Tag Archives: St. Louis

Charlie Rossi

December 27, 2018 by
Photography by Heather and Jameson Hooton

Editor’s note: These autobiographical pieces and corresponding photos are part of a special edition of 60PLUS featuring local residents who prove that fashion has no age limits. Click here for the full list of featured models. 


Charlie Rossi, 74

Growing up in St. Louis during the 1950s and early 1960s, I lived in a neighborhood with friends whose major interests were sports and clothes. The area was barely middle-class, yet my friends and I aspired to own clothes with upscale labels, such as shirts from Gant and Hathaway, sweaters from Pringle of Scotland, and Weejuns (penny loafers) from G.H. Bass & Co. Little did I know my affinity for designer-name clothes would have such a profound impact on my life. 

My first significant retail position was on the sales staff of the St. Louis Neiman Marcus store, which opened in 1974. Some salient advice I received while working there was, “If you own a store, it should have a focus and not try to be all things to all people.” This philosophy has guided me during my entire career. 

I have always been a big fan of the old movie stars of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, such as Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, and Clark Gable. They each had a personal yet timeless style. When Ralph Lauren reinterpreted this manner of dress for the modern man, I was inspired to adopt a classic aesthetic for my store. 

Marriage brought me to Omaha in 1977. I resumed my retail career here at Ben Simons at Westroads after seeking out stores that carried Polo by Ralph Lauren and discovering this was the only local store carrying the brand at that time. Not long after starting there, I was introduced to the gentleman who represented Polo Clothing Co. in this area. He suggested to the men’s clothing buyer that he take me to New York to assist in the selection of Polo merchandise for Ben Simons. I left Ben Simons in March 1978 to help open Suttons in Regency Fashion Court, placing primary emphasis on the Polo label. My association there lasted 12 ½ years. 

My dream of owning my own store came to fruition when I opened Rossi Clothiers in July 1991. I have no intention of retiring. As my son once said to a friend, “My pop has never had a job in his life, because he goes to his hobby every day.” I have been fortunate to have good health, which I mostly attribute to genetics, but doing something you have a passion for sure helps. Family and friends also give meaning to your life. I have close friends I have known for over 50 years. My customers are not just my customers, they are also my friends. After all, I have known some of them for close to 40 years. Finally, I am so proud of my three children and selfishly hope to live a long time so I can spend it with my five phenomenal grandchildren.


This article first appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Insert Coin To Continue

May 30, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nick Wittmann has always enjoyed video arcades. Ever since he was a kid, he loved their bright flashing lights, their cacophony of bells, crashes, and digital explosions. Pinball machines, in particular, were his favorite.

When he moved back to Omaha during the winter of 2009, after a few years in St. Louis, he moved into a West Omaha townhouse. When it came time to decorate the basement, he wasn’t quite sure what to do. He grew up with a pool table and poker table in his parents’ house, and he thought he might like to continue that tradition. The finished part of his approximate 700-square-foot basement, however, was not big enough to fit a pool table.

He started thinking back to his favorite part of the arcade, the pinball machines. He started his basement remodel with a 1981 Gottlieb pinball machine called Black Hole. Wittmann remembers “I got it because it was the first multiple-level playfield,” which refers to an upper level and lower level of play.

“You buy one, you’re not going to end with just one,” Wittmann recalls being warned before he bought this machine. The warning became prophetic. Within a year he obtained his second pinball machine, another Gottlieb game called Dragon.

Fast forward to 2017. Wittmann’s finished basement is now home to four pinball machines, and a driving arcade game, Rush 2049 (on the basement’s north wall). A bar-top touch screen trivia machine rests on the bar. There’s also a Nintendo Vs. System, which contains several classic games, including Super Mario Brothers and ExciteBike. On the south side of the room, a 65-inch home theater, Neo Geo game system, and standing Pac Man machines add to the home-arcade atmosphere.

To complete the arcade basement, he has a fully stocked bar with coin-operated candy dispensers filled with Peanut M&Ms.

During special occasions, Wittmann will bring out his popcorn maker.

“I wanted to create something for everybody,” Wittmann says about the variety of games in his basement. “I always liked the driving games, shooter games. But my favorite has always been pinball machines.” This philosophy has guided the cultivation of his growing collection.

