Tag Archives: Spaghetti Works

Jennifer Castello

May 13, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Thirty-year-old Jennifer Castello lives by a simple philosophy: “Art is power.” As a writer, educator, and actor, the Omaha native has tapped into all areas of her deep imagination to carve out her path. She unequivocally believes creativity was put here to bring out a person’s voice, and that’s exactly what she’s doing.

“I think art has worked best when someone isn’t being listened to, then grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck, and through art that person says, ‘Shut up and look,’” she says. “When I’m teaching, it’s not about me. It’s about making sure that at the end of the session, residency, or workshop, the students are equipped to express themselves—be it in a story, in a song, or just in everyday life. Art is self-advocacy. Art is power. Art is resistance.”

Castello began her writing career at the ripe age of 4, when her grandmother discovered how often she was coming up with original stories.

“She pulled out a stack of papers, stapled them together, and told me to make a book,” she recalls. “The pride she took in the stories I told her made me feel like it was something special to be a writer. She was a teacher, and it was also through her and that pride that I realized I wanted to be a teacher, and make some other kid feel just as special as she made me feel.”

At 18 years old, Castello scored her first teaching job, participating in the Teacher Academy Project program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and eventually got her teaching license. Now, she freelances at a variety of local organizations, including the Omaha Community Playhouse. 

“I go out into schools and community spaces and engage students in creating something,” she explains. “If that’s creating a clever way to win a drama game, learning how to make their own characters with makeup on their faces, or write their very own script, that’s where my heart is. When I was a kid in Omaha, teachers reached out to me and taught me that my brain had a purpose and a worth, and I’m always trying to pay it forward.”

In terms of her acting, Castello credits her father.

“He signed me up for a class at the Emmy Gifford Theatre,” she says. “Then when the Emmy Gifford turned into The Rose, he made me audition for one of the main stage plays and I got in. It was a community for me to hold onto when things got rough, and I’ll forever be grateful for that community.“

As an author, the Central High School grad was compelled to write The Messiah of Howard Street when she was still an undergrad at DePaul University in Chicago. It was inspired by the colorful characters that have become a staple of the Old Market district.

“I had read My Antonia in my American English class,” she explains. “This wasn’t the first time I read it, I’d read it at Central High my junior year of high school. But comparing and contrasting a Chicago classroom to an Omaha classroom, I realized how fantasized Nebraska is in the minds of people who don’t live here. I mean, there are some obvious stereotypes we’ve all heard, but also the idea that there are rolling fields, and peace, and nature, and all that, it was just weird.”

Like so many other Central High teenagers, the Old Market was Castello’s meeting spot during adolescence. But over the years, she had many other experiences on and around Howard Street that helped shape her life.

“One of my first tastes of freedom was walking down to the Old Market and going to all the shops, getting Ted & Wally’s, and eating way too much spaghetti. Mom would take me to Little King before a dance recital, my best friends held my 18th birthday party as Zio’s, I sang and performed there, and I actually had my first date with my husband at Spaghetti Works.”

Armed with a Master of Science in secondary education from UNO and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, Maine, she recently held a one-act festival, finished a semester-long scriptwriting residency at Central High, and has become a member of the Nebraska Arts Council teaching roster. In short, Castello stays busy.

“In undergrad, my professor warned me I might not be able to make a living in the arts,” she says. “But being a teaching artist and an arts educator has been something I truly enjoy. I really appreciate being able to do it every day. I get to help kids play pretend. That’s like…the dream.”


To learn more about Castello’s work, visit jennifercastello.com

This article appears in the May/June 2018 edition of Encounter.

Keep Calm and Never Mind the Ghost

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Opened on September 30, 1996, Upstream Brewing Co. celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Ask owner and founder Brian Magee to explain how Upstream has thrived for so many years, and he talks mostly about the people involved: the friends who nudged him toward his goal of opening a brewpub, the now-governor friend who partnered with him to get Upstream going, the friend who heard of a great building going up for sale in the Old Market at a party, and all the employees who have spent time working at Upstream.

“I think the real success of our store is because of the people who work here,” says Magee. “It becomes a community. You don’t really find any place this big where it’s like that.”

Long-time employee Heather Slagle agrees. “A lot of these people are my best friends. We just all have a good sense of humor and a good vibe.” Slagle says working at Upstream is not for everyone because of the sheer volume of guests that they encounter daily. “It’s sink or swim,” she says, laughing. “You just gotta jump in.”

In addition to the right people, a series of fortunate events led to Upstream’s success. A trip to Colorado in the late 1980s led Magee to visit Wynkoop Brewing Co. and swayed him from his original intention of going into fine dining. He partnered with John Hickenlooper to open Upstream; Hickenlooper eventually became the governor of Colorado. “He was very influential for me. He’s a colorful character,” says Magee.

