12,000 yuan per kilogram in 2013; over the same timespan, raw mammoth tusks that once sold for hundreds of yuan rose in price to 30,000-40,000 yuan per raw kilogram.

In the summer of 2016, Chen says that the mammoth ivory market was experiencing a downturn following the central government’s anti-corruption campaign, a slowing Chinese economy, and the Sino-U.S. agreement to strengthen regulation of the world’s two largest markets for black market ivory.

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA

One mastodon is discovered for every 10 mammoths in the state.

Regulation of Mammoth Ivory

Mammoth tusks occupy an awkward place between opposing views on the global ivory trade. In the view of Chinese traders, mammoth ivory is an alternative to African elephant ivory that sustains their traditional craftsmanship.


Many environmental activists, on the other hand, view the mammoth ivory trade as a means of sustaining a hated industry.

Currently, India is the only country to have banned the sale of mammoth ivory. In the United States, four states have bans on the sale and purchase of mammoth ivory: New York, New Jersey, California, and Hawaii.

Nevertheless, Esmond Martin, one of the world’s leading elephant conservationists has cited mammoth ivory as a possible beneficial alternative to elephant ivory (so long as mammoth carvings are produced on a large enough scale that they can be easily differentiated from elephant carvings). Unfortunately for mammoth traders who buy bulk quantities that often include fragments and lower-grade tusks, such scale is not always financially viable.

Mammoth ivory was recently addressed at the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties in South Africa from Sept. 24 through Oct. 5, when national representatives gathered to discuss the state of global wildlife regulations.

In response to the “indirect threat” to elephant populations through the potential for laundering, a draft resolution from Israel urged monitoring of specimens and new mammoth ivory regulations. But the CITES secretariat ruled against the resolution, in part, due to the anecdotal nature of evidence.

Evidence published during the prior year included a 10-month undercover investigation by the Elephant Action League in Hong Kong and Beijing. The undercover report claimed that the Beijing-based Beijing Mammoth Art Co. Ltd had manipulated its connections in Hong Kong to avoid Chinese ivory regulations.

Hong Kong’s environmental groups have mounted a vocal campaign against the territory’s ivory traders. A coalition of local school children protested the Chinese state-owned retail chain Chinese Arts & Crafts (which has outlets across the mainland and Hong Kong), and in 2014, the retailer responded with an announcement that it would sell only mammoth ivory. The commitment did not apply across mainland China, however; the Beijing arm of the company—an enormous shopping mall located near the historic city center—continued to sell both elephant and mammoth ivory products in summer of 2016.

“After the Hong Kong government bans elephant ivory in the new year, Hong Kong’s trade in mammoth ivory will also need a closer look,” says Alex Hofford, an environmental activist and WildAid wildlife campaigner, who alleges that prehistoric ivory trade is a “cynical laundering mechanism for freshly poached elephant ivory.”

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA
The sale or purchase of mammoth ivory is not regulated in the state of Nebraska.

A Precious Scientific Commodity

University of Michigan professor Daniel Fisher says that China’s mammoth ivory supply chain is cutting into a precious scientific resource.

“Tusks hold the history of a mammoth’s life,” Fisher says. “Tusks are highly specialized incisor teeth, and they grow by adding thin layers of material, only 10-20 microns thick, for every day of the animal’s life. The composition and density of new tusk material varies with the seasons, in an annual cycle, so that a tusk also ends up showing annual layers that are, in principle, something like the rings of a tree.”

Cross-sections of tusks analyzed under a microscope can reveal the mammoth’s reproductive cycles, daily behavior, and might even offer clues into the secrets of global warming through changes in the creature’s diet. “We’re also looking at how they responded to human expansion into the Arctic, so this is also a story of our history,” he says.

For the past 18 years, Fisher has made annual trips to study mammoth excavation sites in Siberia. While exploring the most desolate corners of the Russian tundra, he has traveled by helicopter, boat, reindeer sled, and even hovercraft. But most of his fieldwork is done on foot.

“In many cases, I was following in the footsteps of the ivory hunters, and they are getting all they can. Even if some ivory doesn’t fetch a prime price, it might be worth something, and they don’t leave much behind,” he says.

Sometimes the modern mammoth hunters discover tusks from places where ancient human hunters stored carcass parts. Removing specimens from these sites destroys the archeological context, which scientists could otherwise study. Sometimes, he says the Russian Academy of Sciences will flag tusks for scientific retention. But that’s still rare, and by the time they do, site-specific data is already lost.