At a time when Gen Xers and millennials have begun to revisit their childhood hobbies, places like Benson’s Beercade (6104 Maple St.) have gained popularity.

While kids growing up in the 1980s dreamt of having their own personal arcades, contemporary youths are spoiled with gaming options so easily accessible on smartphones. Wittmann’s basement, however, is a gathering space to replace staring down at hand-held screens.

His basement arcade is not only a haven for his generational nostalgia, it is a gathering place. The collection allows Wittmann to relive part of his youth, and he only has to walk down a flight of stairs for the experience. 

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

The Omaha Tribe and Horses

March 3, 2017 by
Photography by Nebraska State Historical Society (provided)

The city of Omaha is named after the Umonhon people. The state of Nebraska is also an Umonhon word, NiBlaSka, or “Land of the Flat Waters.”

Neither this city nor this state would be named as it is without horses. The Umonhon people originally lived in Ohio, migrating to Nebraska in the 1750s after horses were introduced to the tribe from trade networks. The Umonhon controlled extensive trade networks through their oversight of the Missouri River, or NiShude. The network extended as far north as Lake Winnipeg in Canada and as far south as St. Louis. The shonge or “horse” was acquired at this time from trade relationships, and by 1775, the main Umonhon village was located at TonwonTonga or “Big Village,” near current day Dakota County, Nebraska.

The Umonhon, or Omaha, are part of the Dhegiha linguistic group. Dhegiha means “people of this land.” Umonhon translates to “people who went upstream,” relating to the separation of the Umonhon and the other cognate tribes at the headwaters of the Mississippi River hundreds of years ago. Umonhon women were agriculturalists, breeding strains of maize, beans, squash, quinoa, and melons. They also gathered other foods and medicines that grew naturally in their environment and were herbalists. Men hunted large game, such as elk and buffalo. Buffalo was especially important as it was a staple food source and provided primary provisions for blankets, robes, moccasins, fuel, shelter, and utensils. The Umonhon had a complex kinship system based on the clanship, known as the Hu’thuga.

The Umonhon had a historical impact on the state of Nebraska that is evident in present day. The Umonhon were the first equestrian culture of the northern plains as the evolving economy of the horse and fur trade was occurring. The adoption of the horse into Umonhon society forever changed Umonhon culture.

Umonhon quickly developed a strong relationship with horses. Horses were highly prized and used as a form of currency. Men, women, and children could possess horses equally. Horses were seen as the highest form of a gift one could offer.  Some marriage ceremonies consisted of women being led around the village on horseback followed by her husband’s gifts to her family.

Umonhon people loved their horses. Men frequently painted their horses for spiritual reasons or to illustrate rank. Horses would also be decorated with ribbons, and their tails would be painted or braided. Women embroidered the cruppers of their horses for decoration and spiritual significance.

Horses were used to assist with labor, often in the form of a travois, a historical A frame structure that was used to drag loads over land. Prior to the introduction of the horse, travois were pulled by dogs. The horse travois were often used by women in times of long distance travel. Parflesche, or rawhide bags are utilized to store materials, were used as saddlebags on horses.

Horse culture became an integral part of Umonhon life. They changed the trade economy and horses and Umonhon people maintained a strong spiritual and social connection that continues to exist today. In January 2015, the Omaha Tribe hosted “Spiritual Ride: Prayers for Generations to Come.” This ceremony consisted of a 21-mile horse ride in freezing conditions. The purpose was to pray and bring attention to the state of Nebraska suing the Omaha Tribe over reservation boundaries. In the end, the Supreme Court sided unanimously with the Omaha Tribe in preservation of their boundary.

Nebraska was granted statehood on March 1, 1867. In March 2017, Omaha Magazine published a collection of horse-related articles that appear in the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping and FEI World Cup Dressage Finals held in Omaha. This was the first of those articles.The other articles in this series are:

Into the Wild

Horses Pave the Way in Nebraska Territory

Horses Run Early Statehood

Horses in Nebraska Today

Umonhon Chief Prairie Chicken on Horseback, circa 1898.

