Tag Archives: Frank Sinatra

Do You Remember?

December 30, 2015 by
Photography by Contributed by Douglas County Historical Society

It’s hard to believe the Ak-Sar-Ben Race Track and Coliseum has been closed for 20 years (the coliseum closed later, in 2002), as it was long one of Omaha’s iconic locations. Here is a brief look back on its long history.

The track was built in 1919 to underwrite the various activities of Omaha’s famous Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben, a civic and philanthropic group dating back to 1895 inspired by the various “krewes” of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parades. Initially created to provide an alternative to the rougher entertainment then popular at the state fair held in Omaha, the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben quickly expanded to supporting civic improvement projects, funding local charities, and overseeing various social events.

The first race at the Ak-Sar-Ben track was an informal harness race on July 6, 1919. The track itself was not officially dedicated for nearly another year. That ceremony was held on September 14, 1920, with Nebraska governor Samuel Roy McKelvie officiating. At that time, admission cost 85 cents, and the track featured four harness and two running races every day.

In 1921, the racetrack expanded, adding a new grandstand at the cost of $400,000; that same year Nebraska created a racing commission and made pari-mutuel betting legal—the style of gambling favored by horse races, in which odds are not fixed until the pool is closed, allowing for a great variety of bets. You can bet that a horse will win, place, or show, or place even more complex bets, such as sweep six, in which the bettor must correctly pick the winner of six races. The more challenging the bet, the more the bettor stands to win.

The track built an adjoining coliseum in 1929, which quickly became Omaha’s premiere events center, serving as both an ice rink and a concert stage. Over its long life, the coliseum hosted many of the country’s most popular musical acts, acting as virtually a who’s who of changing tastes in music: The venue offered performances by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Nirvana.

The track shut down from 1943 to 1945 during World War II. When the track opened again, on May 13, 1945, a crowd of 6,500 attended.

When a tornado struck Omaha in 1975, the race track was so close to its path that the twister was visible to people attending the races. The tornado carved a 10-mile path, killing three people, injuring 133, and scattering the debris of destroyed homes and businesses for miles. The total damage from the tornado, adjusted for inflation, was $1.1 billion, but the race track was mostly spared significant damage.

The track is often associated with a horse named Omaha, who won the Triple Crown in 1935. The horse had no relationship with Ak-Sar-Ben until retiring to Nebraska City, when he was sometimes paraded around the track. When he died in 1959, Omaha was buried at Ak-Sar-Ben, but in the intervening years, the exact site of the grave was lost to time and remains a mystery to this day.

Visit douglascohistory.org to learn more.


Carol Rogers

July 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August The Encounter.

Something in Jeanne Rogers broke. It fissured slowly, building and building until it exploded into one moment. That moment came in 2007 in the piano room, where she had sat side by side with her daughter, Carol Rogers, for so many years.

“At last, my love has come along/my lonely days are over/and life is like a song.” The Etta James music drifted over Carol with an ironic sort of hopelessness.

Her mother was not playing the requested song.

A look of incredulity and sorrow passed over Rogers’ face. Jeanne noticed, and her fingers stopped on the keyboard.

“Guess I’m not good for anything anymore,” Jeanne said. She walked away, shut her bedroom door, and wept.

Rogers’ heart shattered, seeing her once proud mother struggle with the music they both loved. Growing up in north Omaha, their house was a like a “nightclub 24/7.”  Music was a connection in a city filled with prejudice, and people of all races flocked to the Rogers’  home to sing, jam, and dance.

As a Central High student, 16-year-old Rogers flew to the Arctic Circle (“probably as the token black person,” she says, laughing) with the Omaha Can Do Ambassadors tour. She later studied music at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but felt she was destined to leave and do something amazing.

Four years later she auditioned for Stevie Wonder. She recorded one song, was not hired, and did not even get to meet Wonder. Depressed, desperate, and distraught, she moved back to Omaha. Rogers heard God’s voice late one night telling her to go back to California, and a week later she packed everything she owned into her Volkswagen to audition for Trini Lopez.

At least that was what she thought. It turned out to be for Brazilian jazz singer Sergio Mendes. Rogers was soon selected to be one of “Sergio’s Girls.” Disciplined and focused—she’ll sing something 100 times just to get to the right spot—Rogers picked up the mixed style with ease.

“He (Mendes) is a genius, and a genius doesn’t let things slide,” she says. “I appreciated that.”

Rogers sang around the world.

“It was my finishing school,” she says. She grew up in the limelight, learning embarrassing life lessons along the way.

Rogers greeted King Hussein of Jordan with a hair pick in her Afro. She laughed so hard she could barely perform.

She jokingly mimicked Frank Sinatra while on a Brazilian state visit at the White House during Ronald Reagan’s term. “I did it my way,” she crooned in a Sinatra parody.