Fisher’s research has taken him all over the world. Even Nebraska. In 2006, he examined the Crawford mammoths (then-housed at Morrill Hall in Lincoln). The fighting mammoths, locked in eternal battle, are now on display at Fort Robinson’s Trailside Museum in the northwestern corner of the state.

George Corner remembers Fisher’s visit, and he laments that most of the tusks recovered with Nebraska’s mammoths are in no suitable shape for carving.

“You don’t hear a lot about fossil ivory in Nebraska. Special conditions preserve the tusks, like the frozen permafrost of Alaska or Siberia,” Corner says. “If you were to pick up a tusk from the loess soil around Omaha, you would just have a pile of tusk fragments.”

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA “We find elephant remains all the time in Nebraska. But it’s rare to find a skeleton or even a partial skeleton anymore. That’s because of a change in road construction practice. Instead of letting road cuts lay open, the Roads Department will immediately grass them over or seed them with hay. So, we don’t have a lot of time anymore to look at road cuts.”

– George Corner

mammoth1

Gurdon Wattles and the Streetcar Riots of 1909

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt WIeczorek

It is difficult to imagine Omaha’s once-bustling streetcar system. Scarce evidence remains: There are alleys downtown paved in brick with rail lines running down them, and some old buildings that were once car barns, but that’s about it.

If there is little physical reminder of streetcars’ heyday, there is nothing left of the labor unrest that enveloped the era, despite the fact that it was national news and left an astonishing legacy.

The main character of this story is Gurdon Wattles. A native of New York and a graduate of Dartmouth, Wattles came to Omaha in 1892, finding work here as the vice president of one of the city’s banking concerns.

pagesanThere were several competing forms of transportation at the time. There was the Omaha Horse Railway, which provided something called “horsecars,” which were essentially streetcars drawn by horses. They had five miles of track running through the city, transporting almost a half a million Omahans per year. Then there was the Omaha Cable Tramway Co., which owned a cable car, the only one in the city. The Omaha Horse Railway eventually merged with the Omaha Cable Tramway Co. in 1889.

The city was a mess of rail lines and competing services, which would sometimes sue each other. Wattles joined the fray in 1890, buying controlling interest in one of the companies, and then taking advantage of a Nebraska legislative measure calling for all the lines to be consolidated. The result was the Omaha Traction Co., which was not only one of the nation’s earliest streetcar lines, but also one of it’s longest–lasting. Omaha still had streetcars in 1955.

The streetcar company grew to include 140 miles of tracks and 1,500 employees, and that was a lot of employees to keep happy. In 1909, a national streetcar union called the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees attempted to unionize local labor, but Wattles rebuffed the attempts in a way that was common at the time. He hired strikebreakers.

Wattles told his men that he would not allow a union. When they went on strike, he replaced them with laborers from New York, whom Wattles cheerily described as a “jolly lot of disreputable” and “always ready for a fight.”

The strikers were ready for a fight, too. On September 19, 1909, they rioted in downtown Omaha, attacking streetcars and battling strikebreakers. They continued to riot for four days, and largely had the support of the public, who refused to ride streetcars during the strike.

But the strikers could not compete against cheap labor that was on hand to fill their positions, and by October the strike had ended. Wattles would write a book about it, crowing about his success. The book—titled A Crime Against Labor—argued for a standing national force of strikebreakers for similar incidents of labor unrest.

However, the strike damaged Wattles’ reputation in Omaha. Once a city leader, he felt himself attacked by “socialistic and anarchistic elements.” In 1920, he moved to a small citrus grove in Los Angeles, and invested heavily in the development of the neighborhood, which expanded quickly and grew rich.

And that’s the strangest legacy of the 1909 strike: That neighborhood was Hollywood. His mansion still stands there today.

Visit douglascohistory.org for more information. Omaha Magazine

Samuel Brett Williams’ Revelation

August 7, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Rapture. The Apocalypse. The end of the world. And the New Jerusalem is in…Arkansas?

Hopefully, someone packed their Rapture kit. Oh…throw in an atheist and things just got real.

Revelation, adapted from a book (yes, that book), is a dark comedy written by Samuel Brett Williams.

“It’s fun as hell can be on Earth,” Williams says.

Williams, like his character Brandon in Revelation, moved from Arkadelphia, Arkansas, to New York City. His scripts are typically set in his own Bible Belt backyard.

