Tag Archives: Nebraska AIDS Project

In Good Company

April 30, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In the immortal words of MC Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, “It takes two to make a thing go right.” For Omaha’s Shelterbelt Theatre and SNAP! Productions, that wise 1980s musical maxim proves incredibly true. The two theater companies have shared a performance space (at 3225 California St.) for the past 18 years, with a sibling-like relationship that’s buoyed them both, allowing them to share expenses and audiences alike.

According to Michal Simpson, artistic director for SNAP! Productions, who’s been with the organization its entire 25 years, Shelterbelt originally occupied the space and SNAP! was nomadic, performing its shows wherever they could borrow space.

“We put our heads together and said, ‘What if SNAP! came into the space and we rotated productions?’ It was convenient timing-wise and also meant we could share some of the expenses, purchasing, and upgrades to make our facility better for both theaters,” Simpson says.

The arrangement worked beautifully for 18 years. But now with their building up for sale and out of their price range, the final California Street curtain call will occur after Ellen Struve’s The Dairy Maid-Right closes on August 5, and the Shelterbelt/SNAP! lease expires at the end of August 2018. Shelterbelt and SNAP! are seeking a new home—and both companies definitely want to keep the family together.

“We want to continue sharing a space because it’s much like a sibling relationship—very supportive and close,” says Roxanne Wach, Shelterbelt’s executive director. “We share expenses, but we also share resources and help each other out when somebody’s in a bind. I don’t know of any other arts organizations that operate in this way. It’s a really unique relationship. Plus, space is difficult in Omaha, so I think finding two spaces would be nearly impossible.”

Indeed, they’ve spent two years diligently searching for a new space to rent, seeking an affordable, optimum location for their theatrical package deal. High rental costs and the need for a space with quite specific functionality have slowed down the relocation process.

For those who wish to support these two local cultural gems and their impending move, Wach says both theaters have donation buttons on their websites. She says they’ve raised about $22,000 through a recent fundraiser drive benefiting both theaters—which she calls “a good start.”

“That money will be used directly for moving costs. After being there for 25 years, you can imagine what we have to move! So, it’s going to get us moved out and into the new space, and hopefully even cover a few items on our wish list,” Wach says.

Simpson and Wach both believe finding the right space is entirely worth the struggle, because it’s key to maintaining Shelterbelt and SNAP!’s crucial contributions to Omaha’s cultural landscape—which they call “a vital part of the theater ecology” in Omaha. Both companies offer opportunities for emerging actors, directors, writers, designers, and crew members, greatly strengthening the local theater community throughout the past 25 years by incubating talent. Additionally, each is unique in the region for its mission—with Shelterbelt’s focus on presenting original, local work and SNAP!’s focus on bolstering inclusion and understanding by featuring underrepresented identities and stories.

“[Shelterbelt does] all original theater and Omaha is really lucky to have that. Most cities our size don’t have a theater nurturing new playwrights, giving entry-level actors, directors, and designers a shot at production. Without theaters like Shelterbelt there is no new theater. To have the very talented writing pool we have in Omaha and a stage where their work can be produced is an immense benefit to Nebraska’s cultural landscape,” Wach says. “It’s a really special experience to be part of bringing a new play to the stage for the first time because, in the end, everybody has contributed to bringing this new thing to life. Even as somebody who’s been in theater basically my whole life, I still find it special every time I get to be part of that.”

Simpson says it’s been exciting to watch SNAP! evolve over the years and “adapt to the growing, changing world around us.” SNAP! was originally an acronym for “Supporting Nebraska AIDS Project,” with the intent to do theater that increased awareness about the HIV/AIDS epidemic and raised money for Nebraska AIDS Project. As HIV/AIDS awareness and funding increased, Simpson says SNAP! broadened its focus to include shows about various social issues in addition to LGBTQ and AIDS-related issues.

“We’ve diversified as the times have changed. Along the way we’ve addressed things like ageism, autism, cancer, PTSD, the transgender experience, suicide, and on and on,” Simpson says. “We’re constantly finding that more and more people are becoming braver and coming forward about their individuality and their identity. Since we started out doing plays about gay people and HIV/AIDS long before it was mainstream or acceptable for theaters to do, we wanted to carry that on. As different things have come to the forefront, we’ve tried to address them and foster understanding of these issues and of the people who face them. We’ve always tried to educate people and promote inclusion and understanding.”

While Shelterbelt and SNAP! have distinct missions, the companies complement each other well, “We have a real symbiotic relationship that’s been good for both of us in many ways,” Simpson says.

Wach completely agrees and looks forward to continuing their important work.

“Our missions are very compatible. There’s a slight overlap because we do scripts with diversity and inclusion content, and they’ll occasionally do a new play. So, we play very well together,” Wach says. “We both offer theatergoers a slightly different experience than many are used to, and I really hope we can continue to bring that to Omaha for years to come.”

