Brownville Concert Series
“Build It and They Will Come”
By Todd Murray for Cabaret Scenes
For almost 25 years, tiny Brownville, Nebraska has been home to a cabaret spot—a former church—featuring many of the biggest names and best performers in cabaret. Last year, when Todd Murray told us he’d be heading there to be part of the Brownville Concert Series cabaret Christmas show, we asked him to give us a full report on the venue, the town, and his entire experience. With the new season on its way, we thought this was a good time for his report. Here it is…
Burbank Airport: Dec. 11, 6:30 AM. Piling onto this small commuter flight with 80 passengers bound for Denver, my eyes are bloodshot, my arms full with a bulky winter coat too heavy for L.A., a scarf, a computer, an iPad, a cell phone, and a bottle of anti-bacterial lotion. The other passengers looked drowsy, as if they have made this trip daily for years, carrying a much more economical array of accessories. I share the drowsy part, but this trip to Brownville doesn’t happen often for me, and it is welcome when it does.
After a stop in Denver, we continue east. The snow-covered mountains turn to flat land and dull yellow fields below. Finally, the captain announces that Omaha is near. Upon my arrival, I see my friends and fellow performers—Andrea Marcovicci, Jeff Harnar, Natalie Douglas and Shelly Markham. We’re here to introduce a show that Andrea created, Christmas in Brownville, Nebraska.
The likelihood of most folks knowing of or even having heard of Brownville (don’t even THINK of adding an “s” after Brown) is very remote. But professional cabaret singers most certainly have. Nestled on the Missouri River 75 miles south of Omaha and 120 miles from Kansas City, Brownville isn’t “near” anything. But for Midwesterners, a two-hour drive is just down the road a piece.
The Brownville Concert Series was the passion and brainchild of Jim Keene. He comes from frontier stock. A successful business owner in Omaha with a subcutaneous optimistic go-gettingness typical of these parts, Jim had a dream, and by darned, didn’t he make it happen?—with a little help from his friends…and their aunts, and cousins, and the farmer down the way. Jim put together a non-profit committee with one shared vision: to bring high-end performances to southern Nebraska. At his first mention of this, his friends couldn’t have helped thinking of Field of Dreams... “ “A professional ballpark in the middle of a cornfield???”…but indeed, they built it and they certainly do come.
Early on, Brownville was a booming frontier river town established in 1854. A redirection of the Union Pacific Railroad to Omaha sealed its fate: at one time a population of 5,000 bound for state capital status, it all but dwindled to, well, a ghost town…population 150 in the summer, 100 in the winter. I say all but dwindled… thanks to the Brownville Concert Series and assorted artisan shops the population more than doubles one weekend a month.
Keene and his board of directors offer a wide variety of highly professional jazz, classical, instrumental and cabaret entertainment that normally only the crowds and deep pockets of urban areas could support. Yes, singers…they pay us. You don’t work for the door, you don’t have to rent a van for you and your musicians, eat cheese sandwiches and drive from town to town to make it work financially. Brownville flies its artists in, puts them up, sells their CDs, and pays them for their performance. In short, it is a bona fide professional concert series—hours from any sizable city.
Atop a little knoll that looks down over the town and river, Jim installed his dream in an old country church. With the dedication of true believers, his group outfitted the church-turned-concert hall with a gorgeous little stage, two Steinway pianos, a sound and lighting booth and theater-worthy lighting. There are three shows one weekend each month that pack the 150-capacity hall. Over the past 23 years, such veteran cabaret performers as Marilyn Maye, Julie Wilson, Eric Comstock and Christine Andreas have been featured. Andrea Marcovicci, Jeff Harnar and (happily) I have been brought back several times.