“Psst—Frank. . .look,” one band member whispered.

“Old-blue-eyes has better things to do,” Rogers said. She turned, shocked to see Sinatra standing behind her. He just laughed.

At the same event, she placed her makeup bag and silver stilettos on top of an antique piano. She saw the eyes of the security guards widen and heard audible gasps from the room.

“It was Martha Washington’s piano,” she recalls. “I just felt so at home.”

Rogers called friends in Omaha from the White House but no one believed her.

“If you are calling me from jail, you better not be asking me for bail money.”—Click.

“Are you drinking?”—Click.

She had the chance to again perform in front of Stevie Wonder. Rogers felt she wasn’t worthy to touch the hem of his record sleeve, but after hearing her smooth vocals he wanted to steal her away.

She was surrounded by glitz and glam—John Travolta’s birthday party, Bruce Springsteen’s gala, even getting flown to a private island in a helicopter.

She was also a single mother, and needed at home. So after 25 years with Mendes and 12 releases, including the Grammy Award-winning Brasileiro, Rogers called it quits. She became a vocal instructor to celebrities and continued to record albums.

“She is a real pro, one of the best,” Omaha pianist-composer Chuck Marohnic believes. “I just think she’s a treasure. Omaha is lucky to have her.”

While living a dream life with the stars, she, along with her siblings, kept a close eye on her mother. Rogers didn’t want to “uproot this old tree” and move Jeanne to California. Instead, she came back to Omaha in 2013 to be near her mother, currently at Douglas County Health Center.

Now 60, Rogers has time for herself. Snow showers replaced sunny skies. Her fast-paced, action thriller life became a slow motion picture.

Her hair is a mass of silvery dreadlocks, her posture elegant, and her face still smooth. She even started dating again. Perhaps her “lonely days are over” but Rogers refuses to settle for anything less than the best.

Her jazzy tone now has a gospel-like soul to it. She takes a sip of her Bloody Mary (with a bit of “stank” in it like her grandmother taught her) and smiles. Last night at Omaha Lounge, she sang from the heart. Even though her mother brought her back to the open plains of the Midwest, music will always be the catharsis, the glue that holds everything together.

“Music,” Rogers says, “is the thing that keeps me alive.”


Memory Lane

June 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article was originally published in the May/June 2015 edition of 60-Plus.

The way Joe Taylor became “Mr. Memories” sounds a little like a scene from a movie.
One afternoon in the spring of 1994, he was working in the Council Bluffs thrift store he’d owned for many years. In walked a woman who would change his life forever.
She was a special education teacher planning an event for 300 students and her entertainment had fallen through. “Heck, I can come down and do a show that will fill in about 30 minutes for you,” Joe offered.
That might sound a little crazy, but this wasn’t Joe’s first time on a stage. In fact, you might say he’s a born performer. As a kid, growing up in 1930s and ‘40s, he’d climb on a bench in the backyard of his family home and pretend he was on stage. Later, as a teenager, his older brother and sister would take turns driving him to resorts in the Catskill Mountains where he’d sing with the
house bands.
He always dreamed of making it big as a singer, but life had other plans. He met and married his wife of nearly 60 years, Jan, and they started a family. Joe’s musical ambitions took a back seat to the responsibilities of being a husband and father.
Then, on April 28, 1994, after a near-40-year hiatus, Joe put on a tux, dusted off his singing voice and became “Mr. Memories.” He sang the songs of his heyday—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the like—and by the end of the month he’d booked three more shows. During his third performance, a hat was passed around and, at the end of the show, there was 31 dollars inside.
“I went home and told Jan ‘They paid me!’ and I’ve been singing ever since,” he says with a chuckle.
Soon he was making more money performing than he ever had operating the thrift store, so in 1996, he sold it and became a full-time entertainer. Today, he books from 10 to 20 shows a month—for the elderly and disabled, corporate events, birthday parties, weddings, and more. He gets paid for doing what he loves and it can be incredibly rewarding.
Once during a performance at a retirement center, Joe remembers a woman sitting in the front row who looked thoroughly unentertained throughout the show. But then, afterward, something surprising happened. She came up to him and, with a tear in her eye, said, “Thank you for helping me remember that I was young once.”
“You can’t put a price on that,” he says.
Another woman hired him to sing at her birthday party every year from the time she turned 102. She lived to be 108.
“Every year she’d say, ‘See you next year, Joe!’” he laughs. “I was starting to think she’d outlive me!”
Hanging in his home, among photos of him performing at various venues, is a cartoon drawing of Mr. Memories being trailed by three little old ladies with cartoon hearts floating above their heads. He loves every minute of it.
“If you love what you’re doing,” he says, “you never work another day in your life.”