Wrapping up their stretch at 3225 California St., Shelterbelt’s Three to Beam Up runs April 20-May 13, SNAP’s Lazarus Syndrome runs May 31-June 24, and Shelterbelt’s The Dairy Maid-Right runs July 13-Aug. 5. For more information or to donate in support of the upcoming relocation, visit shelterbelt.org and snapproductions.com.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

April 11, 2018

Your Trash, Her Treasure

April 9, 2017 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Even on a blustery, freezing January day, as Christmas lights still twinkle from neighbors’ homes, it’s Halloween inside Diane Hayes’ apartment.

Enter into her abode, which is located in the 105-year-old West Farnam Apartments off Dewey and 38th streets, and you’re confronted with fortunetellers and witches and skeletons, oh my! The 1,800-square-foot place is spacious, with floorboards that squeak and much of its early 20th-century charm still intact, but it’s Hayes and her often-merrily macabre refurbished artwork that makes the apartment truly spellbinding.

“For a while, I tried to keep all my work hidden in one room, but then I said ‘Oh, to hell with it,'” Hayes says. “By the time they carry my body out of here, I suppose things will really look strange.”

Hayes lives to make the old new again. From turning a vintage side table into an animatronic fortuneteller to using antique alarm clocks to create mini terrariums that depict tragedies like the Titanic sinking and Lindbergh kidnapping, she uses her creative magic to take everyday objects and turn them into art. A strong believer that “décor shouldn’t come from Bed, Bath & Beyond,” Hayes scavenges through Goodwill, antique shows, and online to buy things only for their pieces and parts.

After purchasing an item, she stows it away and lets ideas start marinating in her head. Once inspiration strikes, the tinkering begins.

“It’s not my thing to come home after a long day and sit down to watch TV,” Hayes says. “I’m always putting something together.”

While she displays most of her work in her home, she does sell some items on Etsy and has donated pieces to benefits for the Nebraska AIDS Project and the local chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

If she isn’t selling or donating a piece, chances are it will end up in her year-round Halloween-themed office. Teeming from floor to ceiling with things that go bump in the night, this room is more fun and festive than frightening, as most of her collection reflects Halloween styles that were popular in the 1950s and ’60s. And come Halloween night, Hayes is the ghostess with the mostess, inviting around 80 costumed party guests into her apartment to have their palms read by a fortuneteller and watch silent films like Nosferatu.

“I love the Halloweens I grew up with,” Hayes says. “It’s such a fun time of year, and it doesn’t have the stress or religious and political connotations of Christmas.”

Beyond Halloween, living in Omaha’s first luxury apartment building offers its own inspiration. Built in 1912, the West Farnam Apartments house the city’s oldest working elevator.

“You can hear those 100-year-old gears cranking and groaning, almost like a tiny factory that’s come to life,” Hayes says.

Perhaps, this explains her next project—refurbishing an old clock complete with its own ancient gears. Some projects she completes in a day, others she’s always working on, always tinkering. This clock’s finish date is yet to be determined, and to Hayes that’s just fine.

“It’s been an unfocused life,” Hayes says, “but I’m not sure I’d want to do it any other way.”

Visit etsy.com/people/halloweenclocks for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Reinventing the Classic

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Time travel back to childhood. Sink your teeth into two slices of white bread slathered with creamy peanut butter and purplish jam, the sandwich staple of sack lunches and after-school snacks.

Can you taste the love? Hungry for more? Many Omaha locals drive over to the Old Market Farmers Market on a Saturday morning for their fix. There’s often a line stretching around the black truck with an orange logo, where customers eagerly await gourmet twists on standard PB&J.

PBJ3PBJ—Peanut Butter Johnny’s—is the dream and brainchild of John Jelinek. You won’t find Skippy and processed strawberry jam here. Jelinek’s food truck rolls through town selling sandwiches made from many different types of bread, a variety of nut butters, and artisanal jams ranging from spicy jalapeño to exotic fig. He even puts bacon on his sandwiches.

Jelinek isn’t a chef or a well-known restauranteur in town. In fact, Peanut Butter Johnny’s is his first business. Jelinek previously worked as director of sales vendors for Time Warner. He dreamed of owning his own business, and he initially thought about opening a clothing store.

Then he considered opening a food truck, but he wasn’t sure if it would work for him; “There’s already a lot of pizza trucks and that sort of thing, and frankly, they do it better than I can,” Jelinek says.

Jelinek finally settled upon the idea of serving grown-up versions of childhood comfort food. He took the concept and (literally) rolled with it. Not being a chef, he wanted a professional to make sure his vision was as delicious as he imagined.

He contacted Beth Augustyn in the culinary arts department of Metropolitan Community College. Augustyn made a connection with graduate Jarrod Lane, a sous chef at Marks Bistro. The business owner and chef stuck together like…

Jelinek didn’t just connect with Lane. He also connected with chef Clayton Chapman of the Grey Plume, Patricia Barron of Big Mama’s, and chef Paul Kulik of Le Bouillon. Jelinek asked for help from these local culinary giants, and each helped create the specialty sandwiches on his menu.

“What’s great about John is he has a vision but he allows us to create,” says Chapman. “We went to a few tasting sessions to get that to where he wanted it. He’s incredibly creative and able to see something in its finished place much before it’s started.”