Williams says the “strange stuff” about his former state is true, while the “normal stuff” is made up. He attempts to be conscientious, though, “not to leave Arkansas and piss on it.” He will be the first to point out the flaws, but will also be the first to defend his hometown.

Growing up there, he admits feeling smothered and suffocated by the hellfire-and-brimstone culture.

“At 10 years old, burning in hell is the most terrifying thing that can happen,” Williams recalls.

Once he left his cocoon, Williams thought of religion as, well…absurd. His intent is never to make fun of it, but explore it. Kick it. Push it.

Many of Williams’ plays dare the audience to laugh at the morbid while bringing light and understanding.

“It’s like Hannibal Lecter gives them a good meal before he kills them,” Williams explains.

Williams’ idea first emerged when reflecting on a high school class he took on the Book of Revelation.

He releases a booming laugh, looking a bit like a dark-haired Seth Rogan.

“Wouldn’t it be the funniest thing in the world if we all died and went to an alien planet? Tom Cruise would jump out and yell, ‘Damn it, I told you,’” he says.

He pitched his idea at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference (before the onslaught of all the end-of-the-world movies, he is quick to point out). The National New Play Network commissioned him to write it in 2013.

His comedies deal with darker issues, but Williams wants his audience to “laugh and gasp” at the same time. His first full-length play, Woodpecker, focused on torture in Guantanamo Bay. Another, Derby Day, was more personal and characterized his brother and uncles betting on a horse that dies.   

In his spare time, Williams has directed and been a screenwriter for television. His play Revival will soon be a movie.

“It is Little Miss Sunshine meets The Wrestler,” Williams says.

Although he enjoys script writing, he says nothing is better than just seeing a chair on stage. There is nowhere to hide, and the audience has to rely on good storytelling. Williams’ plays have been seen in New York, Los Angeles, and as far away as Scotland.

Revelation will hit the stage at Shelterbelt Theater this fall as part of their By Local/Buy Local season.

Williams loved the intimate setting of the black box space at Shelterbelt and was excited to do something in the Omaha area.

Shelterbelt Executive Director Roxanne Wach mentions she could not be more thrilled to have a local season.

Is Wach worried Revelation may be too controversial for a conservative Nebraska city?

“Bring it. It’s good to make people think,” Wach says.

Williams says the Shelterbelt family has been “fearless” and he isn’t worried about offending anyone. Well…except his mother.

Despite all his successes, Williams’ greatest achievement is teaching his screen writing program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Oh, and having the strength to divorce his wife. His next play, Our House, is about the end of his marriage.

Williams tackles the topic with his sardonic humor and a written dedication to his ex: “For Claudia, go to hell.”

Visit shelterbelt.org for more information. Encounter

Shelterbelt1

Homer’s Manager Mike Fratt

August 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I walked into the oldest business in the Old Market looking for Mike Fratt. My search for the general manager of Homer’s Music was blocked by towering racks of vinyl records and CDs.

Then I heard his voice. The voice that hosted a three-hour radio show called “Sunday Morning” for 10 years on 89.7 The River—until he got tired of getting up at 5 a.m. every Sunday. The radio show on the campus of Iowa Western was 16th in the ratings when he began. Several years later, ratings had zoomed to third place.

A bassist, Fratt has played in local bands for 30-plus years, touring to concerts in cities such as San Francisco and New York. (He harbors a special love for western swing and bluegrass.) He also has written about music for various publications.

Fratt has worked in the retail side of the music biz since his high school days in 1975, when he worked at Musicland at Crossroads Mall and the Record Shop at Westroads Mall.

The Omaha native has worked at Homer’s for 38 years. One of the few independent music stores still standing in the nation, Homers once had as many as 11 locations in Omaha and Lincoln. Now all that remains is the glass-front store in the Old Market boasting album covers and local shows.

“The ‘Walmarting’ of music, followed by the digital revolution, pushed independent music stores out of business,” says Fratt.

The recent resurgence of the popularity of vinyl records and their warmer sound have brought buyers back into the store. Record Store Day, a worldwide event held the third Saturday in April that was co-founded by the Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS), also has created enthusiasm.

As a CIMS board member, Fratt helped organize Record Store Day. He is currently CIMS chairman.

It’s an exciting day for vinyl record fans. A line forms down Howard Street and around the corner, with people hoping to get a limited edition item. Some fans arrive at 3 a.m. The store doesn’t open until 10 a.m. This year, an estimated 500 people stood in line.

The scene is duplicated around the world. “In some cities, people start lining up the night before,”
Fratt says.

