Tag Archives: Ernie Chambers

Lights Out

October 15, 2015 by

Twilight has come for the Omaha Civic Auditorium. The main ring is empty of events, its website taken over by some sort of erotic online service out of Asia. The city put the building up for sale last year, seeking someone who would both demolish the cement-and-glass entertainment venue and develop something new in its place. The once massive structure, seating as many as 10,960 people, has become overshadowed by CenturyLink Center, which can seat close to 19,000. The arena once known for sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll may soon become home to the suits and ties of corporate America.

The auditorium should not pass without comment. This was, after all, where Elvis Presley performed one of his most disastrous late-period concerts. It’s where a vice-presidential debate between Democrat Lloyd Bentsen and Republican Dan Quayle entered the history books.

The auditorium opened its doors in December 1954, built by the city at a cost of $6,500,000, according to an Omaha World-Herald ad for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the first act to appear in the auditorium’s smaller music hall. The New Year’s Day edition of the World-Herald was filled with ads from local businesses congratulating the city on its new auditorium. Peter Kiewit Sons’ ad stated “Omaha can be justifiably proud,” saying the auditorium will “stand as a symbol of a forward-looking leadership of our city.”

According to newspaper records, the first major event in the civic auditorium was a “boxing blitz,” the Golden Gloves Omaha City Tournament in January 1955 and the Midwest Championship in February, which promised “entertainment—with plenty of socks appeal!” The auditorium would often welcome sporting events, including Bluejays men’s basketball, Creighton women’s basketball and volleyball, the UNO hockey team, and the current Sacramento Kings NBA basketball team, known as the Kansas City-Omaha Kings between 1972 and 1985.

The arena served as the longtime stomping grounds for Omaha wrestling, with a record 10,310 people filling the stadium to see the taping of WWF Superstars of Wrestling on April 26, 1989. This event featured such legends of wrestling as Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and Randy Savage.

The popular music venue held concerts by the Rolling Stones, who appeared in July 1966, and Bob Dylan, who appeared in 1978. Virtually every band known to draw a large audience appeared at the civic, including REM, Van Halen, KISS, and, more recently, Beck, and the Foo Fighters.

The building also contained an exhibit hall and events venue that served as one of the epicenters of Omaha arts and culture—if that is what one calls the Guinness Book of World Records 1983 bean-eating contest. Better examples include coin shows, cat shows, and antique sales.

If something happened in Omaha, and it had any sort of following, there was a good chance it wound up at the civic auditorium. That building houses 60 years of memories, which people will hold on to long after the deconstruction is finished.

Notable Civic Auditorium gigs

April 19, 1963: Yetta Wallenda, a member of the famous Wallenda family of circus aerialists, performed a daring feat that involved “skirting on the borderline of eternity.” She climbed to the top of a 45-foot fiberglass pole and stood on her head. Losing her balance, she tumbled all the way to the ground. Doctors pronounced her dead by the time she reached the hospital.

March 4, 1968: Civil rights protestors confronted segregationist governor George Wallace. Upon arrival, they suffered violence from counter-protestors, then the police, resulting in the shooting of one protestor, a high-school student. The aftermath nearly incited a riot quelled by community leaders, including future state senator Ernie Chambers.

March 25, 1972: Council Bluffs heavyweight boxer Ron Stander lands a title match against world champion Joe Frazier. The resulting mayhem was brutal, with a ringside doctor stopping the fight after the fourth round, when Stander required 32 stitches.

June 19, 1977: Elvis Presley plays his second-to-last touring show. The suffering King of Rock and Roll notoriously forgot the lyrics to songs he performed for years, and died a few months later. The legendarily terrible performance was filmed for the television special Elvis in Concert, shown posthumously. Bootlegs of it circulate to this day.

November 8, 1988: Vice presidential hopefuls Dan Quayle (Republican) and Lloyd Bentsen (Democrat) faced off in a heated debate. Irritated by Quayle comparing himself to John F. Kennedy, Bentsen snapped: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”


That Damn Ernie Chambers!

July 3, 2015 by

This article appears in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

My 88-year-old mother-in-law had never visited the Nebraska State Capitol in her 40 years of living in the state. She mentioned this often during a long visit to our home this spring. “I don’t feel like a real Nebraskan,” she joked.

Her visit to our house was extended because we have had trouble finding her the assisted-living home she now needs. She mentioned the Capitol daily because rapidly progressing dementia is quickly erasing her memory of even the most
recent conversations.

So I drove her to that masterpiece of architecture and art, that message to the world that this little state can do big, bold things. I’m a cynic to a great fault, but I still walk the second floor there with pride and childlike wonder.

How magnificent. And there’s the bust of my hero, Loren Eiseley (I can feel the graceful, melancholy rhythms of All the Strange Hours every time I see this likeness). There are the doors of the second chamber of the Legislature so boldly sealed. Appropriately, the bust of George Norris is just down
the hall.

As we stood in the rotunda amid spastic gaggles of school children, my mother-in-law asked if we could walk over to the legislative chamber that wasn’t shuttered. She heard a voice over the Nebraska Legislature’s public address system that drew her to the glass doors of the chamber. “I know that voice,” she said. “That’s Ernie Chambers.”

Her visit to the second floor of the Nebraska State Capitol was complete. She got to see Ernie Chambers filibustering in the Unicameral.

There are few people about whom I have a more conflicted opinion. At that moment, the hallway outside the chamber was full of people waiting to get on with the business of the state. But, Ernie was inside mucking things up with a diatribe defending his now-infamous earlier comments about Omaha police being more a threat to him and other Omaha black men than ISIS.

Fine, I thought. Stand your ground. But get in and get out. You’re on the clock here, Senator. At that point, I felt like my taxes were paying for him to once again pleasure himself with the sound of his own voice. Who else in this state is this self-absorbed, this rude?

“He’s the check,” my mother-in-law said as she listened.

“What do you mean?” I assumed her mind was elsewhere.

“The balance,” she said. “He balances things out. Makes people reconsider things. I’ve always respected that.”

And so I reconsidered. I always do with Ernie. I considered the times over the last 20 years that I’ve spoken with him about faulty legislation and likely injustices. He always seemed to be present when something needed questioning. And it wasn’t just about north Omaha and African-American issues. He once called me to ask if I knew anything about a shady arrest in my hometown of Falls City. Some white woman may have been wronged 100 miles from his district and he cared enough to make a call to a reporter.

That Unicameral moves more smoothly than any state legislature in the country. But sometimes things run too smoothly—comity isn’t always the ideal. Ernie sometimes serves as the brakeman to a middle-class white-guy locomotive that occasionally barrels through the better angels of our nature.

And, how important has he been to many Nebraskans? Well, for one, my 88-year-old mother-in-law from Hastings suffering from a form of dementia that makes her forget she’s from Hastings immediately remembered the lyrical voice of Ernie Chambers and immediately remembered what that voice has meant to her and her state.

Ernie’s voice echoed through the Nebraska Hall of Fame that day. As my mother-in-law stood there intently watching Ernie incessantly vamp, I imagined these halls on a late night long past closing time sometime in the future. I saw all the busts come to life. And there was Ernie arguing to the contrary with them all.

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Nebraska Capitol