Barb Ross was born for the Omaha stage. Her father, Lew Kucera was a terrific actor and a contemporary with some of the great performers of our time: Mary Peckham, Bill Bailey, Rudyard Norton, Norm and Louise Filbert, and Elaine Jabenis. Her mother, Ethel, taught theater at South High School. The South Omaha girl took to the stage early and often. She was a fixture in productions at Central High School, Omaha University, and at the Omaha Playhouse, occasionally even pairing up on stage with her father.
Barb Kucera first met Bill Ross in high school. She was an intelligent, beautiful ingénue. He was a handsome bad boy who drag raced and read Jane Austen. It was a perfect match, a love affair that led to two children, Kate and Will, three grandchildren and nearly fifty years of marriage.
As a freshman, M. Michele Phillips regularly stage managed Barb’s University of Omaha productions. By her sophomore year, she was performing with Barb. “Bill [Ross] says Barb was a fairy princess but as far as the UNO Drama Department was concerned, she was the undisputed queen,” she recalls. “Barb was always amazingly generous, as was Bill.” Even in college, Phillips was struck by Barb’s stage presence and her generosity to other performers. She also has fond memories of Barb as a grad student. “She taught Freshman English classes. I remember sharing cups of rotgut coffee from the vending machines in the Admin Building, and then watching her create elegant, frosty smoke rings on her way to class, wearing a mini skirt and her ‘signature’ white knee high boots. Nobody had boots like those—she looked like an adorable ring master heading off to tame a passel of wild freshmen.”
Barb made an impression as a teacher. Therese Rennels recalls that “while taking a theater class at the Christ Child Center, I got a taste of what would become a life-long joy of performing. Our teacher, Miss Barb Kucera, was so beautiful and kind. I was lucky enough to be cast as the “Dew Girl” in a children’s version of Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel & Gretel.’” I had a wand and got to wake up Hansel and Gretel who were lost in the forest, with my dazzling (ahem) solo.” Rennels still remembers Barb’s gentle direction. “I was the lucky kid selected to scream during the witch’s death. This was quite an honor. Afterward, she kindly told me that she had hoped the witch’s scream had been more feminine. But she said it so nicely that I didn’t mind.”
Barb had an almost supernatural ability to honestly critique without ruffling feathers. According to Jennifer Gilg, “after some show that Barb came to see me in she gave me some lovely compliments but then said, ‘Boy, the costume designer didn’t think much of you, did she?’ I guess she didn’t care for my look up on the stage! From a lot of people that would seem like an insult but Barb could pull off that kind of stuff without hurting you in the slightest. She was that good.”
In the spring of 1970 Barb starred in an Omaha Community Playhouse production of “Cactus Flower”. She then vanished from the theater scene for twenty years, focusing on her children and her career. Barb was as successful professionally as she was on stage. After completing her Masters in Communication, she approached Mutual of Omaha for a job. According to Bill Ross, “Barb applied to work there twice. In each of those two early interviews, the personnel department was only interested in Barb’s clerical skills…primarily her typing and filing abilities. Since she had neither, and her drama degree didn’t seem to be immediately applicable to insurance operations, she was not offered a job.” But change was in the air. “When she returned many months later for another interview, things had changed a great deal because of new government regulations about hiring women. Barb’s drama degree and good grades were now relevant and she was hired to be an underwriter trainee.”
Barb passed her training and became one of the first women to take a managerial position at Mutual of Omaha. Bill says the path was not an easy one. “Women in clerical roles reached out to Barb to assure her that they would welcome her and that she could eat lunch with them because few could envision women and men at the same tables in the cafeteria. I think she made great contribution to the women who came after her. There was a lot riding on her, and I believe she hit it out of the park. Hiring women for underwriting role eventually became common.” Barb went on to become the manager of Mutual of Omaha’s Group Systems Department. Bill Ross recalls that there were other female managers in the information technology units at Mutual at the time, but it was a very small club. She went on to Data Documents and became their Assistant Director of Information Technology.
Meanwhile, her children were taking an interest in theater. Bill remembers the whole family taking Will to an audition at the Omaha Community Playhouse. Attendance was thin, and Kate, already in a show at Chanticleer, read some roles to help out. They all began harassing Barb to audition. The kids, who had no idea their mother could act, were stunned at her cold reading. Barb got the role, and never left the stage again. She went on to perform at nearly every theater in the area, large and small. Always generous with her time, she was the TAG membership chair for years. Annual membership cards often arrived in the mail along with a lovely personal note from her. She was honored with a TAG Life Membership in 2003.
In a theater community brimming with female stage talent, Barb was consistently among the best. She won multiple TAG acting awards and garnered countless nominations. The applause and accolades were appreciated, but Barb always preferred the rehearsal process to the actual performances. Taking a script from page to stage was the allure for her.
When Barb was on stage, she took you along for the ride. Roxanne Wach was particularly struck by her performance in Terrence McNally’s “A Perfect Ganesh.” “At one point, Lois [Nemec] and Barb were turned upstage as the scene changes from one location to the Taj Mahal. Every night, they turned to face the audience, and everyone saw the Taj Mahal. With only their expressions of awe and wonder on their faces, they made magic. People swore we had it projected. Nope.”
As Marie Schuett recalls, “She was a consummate performer – hard working, funny, a joy to be around and work with. Low on drama, high on laughs and smiles – that’s why everybody loved her. Her positivity was contagious. You couldn’t feel grumpy around Barb, because when she said everything was great, you realized how right she was. Everything was really great, even it wasn’t perfect. What a lovely lesson in life.”
Barb was diagnosed with cancer over five years ago. She was greatly influenced by her friend Anne Shaughnessy, who was perhaps the only person in the community who loved going to see theater even more than Barb. Shaughnessy, a fellow TAG Board member, took her own cancer diagnosis as a challenge to live out every minute of the rest of her life to the absolute fullest. Barb rose to the challenge as well. One of her last stage roles, “The Other Sewing Circle,” by Marie Schuett, included themes of terminal illness. According to Beth Thompson, who directed the show, “Barb’s own battle with cancer was something that she could pull from and share with us as we navigated what it meant to live with a terminal disease. She shared openly and honestly about what she was going through. She was in between chemo treatments which allotted her enough energy to take on the show in the first place. One night while she and I were out front of the Shelterbelt smoking she told me, ‘I know I am not supposed to be doing this but I like to smoke and there are so many things I like to do that I no longer can but this, this I am going to do!’ It was so her, and we laughed and had some of our best talks over cigarettes in the cold January wind.” Thompson found Barb’s dedication to her craft inspiring. “She had cancer and was the ONLY person who never missed a single rehearsal! She was feisty, funny, deeply committed, warm, loving, tough, smart, open, hard-working, gutsy and so full of love.”
Roxanne Wach says it best: “I think we all know that Barb was pretty amazing at everything we saw her do: mother, grandmother, wise woman, actress, volunteer, supporter. She had a theatrical life that started when she was a child. She left the stage to raise a family. She had a corporate life that happened before many of us experienced her return to theatre. Barb was so many things. Most of all, I think Barb was a teacher.”
At the end, in lieu of flowers, Barb asked that everyone go see live theater in Omaha. I can think of no finer way to honor her than to celebrate the theater that she so dearly loved.