For an artist, Brownville is an unusual experience. There’s no private dressing room, there’s no front desk with a concierge, no Starbucks within walking distance, no room service and your bed won’t be made when you get back from sound check…but you will get lots of heart. You will get a passionate staff to greet you warmly and is excited to have you; a soundman who will drive you to the nearest pharmacy to get some cold medicine during a break; a stagehand who takes pride in getting a side door to stop squeaking. You’ll have sound and lighting man Luther McNaughton, who drives two hours to volunteer his services and who runs his crew with precision. You’ll have Haney, a stage manager extraordinaire. John Lauber, who is on the executive board, looks handsome and professional as the MC, greeter and house manager and, when the situation demands it, has been known to stock the bathrooms with tissue and bartend on cabaret nights.
Lauber has a local farm and is married to the ticket gal, Mary, who also runs a little shop on Main Street. For my first booking at Brownville some four years ago, I was picked up in Omaha by Chairman of the Board Barbara Moore, then greeted in town by the box office manager and ticket taker Audrey, who is Barbara’s mother, and the website and administrator Deb Joy, Audrey’s granddaughter. You get the picture. It takes a village.
Those running the Series are very “in the know” and inquisitive. I come from a similarly small town in Pennsylvania, and I don’t know that there I ever had a conversation about Schubert Lieder, or Gustav Klimt, or the difficult economics of a small cabaret room. Not that my Pennsylvania locals are less intelligent, but they are busy with their own concerns. Heck, my little town voted against turning their one blinking crossroad caution light into a stop light, because “we don’t want people to stay that long.” (LOL.) The board members in Brownville may be tillers of soil by day, but they are New York Times readers and classical pianist listeners by night.
Maybe much of the mid-west is this way and I am the one who is in the dark, but it impresses me nonetheless. There is a HUGE used book gallery in town called The Antiquarium, where Tom the owner remembered the book I bought four years ago. There’s also a riverboat hotel, a winery, a broom maker, various artists’ shops and one restaurant called the Lyceum that serves very good food. The woman who served me dinner there later offered me a drink at Jim’s house after the show, and served me breakfast again the next morning. Everyone I encountered enjoyed a good conversation. And, after a day or two, you get the scoop on the local drama. Frankly, it is fun, you feel welcomed and respected as an artist, but treated like a local.
The whole town seems to be working hard to keep the series going. Last year, when months of river flooding all but blocked patrons from getting to Brownville, the town and board rallied and the series survived. I was struck by one store owner who said to me, “I’m waiting until Sunday night to come to your performance. I heard the sales were a little less for that show, so a bunch of us town folk are coming so that you have a good house.” They get it.
Jim Keene generally books the shows. I would say his taste tends to a more legit vocal sound in cabaret, classic American Songbook material…even operetta if you can work that in. But you “gotta have heart.” Jim comes to New York most years to the Mabel Mercer Cabaret Convention to see what people are up to. It was there that he first invited me and my musical director Alex Rybeck to Brownville to perform. This show was to be my fourth appearance there and I found it an honor. Not to “blow smoke,” if you know what I mean, but these people feed my soul. They are here for the love of art, the accomplishment of pulling off concerts worthy of the Café Carlyle in a Wyeth pastoral setting, thanks to that good ol’ American commitment, “If I said, I’ll do it, I’m gonna do it.” Brownville is just a stone’s throw from the “Show Me State” and now I get what that means.
You can see how personally rewarding it is for them—to create this musical showplace, to give back to their community. It’s clear that without Jim, his wife Ruth, Jan, John, Mary, Haney, Luther, to name but a few (all volunteers and contributors), many of the landlocked locals would be hard pressed to experience the enthralling cabaret shows we can take for granted on the coasts. The Brownville Concert Series will offer nine different shows in their forthcoming 24th season. They built it, and the people did come. And my note to you singers out there: If you get an invitation to perform in Brownville, clap your hands and go.
Editor’s Note: This season’s series includes Carole J. Bufford, Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano, and the Christmas Gala with Liam Forde, Marissa Mulder, Marissa Miller and Nicholas Christopher. For details, visit brownvilleconcertseries.com/ 2014-concert-season