Tag Archives: Elaine Jabenis

Lights Up!

June 23, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article was printed in the May/June 2015 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Fonda…Brando…McGuire. The roster of famous actors who have graced the stage at the Omaha Community Playhouse during its 90-year run reads like a Hollywood Who’s Who.

But for Playhouse board president Tim Schmad, it’s the unsung heroes—volunteers who have never been in the theater’s spotlight—that have built OCP into “the New York Yankees of community theater.”

“The word ‘community’ is in our name for a reason,” Schmad says. “This is about the ushers, the set builders, makeup artists, actors, corporate sponsors, our great audiences, the 98% of the people who make live theater happen here are volunteers.

“Above everything else, we are a community theater.”

There’s Florence Young, who performed in the Playhouse’s first production in 1924, and was still selling memberships well into her ‘90s. Elaine Jabenis was active at the theater for over 50 years and was 80 when she retired.

Ed Owen started the Playhouse’s foundation, and his wife Dee still answers the phone and serves on the board after 40 years. A 20-year stage manager still makes things click backstage. Some ushers have put in more than 25 years leading patrons to their seats. One scenic designer who has been in the mix for 40 years once got snowed in at the Playhouse, and survived three days on prop food.

In all, it takes about 1,000 volunteers a year to make the Playhouse sing. Omaha-area audiences have made OCP America’s largest community theatre in attendance, staff size, and budget.

“It’s obvious,” says OCP Board Trustee Lloyd Meyer, “this theater means so much to so many people.”

Omaha will get a chance to relive history and show its appreciation this summer when the Omaha Community Playhouse celebrates its 90th birthday. The Playhouse’s Act II guild is planning a free county-fair-vibe event on June 27 with Broadway Bingo, jugglers, magicians, and live music by OCP staple Billy McGuigan (perhaps best known for his annual Yesterday and Today Beatles show).

Nearby in Dundee, ice cream shop eCreamery is even creating a featured 90th birthday flavor that will be determined by a community-based contest—with Sea Salt Curtain Call, Henry’s Fondant Birthday Cake, and Drama Queen as the possible winners.

“We think multiple generations will come out to celebrate what they love most about the Playhouse,” says Act II board member Trish Liakos.

Since the day Dodie Brando (yes, the mother of that other Brando) enlisted a family named Fonda to join her in OCP’s first season, Omahans have gravitated to New York-caliber live theater with Midwestern roots.

Henry Fonda loved the Playhouse so much that he brought his young daughter, Jane, to Omaha for a performance. All the Fondas have been here to help raise funds for the Playhouse, and Henry is prominently featured in Warren Franke’s recently-published history of the institution, The Omaha Community Playhouse Story: A Theatre’s Historic Triumph.

“We sent a draft copy to Henry Fonda’s widow [Shirlee],” Schmad says. “She loved it.”

Omaha’s love affair with the Playhouse can be traced to winning and sometimes daring productions over the years—including one mainstay that extols holiday crowds with the familiar “God bless us, every one!” Long-time Playhouse director Charles Jones put his spin on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1976, and a Playhouse star was born. Dick Boyd gave life to Scrooge and never missed a performance in 30 years.

Among other productions, OCP’s touring company, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan, has performed A Christmas Carol in 49 states, four Canadian provinces, and 160 Nebraska communities—seen by audiences of more than three million people. Boyd retired from the stage at age 83, and received national media attention when he walked away with his well-worn top hat.

“I think that’s the only prop we’ve ever given an actor to keep,” Meyers says. “He deserved it.”

OCP has taken its share of risks through the years with such critically acclaimed productions as Hair, August: Osage County, and others. In 2001, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife featured a cursing grandmother that cost the Playhouse 1,000 members.

For Evil Dead, organizers designed a “Splatter Zone” where theatergoers were splattered with fake blood. Those choice tickets were the first to sell out. One production prompted a ban by a local priest for all Catholics. “We’re pretty sure some still snuck in,” Schmad says.

Through it all, Omahans have embraced OCP’s give-back nature toward its hometown. The Playhouse sponsors programs that reach out to middle school students, and ties play themes to workshops on real-life social issues.

In partnership with Metro Community College, the Theatre Technology Apprenticeship Program helps participants pursue technical careers in the entertainment industry. Alternative Programming brings local playwright works to the stage. Special events and Broadway karaoke nights bring even more locals to the country’s leading community theater.

“We have a great thing going, and we have for 90 years,” Schmad says. “We just want more people to experience it.”

OCP90

Elaine Jabenis

May 21, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha native and icon Elaine Jabenis has had a full life and career, from working a stint at the New York Times to being on both radio and television in Omaha. Now, at 93, she’s adding a new job title to her long resume—author of fiction.

Before her first fiction book entitled Georgia’s Secret was released in late February, Jabenis had done other writing, starting with writing for the Omaha World-Herald while on Central High School’s newspaper. When she got married, her husband’s job with the Air Transport Command moved the two to New York City. One day in the pouring rain, she walked into the New York Times Building for shelter, and got her first real shot.

“I thought, ya know, I got nothing to do, I think I’ll go up there and just make out an application just for the heck of it.”

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After getting hired for a temporary secretarial position and working in a few other departments throughout the publication, Jabenis and her husband returned to Omaha. It was here where she worked in theater, radio, television, and, most importantly to the book, fashion.

