In years past, Omaha was a destination for big bands and jazz musicians, and the people who enjoyed their sound. While that remains a portion of the city’s nightlife, it’s now indie bands that find a receptive audience in the numerous performance venues on the banks of the Missouri River. Independent artists often find Omaha on their path to success, including filmmakers, writers and stage actors. The nation’s largest community theatre has a home in Omaha, hosting young actors who’ve since become legends in the industry. Despite its somewhat conservative and practical nature, Omaha as a community has always generously supported the performing arts. The result is plenty to do when the sun goes down. With the addition of the TD Ameritrade Park to the already busy Qwest Center and development along the riverfront at Heartland of America Park, performance venues and evening activities continue to expand in Nebraska’s largest city.
The inaugural performance of the Omaha Community Playhouse in 1924 starred Dodie Brando, mother of then one-year-old Marlon Brando, in “The Enchanted Cottage.” Brando was friendly with Herberta Fonda, mother of Henry Fonda, and she encouraged his stage debut at 20 in the playhouse’s “You and I.” Even after he’d moved on to Hollywood stardom, Henry Fonda often returned to make guests appearances at the theatre, where his father served as house manager, and where his children, Jane and Peter, would eventually make their stage debuts. Marlon Brando and Dorothy Maguire also made their stage debuts there. The Omaha Community Playhouse is widely considered to be the nation’s top community theater, with an annual membership of approximately 12,000 patrons. Twelve productions a year are presented on two stages, along with special programs.
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This is one of Omaha’s smaller indie band venues, but people love it for that reason—you can get up close to the stage, but you can also see the band wherever you are. On nights when there are no bands, it’s still a great gathering spot with cheap drinks.
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Omaha’s modern jazz community owes much to Preston Love, a renowned alto sax and flute player from the big band era who played with the likes of Billie Holliday, Lena Horne, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. The center that honors him opened in 2005, offering workshops and exhibitions along with a museum documenting the history of jazz in Omaha and its African American community. Check the website for the performance schedule for everything from poetry readings to hip hop concerts and traveling bands from around the country.
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Originally a gathering spot for fraternal organizations in Omaha’s Czech community, Sokol Auditorium was the original hotspot for indie bands. It gets plenty hot, crowded and smoky when popular names are on stage, but the drinks are cheaper here than they are at similar venues in town. Come early to get space on the balcony so you won’t be wedged-in on the main floor. For a preview of how Sokol looks, check out the music video “Yellow Datsun” by the band Neva Dinova. It was shot at the Sokol underground.
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A local record company opened this club in 2007, in part to support the indie bands on their label—but in so doing they’ve created a popular after-dark destination. Of course the acoustics are fantastic. Some say the drinks are a little high-priced for the Omaha market, so if you’re watching your budget, come for the happy hour that starts at 4PM. Unusual for the bar scene, Slowdown is nonsmoking—and a great place to get caught up in a game of Monopoly. Tuesday night is Trivia night, so brush up on your quota of useless information.
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