La Famiglia di Firma
Aug 08, 2017 02:18PM
By Sean McCarthy
Like a good book title, the names of the Firmature brothers’ bars and restaurants could almost paint a picture of what awaited customers.
At The Gas Lamp, you could savor a prime rib and listen to a live ragtime band from your marble-top table (provided you wore a suit or a nice dress during its early years of operation). A Sidewalk Cafe offered diners a chance to people-watch at Regency while they ate a crab salad. The Ticker Tape Lounge gave downtowners a brief respite from work and prominently featured an antique stock market ticker tape. And if you really had a rough day, you could always drop by Brothers Lounge, get a cocktail, and flop down on a couch or a rocking chair.
With the exception of Brothers Lounge at 38th and Farnam streets, none of these places exist anymore. When Robert Firmature turned Brothers Lounge over to current owners Trey and Lallaya Lalley in 1998, it ended nearly 70 years where the Firmature family had a major presence in the Omaha restaurant community.
In the early 1930s, Helen and Sam Firmature opened Trentino’s, an Italian restaurant, at 10th and Pacific streets (which would later become Angie’s Restaurant). The restaurateur family also consisted of Sam’s brother, Joseph, and his wife, Barbara, along with their three sons: Robert “Bob,” Jay, and Ernest “Ernie.”
Ernie cut his teeth bartending at Trentino’s and at a motor inn (The Prom Town House, which was destroyed in the 1975 tornado) before he opened The Gas Lamp in 1961. He also briefly managed a club called the 64 Club in Council Bluffs.
Located in the predominantly middle-class neighborhood of 30th and Leavenworth streets, The Gas Lamp was a destination spot for anniversaries, promotions, and proposals. Flocked wallpaper, antique lamps, and Victorian velvet furniture was the décor. Live ragtime was the music. Prime rib and duck à l’orange were the specialties. In an era where female roles in restaurants were still primarily as waitresses and hostesses, The Gas Lamp had two women with head chef-style status. Katie Gamble oversaw the kitchen. And Ernie and Betty’s son, Steve Firmature, and daughter, Jaye, were routinely corralled to help with clean-up—the cost of living in a restaurant family.
The Italian family name was originally “Firmaturi.” A popular account of the spelling change involves a bygone relative trying to make their name more “Americanized.” After researching family history, Steve suspects the name changed as a result of a documentation error—a mistaken “e” in place of the final vowel. Steve says those style of errors were common back then (due to errors in ship manifests or as depicted in a scene from the movie The Godfather: Part II).
Before she was even a teenager, Jaye Firmature McCoy was tasked with cleaning the chandeliers and booths. While cleaning, she would occasionally dig inside booths for any money that may have accidentally been left by a customer. At 10, she was promoted to hat check girl. At 14, she was the hostess. Steve did everything from bus tables to help in the kitchen.
“Back in those days, we didn’t have titles for people that cooked. Today, I think we’d call them a sous chef and a chef. We had two cooks,” Steve says with a laugh.
In the early ’60s, Ernie enforced a dress code for customers.
“When we first started, a gentleman couldn’t come in without a coat and tie. A woman couldn’t come in wearing pants [dresses only],” Jaye says.
The dress code (which eased in the late ’60s) may have been formal, but the restaurant retained a friendly atmosphere where some patrons returned weekly.
William and Martha Ellis were regulars. Speaking with Omaha Magazine over the phone from their home in Scottsdale, Arizona, they recalled going to The Gas Lamp almost every weekend. They became good friends with Ernie, to the point where all three of their children eventually worked for the Firmature brothers (mainly at A Sidewalk Cafe).
“Ernie wanted you to think he was this sort of tough Italian mobster, but he was really sort of amusing,” Martha says.
The Gas Lamp came to an abrupt end in 1980 when a fire destroyed the restaurant. It was ruled as arson, but a suspect was never caught. Instead of rebuilding, the family decided to “transfer” some of the signature dishes of The Gas Lamp to A Sidewalk Cafe. The Firmature brothers had purchased the restaurant from Willy Theisen in 1977.
Along with the three brothers, another Firmature, Jim (Helen and Sam’s son), was also a partner in owning A Sidewalk Cafe. Bob spent much of his time managing Brothers Lounge. Ernie managed A Sidewalk Cafe until he retired. Jim and Jay also helped manage the place. Jay (who is the only surviving member of the three) primarily worked in the business area. He was brought in by Ernie from Mutual of Omaha.
“He always said, ‘I should have stayed at Mutual,’” Steve says with a laugh.
Though not as formal as The Gas Lamp, A Sidewalk Cafe was still a destination spot. Located in the heart of the Regency neighborhood, the cafe aimed to pull in people who may have assumed Regency was out of their price range. Still, the cafe maintained an upper-end dining experience. DJ Dave Wingert, who now hosts a morning show on Boomer Radio, would routinely take radio guests to the Sidewalk Cafe in the ’80s. One guest was comedian and co-host of the NBC pre-reality show hit Real People—the late Skip Stephenson.
“I remember the booth we were sitting in, and telling him about being shot at Club 89,” Wingert says.
Since A Sidewalk Cafe closed its doors in the late ’90s, Omaha’s food scene has only grown in regard to available dining options and national recognition. Wingert says A Sidewalk Cafe would fit with today’s culinary landscape. Jaye agrees.
“It was probably the one [restaurant] that was the most survivable, I think,” she says.
Jaye has left the restaurant business. She is now owner and president of FirstLight Home Care, an in-home health care business. Though the industries are vastly different, Jaye says much of her experience with the restaurants has carried over to health care.
“Restaurants and bars are something that get into your blood,” she says. “It’s about the people and taking care of people.”
Find the last remnant of the Firmature family bar and restaurant empire at @brothersloungeomaha on Facebook.