“As I progressed in my position at Brandeis, I became the fashion merchandising director for all of the stores,” Jabenis says. “I began to realize they were bringing a lot of people in for training for this kind of thing, [but] the schools have had no textbooks. They had a lot of textbooks about merchandising, but not this particular area.”

Jabenis contacted one of her friends in New York, who was editor of Seventeen Magazine at the time, about writing a textbook of this nature. Jabenis was then put in contact with the editor at John Wiley & Sons publications.

“I sold it to them on the basis of an outline and chapter breakdown, but I hadn’t written one word of the book and they signed me,” Jabenis says. “And they signed me on my credentials only.”
The textbook, which the Fashion Institute of Technology bought 300 copies of right away, was used for 10 years, was adapted to fit both women and men in the industry, and was even translated into Japanese.

Jabenis left Brandeis after a 23-year career, and went into business of being her own producer, which gave her control of her time and work. The process of moving from television and textbooks to fiction started 10 years ago.

“It was going very well for awhile, but then I began to lose my sight, and I had four eye operations … four cornea transplants,” Jabenis says. “And every time I had one, I had to stop writing because I didn’t have any vision and I didn’t think there was any way of doing it otherwise so it took me years to get this book out.”

The book is a story about a 22-year-old who works in a department store . She is burdened with an unbearable secret that puts her in a situation to be blackmailed.

“[She is] very successful, but all the time, this secret is keeping her imprisoned. She’s not just trying to assume any place in the sun for herself, but she does try to help others,” Jabenis says. “It’s a romance suspense novel.”

Though much of the background knowledge included in the story stems from Jabenis’ time working in fashion, she says none of the people or places are based on true events.

“Writing a book, I was able to make a composite of characters that you meet throughout your life or you envision or that you have witnessed or that you just make up and of course that’s what the fun is, the making up these people that never existed except in your mind, and they become so real to you, and once I got going on it the characters really take over,” Jabenis says.

Even though her first book just hit the shelves, she already has plans for a second and third book, both of which cover other industries she has worked with in her life.

“I read the concept to someone, to my daughter first, and she said: ‘Oh mom you’ve just got to write this, you gotta promise me you’ll write this.’”

“I thought, ‘Gee, this is great. It gives me something to look forward to,’” she says.

“I’m just so glad I had this urge to do this, and all I really want out of it is to have people open it and read it and say I enjoyed this, I had a good time reading it, and it was informative and I had fun with it or it made me feel, whatever.”

Karen Sokolof Javitch

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The image of Karen Sokolof Javitch singing and camping it up on YouTube in the music video of her song, “I’m Not Obama’s Babe” doesn’t square with the unassuming, quietly engaging, makeup-less woman who buys flavored water at her favorite coffee shop. Not surprising, since there are many facets to the Omaha native: singer, songwriter, author, playwright, radio host, advocate, teacher, wife, mother, daughter, philanthropist.

Music is actually Karen’s second act. After earning a degree at the University of Texas, she began as a teacher of visually impaired children, a career inspired by her late mother, Ruth Sokolof. “My mother taught blind children for years. Everyone loved her. Film Streams Theater is named after her.”

It wasn’t until Karen’s own three children were in school that her life headed in a different direction. “It was around 1993. I was talking to a friend of mine, Jim Conant, and he said he had just written the book for a musical, but he hadn’t written any of the songs. And I said to him, ‘Um, can I try this?’”

Karen proved to be a natural at writing both the words and the lyrics to 13 songs for the production entitled Love! At The Café! The show ran for about seven weeks at a small venue in Benson. “It was like a faucet turned on in my brain. The lyrics came first, and then I could hear the music in my head to go with them.”

Karen next collaborated with her good friend, local actress and author Elaine Jabenis, to write more shows, including the tribute Princess Diana, The Musical. Another key player in Karen’s success, Chuck Penington of Manheim Steamroller, orchestrates her music. Whether a song is catchy, rhythmic, and Broadway-like, or a touching ballad, Karen’s melodies stay with the listener.

“It was like a faucet turned on in my brain. The lyrics came first, and then I could hear the music in my head to go with them.”

Where did her talent come from? “My father, Phil, was a song-and-dance man before he became a successful businessman. He tried his luck in Chicago when he was 17. He finally realized he couldn’t be the next Frank Sinatra.”

Phil Sokolof would later use some of his fortune from his drywall company to wage a one-man crusade against cholesterol—a decades-long fight that resulted in nutrition information on food packaging.

Karen has written hundreds of songs, penned four musicals, and released 13 CDs, singing on many of them. While she should be swimming in royalties, the Westside High graduate has instead followed her parents’ legacy of giving back to their community.

“All proceeds from my music go to charities, mostly in Nebraska,” says Karen.

Does she make any money at all?

“Well, let’s just say my goal is to break even,” she says with a smile.

Over the past 20 years, Karen has raised over $300,000 in service to others. One project in particular remains dear to her heart. The “Nebraska Celebrities Sing for Sight” CD, for which she wrote most of the music and lyrics and featuring 20 celebrities from the area (including a terrific country vocal from former U.S. Senator Ben Nelson), raised money for visually impaired children. The man who couldn’t compete with Frank Sinatra also sings a track.

“Dad was alive when I started to do my music. He was very proud.”

Karen’s CDs can be found at the Nebraska Furniture Mart or online at CD Baby. Her radio show, “It’s the Beat!” with Jody Vinci, airs Saturdays at noon on KOIL 1290.