In 1985, a fire in an adjacent building destroyed the space Homer’s occupied at 1210 Howard Street. Homer’s moved to 1114 Howard after the fire, where the store did business for 25 years.

Homer’s returned to 1210 Howard in 2010, one of five locations the Old Market store has occupied in its 45-year history.

From a small shop in the middle of the country, Mike Fratt has made a nationwide impact. The Wall Street Journal featured him on its cover in November 2014 when he led a battle against moving Record Release Day from Tuesday to Friday.

“People already shop weekends,” says Fratt, who at the time served on the Music Business Association board of directors.

He lost that battle, but won another after organizing retailers to file an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the right to sell used goods.

“Justice Breyer noted part of our brief in his decision,” he says. “That was a career highlight for me.”

Fratt also served on the board of directors of the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards. He organized the first multi-venue showcase in the Benson area, where he and his wife, Sarah, live.

About three to five percent of Homer’s sales happens online. Tourism is a healthy contributor to the bottom line, he adds.

“From April through October, one-third of our business is from tourists. They don’t have a store like this in their city, whether New York, Kansas City, or Chicago.”  Encounter

Visit homersmusic.com for more information.

MikeFratt1

Denise Cerny

November 12, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I don’t ever remember being bored,” says Denise Cerny.

She sits at her kitchen table for just a couple of moments before jumping up to pour a glass of iced tea. She sits again, then jumps up to grab her iPad so she can investigate something on the Internet.

The constant movement fits her well. Her parents are Ardith Smeal, 92, and the late Donald Smeal. Donald owned Smeal Fire Apparatus Co. for more than 50 years. The company is one of two in Nebraska manufacturing those bright red vehicles people see rushing to eliminate fires.

Along with their west Omaha home, she and her husband, Rod, keep a home in Phoenix. Denise gardens, often finding unusual plants to keep in pots on the back deck. She and her husband also golf avidly.

“Activity is important in our life and in our relationship with each other,” says a sister, Mary Lou Tomka of Lincoln. “My dad and mom had seven daughters, and five of us played softball at the same time. We’ve always been involved in activities.”

Cerny long kept in shape as a marathon runner. She ran marathons in New York, Los Angeles, Alaska, and Hawaii.

CernyPhoto3

“When the kids were little I used it as my down time,” Cerny says. “There’s something about being in the open air, focused on running—it keeps me going.”

Make that it “kept” her going. Five years ago, at age 58, her knees began to hurt after running. She did not admit it at first—she liked having strong knees.

“That was one thing I would always say. I would run, and I would look up and say ‘Thank you, God, for good knees!’”

She finally saw an orthopedist, also a friend of hers, who said, “You have osteoarthritis in both knees.”

Cerny’s heart fell. She had to quit running.

“It took a long time before I could drive past a runner and not be envious.”

She underwent surgery and spent several weeks on the couch recuperating.

“Before I had the surgery I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’” Cerny says. “I had to be in the house.”

The surgery could not keep her down totally.

“I started playing Rock Band,” Cerny says with a girlish giggle. “I had never played a video game before…but you know what, it’s a lot of fun!”

After several weeks, she started moving again, even if the athletic activity switched gears.

These days Cerny’s great athletic passion is bicycling. She rides her bicycle frequently around Omaha and has ridden RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) every year for the past 12 years.

“I was still marathoning and my sisters (Renee Smeal of Omaha and Tomka) said ‘you ought to do this.’” Cerny says. “At that time I didn’t have a very good bike. After a couple of years I got a better bike. You would not believe how much easier that made things.”

Cerny’s definition of better includes lighter. The lower weight of the bike allowed her to ride faster and longer. This was especially helpful five years ago.

CernyPhoto2

“I had done RAGBRAI right before my surgery because I wanted to be in shape,” Cerny says. “And that worked!”

Cerny discovered that bicycling does not hurt her knees.

“I had to find other ways to take up that slack,” Cerny says of not being able to run. “I did RAGBRAI the next year after surgery and was still fine. I started working with a trainer because I thought I needed someone who knows what they are doing so I don’t hurt myself again.”

Bicycling gives her the outlet once taken up by running.

“Once you do it, you have to keep doing it,” Cerny quips. “The people of Iowa are so great with their pies and the parties they throw. The last day when you get to the Mississippi, you’re (geographically) as high as you’re going to be all week, and you want people to know how great this is.”

Tomka no longer rides on RAGBRAI, but Smeal and Cerny ride with a group from Omaha known as Team Angry during the weeklong party/bicycling event.