Peanut Butter Johnny’s opened for business on the evening of Dec. 5, 2015, at a fundraiser for the Nebraska AIDS Project. Over the summer, the truck attended the free Memorial Park concert and fireworks, and the Fourth of July Parade in Ralston. Anywhere the people go, they go.

PBJ serves sandwiches upon sandwiches. And customers can’t get enough. At ConAgra in early July, Jelinek, Lane, and two other employees served 40 orders in little under 30 minutes. “People were telling us they’ve waited over an hour for other food trucks,” Lane says.

Jelinek’s multi-ingredient sandwiches require time and love. Aside from bacon, other dishes feature chicken, and many sandwiches come grilled.

“You can’t go wrong with PB&J,” claims customer Justin Swanson. “I want to support local business owners, plus this is way better than I can make.”

On a sweltering summer day, Swanson saw the truck parked near 90th and Dodge streets. He swung by to support the business (and his bar friend). Swanson is a bartender at The House of Loom, where Jelinek often chooses to spend his free time.

It’s these type of friendships that keep customers coming to PBJ. Chapman says Jelinek’s personality also draws return customers.

“It’s his enthusiasm, it’s his drive, it’s his passion for what he’s doing,” Chapman says. “You’re just naturally drawn to it.”

“So much of business is relationships,” Jelinek says. “So much of repeat business is relationships. Serving them good food and being nice to them so they say, ‘You know, let’s go back.’”

He wants the food truck community to keep making relationships, too, especially in the wake of new regulations.

“It’s important that we have rules that everyone can live by,” Jelinek says. “Food trucks want to find a way to get along well and be something unique.” 

Visit pbjohnnys.com for more information. Encounter


Susan Koenig

November 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In the early evening hours of December 7, Susan Koenig will put a fun party dress on her slender frame, bling on her wrists and strappy heels on her feet. She will then travel a short distance from her gracious second-floor home on South 13th Street at the edge of Little Italy to an art gallery in the Old Market. And, as she has done for the last 20 years, Koenig will greet dozens of people—friends, family, and friends of friends, who have paid to be there. In return, she will offer them much more than beverages and food.

Hers will be one of several pre-parties held across the city as a fundraising prelude to the main event later that evening—the annual Night of a Thousand Stars to benefit the Nebraska AIDS Project (NAP).

“At the beginning, I didn’t know hosting a party would be something I would always do,” laughs Koenig, a founding partner of the Koenig/Dunne Divorce Law firm, whose offices are downstairs from her home. “But my friends have made it evident that it’s meaningful to them because they show up every year with their checkbooks open.”

Meaningful to her friends, but very personal to Koenig; Night of a Thousand Stars offers a bittersweet time for reflection.

Koenig knew something was terribly wrong when her younger brother moved back to Omaha in 1990. Of eight siblings, Koenig had always been closest to Tim. They shared a special bond as the fifth- and sixth-born. While Tim didn’t dwell on the reasons for coming home or mention his health, Koenig saw through the silence.

“Tim’s long-time partner had just died of AIDS,” explains Koenig, the mother of two sons. “They owned a beautiful home and a successful restaurant in Atlanta. Tim sold them and came back to Omaha. He was diagnosed here.”

“[The gala] has strengthened my belief in the importance of making a contribution where you can; of the power of small things done over time…” —Susan Koenig

In the early ’90s, a diagnosis of AIDS equaled a death sentence. Baffled scientists hadn’t yet put all the pieces of the headline-grabbing scourge together. There were no life-extending medical cocktails. Koenig, who had spent years successfully helping spouses navigate the shoals of Nebraska divorce laws, suddenly found herself in need of answers and direction. What she did next changed her life.

“I called the AIDS hotline. I contacted NAP.”

Still a young organization at that time, NAP became her family’s lifeline by helping them stay positive.

“Tim’s diagnosis wasn’t the focus of our relationship with him,” says Koenig. “He transcended his diagnosis by continuing to be the best of who he was, by continuing to work. He taught us about living. We appreciated every minute we had with him.”

Koenig and her husband, John Mixan, attended the very first Night of a Thousand Stars in 1992 in support of Tim. In December of 1994, the couple hosted their first pre-party. Tim didn’t see it. He died that Thanksgiving.

Through the years, the couple raised over $40,000 for the HIV/AIDS community. Koenig, who now works mainly as an executive coach, still says “we” when referring to the pre-party planning, as her husband was always by her side. Sadly, cancer claimed John two years ago. But memories of John and Tim bring comfort, and the opportunity to gather friends close for a good cause brings joy.

“[The gala] has strengthened my belief in the importance of making a contribution where you can; of the power of small things done over time,” reflects Koenig. “And it’s just a great party!”

On December 7, hundreds of people will leave the various pre-parties and gather at the historic Mastercraft Building north of downtown for more beverages, food, music, and a silent auction at Night of a Thousand Stars. If you haven’t been invited, call Koenig. Everyone has a place at her table.