All Hail Hal France

April 1, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In 1970, when Hal France began his freshman year at the University of Vermont as a football player, the little light that had been flickering above his head of black curls suddenly clicked on in all its megawatt splendor. The epiphany changed the course of his life.

“In just a matter of months, I got completely driven into music and became a different kind of person,” says France, who started piano lessons when he was a boy, in his native northern New Jersey. “I was a jock who went from not playing the piano to practicing intensely every day.”

France never veered from the path he chose all those years ago, but he did broaden it considerably. The young man who became a virtuoso pianist branched out into opera, transforming himself into one of the most sought-after conductors in this country and throughout Europe.

Omahans know him as the artistic director of Opera Omaha from 1995-2005. His responsibilities covered every aspect of a production, from the music to the scenery and costumes. A permanent resident of Omaha since 2003 (after spending eight years flying into Omaha several times a year), France’s many other roles include performer, teacher, coach, executive director of KANEKO, humanitarian, volunteer, mentor, friend, and one of Omaha’s most tireless advocates for all the arts, not just opera.

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“It’s really important that live music and the classics be continued,” says France, 63. “Whether you like classical music or not, live gatherings of human beings, face to face, is not replaceable.

Sipping black coffee in lieu of his usual drink preference, hot tea, France reflects on his life’s improbable U-turn. “I played football and basketball through high school and all my friends were athletes.” But didn’t the cultural mecca across the river from Jersey draw him? “Yeah, except I was a Yankees fan and went to their games from a young age. The Yankees, Jets, and Mets—that was my culture,” he says with a dimpled grin.

France praises his late parents, both musicians, for patiently allowing him to find his own level. Once he decided on a “purposeful life” in music, he transferred to Northwestern University for a degree in piano performance. His next stop: the prestigious Juilliard Opera Center, followed by a degree in conducting from the Cincinnati Conservatory.

Why opera? The answer may lie in his heritage. “I’m Italian on both sides, and my grandparents spoke Italian,” he says, indicating the family name had been shortened along the way. Music of all kinds, including opera, filled the house daily.

France started out in the orchestra pit as a rehearsal pianist for a small opera company in Colorado and fell in love with “all the excitement and the energy of that collaboration.” He joined other companies and moved from the pit to the podium in a short time, working his way up the conductor ladder with zeal and an unbridled passion “to bring music to life.” He would soon bring life to the music in Omaha.

“I first came to Omaha in the mid-’80s as a guest conductor at the opera,” he recalls in his low, well-modulated voice. At the time, France was paying his dues at the Houston Grand Opera under the tutelage of John DeMain, who functioned simultaneously as Opera Omaha’s music director. “One year John couldn’t come up here, so he sent me. That marked the beginning of my freelance conducting career, setting off on my own.”

Over the next 10 years, the charismatic France brought an insightful, entertaining, and masterful command to each orchestral or operatic production, from Santa Fe to Stockholm, London to St. Louis. But he never forgot Omaha’s level of talent, community involvement, and impressive philanthropy. In 1995, he readily accepted a position with Opera Omaha and built upon its growing national reputation for high artistic quality. Says attorney David Gardels, a longtime opera board member, “Hal instituted long practice and rehearsal sessions. It was very professional. The chorus people loved him.”

And France loves singers, whom he considers smart as well as skilled. More importantly, he respects them. The admiration flows both ways. “There is no one who believes in a person more, or who has pushed me harder as a musician,” says Opera Omaha soprano Tara Cowherd. “He will memorize an entire opera and sing every note. He’s amazingly talented and humble.”

Strands of gray now weave through his black curls, but France still racks up frequent flyer miles. His coming opera engagements include a production with the Hawaii Opera Theater and Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He’s also teaming with the Omaha Conservatory to present a series of community-based programs about music, while continuing his mentorship of young singers at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Divorced from Grammy-winning soprano Sylvia McNair, France enjoys being in a committed relationship with Judi M. gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs. “Being connected to her life, which is so different from mine, is a real blessing,” France says. “I love music, but one becomes a better musician as one becomes more connected.” With no children of his own, he dotes on his nieces and nephews, hoping a light will some day lead them to a life of fulfillment.

Visit operaomaha.org for more information.

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