“My sisters talked me into joining a team for safety reasons,” says Cerny, who still rides solo during the week, catching up with the group at her own pace.

“It isn’t a race, and it isn’t a ride where you have to stick together,” says Smeal. “The only time we ride together is the last day. On the last day we like to enter the final town together. You ride in as a team and people cheer and you get your picture taken with your team dipping their front tires into
the Mississippi.”

No matter whether Cerny bikes, golfs, or plays Rock Band, she keeps a “can do” attitude in mind.

“I really like my life,” Cerny says. “I’m really lucky I can do that.”

CernyPhoto1

Tehillah Alphonso

April 20, 2015 by
Photography by Scott Drickey

Originally published in March/April 2015 edition of Omaha Magazine.

For 17-year-old Tehillah Alphonso, landing a spotlight on the big stage is quickly shifting from dream to reality.

A junior at Marian High School, Alphonso was recently selected to perform in an Honors Choir at Carnegie Hall after an auditioning process that involved thousands of candidates from all over the country.

20150114_sd_1712

“Carnegie Hall is a huge deal,” Alphonso says. “Hopefully what I learn there will help me move forward with what I hope to do in the future.”

Alphonso first started singing with her church as a 3-year-old, although she didn’t “really get serious” about vocal performance until her freshman year of high school. Currently, she lifts her voice in multiple organizations, including the A Capella Club at her school and the worship choir at her church, where her father is the pastor.

Alphonso’s dreams go far beyond Omaha, though.

“If I could, I would definitely want to be performing my own music for people, touring around the world,” she says. “I want to inspire people to take on challenges they wouldn’t think in a million years that they could do.”

Alphonso cites the a cappella cover band Pentatonix as a major influence for her own music. She and her choir opened for their concert in A Cappella Academy this summer. The group’s humility, Alphonso says, is what inspired her after meeting them.

“As a performer, musician, whatever you are, what you want your main career goal to be is to inspire other people,” she says. “It’s to make people forget about the problems they have, even if it’s just for a moment, or to relax and enjoy life, even if it’s just for a second.”

Looking to the future, Alphonso is both excited and nervous about her big performance in Carnegie Hall—but mostly excited about the opportunities it’ll surely foster.

“I’m hoping for a measure of growth,” Alphonso says. “I just want to keep improving and getting better. I don’t want to be stagnant in my skill; I want to always be heading upward.”

With such a big voice, it can be easy to forget that Alphonso is just beginning to look at college life, where she hopes her vocal talent will carry her to a career she loves.

There’s an old joke where a tourist on the streets of New York stops an earnest young man carrying a violin case.

“Excuse me,” the visitor begins, “but can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice,” begins the reply. “Practice!”

Alphonso is committed to the rigors of voice work and is now already looking beyond the famed concert space.

“I know Carnegie Hall is setting a platform for where I’ll step in the next few years,” Alphonso says. “I want to be the epitome of what I aspire to be.”

Beat the Heat

Photography by Carlisle

Well girls, if you’re 60-plus there’s a lot you all have in common.  Regardless of shape and size, whether you’re short, tall, curvy, or thin, there are certain places you prefer to keep covered because they show your age.  In winter, turtlenecks and scarves cover up wrinkled necks.  Flabby arms can hide under long-sleeved blouses, sweaters, and jackets.  Nobody can see spider veins through your slacks, jeans, and boots.

Then along comes summer.  Aaaargh!

It’s a time when many women wonder how to keep cool when temperatures rise while still being comfortable baring parts kept under cover all winter long.  Once it’s time to “undress” for the heat, the challenge to do so with style can be overwhelming.

Perhaps most importantly, embrace who you are and what you look like now.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you don’t deserve quality new clothes just because you don’t look like you once did. Always dress for now and make the best of who you are!  I never knew or designed for a woman at any age who was totally happy with her body as is. And the better the body, the more the desire for perfection.

So now that the heat is on, here is my head-to-toe advice for looking your best while keeping your cool.

Hair
The easiest, breeziest styles are those that are either very short or long enough to pony-up.

Face
Light make-up…with sunscreen.

Skin…moisturizing sunscreen everywhere!

Neck…open necklines will keep you cooler and take the focus away from the lines in your neck.  Summer scarves are great when it’s moderately warm, but when it’s hot, let go of hang ups about your neck.

