Starman Benn Sieff and His Life on EarthMay 27, 2021 04:22PM ● By Virginia Kathryn Gallner
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
When Benn Sieff takes the stage, he has an unmistakable charisma.
“He had a rock god-like presence to a kid like me,” said MarQ Manner, store manager of Homer’s Music in the Old Market, reminiscing on his early experiences of live music.
Sieff started playing rock shows in the late 1980s with his band Nightmare, and has played in several other bands over the years, all serving different purposes in his life.
He started Nightmare after the murder of his older brother. “That band served as an outlet for emotions. [It] helped me get through that and move into other things.”
Each genre functions as a different outlet for him. Nightmare was a metal band that helped to process his grief, and Silicon Bomb served as a punk-rock outfit, with shows at iconic Omaha venues such as The Ranch Bowl. He has also performed as a singer-songwriter at smaller venues, including the beloved and recently closed Barley Street Tavern. Bennie and the Gents was created as an outlet for nostalgia. The name itself came about due to a misquote from a friend who told him "You've gotta do that song Bennie and the Gents," referring to the Elton John song "Bennie and the Jets."
Sieff started the group nine years ago as a tribute to David Bowie, Queen, Alice Cooper, and other heroes of ’70s glam rock, with MarQ Manner managing their first incarnation. At the time, Sieff didn’t know of anyone in the region doing a tribute with the makeup, the costumes, and the attitude.
A key aspect of their approach is studying videos of live performances by the artists they cover—especially for those in the band who weren’t there to see the original bands interacting with their audiences.
Sieff said one of their most memorable shows was during the week of Bowie’s passing. They had booked the show a month before Bowie died. When the news broke that week, the show sold out quickly. “[It was] one of the hardest shows to do, to go in there and see people bawling,” Sieff said. “Some people didn’t go because they couldn’t handle it.” For others, it was a beautiful way to pay tribute to an era, and to an artist who shaped their lives. “That was a special night.”
Sieff’s sense of showmanship led him from glam rock into the world of theater—and the uniquely interactive musical experience of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Before Rocky Horror, Sieff had never done theater. He had only seen the movie version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show a handful of times. When he met his wife, Erika Hall Sieff, she told him that she did “a little bit of singing and dancing.” He was enchanted when he first saw her perform. She suggested he audition for a play called Calendar Girls with SNAP Productions at the former Shelterbelt Theatre in 2015. It ended up being his first role onstage, and it was alongside his “partner-in-crime,” Erika.
Joining the well-established Omaha Community Playhouse, Sieff had some underlying assumptions about theater professionals, but he came away with a deep respect for the amount of work that goes into a theatrical production.
“I’ve been onstage for a large portion of my life,” he said of the transition from music to theater. “They’re similar, but a lot of work goes into a play, [especially] like Rocky Horror.”
Sieff’s depiction of Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter was nominated for an Omaha Entertainment and Arts Award for Outstanding Actor, and Erika won Outstanding Supporting Actor for her depiction of Magenta. While preparing for the role, he thought about what that character means and what he represents.
“Frank is super feminine, super masculine, sweet and sour—all these opposing things at once, but never in the middle. That’s why you can love him and hate him,” he said. “He’s not the eye of the hurricane, he is the hurricane.”
Now having worked in both worlds, Sieff wants to see more artists collaborating across these boundaries. “Whether it’s theater or music, there’s opportunity for art in everything you do.”
He takes that frame of mind into his day job as well. Sieff has been working in the restaurant industry for 10 years and is currently a manager at Jams Midtown. Before that, he worked at M’s Pub for a number of years. Like the performing arts, the front and back of house cannot exist without each other.
“The kitchen [staff] are creators and inventors and artists,” Sieff said. “[The] front of house has to sell and create an atmosphere…We all have a role.”
He compared the experience to audience engagement at a show. “When people come to our restaurant, from the moment they come in to the time they leave, we want them to feel like they’ve had a genuine experience. Our restaurant doesn’t survive without the customers. Bands don’t survive without the audience. We need each other.”
Once the pandemic started, Sieff made the deliberate choice not to livestream Bennie and the Gents performances, instead waiting until they could safely bring the full experience to a live
“We need that audience,” he said. “The energy goes between the audience and us. It’s an atmosphere. It’s electric.”
Bennie and the Gents is scheduled to perform at The Waiting Room Lounge in Benson in July, their first show since January 2020.
Manner is ready.
“I think [Sieff] is one of those rare cats that might be pulling out his best work at this stage in his life,” he said. “I’m not sure we’ve seen his best yet.”
Visit facebook.com/bennieandthegents for more information.
This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.