Magee explained how a stroke of luck led to finding the perfect location downtown: “The building was formerly the Firehouse Dinner Theater. Spaghetti Works bought it in a tax sale from the city. A friend of my wife overheard someone at a party say, ‘We gotta get rid of that Firehouse Dinner Theater,’ so she called me right way. It took a year to get the deal done, but we got it.” It was not the first building he considered, but it turned out to be the best fit. “It was the fourth building we looked at,” says Magee. “When we came in and saw it, we said, ‘what a great place!’”

Magee says the good fortune kept coming after they opened. “It’s fortuitous that Embassy Suites opened so close and then the city built a parking garage. We’ve kind of become a tourist attraction in the Old Market. We have almost a thousand reviews on TripAdvisor. It’s a big number.” Upstream has since exceeded 1,000 reviews. 

As for the building itself, it has quite an interesting history. “It’s a hundred-plus-year-old building; it was a firehouse, it was a garage, it was a dinner theater,” says Magee. At least two fires have made their way through the building, and Magee supposes that one of those fires is where Upstream’s ghost came from.

Yes, ghost. Though there are few accounts of people actually seeing this ghost, the general consensus is that it is a young boy carrying a red ball. Ask Magee if there is really a ghost at Upstream and he will look you in the eye and respond emphatically, “There is definitely a ghost in this building.” He might even walk you to the back freezer in the downstairs and show you where a beer keg mysteriously moved in front of the door while an employee was inside the freezer. Or he’ll pull up a photo on his phone taken by some customers that appears to show a bright orb floating tableside upstairs.

Magee says that there will definitely be some celebrating for their anniversary. “We have a number of things that we’re going to be doing,” he says, not revealing details. When asked what the future holds for Upstream, Magee responds, “I don’t think we’re going to be changing a lot, but we’re always evolving.” 

Visit upstream.com for more information. Encounter

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Fires, Ghosts, and Alligators

April 15, 2015 by

Originally published in March/April 2015 Encounter.

Dick Mueller decided to open his new dinner theater in the Old Market in 1972 after considering a site at the Westroads Mall. He named it the Firehouse Dinner Theater, inspired by the building’s history as an early Omaha fire station.

“We put in restrooms and a back kitchen where they stabled the horses,” says Mueller. Horses powered fire engines in the early 1900s. “Harnesses were hung from the ceiling so they could drop them down onto the horses.”

The dim basement was turned into a warm and charming wine cellar. “An old fireman told me that the zoo used to house their alligators in the cellar during the winter,“ Mueller says.

He doesn’t know if the alligator story is true, but the basement did have a murky ambiance in 1971 when he bought the building at 12th and Jackson streets from an automotive parts company. His theater opened in 1972.

The building has changed over its 112-year history. A fire on April 9, 1917, destroyed the gabled top floor, which held the hayloft for the horses. The firemen almost didn’t make it to their own two-alarm fire.

As the story goes, the firemen were sitting outside enjoying a sunny day when somebody ran by and said, “Hey, do you know your hayloft is on fire?”

“There was no concrete technology when it was built,“ says Brian Magee of Upstream Brewing Co., which now inhabits the historical building. “Everything was wood. Those days, they couldn’t prevent a fire from spreading.”

The building was renovated after the 1917 fire and functioned as a fire station until 1944 when lack of manpower during World War II forced it to close.

The 1917 fire wasn’t the only one to scorch the building. In 1975, an arsonist set the theater’s stage on fire. “Everything in the theater melted. We were closed for two or three months,” Mueller remembers.

Spaghetti Works purchased the building that also included Harrigan’s, a comedy club/restaurant on the lower level.

The Firehouse Dinner Theater closed for good in 1991. Upstream Brewing Co. bought the building in 1995 from Spaghetti Works and opened its microbrewery/restaurant the following year after renovation.

On the south wall, cinder blocks had replaced the doors through which firemen and their horses once dashed off to fires. The opaque blocks were replaced with large, light-filled windows. Another piece of history—the original 1903 firehouse cornerstone sits above the brewery inside the Upstream.

And then there’s the ghost. When the Upstream first opened, Magee felt he was not alone late at night as he closed the restaurant. “I haven’t seen the ghost but a number of people have.”

Some local ghostbusters once spent a night there and reported they sensed the ghost’s presence. “In our bar upstairs one night, martini glasses all of a sudden flew off and landed on the other side of the bar,” says Magee.

Legend has it that the ghost appears as a young boy holding a red ball and wearing an early 20th century suit and cap. And apparently, he really, really doesn’t like martinis.

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