Upper arms….as a society, we’re all too concerned with keeping them covered unless they look fabulous.  I say wear sleeveless anyway.   You limit your wardrobe too much if

you won’t wear sleeveless dresses and tops.  If covering arms up is a must for you, don’t exhaust yourself shopping for tops and dresses with sleeves.  Buy sleevleless ones, and wear light weight, loose-fitting natural fiber shirts and unlined jackets  loosely over them.  Sweaters…even cotton ones will be hot in hot weather.  They’re for cool evenings and air-conditioned places.  Scarves

and stoles can cover arms nicely, but you usually have work at keeping them in place.

Waist…Tight, heavy belts will make you feel hotter.

Legs…Lot’s of options here relating to Pants, Skirts and Dresses

PANTS in lightweight cottons and natural fiber blends will be most comfortable.  Jeans and most dark denims over-heat  in summer.   Ankle and capri pants are great.  SHORTS are taboo unless they are knee length.

SKIRTS are a cool and comfy alternative to pants and shorts. Many fun styles and lengths to choose from, but remember your knees are your length guide.  You can expose them, but nothing above them.

DRESSES can be your best wardrobe friends all summer.  If you remember the 60s, you should remember shifts.  Straight dresses to throw on and go everywhere in.  They’ve made a comeback , and they’re easy, cool, and fun to accessorize with jewelry, scarves .

SHEER PANTYHOSE or BARE LEGS?  Look in the mirror, you decide!

Feet…Take care of your feet.  They take you everywhere.  Keep them clean, buffed, moisturized and pretty.

SHOES and SANDALS should be fashionable and must be comfortable.  Comfort shoes have come a long way in looks recently.  No need to wear tennis shoes outside of the gym, and don’t wear shoes too tall to walk gracefully in either.  A woman should walk and carry herself gracefully at every age.

Finally, Black is your “Best Friend” color in every season but summer.  It really does absorb heat so wear White and lighter colors to keep your cool.

Mary Anne Vaccaro is a clothing and product designer and an image consultant to businesses and individuals.  She is also a sales consultant for Carlisle and PerSe, New York.

maryannevaccaro.com         carlislecollection.com

large

Mary Clare Sweet

July 28, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The 8 a.m. hour may be a time when most are driving to work, still half asleep, yearning for a morning cup of Joe. But not Mary Clare Sweet. All smiles and energy, she welcomes her fellow yogis to Lotus House of Yoga. Each new arrival receives a hug or squeal of excitement attached to their name (usually both) as they walk through the door.

According to Sweet, eye contact and great big hugs are the most important yoga pose you will ever do. Bare feet begin to march their way into the studio and mats appear on the hardwood floors. Heat radiates through the air as Sweet takes a moment to adjust the lights and turn on the tunes before taking her place at the front of the room.


“So where is it that you need just a little more determination today?” Sweet asks, walking through the maze of bodies twisted every which way. It is readily evident that determination is something she knows quite well.

Sweet began her own yoga journey as a little girl as taught by her mother, Anne Sweet. After graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she moved to New York where she met yoga teachers that inspired her to want to devote her efforts to the practice and its way of life. Homesick, she moved back to Nebraska, settling in Omaha, where she taught at Nebraska Dance for five years before opening Lotus House of Yoga.

The studio just celebrated its fourth anniversary and boasts three locations in the Omaha area, one of which is nestled in Midtown Crossing. A fourth studio recently opened in Lincoln.

“Yoga has given me a sense of truly expanded consciousness,” said Sweet.

“Whatever my wildest dreams are, I have no fear in pursuing them. Yoga helps you be who you really are and you get excited about presenting that to the world.”

It is clear that Sweet is doing just that as she shares a passion for love, both inside and outside the studio. After being asked to officiate a friend’s wedding several years ago, she has gone on to perform several ceremonies. Two more are scheduled for later this year.

“I practice love, and love in every capacity,” adds Sweet. “It’s very easy for me to talk about love and to write about love. Officiating at weddings, she says, is “a really wonderful way for people to have a nontraditional ceremony, but also keep it in line with their spiritual beliefs and have some sense of universal spirituality in their ceremony.”

It’s no wonder that Sweet has Omahans getting up at the crack of dawn to make it to her studios. Love and compassion appear to envelope her like a cloud wherever she goes, and it’s felt by all that enter her doors.

“I come back because of how personal they make it,” said Summer Froehoich, a nurse at Methodist Hospital. “I developed relationships instantly with the teachers and other yogis. I’ve gained a real friendship base [and lots of warm hugs] through Lotus.”